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Shelf Life

Q. What is shelf-life? 

At the end of a food’s shelf-life, the food begins to develop characteristics that are unacceptable or undesirable. These unacceptable or undesirable characteristics can be microbiological, chemical or physical.

The Codex Alimentarius defines shelf-life as the period during which a food product maintains its microbiological safety and suitability at a specified storage temperature and where appropriate, under specified storage and handling conditions. Shelf-life is defined in European legislation as the “date of minimum durability”.


Q. What is the date of minimum durability? 

The date of minimum durability of a foodstuff is defined in Council Directive 2000/13/EC on the labelling, presentation and advertising of foodstuffs as the date until which a foodstuff retains its specific properties when properly stored. All prepackaged foods must be date-marked (unless exempt in the legislation. See list on page 31 of FSAI report – The Labelling of Food in Ireland 2007). The date must appear in the same field of vision as the name of the product and the net weight, the intention being that the consumer can see all three at a glance. There are two types of date markings – a ‘best-before’ and a ‘use-by’.

Q. What is the difference between a ‘best-before’ and a ‘use-by’ date? 

A ‘best-before’ date is not defined under Directive 2000/13/EC but can be described as the date up until which a food can reasonably be expected to retain its optimum conditions i.e. the specific properties that are normally associated with that food. Examples of foods which fall into this category include frozen, canned and dried foods.

A ‘use-by’ date which is defined under Directive 2000/13/EC is required for foods which from a microbiological point of view are highly perishable and are therefore likely after a short period to constitute an immediate danger to human health. The ‘use-by’ date is the date up to which the food may be used safely i.e. consumed, cooked or processed, once it has been stored correctly. Most fresh, ready-to-eat and chilled foods fall into this category and require a ‘use-by’ date. An exception to this is raw, shell eggs which require a ‘best-before’ date as set out in  Commission Regulation (EC) No 589/2008  of 23 June 2008 laying down detailed rules for implementing Council Regulation (EC) No 1234/2007 as regards marketing standards for eggs.

Q. How should the date be written on a food product? 

Any form of expressing the date of minimum durability (either using numbers – 23.09.05 or words – 23 rd September 2005 ) that can be understood by the consumer is acceptable provided that the date is shown in the order required i.e. the day, the month and the year.

For ‘best-before’ declarations, the actual date of minimum durability should be preceded by the words ‘best-before’ where the day is indicated, otherwise ‘best-before end’ can be declared where the month or year is indicated. The following applies:


Best-before Date Mark

Less than 3 months

Day and month (e.g. Best-before 23 rd January)

3-18 months

Month and year is sufficient (e.g. Best-before end: March 2005

More than 18 months

Year is sufficient (e.g. Best-before end:2005)

For ‘use-by’ declarations, the date of minimum durability should be indicated by the day, month and optionally the year e.g. use-by 24 th December.

Q. Should all foods have a date of minimum durability? 

Under current food labelling legislation, it is mandatory to include a products shelf-life or “date of minimum durability” in the labelling of the food in the same field of vision as the name of the foodstuff and the net quantity. There are some exceptions to this and these foods are listed in Directive 2000/13/EC. However, even if a date of minimum durability is not required by law it is considered best practice to include it.

Q. Why do some foods have other date marks in addition to ‘use-by’ or ‘best-before’? 

Some FBOs will label food products with other terms such as sell-by, expires on, eat-by, display until etc. followed by an appropriate date. These types of labels are sometimes used by suppliers for stock control purposes. From a consumer safety point of view it is strongly recommended that only the ‘use-by’ or ‘best-before’ date is used to prevent confusion.

Q. Is it illegal to sell food beyond its best-before date? 

No. There is nothing in legislation that prevents a packaged foodstuff being offered for sale on or after its ‘best-before’ date provided that the foodstuff is still in a fully acceptable condition. However, if the out-of-date stock is to be sold to the consumer, it is strongly recommended to indicate to the consumer that the foodstuffs are past their ‘best-before’ date. This will assist in ensuring that the consumer is not misled as to the true nature of the product which is an offence.

Q. Is it illegal to sell food beyond its use-by date? 

Foodstuffs with a ‘use-by’ date should not be offered for sale after this date due to the possible deterioration of these highly perishable products and the associated risk of illness if they are consumed. Regulation 852/2004/EC on the hygiene of foodstuffs (transposed by European Communities (Hygiene of Foodstuffs) Regulations, 2006 (S.I. No. 369 of 2006) states that the primary responsibility for food safety rests with the food business operator. In addition, Regulation 178/2002/EC states that food must not be placed on the market if it is unsafe. Unsafe food is defined as being a) injurious to health b) unfit for human consumption.  Selling a food past its ‘use-by’ date, when it is potentially unsafe, would be in breach of legislation.

Q. Is it necessary to provide handling instructions after a food is opened? 

Yes. As the ‘use-by’ and ‘best-before’ dates apply to an unopened food product, a manufacturer should provide handling instructions for a food product which has been opened.

Q. Who is responsible for determining the shelf-life of a food? 

Regulation 852/2004/EC on the hygiene of foodstuffs states that the primary responsibility for food safety rests with the food business operator. Therefore, it is the legal responsibility of the food business producing the food to determine the date of minimum durability, ensuring that the food is safe for that period of time under stated storage conditions, and label their food products accordingly.

Q. How do I determine the shelf-life of my product? 

The FSAI have produced a guidance document, Guidance Note No. 18 – Validation of Product Shelf-life, which provides guidance to businesses on the determination of the shelf-life of a foodstuff. This guidance document outlines agreed best practice to be used by FBOs to determine product shelf-life and should be read in conjunction with current food safety and hygiene legislation, relevant Irish standards, Irish guidelines or industry best practice guidelines.

Q. What are the main considerations when determining shelf-life? 

Food business operators who are responsible for the manufacture of food products should conduct studies to investigate compliance of food products with microbiological criteria throughout product shelf-life. In particular the FBO should be aware of the requirements of Regulation (EC) No 2073/2005 on microbiological criteria for foodstuffs.

The studies should include:

1. the determination of the intrinsic and extrinsic properties of the product, taking into account the storage and processing conditions, the possibility of contamination and the foreseen shelf-life.

2. The consultation of available scientific literature and research data regarding the survival and growth characteristics of the microorganisms concerned.

Where necessary on the basis of these studies the FBO should conduct additional studies which may include laboratory based microbiological sampling and analysis, predictive mathematical modeling and challenge testing.

Q. At what stage of the production process should shelf-life be determined? 

The determination of shelf-life typically begins at the product development stage. However, irrespective of the stage a food product is at in its development, it is important to ensure that shelf-life is considered at each stage and determined accurately using all available data.

Q. How long should documents relating to shelf-life be kept? 

European Communities (Hygiene of Foodstuffs) Regulations, 2006 (S.I. No. 369 of 2006) states that in the case of foodstuffs requiring the indication of a ‘use-by’ date the documents and records shall be retained for three months after the expiry of the relevant ‘use-by’ date.

In the case of foodstuffs requiring the indication of a ‘best-before’ date or ‘best before end’ date the documents and records shall be retained for one year after the expiry of the relevant ‘best before’ or ‘best before end’ date, as the case may be.

In the case of foodstuffs for immediate consumption, the documents and records shall be maintained for three months after the sale of the foodstuffs.

Last reviewed: 8/10/2014

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