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4 ways small businesses go wrong on expiry date labels

As a consumer, you need to understand the differences between "Sell By", "Best Before", and "Expiry Date" on product labels.

A customer checks labels on products on a supermarket shelf [Image Credit: Gustavo Fring]

Understanding the labels on packaged food products can often seem like an exercise in cryptography.

With terms like "best before", "sell by", and "expiry date" floating around, it's crucial for consumers to understand what these dates actually mean for the safety and quality of the product.

This understanding not only aids in making informed decisions but also in reducing food waste, a significant issue in today’s consumer society.

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The Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) mandates clear labeling of food products, including expiry dates, to ensure consumer safety and prevent foodborne illnesses.

KEBS regulations require manufacturers to provide a "use by" or "best before" date on food labels, depending on the product's nature, to ensure consumers are informed about the food they purchase and consume.

This label indicates the date until which a food product will maintain its best quality and flavor. However, it's not a safety marker.

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Foods past their best before date might lose some of their freshness, taste, aroma, or nutrients but do not necessarily become harmful to consume immediately after the date has passed.

Dry, canned goods, and frozen foods often carry a "best before" date.

The "sell by" label is primarily for retailers, guiding them on how long to display a product for sale.

It helps ensure inventory is fresh but isn't directly related to the product's safety for consumption.

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Consumers should buy the product before this date, but it can often be consumed safely after the date, depending on the product.

The "use by" or its common designation "expiry date", is the most critical date for consumers, especially for perishable items.

It indicates the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. After the expiry date, the food's safety can diminish, and it is advisable not to consume the food past this point.

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Food safety is a shared responsibility between regulators, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers.

KEBS, for example, regulates the standards for food packaging but not the quality of the particular manufactured good, which may be a concern for the Department of Public Health.

KEBS sets rigorous guidelines and standards for food packaging materials to ensure food safety, protect consumer health, and prevent contamination.

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Examples of some of the standards KEBS sets for food packaging include:-

Non-toxic materials: Food packaging must be made from materials that are safe and non-toxic, ensuring they do not leach harmful substances into the food.

Chemical stability: Materials should be chemically stable and not react with the food product, especially under varying temperatures and conditions.

Compliance with standards: Packaging materials should comply with specific KEBS standards for food contact materials, aligning with international safety standards.

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Protection against contamination: Packaging should effectively protect food from contamination by microorganisms, pests, and environmental contaminants.

Durability: Materials should be durable and provide adequate protection against damage during transportation, storage, and handling.

Sealing and closure: Packages should be designed to ensure that they can be securely sealed and closed to prevent tampering and contamination.

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Clear labeling: All packaging must include clear, legible labeling with information about the food product, including ingredients, nutritional information, expiry dates, and storage instructions, in compliance with KEBS labeling standards.

Traceability: Packaging should provide information for traceability purposes, enabling the identification of the product's source, batch number, and production date.

Sustainability: KEBS encourages the use of sustainable, recyclable, or biodegradable packaging materials to reduce environmental impact.

Waste reduction: Packaging design should consider waste reduction, promoting the use of materials that are minimal, recyclable, or reusable.

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Customised requirements: Depending on the type of food - whether it's liquid, solid, perishable or non-perishable - there may be specific packaging requirements to address the particular needs of that food category for safety, freshness, and shelf-life extension.

KEBS certification: Food packaging materials and processes should undergo KEBS certification to ensure compliance with all applicable standards and regulations.

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Many foods can be safely consumed after their best-before dates, provided they have been stored correctly.

Non-perishable items such as canned goods, dry pasta, and rice are often safe to eat past their best-before dates, though their quality might not be optimal.

However, perishable items like meat, dairy, and ready-to-eat salads should be consumed according to the "expiry" date to avoid health risks.

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There have been cases of manufacturers placing a new sticker over an already printed expiry date on food packaging, which raises concerns about the actual product contained in the packet.

For a small manufacturer, printing packaging material in bulk saves on costs of doing business. When changes occur in production leading to a change on the manufacturing date and batch number, it is often easier to place a sticker indicating the new dates than discarding the available food packaging material.

Such a change may appear to be label tampering and to a consumer a cause of worry when the underlying dates are discovered.

A better alternative embraced by even large manufacturers is a rubber stamp system instead.

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In Kenya, specifically, the cultural aspect of starting a business and then seeking out compliance certification later presents an issue for regulators and consumers alike.

While KEBS is vigilant to ensure products being sold are checked against its standards, many still manufacture and sell products with improper labels.

Small manufacturers should seek out more information on clear labeling standards to avoid using an "expiry date" where they should indicate "best before".

Engaging with KEBS certification processes is crucial for businesses to ensure their products meet the required safety and quality benchmarks, protecting both consumers and their brand's reputation.

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KEBS has not specifically outlined procedures for manufacturers on what actions to take when reusing food packaging material with an outdated label.

Manufacturers are, therefore, advised to consult KEBS directly for specific guidance on reusing food packaging materials with outdated labels.

This could involve contacting KEBS for an assessment or review of the proposed reuse practices to ensure compliance with safety and labeling standards.

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Aside from useful information about the food product a manufacturer has developed, consumers also need to understand what various labels on the packaging mean.

Manufacturers can avoid incurring a negative brand perception from ill-informed influencers or consumers by educating the general public about the labels on their products.

Encouraging consumers to contact their customer service directly can also help a manufacturer provide the most accurate and relevant information about their product labels.

This content was created with the help of an AI model and verified by the writer.

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