Food expiry dates or use-by dates are a key indicator to inform your customer of the safety and suitability to consume a particular food product. Setting the food expiry date of your products is a basic food safety requirement. The food expiry date is also known as shelf-life within the food industry. In this post, the basics of how to set and verify the food expiry date of your food products are covered.
Setting your food expiry date
Food expiry dates are generally set during your product development phase. It is very important to have an understanding of the microbiological, chemical, and quality hazards of the raw materials used, the production process, and also the finished product. A risk assessment is commonly used in this process. Potential hazards can be researched as a starting point.
When you have a good understanding of your potential hazards you can then have your finished food product tested for those hazards. This is usually completed in association with a food laboratory. Your product can be tested and assessed at various points in the shelf-life process. For example, if you believe the product will be safe to consume for up to 6 months, you would test at say Day 1, Day 30, Day 60, and so on. Your food laboratory is a good resource in helping with your initial testing frequency.
Packaging and process environment
When establishing the food expiry date, consideration needs to be given to your process environment as this may affect your ability to achieve your nominated shelf-life. Examples of processing methods that deliver an extended shelf life include flash pasteurisation and high-pressure processing.
The packaging that the product gets sold to the consumer needs to also be considered. Packing your food product in vacuum packaging or modified atmosphere packaging will generally allow you to achieve a longer shelf-life.
Using the food expiry dates of your competitors
Please do not use the food expiry dates set by your competitors. The raw materials, technology, and processes used by your competitors can and will most likely be very different from yours. This is especially the case in a smaller boutique food business compared to a major food manufacturing company.
Developing a shelf-life verification program
Once you have established the initial shelf life, you still need to routinely check that the food product is maintaining that food expiry date or determined shelf-life. If you are required to comply with any of the major GFSI recognised standards, this will be a mandatory requirement. This is considered to be a verification activity where the question of “Is this food product still safe at the set food expiry date?” needs to be answered. When setting up your food expiry date verification program make sure that it includes:
- Testing of retention samples at different points in the product shelf life eg. day 2, day 45, day 100 for all parameters.
- Testing the product beyond the stated shelf life eg. test at 13 months if the product has a 12-month shelf life indicated on the label.
- Challenge testing of the product to support your storage instructions eg. to account for the cold chain process post-dispatch.
- Challenge test as if packaging may be compromised. For example, if air remains in a cryovac product or the gas mix was incorrect when using MAP packaging.
How often should you complete shelf-life verification
There are key times when the food expiry date or shelf life of your product needs to be verified. This includes:
- Whenever you change the recipe or formulation of your food product. This can include changing the ongoing weights.
- Whenever you introduce a new raw material or change a raw material used in your food product. This includes packaging materials.
- Whenever you change the process used to make a product.
- Whenever you introduce a new piece of manufacturing equipment to produce the food product.
- Whenever you change the pack size of the finished product.
Best before date of use by date?
The determination to show your food expiry date as a “best-before” or a “use-by” date is generally governed by food safety legislation. As a rule of thumb, a “best-before” date will relate to the deterioration of quality attributes like colour, taste or freshness. A “use-by” date will generally relate to the food safety of the product. This indicates that for health and safety reasons, the product should not be eaten by the consumer. Check your local food labelling legislation to see if both use-by date and best-before date have been clearly defined.
Practice in play
How have you established and verified food product expiry dates in your business? Share your methods with the HACCP Mentor community by leaving a comment below this post.