China: Is The Food That You Bought At The Supermarket Expired?

Last Updated: 19 December 2017
Article by Eric Zhang and Lion Zhu

Lately many restaurants in Shanghai have been broadcasting the work environment in the kitchen at their entrance (in real-time). What is that about?

On March 20th, 2017, Shanghai local government issued "The Shanghai Food Safety Regulations," which are the strictest in history. The aim of this regulations is that the food in Shanghai is becoming safer.

Consumers have discovered sections for "near expiration date" food products inside supermarkets, which may be affected by the current regulations and its interpretations.


1. "Expiration Date" or "Best Before Date"

"Expiration date" (保质期) is NOT the "best before date" (赏味期)!

Most food products imported from Japan are labeled with a "best before date". The food has not become inedible after the date on the label has passed, however, the quality and the taste may be deteriorated.

In China, the so-called professional consumers use the idea that food retailers have sold products that already exceed the "best before date." This violates the Shanghai Food Safety Regulations, and enable them to request a compensation ten times the product price.

This is entirely unfounded as the "best before date" is before the "expiration date." The "expiration date" is the final date for maintaining food quality. Therefore, products can be sold before this date.

So, the question here is: What should we do if the imported product only has the "best before date" and does not have an "expiration date"?

Strictly adhering to the law in this situation, the "best before date" should be regarded as the "expiration date." In other words, we should follow a stricter definition of the Shanghai Food Safety Regulations.

If the imported food products contain a "consumption date" (消费期限) label, then we may consider it similar to the "expiration date" used in Chinese law. If the products have exceeded the "consumption date", they should not be sold.

2. What is "Near Expiration Date"?

According to the law, if food products reach the "near expiration date" (临近保质期), they should be included in the special management (centralized storage, display and sales).Therefore, another question to ask is: at what stage should food products be categorized as "near expiration date"?

So far Shanghai local government has not established its provisions. Currently, retailers can designate the "near expiration date" themselves, according to the products' characteristics and the length of the expiration date. To follow the regulations, the "near expiration date" should be specified and confirmed in the retailer's management system.

Beijing and Guangzhou local governments have already established their provisions as shown in the figure below. This information can be used as a reference for retailers when establishing a management system.

3. Issues in Execution

1) Forms of Centralized Display

The law has not specified any centralized forms of display for food products on those different categories. So far, setting up a section near the registers in supermarkets has been an effective and widespread approach to display the "near expiration date" products.

From a business standpoint, setting up a shelf near the registers helps to attract the consumers. Combined with a reduced price, it helps to increase sales by promoting the "near expiration date" products. At the same time, it also reduces losses associated with the "expiration date" of products.

Setting up an eye-catching section can also simplify the task for the official institutions in charge of the inspection. A clear delimitation enforces the image of compliance.

2) Forms of Centralized Storage

Despite the absence of regulations on this subject, we suggest the retailers to designate an area or specific shelves for the storage of "near expiration" food products. If they need specific equipment like refrigeration, there should be a designated refrigerated storage area in accordance with the law.

3) Refund or exchange of the "near expiration date" food products

As others food products, "near expiration date" food products should follow the requirements of the "Consumers Interest Protection Law." If the products have quality problems, retailers must then provide refund or exchange those to consumers.

In addition of being inadequate, the omission of clear information on consumers' rights to obtain a refund or to return products, it may jeopardize retailers' businesses. For example, locating products in a "near expiration date" product section that could be named something like: "This shelf is for near expiration date products, no refund or return once sold."

Keep in mind that the "near expiration date" products are usually very close to the "expiration date". If the consumers request a refund or return within seven days in accordance with the "Consumer Interest Protection Law," the products might have already passed the expiration date. If there is a disagreement over whether or not the food products have quality problems, it could bring uncertainties to the business operations.

Therefore, we suggest retailers who are selling "near expiration date" food products to remind consumers to open, taste and eat the food products before the "expiration date". Yet, to raise any objections they might have before the "expiration date."

Of course, the retailers can also choose to withdraw and destroy food products that are too near the "expiration date," under seven days for example, and avoid unnecessary disputes.

In Conclusion

Food safety has become a primary concern of the citizens. As China's food products industry continues to grow, many businesses should manage their operations and produce products with the help of legal professionals. This will enable them to comply with the continuous evolution of legislation and meet the needs of their customers.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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