The words used for the shelf life of food after production are either ‘Use By’ or ‘Best Before’ in the UK. A very few products may not have a defined shelf life, such as salt and sugar.
The product must be consumed by the ‘Use By’ the date applied to the pack. It must not be sold or consumed after the Use By date. After that date, pathogenic bacteria may grow to unsafe levels. We can decide the shelf life because chilled and high-risk products are tested by a microbiology laboratory to validate what the ‘Use By’ date should be. When to throw products away is addressed in a blog here.
Use By is all about food safety and is generally used for chilled items. Particularly those containing protein such as ready meals, sandwiches, some dairy products, meats etc
Best before is all about quality. After the Best Before date, the quality of the product declines. Signs of deterioration such as visual quality, odour or taste may appear. The assessments completed on the product to assess the quality are called Organoleptic Assessments. These are sensory tests for Taste, Odour, Appearance, Texture and Colour.
Best Before dates are also applied to products such as tinned products, and ambient jarred sauces
Heat treatment and shelf life
These types of product must go through a thermal process to ensure they are safe, such as sterilisation. They may also have the available water reduced by adding salt or sugar. They may have the pH reduced to ensure the risk of Clostridium botulinum is reduced or eliminated. These types of products will require microbiological testing and possibly chemical testing. This is as well as organoleptic testing. Getting microbiological testing done for the products which need it, is essential in order to determine product shelf life. Because, if you get it wrong, you could cause someone to have food poisoning, become very sick, be hospitalised and for the vulnerable categories of people, you could cause death.
For ambient stable products such as bread, jams, chutneys and biscuits, you can carry out Organoleptic Testing, or Sensory Testing.
The quality of these types of products is affected before they become unsafe.
The product may have signs such as being stale, discoloured, crumbly, colour change etc as the quality reduces.
You have to keep a sample of the product until the very end of its shelf life, as the consumer would purchase it for sensory testing. You will need to assess the following:
- Odour / Aroma
You need to document the results and save them as your Shelf Life evidence, in your product files.
You should carry out Organoleptic Testing when developing a new product, then at the very least annually thereafter for each finished product. Photographs can help with reviews too. High risk products should also have this type of assessment carried out on them. This is in addition to microbiological shelf life testing.
It may be necessary to keep a sample of each batch of product you make. This is in case of quality or food safety complaints. Organoleptic Testing more frequently than annually, is best practice, and also gives your team experience in monitoring quality .It can be a great time to discuss other issues too. Try to include someone from each area of the production. The frequency depends on how many SKUs you have. A schedule of testing will help ensure that all SKUs are captured.
You need to record your testing, Record the product, batch, the shelf life you applied, then carry out testing from the Date of Production (DOP) + however many days or weeks is appropriate for your product type. For the first assessment, go beyond the anticipated shelf life test if the product is still safe and palatable. Record scores for pass / borderline / unacceptable, for each sensory test that you perform.