Validating the shelf-life proposed for a food

Once the above factors have been understood and a shelf-life proposed, testing will need to be undertaken to identify the actual life of the product. This must take into account both the shelf-life assigned to the unopened pack and any secondary use-by instructions that apply after the primary package has been opened.

Shelf-life prediction software is a useful tool for identifying the possible life that may be achieved based on data entered for a number of parameters. However, such software should not be used in isolation to set the shelf-life of a food due to the high number of variables that will affect the actual life achieved.

The food to be tested must be made in exactly the same manner and on the same equipment as will be used during a normal day’s production. Where a long production run is applied, consideration must be given to all factors that may impact the shelf life. It is therefore advisable to take samples throughout the production run.

Both the organoleptic quality and the food safety standards achieved will need to be tested which in general will require the use of taste panels and microbiological analysis as a minimum. As the organoleptic qualities of the food will generally require the food to be eaten, it is highly advisable to first undertake microbiological testing of the food to provide assurance that it is safe to eat on the day of testing. If any legal claims are made (e.g. in respect of nutritional content) then this will also need to be factored into testing for any nutrients that may degrade over time.

Advice on which bacteria should be included in the testing should be gained from an expert such as an industry association, accredited laboratory or independent consultant unless suitable expertise exists within the FBO.

When deciding upon the test regime, reference should be made to customer and legal requirements, both of which may require pathogen testing to be undertaken e.g. legislation and guidance in relation to the presence of Listeria monocytogenes2 or Clostridium botulinum (see section on Additional Information, below). It is also advisable to ensure that accredited test methods are being used.

Where a specific pathogen and/or spoilage microorganism is identified as likely to be present in a food then challenge testing may be appropriate. However, expert advice should be sought to ensure that all the limitations of such testing are fully understood.

Once a shelf-life has been validated and the product is placed on sale, repeat testing should then be scheduled even if no obvious changes have been made to the recipe or instructions given. This will ensure that any variation that may occur within the supply chain, affecting ingredient quality without your knowledge, is taken into account.

2For products where Listeria monocytogenes is a hazard, shelf-life must be established according to Annex II of Commission Regulation (EC) 2073/2005 on Microbiological Criteria for Foodstuffs as amended. FSA Guidance on EC Regulation 2073/2005 as amended by EU Regulation 1441/2007 is also available.

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Last reviewed: 05 Jun 2018