Food

What are these dates on my food label, and what do they mean?

Marshalee Valentine

Thursday, June 20, 2019

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Last week, we explored ways in which one can identify when it's time to discard food that has gone bad, one of which was checking expiry dates. However, some of us may find it confusing when trying to figure out the different terms and what they mean.

When we speak on the topic of food security we want to ensure that we not only have safe food, but also that we are reducing unnecessary wastage. The US Food and Drug Administration have estimated that 30 per cent of food supply is lost or wasted by consumers or retailers. Sometimes, we throw away food that is completely safe for consumption, due to misinterpretation of dates placed on labels. Consequently, I suggest that before you throw out packaged foods based on dates, you observe your food based on the recommendations given in the previous article. Additionally, you must ensure that you pay special attention to storage and cooking requirements. Let's look at what these dates really mean.

Manufactured date

You guessed right. This is the date the food was manufactured and packaged and will generally give you an idea of the “age” of your food.

Best-if-used-by date

The “best if used by/best before” date is usually related to the quality of the product and is directed at the consumers; that is, when it should be eaten to ensure you get the best flavour and not necessarily a food safety concern. However, when the best if used-by date has passed and the quality starts to change, the safety of the food may start changing eventually if storage conditions are not optimal.

Sell-by date

“Sell-by” dates are intended for retailers, to inform them of dates that products are to be removed from shelves. This however does not mean that the items are not safe for consumption after they have been sold. Just ensure that you conduct your smell and taste tests before you consume these products at home.

Expiration date

Expiry/use-by dates are usually placed on high-risk/highly perishable packaged foods, such as meats and some dairy. Spoilage will sometimes occur after this time has passed, so ensure you check contents before consumption and try to avoid purchasing food items that are past the expiry dates.

Check dates and packages before purchase

You may wonder how the companies decide what date to place on packages. Different manufacturers may choose to date items based on internal shelf life stability tests, lab tests, taste tests or from recommendations based on previous research for similar products. Whatever method they choose it is important that you read your labels and always pay attention to these dates. Also be reminded to store and cook food according to requirements, as failure to do this may result in changes to food quality and safety.

There are times when a package may be missing the required date mark due to ink fading, label peeling or intentional omission by the manufacturer. Avoid purchasing these items, especially for high-risk products such as dairy and meats.

It is important to note that no matter what the expiration date is, you must never purchase food if the package is open and exposing the contents. Additionally, you will want to avoid buying canned or tetra pack food items if you notice any dents, rusting or bulging. If you notice a product with any of these characteristics or without a date mark, this should be brought to the attention of the retailer or supplier.


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