Ina Opperman

By Ina Opperman

Business Journalist

Everything you need to know about expiry dates on food

Do you check the expiry dates on food before you eat it? Here's the difference between a sell by date and a best before date, and the laws that govern them.

Know what the different dates on your food means is important, because it can affect the safety of the food your family eats.

Nowadays one shouldn’t find food on shelves with dates that have expired because it is a simple case of good housekeeping in a store.

Although it is not always that simple to distinguish between ‘use by’, ‘best before’ or ‘eat by’, consumers should be wide awake when buying food and check when food should rather go into the dustbin. That includes food that can be kept in the food cupboard for a few months.

Expiry dates are regulated by two pieces of legislation, the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act and the Consumer Protection Act.

ASLO READ: Five food safety myths busted

Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act

This act, as well as Regulation 146 that was made in terms of the act, specifically provides for the durability and date marking of food. It is taken so seriously that you can be criminally prosecuted if you do not adhere to it.

However, the actual date of durability for any food is not prescribed and is left up to each manufacturer to determine.

The act also makes it a criminal offence to sell or offer to sell any foods that is contaminated or unsafe to eat and inspectors have the power in terms of GNR 328 to order that food stores remove contaminated or unsafe food from their shelves.

The Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman points out in a practice note that food that has reached its ‘sell by’, ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date is not automatically considered contaminated or unsafe to eat.

According to Regulation 146, the various expiry dates have the following meanings according to the ombudsman:

  • ‘date of minimum durability’ (‘best before’ or ‘best before end’) means the date which signifies the end of the period under any stated storage conditions when the product will remain fully marketable and retain any specific qualities that tacit or express claims were made about, but after this date the food may still be perfectly satisfactory.
  • ‘sell by’ or ‘display until’ means the last date of offer for sale to the consumer after which there remains a reasonable storage period at home.
  • ‘use by’ (‘best consumed before’, ‘recommended last consumption date’, ‘expiry date’) means the date which signifies the end of the estimated period under the stated storage conditions and after this date the product will probably not have the quality attributes normally expected by the consumers and is no longer marketable.

The ombudsman also notes that none of these definitions state that after such a date the food is unsafe to eat.

Regulation 146 seems to focus on marketability and quality rather than food safety regarding the durability, with the actual time periods not prescribed for any food products.

Another important aspect is that it is illegal to tamper with, change, or in any way alter the date of durability once it has been applied to a product

ALSO READ: Supply chain issues also affect food quality and safety

The Consumer Protection Act

The Consumer Protection Act (CPA) provides for a warranty of quality and durability, the right to safe, good quality goods, warnings concerning the fact and nature of risks associated with goods, safety monitoring and recall of products and liability for damage caused by goods.

Liability for damage caused by goods can have far-reaching effects on the food industry and this risk is closely linked to the date of durability marked on the food product.

Section 61 of the CPA provides for so-called ‘no fault’ liability on the side of the importer, manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer for unsafe, defective, failed or hazardous goods, or where inadequate instructions or warnings were provided.

Therefore, when you buy food marked with a ‘best before’ date and then eat it after that date and fall ill, the best before date would not be a defence for the retailer or the distributor as the definition of Best Before indicates to a consumer that the food could still be ‘perfectly satisfactory’ but may be of reduced quality regarding colour, taste and smell for quite some time.

There is no cut-off for this period and, therefore the use of Best Before, although it extends saleability, may leave the supplier exposed to liability under the CPA.

Everyone, from the producer to the retailer, can be held accountable and liable for unsafe food that make people sick. That means that the retailer cannot in his defence say that the distributor did not remove it from the shelves in time.

Consumers also have the right to buy food products that are fit for purpose, of good quality and durable for a fair time.

According to the ombudsman you are, therefore, entitled to expect when you buy food, to get products that have:

  • characteristics that correspond to the characteristics indicated on the packaging
  • a reasonable shelf life depending on the type of product
  • a warranty from each link in the supply chain that the goods comply with the applicable requirements and standards.

The retailer can also then not expect you to see the dairy farmer and complain about the milk on the shelf that turned out to be sour.

ALSO READ: Are your instant noodles still safe to eat?

Food without expiry dates

According to Codex, these date markings do not apply to food products where the safety or quality does not deteriorate when food is preserved with alcohol, salt, acidity, low water activity and/or under stated storage conditions, where the deterioration is evident to the consumer, the key quality aspects of the food are not lost or when the food is intended to be eaten within 24 hours.

This is applicable to foods such as:

  • fresh fruits and vegetables, including tubers, which have not been peeled, cut or similarly treated
  • wines, liqueur wines, sparkling wines, aromatised wines, fruit wines and sparkling fruit wines
  • alcoholic beverages containing at least 10% alcohol by volume
  • bakers’ or pastry-cooks’ wares which, given the nature of their content, are normally consumed within 24 hours of their manufacture
  • vinegar
  • non-iodized food grade salt
  • non-fortified solid sugars
  • confectionery products consisting of flavoured and/or coloured sugars
  • chewing gum.

These products can have a production date.