How to set your food expiry date

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.

29 thoughts on “How to set your food expiry date”

  1. Hi,

    From what I understand from this, this would involve actually shelfing your packaged goods and testing them manually on each milestone. So a year best before would literally be a year of testing and waiting for results? Is there such a thing as pre-ageing in the food labs where they are able to simulate effects of ageing therefore get it done in shorter time but still test effects of time rather than actually waiting it out?

    I saw this somewhere and I’m curious. Thanks.

    Eni

    1. Thanks for your comment/question Eni. Yes, you are correct. There is also the possibility of completing accelerated shelf-life testing. Yu can talk to your local food laboratory to find out if they offer this testing service.

  2. this is just as helpful as the other sites and people I’ve talked to. Which is not helpful in the least. Apparently you just make it up because the laboratories can test for thousands of things and noone can tell you what you should be testing for. So anyone who is getting food tested is just wildly taking a guess at what they should be testing for. I have contacted everyone i can think of including coles woollies iga and they send me links which tell you nothing.

    1. Amanda Evans-Lara

      Hi Michael

      Sorry that you did not find my article on “How to set you food expiry date” helpful.

      It is very difficult to just come out and make a suggestion on what expiry date you should have. There is so much to consider including what the actual product is, the raw materials used to make it, what preservation methods you are using, storage methods, how you have manufactured the product etc. When you know this, you will have a better understanding of what you should be testing for.  You also need to first understand what food pathogens are associated with your finished products and raw materials. 

      To find out what food pathogens are associated with the raw materials/ingredients go in to make up your finished product, have a look at the raw material specification sheets that are provided by the manufacturer of those raw materials (ie your suppliers). For example, salmonella can be associated with chicken so if your finished product contains chicken, you would have the lab test for salmonella.

      If you google the FDA Bad Bug Book, that is a great resource in seeing what food pathogens are associated with what foods.

  3. Hi, I’m currently making my own chilli sauce. Is my best before/use by dates all down to me or do I need to send it away to be verified?

    1. Amanda Evans-Lara

      Thanks for your question Sean. You choose what the use-by/best before date is but you need to consider the laws in your country of manufacture and also that the product will remain safe during the shelf life. If something happened, you would need to prove / verify that the expiry you have set is safe and suitable. This is where testing comes into play.

  4. Hello, I am in the process of registering my home kitchen to do catering & ready made individual meals. I have read somewhere that I may not need to label a best before/use by date on my meals. Is that correct?

    If it isn’t, could anyone point me in the right direction of somewhere I can get those calculated best before/use by dates on my meals.

    Thanks

    1. Amanda Evans-Lara

      Hi Pauline, you will need to check your food regulations in your country of manufacture as it depends on the product type, storage conditions etc.

  5. Hi..
    Just want to share my experience on how i started setting the period where my products is safe to be consumed.

    At first , I let my product seat for a month and have it tested in the laboratory. When it passed the examination. I’ve set 1 month form the manufacturing date as its BEST UNTIL period. So I was then able to sell my products in the market.
    And then, I let it seat for 2, 3, 4 months and so on, and have it again tested in the laboratory, then gradually I changed the date where it is safe for consumption (BEST UNTIL).

    This is our own process. I would be glad to receive more techniques and strategies so that I can improve more.

    Thank you.

    1. Grethel Floreno

      Hello,
      We are starting a small homemade peanut butter product, and we would like to know the best before of our products. We are now close to 2 months from our first release and it is still ok. This month, we improve our products by adding dairy, and we would like to have it tested to the laboratory, aside from testing the shelf life on our own.

      May I also know, the lab that we can have it examine, so we can coordinate with them as well. Much appreciated if we can have the details, pleased. Thank you. God bless!

      1. Amanda Evans-Lara

        Hi Grethrel, thanks for your comment. Your best option would be to refer to labs in your current location. Google ‘food laboratories’ in your location.

        1. Grethel Floreno

          Are they the same laboratories that evaluates our products “nutrition facts”? Or, food laboratories is just for best before?

          1. Amanda Evans-Lara

            It could be Grethel. You would need to ask them directly if they can complete this type of testing to establish food product shelf life.

  6. I’m creating a soft pretzel kit for people to take home. How do I find out my expiration date? I’m so lost on this subject.

    1. Amanda Evans-Lara

      Hi Lori, you need to complete testing. Take a read of the section in this post titled ‘Setting your food expiry date’.

  7. Hello, we are starting small production of cold pressed flax seed so we need real expiry date, what is your advice. Should we send it to lab and wait till they examine it couple of times?
    TNQ

    1. Amanda Evans-Lara

      Hi Marina, yes, you would need to send it to the lab. They can also complete accelerated shelf life testing. Be clear on what your target micros are and also consider your quality attributes at end of shelf eg. colour, taste, texture etc.

      1. Hi
        We r also making paste from flex seeds we getting this stuff after boiling flex seeds

        How we can find expiry date and wt how can increase expiring dates
        Wt we can add more in to increase exp dates

        Any advice there pls

        1. Amanda Evans-Lara

          You need to follow the advisory listed in the blog above. You have to do safety testing to extend your shelf life a swell.

  8. So if I’m looking for a year shelf life, does that mean I have to wait a year to do the stability study before I can start selling the product?

    1. Amanda Evans-Lara

      Hi Dema

      No, you can undertake rapid testing. I suggest contacting your local food laboratory to get more information. After you set your initial shelf life, you would keep retention samples and then test at the end of the shelf life. This would be part of your verification program.

  9. Hi I’m just gathering some information for a small business start up. I am starting a prepacked, vacuum sealed frozen smoothie that u take home to blend. I am wondering what would the experation of vacuum sealed/frozen yogurt be?

    1. Hi Blake

      Unfortunately I am not in the position to provide you on an expiry date on your product. There are so many factors that need to come under consideration including ingredients, preparation methods and packaging used. I suggest that you work with a local laboratory to complete a shelf life study for your individual product.

  10. I want to start my own business of food. How do i start? I want to make it legal and be able to distribute to all the potential places to market it.

    Thank you

  11. How much year can we preserve anything in packet. Approximately
    Actually I want to start business of home ingredient like haldi ,dhani ,mirchi ,
    As a masala (garam masala)
    So what you think ?
    What will it’s expiry date
    How much year it will preserve?

    1. Hi Vandana

      I cannot give you a definite answer for the expected shelf life of your product. You will need to complete your own validation and follow the suggestions in this post.

  12. Whilst I agree that the methods described above are generally used within the food industry , I think little attention is paid to the possibility of growth of bacteria ,such as Listeria, that generally occur in low numbers and as such are not always detected. It is difficult to be sure that the samples taken for shelf life trials provide the confidence in the durability of all products and I suggest that in sensitive ready to eat products predictive modelling could be used to supplement the information provided by durability studies. If the model suggests a high risk of growth reaching unacceptable levels the life may need to be limited further or the product potentially adjusted (pH and Aw) to give a more hostile environment to the potential pathogen.
    Sampling is also a big topic not only for the ongoing verification but also for the shelf life determination. Using the worse case scenario for quality of ingredients and temperature conditions through the chill chain again helps to build confidence in the overall safety and validation of the shelf-life.

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