Food shelf life and its importance for consumers
Food shelf life and its importance for consumers. The shelf life (shelf–life) is the period of time in which a food may be kept under certain conditions of storage maintaining its optimum quality and safety. Shelf life begins from the moment in which a food is produced and depends on many factors such as the production process, the type of packaging, storage conditions and ingredients.
A product’s shelf life is usually indicated on a food label as a date “to be consumed preferably within” or “use by”.
A date stating to be consumed preferably within reflects the period of time in which a food reasonably maintains its best quality such as flavor. Examples of foods that have to be consumed preferably within dates include canned, dry and frozen foods under certain storage conditions. As a result, these foods may present a risk of food poisoning if consumed after the date of use. Examples of foods that have to be consumed by dates include cold dairy products, cooked meats and ready-to-eat salads.
How is shelf life determined?
Food shelf life and its importance for consumers. Food manufacturers are responsible for determining the shelf life and for labeling their products accordingly. This includes the storage conditions required to achieve that shelf life, for example “refrigerate once opened”.
A food’s shelf life is typically determined during its development. Initially, the manufacturer determines its characteristics (intrinsic and extrinsic), which affect its safety and/or quality. These characteristics include the ingredients used, the production process and the type of packaging, for example vacuum-packed or in a modified atmosphere, used to extend the product’s shelf life and the storage conditions where the product will be sold. The manufacturer may also conduct other studies such as sampling and microbiological analysis if deemed necessary.
Shelf life determination is an integral part of manufacturers’ “food safety management systems”.(1) The manufacturer evaluates the shelf life as a part of the regular audit of these systems. This is especially important when products, production sites or machinery are modified.
What are the legal characteristics of shelf life?
Food shelf life and its importance for consumers. The key European legislation that relates to the business life is the Directive 2000/13/EC on labeling, presentation and advertising of foodstuffs, the Regulation 1169/2011 on the food information for consumers and the Regulation 2073/2005 on the microbiological criteria for foods. (2,4) The Directive 2000/13/EC refers to shelf life as a minimum durability date and defines this date as the date within which a certain food retains its specific properties when stored properly.(2) This legislation differentiates between dates to consume preferably within or to be consumed within and stresses certain products exempt from labeling the shelf life such as wine, cooking salt and vinegar.(2)
In December 2014, The Regulation 1169/2011 will replace the Directive 2000/13/EC establishing that information such as the date of minimum durability or the date to be consumed within should be provided in a clear, legible and indelible format on the packaging of the product.(2,3) For frozen meat, meat preparations and unprocessed fishery products, the Regulation also requires an indication of the date of freezing as well as the first freeze date in cases where the product was frozen more than once. An example of this is when large pieces of meat/fish are cut into small portions for sale. According to the Regulation, once the consumption date has passed, the food is considered unsafe for consumption. (3)
The Regulation 2073/2005 lowers the criteria for specific combinations of microorganisms and food, for example, listeria monocytogenes found in ready-to-eat foods, and obliges companies to conduct studies, as required, ensuring that these criteria do not exceed the shelf life of the food.(4)
What is the practical significance of shelf life for consumers?
The purpose of shelf life is to help consumers make safe and informed use of foods. Food shelf life should be considered valid only if the product is bought intact and not damaged. Consumers should always follow manufacturers’ storage instructions, particularly regarding the temperature and the use of the product after opening. It is also recommended that consumers consider the shelf life information when buying foods to avoid unnecessary food waste. (5) For example, unlike foods with dates to be consumed within, many foods with dates to be consumed preferably within will be safe to eat even if the date has passed.