Understanding labels on pre-packaged foods


By Sylvanus Thompson

Information about dates on pre-packaged food is extremely useful for consumers. However, consumers need to have  a basic understanding of the terms that are used on the labels.

There are different kinds of date markings on pre-prepacked foods, depending on the product. The most common terms are “best-before” dates, “packaged on” dates, and expiration dates. Knowing what these terms mean will help consumers understand the labels, which in turn will help them make informed choices about the food they buy.

“Best-before” date

A “best-before” date, also known as a durable life date, tells when the durable life period of a pre-packaged food ends.  Durable life means the anticipated amount of time that an unopened food product, when stored under appropriate conditions, will retain its freshness, taste, nutritional value, or any other qualities claimed by the manufacturer.  This information is usually found on the label with the words “best before” and “meilleur avant”. The “best-before ” date indicates to consumers that if the product has been properly handled and stored under conditions appropriate to that product, the unopened product should be of high quality until the specified date.

On what foods do “best-before” dates appear?

Foods with an anticipated shelf life greater than 90 days are not required to be labelled with a “best-before” date or storage information. This is because these foods are generally considered to be shelf stable. Examples include most canned foods, many dry foods such as pasta and foods that are sold in a frozen state.  If manufacturers and retailers choose to provide customers with this information, they must follow the required manner of declaration. However, foods that will keep fresh for 90 days or less, and are packaged at a place other than the retail store from which they are sold, must have on the label a “best-before” date, and proper storage instructions. The “best-before ” date may appear anywhere on the package. If it is placed on the bottom, this has to be indicated elsewhere on the label.

Packaging dates

“Packaged on” dates are similar to “best-before” dates but are used on retail-packed foods with a durable life of 90 days or less, and must be accompanied by durable life information either on the label or on a poster next to the food. The durable life information can be expressed several ways – for example, the number of days a product will retain its freshness, or a “best-before” date. Together, the “packaged on” date and durable life information tell consumers about the anticipated amount of time that an unopened food product will retain its quality and freshness.

Expiration dates

It is important to note that a” best-before” date is not the same as an expiration date. Expiration dates are required only on certain foods that have strict compositional and nutritional specifications which might not be met after the expiration date. Expiration dates must be used on the following products:

  • formulated liquid diets  such as nutritionally complete diets for people using oral or tube feeding methods
  • foods represented for use in a very low-energy diet – foods sold only by a pharmacist and only with a written order from a physician
  • meal replacements – formulated food that, by itself, can replace one or more daily meals
  • nutritional supplements  – food sold or represented as a supplement to a diet that may be inadequate in energy and essential nutrients
  • human milk substitutes – infant formula

After the expiration date, the food may not have the same nutrient content declared as on the label.  Food should therefore not be bought, sold or eaten if the expiration date has passed. Such foods should be discarded.

Other voluntary date marking systems may be useful to consumers. These may appear on food products as long as they are not misleading and the label meets appropriate requirements. These include:

  • “sell by” dates
  • “prepared on” dates
  • “freeze by” dates
  • “manufactured on” dates

“Best-before” dates are not indicators of food safety, neither before nor after the date.  They apply to unopened products only and once opened, the shelf life of a food may change. Products may therefore be found for sale after the “best before” date has passed as the date is based on freshness and quality rather than safety. Consumers can buy and eat foods after the” best-before” date has passed. However, when this date has passed, the food may lose some of its freshness and flavour, or its texture may have changed. Additionally, some of its nutritional value, such as vitamin C content in juice, may be lost.  Foods that are likely to spoil should be properly stored, and should be eaten as quickly as possible. Harmful micro-organisms that lead to foodborne illness can grow in foods, even if they do not appear to be spoiled. Storing your food properly is important to protect yourself and your family from foodborne illness.  While it is not illegal to sell a product that is past its “best-before”  date, a consumer can use this information to consider how the food may have changed in terms of its freshness, flavour, texture and/or nutritional value before purchasing.

(Jamaica-born Sylvanus Thompson is the Associate Director/Food Safety Lead with Toronto Public Health.)