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Difference between expiry date, 'use by' dates, 'best before' dates and 'sell by' dates

These are commonly seen on various objects around us - from the loaf of bread we purchase from the supermarket to the cosmetic product we buy from the nearest drugstore shop. But what do they mean exactly and how are they different actually?

medication expiry

Image: Australian Medical Association

Expiry dates and 'use-by' dates refer to the date that a perishable product loses its effectiveness or is no longer considered safe for consumption. Use by dates and expiry dates state the date up to which a product or food is considered safe for use or consumption. 

'Best before' dates refer to the date that the producer recommends that you use or consume the product to avoid compromising the quality of the produce or product when they are stored in the recommended conditions. 'Best before' dates usually state the date for which the produce or product will be at its best quality.

'Sell by' dates are provided by the manufacturer to indicate the last date by which the product should be sold by a retailer. It's intended to help the retailer manage their inventory and ensure that products are sold to consumers while they are still at their peak quality.

product expiry dates

Singapore's Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment Koh Poh Koon stated that:

"At the end of the day, consumers must take both "use by", and "best before" as equivalent to mean that anything after that date, the food is unlikely to be fresh or may not be in its original state that is fit for consumption."

Regardless of the dates stated on the packaging, it is always good to exercise vigilance and do a visual examination of the produce or product before use. If the item is found to have been tampered with or is visibly compromised (e.g. covered with mold, bloated, discoloured, emits unusual smell), it would be better to err on the side of caution and dispose of the item instead.

Why are these labels not standardised?

different types of dates

Image: Breadbags

Regulatory Variation

Different countries or regions may have different regulations regarding date labeling. For example, some countries may require a "day-month-year" format, while others may use "month-day-year" or even different terminology altogether.

Manufacturer Preference

Manufacturers may have their own internal standards or preferences for date labeling based on factors such as production processes, packaging requirements, or consumer expectations.

Consumer Understanding

Manufacturers may choose date formats that they believe consumers in their target markets will understand and interpret correctly. This could vary depending on cultural norms, consumer preferences, or previous experiences with date labeling.

For Singapore, the Senior Minister cited challenges in updating and standardising such labels: 

"Standardising the "use by", "best before" dates of food may result in additional packaging costs as well as an additional "compliance burden" for food manufacturers"

Find out more here.

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