Food expiry labels explained

When we are looking at the expiry labels on food products, do we truly know what they mean? Read here to find out!

Food expiry labels explained

Food waste is a common topic that is always at the back of our minds, and yet we still don’t have any concrete solutions till date.

Despite all efforts by the Singapore government and private institutions, the results of reducing food wastage are still not that desireable. In recent years, households have wasted about $342 million of unconsumed food annually.

Why are we not seeing any results?

Through our extensive ground research and interviews, we concluded that one of the main reasons why household food waste occurs is because consumers don’t understand what the different food expiry labels mean. And this results in unnecessary disposal of perfectly consumable food.

Even with the guidelines from Singapore Food Agency, consumers are still not able to understand the differences in the labels.

When you see “Use by”, “Best before” and “Expiry date”, do you know what the differences are in these phrases? To be honest, I get confused with these labels too and I am very guilty of throwing away food as a result of that.

Which is why this article hopes to help consumers better understand food labels and what it really means.

So what exactly does each label mean?

According to the Singapore Food Agency, the labels on food products have different meanings.

“Use by” labels are for health and safety precautions

“Use by” labels are a guide for food safety and precautions. Which means that food that has passed the stated date is not safe for consumption.

According to the Singapore Food Agency, this label can often be found on perishable foods like fish, fresh meat, dairy products and ready to eat meals. And for such perishable foods, it is important to follow the storage instructions (such as ‘Keep it refrigerated’) and prepare the food as described on the packaging.

Fresh meat and dairy products contain microbes which will grow over time and spoil the food when it is left untouched for too long or not stored properly. This is harmful to the body when eaten beyond the “Use by” date.

In other words, even if the food looks and smells fine, you should not consume the food past it’s stated date as you may end up falling sick.

“Best before” labels refer to food quality

“Best before” labels tells you about the the quality of the food.

This means that the food quality is at its best until the stated “Best before” date. Which is why these labels are often found in food with longer shelf lives like staples (rice, cereal, noodles) and processed canned foods.

You may wonder, “is the food safe to eat after the best before date?”. The answer is yes. It’s normally safe to eat the food, but the taste, texture and smell may not be at its best. Even if the quality has dropped a little, you can repurpose the food by using it for cooking or baking.

Another trick you can try is to use your senses! A simple “look-smell-taste” method can help you to determine if the food is still safe to be eaten after the date!

“Sell by” means when to stop selling the food

The “Sell by” labels are commonly used to inform retailers when they need to remove the food products from the shelves.

According to the Singapore Food Agency’s guidelines, it is illegal for retailers to sell food past the “Sell by” dates as the food quality is no longer acceptable.

But this doesn’t mean that the food is not safe to consume after the stated date. Which is why you often see supermarkets and food retailers selling near-expiry items at a lower price or even donating them to charities and redistribution centers.

“Expiry date” tells you if the food is safe to be eaten

“Expiry date” has too many definitions and there is unfortunately no fixed definition for it.

However, there is a common understanding from experts that this label tells consumers the last day that the food is safe to be eaten.

Or commonly written as ‘EXP’

But if you are still unsure about it, you can do a simple taste test to see if the food is spoiled.


Misconceptions towards expiry labels is one of the main cause of household food waste. By understanding what the different expiry labels mean, and whether the food can be safely consumed helps to greatly reduce unnecessary food wastes from households.

So next time before you buy any food products, take the extra minute to look at the expiry label and understand how you need to store the food so that the quality doesn’t drop and it is safe for consumption.

Let’s all work towards reducing food waste by making better decisions when purchasing food products.