There is a lot of misunderstanding on the labelling dates of foodstuffs and the legislation governing food labelling.
South African law (Regulation R146) makes it compulsory to put date stamps on food with the exception of a few items such as unprocessed honey, unpacked meat, vinegar, sweets and fresh produce. Basically all perishable pre-packaged food items must carry a use-by date.
Date mark terminology guide
- Date of Manufacture/Packed Date: The date on which the food product became the product as described or when it was placed in it’s current packaging.
- Best Before: While still safe to eat and often perfectly fine after the Best Before Date, quality can deteriorate. It is not illegal to sell a product past its Best Before Date, but it may not be off ideal quality any more.
- Sell By: Only used for the convenience of the retailer and consumer. It shows the retailer when the supplier want the items removed from shelves and it gives the consumer time to use the product after it’s been bought. It is not illegal to sell a product after the Sell By Date. Products between the Sell By Date and the Use By Date will usually be placed on sale, discounted, removed from shelves, discarded or donated. (Typically one-third of a product’s shelf-life remains after the sell-by date for the consumer to use at home.)
- Use By: For fresh dairy products, meat, ready-to-eat meals, and other perishable items, usually kept chilled. It is illegal to sell products after the Use By Date as the product is not considered safe any more.
Products that are past their use-by date do not have their safety guaranteed and it is not advisable to eat them. It is also illegal to alter or remove the ANY date mark on food packaging. Date mark tampering is a reality, and more widespread than most realise. Be vigilant and speak up when you spot it.
It is important to know that not one of these dates are not an exact science, neither does it mean that after these dates the product will necessarily make you sick if eaten or that the food will be perfectly safe up to the date. The conditions under which the products are packaged, as well as the storage conditions before and after the item is sold can greatly influence the accuracy of the dates. Thus the dates are mostly indicators of the date after which the product quality and/or safety will start to degrade rapidly.
Studies have found that some food manufacturers prefer to keep the Use By / Sell By period as short as possible to increase product turnover while some retailers prefer to push these dates as far as possible to minimize stock write off.
The Office of the Consumer Protector can assist the public with transgression on food labels.