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Unwrapping The Mystery Behind Date Labelling

Best Before, Use By, Sell By ` – trying to wrap your head around date labels on food packaging can be tricky and downright confusing.

However, confusing as they may be, these dates hold the key to the freshness of each product as it serves as a guide to food safety.

To help us unwrap the mystery behind date labelling, food technologist and food safety practitioner, Namhla Skweyiya explains what each date means.     

Namhla, who also serves on the board at FoodForward SA, says: “My contribution at FoodForward SA with regards to food safety, is to ensure we’re bringing on products that are still good for consumption.” 

Understanding sell-by dates: What They Mean and How They Benefit Consumers and Retailers

Sell-By: Understanding shelf-life management and stock rotation”

Namhla explains that the sell-by date is the manufacturer’s recommended shelf-life duration for a product.

“It indicates the duration they recommend keeping the product on the shelf – it’s your selling date. This doesn’t mean you cannot consume the product after that date,” she says.

Sell-by dates are usually found on agricultural products and help retailers and manufacturers manage their stock rotation.

Namhla adds: “It’s so the stores can do their stock rotation whenever they get new stock. Sell-by dates will be found mostly on agricultural products like potatoes or unprocessed products.

“Once the product has been processed or anything was added to the core product, then you are now working with a product that has a use-by date.”

Use-By: Health Risk vs Quality

“A use-by date will generally be found on refrigerated products or fresh and perishable stock,” says Namhla.

“In food safety terms we refer to these as microbiologically sensitive products, meaning if you don’t use the product by that date then it can pose a health risk if it is consumed after the use-by date.

Usually, microbiologically sensitive products would have a use-by date.

“In many cases in the store, you will have a sell-by and a use-by date on a product.”

Understanding best before dates: Ensuring quality and safety in long shelf life products

Best Before refers to what is known as long shelf life products.

“These products can be processed, but the type of possessing would, for instance, be canning. Most canned products would carry a best-before date.

“Biscuits, for example, would also carry a best-before date,” says Namhla.

She explains that some products with a best-before label can still be consumed, even months after the specified date, and still pose no health risk.

Namhla adds: “In the case of a biscuit, the product can still be consumed months after the best-before date. It doesn’t pose a microbiological safety issue, but in this case, it’s aligned with the quality of the product. The worst thing that could happen to you is that it might be hard and in the worst case, it might even break your teeth. But it doesn’t necessarily pose a health threat. That’s where you would generally use best-before dates.” 

Expiry Dates: Understanding the confusion and misconceptions

Perhaps the most confusing date of them all is the expiry date.

Often used interchangeably with the other dates, Namhla admits that the expiry date can be misleading.  

“As far as I understand, the expiry date is being phased out because of the confusion that it causes,” she says.

“Expiry could refer to the use-by, sell-by or best-before date. It simply means an expiration date, but it might not necessarily refer to the quality or safety of the product, it might simply refer to the best time you can consume a product up to that date.


However, Namhla cautions against products whose packaging has been compromised.

“If you take a canned product and the packaging material is compromised in any way, then it can affect the shelf life of the product,” she says.

“That’s why at FFSA we don’t accept dented cans or damaged packaging material.”

“If a can is dented, some air may have entered the product or the product is rotten inside. Any air that gets into the product can compromise the shelf life of that product.

“Consumers must ensure that the packaging is not compromised. As retailers the only guarantee we have that that product will be fit for consumption until that date is if the packaging material is not compromised.”

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