Sell-by stamps on food packaging now required by law

We South Africans have become accustomed to seeing date marks – those “use by” and “best before” dates on food, but it’s only in the past month that they’ve become a legal requirement.

The new food labelling regulations, which finally came into force on March 1, make it compulsory for food manufacturers to put date stamps on food, with the exception of a few items, such as honey; unprocessed, unpacked meat and fresh produce; vinegar and sweets.

No trace: Date marks on packets of Lay's chips and Marie biscuit packaging are easily removable.

Foods that have to be chilled; cooked products, pre-packed, prepared vegetables and fruit; juices with a limited shelf life – in fact, any food that could lead to food poisoning if not stored properly – must carry a use-by date.

And it’s illegal to offer for sale, relabel or donate any food that is past its use-by date.

Other foods – those with a longer shelf life – must carry “best-before” dates and while it’s not an offence to continue to offer such food for sale, it’s clearly not best practice to leave food that’s past its prime on the shelf.

It is an offence to remove or alter any date mark – be it a use-by date or a best-before date. This is significant because while it’s been morally wrong to fiddle with these date stamps in the past, now it’s illegal.

And so to this week’s case.

Jacqui Cramb regularly shops at the Food Lover’s Market branch in Rinaldo Road, Glen Anil, Durban.

When visiting the store about a month ago, she checked the date marks on a few packs of Sasko muffin mix and noticed that they had expired, as had the entire batch of that variant.

She alerted the manager, who apologised and instructed an employee to remove the expired stock from the shelf.

When Cramb returned to the store just more than a week ago, she saw what she presumed was fresh stock of Sasko’s bran muffin mix, but she was in for a shock when she went to check the dates. There were none.

“Stock of the other variants of the same product had current date marks, so naturally I smelt a rat,” Cramb says.

“I suspected that someone had somehow wiped off the expired dates and put the same stock back on the shelf.”

Cramb reported her experience to Consumer Watch, and I took up the case with Food Lover’s Market’s head office.

Responding, the group’s Devon Currie said the store manager at that branch had issued instructions that the stock in question be returned to the supplier, as was normal practice.

But the store’s receiving manager allegedly instructed a merchandiser to wipe the dates off the expired packs and pack them back on the shelves instead.

This while the store manager was away at the group’s annual conference.

That receiving manager is currently on leave and, according to Currie, will face a disciplinary charge of sabotage on his return, along with the merchandiser.

Currie told Consumer Watch that a full inquiry would be conducted.

Food Lover’s Market KZN regional manager Leonel Luizinho said the incident, while isolated, was hugely regretted by the company.

He said the company had not only inspected the rest of the stock in that store to ensure no other dates had been tampered with – they hadn’t – but also intended to retrain all staff and introduce more stringent control measures to ensure that there wasn’t a repeat incident.