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Shelf-life of Food Products

10 March 2023

Shelf-life of food products is the period of time during which a food product maintains its acceptable or desirable characteristics under specified storage and handling conditions. These acceptable or desirable characteristics can be related to the safety or quality of the product. They can be microbiological, chemical or physical in nature.

Regulation (EU) No.1169/2011 requires that the shelf-life of a foodstuff be indicated by either a date of minimum durability “Best-before” or a “Use-by-date”.

Most food packages are labelled with a Best-before or Use-by-date. It is a legal offence to serve food that has exceeded its “Use-by-date”. Such food should be discarded and clearly marked ‘unfit for human consumption’.


Shelf-life of Food Products – Best-before

The “Best-before” date refers to quality. The food will be safe to eat after this date but may not be at its best. For example, its flavour and texture might not be as good. The date of minimum durability, or “Best-before” date, is the date until which a foodstuff retains its specific properties e.g. taste, aroma, appearance, any specific qualities which relate to the product, vitamin content etc. when the product has been stored appropriately and the package unopened.

Typically, a shelf-life of food products marked “Best-before” date is used for food products such as canned, dried, ambient, frozen foods etc. Many foods that are past their “Best-before” date may be safe to eat, but their quality may have deteriorated.


Shelf-life of Food Products – Use-by-date

The “Use-by-date” on food is about safety. Foods can be eaten until this date but not after, even if they look and smell fine. The “Use-by-date” is the date up until which a food may be used safely i.e. consumed, cooked or processed, once it has been stored correctly. After the “Use-by-date” date, food is deemed unsafe and can be danger to human health. The food cannot be sold or served past its “Use-by-date” date.


Food Labelling

Proper food labelling can prevent food poisoning, ensure food safety and prevent food wastage. The European Commission estimates that up to 10% of the 88 million tonnes of food waste generated annually in the EU is linked to date marking on food products.

It is the responsibility of a food business to ensure that the food provided to customers is safe to consume. In order to do this, proper food safety protocols must always be adhered to and followed. This includes ensuring that food is not spoiled or expired. “Best-before” dates, packaging dates and “Use-by-date” (expiry dates) are key to knowing what foods are safe to prepare and serve, and which ones should be disposed of. Different types of date markings on packages are used depending on the product.

The “Best-before” or “Use-by-date” dates for a specific shelf-life of food products is decided by the food manufacturer or producer when developing their food safety management system, based on HACCP principles, for the product.


Safe Handling and Storage of Food

Food businesses must ensure that all food received and stored in the food business is checked for “Best-before” and “Use-by-date” dates. It is essential that food is not only handled and stored properly, but also used within the proper time frame. Food should be stored using the First In, First Out (FIFO) method.

Satisfactory rotation of stock is essential to ensure older food is used first, to avoid spoilage and to ensure food is safe.

High-risk and perishable foods have a short shelf life. They are usually stored under refrigeration and have “Use-by-date”. It is unsafe and illegal to alter this date or sell the food after this date.

Low-risk food, which does not support the growth of bacteria is given a “Best-before” date. The food is at its best quality  and/or condition uo to this date. It is, however, not illegal for it to be sold after this date.

“Use-by-date” should be checked daily whereas weekly checks may suffice for products with “Best-before” dates.

Out of date stock should be disposed of.

All food handlers in a food business should be checking “Best-before” and “Use-by-date” dates on a regular basis. Food safety training is the best way to ensure that all food handlers are able to understand their duties under Irish food safety legislation as well as to follow best food safety practice guidelines.


Online Food Safety Training

Please remember – it is a legal requirement that staff who are involved in a food environment are trained and/or supervised commensurate with their work activity!

Myelearnsafety offers fully online Food Safety (HACCP) courses.

To find out more, please check our Courses page.

Alternatively, should you need any additional information, please do not hesitate to let us know via email