1. Raw materials
If a raw material is incorporated into another product without being processed or significantly changed, the life of the final product should not exceed the life declared for the raw material.
If a raw material is changed during processing (e.g. by being cooked) or if the storage requirements change (e.g. chilled raw material but frozen final product) the life given to the final product should be re-assessed.
2. Product description
A great recipe is not enough to which to base the shelf life of a product and also it is not advisable to copy the shelf life of a similar product. There are many factors that determine the shelf life and each product is unique.
Ingredients added to ensure food safety such as pH, preservative, water activity etc. may be specific to that ingredient and may not be of the same type, added in the same quantity or may not be present at all in similar ingredients. Therefore if it is added in a recipe, their reactions may be totally different when interacting with other ingredients.
The mix and quantity of ingredients used in the recipe may also affect parameters, which in turn can influence consumer acceptance and therefore the shelf life of the product.
3. Type of packaging
Use of Modified Atmospheric Packaging (MAP) for the food being produced may enable a longer shelf-life to be assigned than would otherwise be possible.
Vacuum packaging can extend product life by removing all air from a package which is then sealed. The removal of the air is the key factor for preservation in these products although it should be noted that for some chilled foods this can increase the risk from some types of food poisoning bacteria, e.g. Clostridium botulinum, that will only grow in the absence of oxygen and in such cases additional controls will be required to be used in combination.
‘Active’ packaging materials in the form of sachets or altered packaging materials may be used to extend life either by adding or removing gases (e.g. oxygen) from a pack over life or by controlling the rate at which certain gases can pass through the film.
Different packaging materials may react differently on contact with food and consideration should be given to potential migration of chemicals from different packaging materials over time.
‘Secondary’ and ‘tertiary or transport’ packaging must not be ignored for these will often be designed to protect the primary packaging in direct contact with the food e.g. glass jars are designed to protect the food whilst the tertiary and secondary packaging are designed to protect the glass jar during its journey along the rest of the supply chain. Knowledge of the supply chain and handling requirements will be needed to ensure that external packaging carries sufficient information to ensure the primary pack and product is stored and handled correctly.
The temperature to which foods are exposed may greatly affect the length of time that a food remains safe or of a suitable quality for consumption. Selection of the most appropriate temperature regimes and applying them consistently is therefore extremely important not just for finished product but also during preparation.
Consideration must be given to what can reasonably be expected to happen once the food has left your control.
Therefore, while instruction may be given for a food to be stored at +5oC or below, as it is reasonable to expect higher temperatures to occur in a consumer’s car and that the food will actually be held at below +8oC due to the normal operating temperature of a domestic fridge, these temperatures must be allowed for when setting the shelf-life. In some cases, the difference between the safe shelf life that can be obtained under ideal conditions and the shorter shelf life that occurs when allowing for such abuse is referred to as a ‘buffer’. However, it is advisable instead to think of this as a safety zone designed to protect both the consumer and the manufacturer or seller of the food.
If food is exported, do not assume that your product will be handled or stored under the same conditions as in your own country. The business to consumer supply chain should be considered in setting the appropriate shelf life. This will require investigation.
Product design and assessment in isolation does not provide enough information to enable the setting of shelf-life in relation to food safety. It is therefore important to consider:
The environment used for storing and handling both foods and food contact packaging will commonly range from a high risk environment where the aim is to prevent contamination from micro-organisms to a low risk area where the aim is to minimise the growth and contamination of micro-organisms. In some cases, there may even be ‘zero care’ environments such as outside catering. Clearly the lower the level of control achieved, the greater the risk of contamination that could immediately, or after a period of time, create a food safety problem.
Bacteria are highly unlikely to be completely absent from anything other than highly specialised food production areas and so it is important to build up a clear picture of where bacteria may exist, how quickly numbers increase and how they might contaminate the food. The effectiveness of cleaning, the length of time equipment is used before being cleaned and the sources of bacteria should therefore be carefully assessed. It is advisable to make use of laboratory testing to analyse findings and validate hygiene programs.
Equipment design and storage
The harder equipment is to clean and the longer it takes to clean, the less likely it is to be cleaned and disinfected effectively.
It is unlikely that equipment will remain in a hygienic condition indefinitely without specific controls being applied. The frequency of use and the controls in place to prevent recontamination of clean equipment should therefore be understood before deciding upon the shelf-life to apply.
6. Expected usage after opening
Different foods can be expected to be used in different ways from a packet of cereal being opened and lasting a number of weeks to an ice cream that is likely to be consumed immediately on opening.
Where there is any likelihood of a foodstuff not being consumed immediately on opening, this secondary or open life must also be allowed for taking into account all of the factors described above in relation to the food and the consumer’s environment such as a domestic kitchen.
All the above factors have a direct impact on the shelf life of a product. Need expert assistance on shelf life studies? Contact us for a free consultation with Fogiene Sciences today.