The Difference Between Expiry Date, Best Before Date and Sell By Date

Aspire to inspire before you expire

Before you ask me, I want to assure you that the above quote has absolutely nothing to do with this post; save for the fact that it coincidentally has the word expire in it. The word expire has everything to do with this post because it is a word that has been grossly misused and misunderstood in the food business.

I will try and make this piece as short as possible because, that is why we ended up in this confusion. Kenyans are always in a hurry – and understandably so, because we have so much to catch up on in this crazily fast world. Just take a moment and study how people shop in our supermarkets and you will see how we end up embracing the devil that comes with the expiry date.

An average Kenyan shopper has a standard way of shopping. They will enter the mall, try to sneak past the security guard requesting people to sanitize and wear masks, walk into the supermarket and go round looking at the prices, walk back to the entrance to pick a trolley, go back to stare at the prices with a more serious face while holding their chin, pick the cheapest item and walks to the teller and because they are in a hurry, they will ignore the sign that says “LESS THAN 2 ITEMS” and go to any queue that appears shorter. They will then walk into their cars or into a Matatu and be happy to overlap or be overlapped past other motorists whom to them, are not in a hurry. All they want is to go home and watch Maria!

Throughout this whole roller-coaster, this average shopper doesn’t realize that they have overlooked a very important shopping commandment of reading consumer information on the product; most significant being the date-markings.

The Kenyan law under section 4 of the Food, Drugs and Chemical Substances Act requires manufacturers to provide sufficient information on their product labels that is not misleading to consumers. It is therefore an offense to sell food that is unfit for human consumption or labelled to mislead the consumers. Date-markings are thus mandatory in food products. You must have come across phrases like “Best Before, Sell By, Use By, and of course Expiry date written on products. So what do these phrases imply?

Best Before Date

Since different food products have different characteristics, the law doesn’t pin the manufacturer to using a specific phrase to date-mark their products. I will use coffee as an example here. You see, coffee is taken because of its aroma perception. The shelf life for most coffee brands in Kenyan supermarkets is 2 years. This however doesn’t mean that immediately after the two years the coffee will kill anyone who consumes it a few weeks or months after that date. This is where the Best Before date-marking comes in. it is more of a quality indicator than a food safety indicator.

The manufacturer is trying to tell you that as of that said date, the product will have lost its most desirable quality and will not be enjoyed as intended. In the case of coffee, the fresh aroma expected would have fizzled out and will not be well appreciated by coffee lovers who are all actually after the fresh aroma. It is important to note that this only apply when the product’s storage conditions are not tampered with. There are actually lots of foods that can be consumed past their best before dates as suggested in this blog.

Sell By Date

A survey conducted in 2016 on food wastage in the US found that an estimated 90% of the population threw away food as a result of date-marking confusions. Back at home, there is the story of this entrepreneur who rides between the thin line of Best Before and Expiry date-markings to shelter manufacturers from losses incurred from the ensuing confusion. As you can see, the sell by date usually has so little to do with the consumer. The date is provided by the manufacturer to communicate to retailers the last date the product is expected to be on the shelf. The product can however be safely consumed past the sell by date.

Expiry/Use By Date

This here is the elephant in the supermarket room. Apart from pure natural honey, every other food has an expiration date. The expiry date is the second thing you should look at after checking out a product’s price on the shelf. Most foods with expiry dates have high microbial activity going on and will mostly be unsafe to consume after the expiry date lapses. Some examples will include whole milk, fresh juice, bread, and fresh meat. When it comes to these, your favorite Maria or Telemundo should wait.

There may be a few other phrases apart from these in use out there but I hope this kind of cleared the air on what you should be looking for as a consumer. Remember, any food stored in contrast with the manufacturer’s instructions will actually go bad way before its marked date; and that will be on you. Have a safe shopping.


If you still insist, that quote up there was introduced to my world by my high school principal who used to flood our heads with quotes every Monday morning on the assembly. A quick google search shows it was originally coined by Eugene Bell Jr. in his book What are YOU Waiting For?


  1. Dinah said:

    Very important information here, people are always concerned about the prices more than checking the manufacture’s instructions. Cudos Mr. Majani

    August 1, 2020
    • Don’t be in a hurry when shopping for food and groceries. We need to avoid food wastage because someone else is in dire need of that food.

      August 2, 2020

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