A variety of information and terminology is used on food packages to inform and allow date-related action by stakeholders (food manufacturers and consumers, for example). Additionally, regulatory frameworks and guidance for date labeling applications vary around the world.
Terminology and Applications
There is considerable variation in the terminology that manufacturers use on food product packages for different date-labeling purposes. This variation in terminology and inconsistency in date-labeling practices fosters confusion in the marketplace and the home.
Food product date labeling is generally classified as either “open” or “closed.” Open date labeling—with terms such as sell by, best if used by, or best before, freeze by, use by, baked on, and packed on—is for indicating to retail personnel and consumers the shelf life of the product with respect to optimum quality and for stock rotation. Driven by a readable code for retail employees and by consumers, open date labeling has been a major benefit at retail in achieving effective stock rotation. Thus, open date labeling is intended to be understandable by consumers and individuals in the supply chain who are responsible for the product and for ensuring high product quality to consumers. Terms commonly used in open date labeling in the United States include the following (FMI and GMA 2007; NIST 2013):
- Sell by—The date, determined by food manufacturers, by which the food at retail should be sold unless it is frozen prior to or upon reaching the date. There is a period of time beyond this date that the product is usable before the quality is less than the manufacturer's standards for consumer acceptance. Typically one-third of the product's shelf life remains after the sell by date for consumer use in the home. Many manufacturers will credit the store for the past-date product, especially if it is donated to food banks or food salvage stores.
- Use by—The date, determined by the product manufacturer, by which the product should be consumed. In addition, retail packaging of certain reduced-oxygen packaged foods requires labeling with use by dates in conjunction with time limits for refrigerated shelf life. The product should be discarded after the use by date.
- Best by, best if used by, best if used before, or best before—Dates by which the product should be consumed for ideal quality. These may be combined with a freeze-by statement (for example, best if used by X or “can be frozen but must be used within X days if taken from the freezer”), which is becoming commonly used with poultry and fish.
These and other terms, including “durable life date” (similar to best before) “minimum durability,” “frozen on,” and “best if purchased by” are used outside the United States. As described later, in some countries (for example, in the European Union [EU]) certain terms may be based on food safety (use by dates applied to highly perishable foods, for example) rather than food quality characteristics.
Closed (code) date labeling, on the other hand, is the information that manufacturers place on products, usually those having a long shelf life, to manage product stock at retail, from a quality-driven perspective, and for recall and product tracing purposes. Closed code dates may be comprised of letters, numbers, or symbols; may refer to the place of manufacture, time of manufacture, or product identity; and are generally not easily understandable by consumers (USDA/FSIS 2011). Closed date labeling aids in product identification and is useful for product recalls or tracing, particularly trace-backs and trace-forwards, because the production dates can be identified or obtained by the manufacturer. Information and resources on product tracing are available through the Global Food Traceability Center (2013).
Additionally, the terms “code” or “coding” may be used generally in a broad sense in referring to open as well as closed date labeling. For example, “out of code” is a phrase that may be used from a general perspective to refer to product that is past its use by date, and “close to code” may be used in food bank networks to refer to food product that is approaching its best if used by, sell by, and consume by dates.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission, the international food standards setting organization of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization, has available a “General Standard for the Labelling of Prepackaged Foods” (CAC 2007a) that describes application of date marking and use of date of minimum durability in the labeling of prepackaged food. The Codex standard defines several related terms including date of manufacture, date of packaging, sell by date, and use by date. New work began in 2014 in the Codex Committee on Food Labelling (CCFL) to review the date marking provisions portion of this standard.
The current Codex standard indicates that the date of minimum durability consists at least of the day and the month for products with a minimum durability of not more than 3 mo, and the month and the year for products with a minimum durability of more than 3 mo, unless the month is December in which case indicating the year is sufficient. The standard indicates that the date shall be declared by the words best before, where the day is indicated, or “best before end…,” in other cases, and accompanied by either the date itself or a reference to where the date is provided. The standard indicates that the day, month, and year shall be declared in uncoded numerical sequence except that the month may be indicated by letters in those countries where such use will not confuse the consumer. Further, if the validity of the date depends on any special storage conditions, they are to be declared on the label. The date of minimum durability described in the Codex standard does not apply to fresh fruits and vegetables, wines, beverages containing 10% or more by volume of alcohol, baked goods normally consumed within 24 h of manufacture, vinegar, food-grade salt, solid sugars, confectionery products consisting of flavored and/or colored sugars, or chewing gum.
U.S. and International Date Labeling Frameworks
Application and perception of food product date labeling is complicated by multiple regulatory jurisdictions in the United States and different perspectives and challenges around the world (developed markets versus emerging markets, for example). Although exact requirements vary among countries, most developed countries other than the United States require open date labeling of most food products, and generally the date represents the time after which product freshness is not guaranteed (ERG 2003). Open date labeling of food products is mandated in the EU, many South American countries, many of the Arabic States, the European Free Trade Assn. member countries, Israel, and Taiwan (Labuza and Szybist 1999a). The regulatory frameworks of a few countries, exemplifying varying frameworks, are addressed below and shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Examples of different regulatory frameworks for food date labeling
|Australia, New Zealand||Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Standard 1.2.5 – Date Marking of Packaged Food – F2012C00762 (Australian Government 2012a)|
Use by date on foods that should be consumed before a certain date because of health or safety reasons or best before date for most packaged foods for retail sale or catering purposes;
Any specific storage conditions required to ensure that the food will keep for the period indicated by the use by or best before date must be included on the label;
Sale after required use by date prohibited
Best before date signifies end of period which the intact package of food, if stored according to any stated storage conditions, will be fully marketable and retain any specific expressed or implied qualities;
Use by date signifies end of the estimated period, if stored according to any stated storage conditions, after which the intact package of food should not be consumed because of health or safety reasons.
Requirements do not preclude the label on a package of food from including a packed on date or a manufacturer's or packer's code in addition to the required use by or best before date
Bread with a shelf life of <7 d may include instead of a best before date a baked on or baked for date
| ||Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Standard 2.9.1 – Standard for Infant Formula Products||Storage instructions for period after package opening|| |
| ||Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Standard 2.9.4 – Formulated Supplementary Sports Foods||Statement of recommended consumption in 1 d|| |
| ||Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Standard 2.9.5 – Food for Special Medical Purposes||Expiry date or similar words is permitted instead of use by date on foods required to include a use by date|| |
|Canada||Food and Drug Regulations C.R.C., c. 870|
Durable life date with the terms best before and meilleur avant on prepackaged foods with a durable life of ≤90 d that are packaged at other than retail, unless an explanation of the significance of the durable life date appears elsewhere on the label;
Packaging date with the terms packaged on and empaqueté le and the durable life on prepackaged foods with a durable life of ≤90 d that are packaged at retail, except when the durable life appears on a poster next to the food; with exceptions;
Storage conditions if different from normal room temperature;
Expiration date on formulated liquid diets, food represented for use in a very low-energy diet, meal replacements, nutritional supplements, and human milk substitutes
Durable life is the date on which the durable life of a prepackaged product ends;
Packaging date is the date on which a food is placed for the first time in a package in which it will be offered for sale to a consumer or the date on which a prepackaged product is weighted by a retailer in a package in which it will be offered for sale for the first time to a consumer;
Expiration date, regarding a formulated liquid diet, a food represented for use in a very low-energy diet, a meal replacement or a nutritional supplement, is the date after which the manufacturer does not recommend that it be consumed, and up to which it maintains its microbiological and physical stability and the nutrient content declared on the label
|European Union (EU)||E.U. Regulation No. 1169/2011 of the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, and EC Regulation No. 178/2002|
Date of minimum durability, preceded by best before, when the date indicates the day, or best before end, accompanied by the date or reference to location of date on the label; or a use by date, with some exceptions;
Use by date for microbiologically highly perishable foods likely to be an immediate health danger after a short time period;
Any special food storage conditions and/or conditions of use;
Date of freezing or date of first freezing for frozen meat, frozen meat preparations, and frozen unprocessed fishery products, preceded by the words frozen on accompanied by the date or a reference to location of date on the label
|United States||21 U.S.C. § 350a and 21 CFR 107.20(c)|
Use by date required for infant formula;
Storage conditions required for before and after opening
| ||21 CFR 113.60(c)||Code identifying packing establishment, product, year and day packed, and period during which packed, on each thermally processed low-acid food packaged in a hermetically-sealed container|| |
| ||9 CFR 381.126(a) and (b)|
Pack date in either closed or open format required on poultry products, relates to quality; sell by or use by date permitted in lieu of pack date;
Lot number (indicating slaughter date) or a coded number required on dressed poultry
Pack date, in a 3-digit code, required on egg cartons with USDA grade shield; if a sell by date is used, the code may not exceed 45 d from the pack date
| ||2011 'Grade A' Pasteurized Milk Ordinance|
Code or lot number on condensed or dry milk products, identifying contents, container quantity, and specific date, run, or product batch;
“Keep refrigerated after opening” required on aseptically processed and packaged milk and milk products and condensed or dry milk products
| ||Uniform Open Dating Regulation, Natl. Conference on Weights and Measures (2-option model for states and local jurisdictions to adopt)|
(1) Mandatory uniform date labeling of prepackaged, perishable foods or
(2) Optional uniform date labeling of non-perishable foods, with exceptions
For perishable food, the sell by date is based on allowance of a reasonable period after sale for consumption of the food without physical spoilage, loss of value, or loss of palatability;
For semi-perishable and long-shelf-life food, sell by or best if used by dates relate to quality, characteristics, formulation, processing impact, packaging or container and protective wrapping or coating, customary transportation, and storage and display conditions
| ||2013 U.S. FDA Food Code (Voluntary model for states and local jurisdictions to adopt for managerial control at retail and in food service)|
Date or day by which the food shall be consumed on the premises, sold, or discarded, being prepared on premises and held at ≤ 41 °F (5°C) for > 24 h and ≤ 7 d;
Date or day, which shall not exceed the manufacturer's use by date, if safety-based, by which the food shall be consumed on the premises, sold, or discarded, being held at ≤ 41 °F (5°C) for > 24 h and ≤ 7 d upon opening original container of food that is commercially processed, except for deli salads, certain hard and semi-soft cheeses, cultured dairy products, preserved fish products, shelf stable dry fermented sausages, and shelf stable salt-cured products
Retained date marking of earliest-prepared or 1st-prepared ingredient for refrigerated ready-to-eat (RTE) time/temperature control for food safety food ingredient or portion of a refrigerated RTE time/temperature control for safety food subsequently combined with additional ingredients or portions of food
Limit refrigerated shelf life to ≤ 30 d of packaging, except for time maintained frozen, or the original manufacturer's sell by or use by date if earlier, and implement HACCP plan in conjunction with packaging time/temperature control for safety food using reduced oxygen packaging, unless a variance exists
Sell by or best if used by date on <1.89 L (1/2 gallon)-capacity packages of received raw shucked shellfish and date shucked on ≥1.89 L (1/2) gallon-capacity packages
Australia and New Zealand
The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code outlines date marking provisions for these countries (Australian Government 2012). With some exceptions, date marking with a best before or use by date is required for most packaged foods for retail sale or catering purposes that have a shelf life of <2 y. Exceptions are individual servings of ice cream or ice confections, and foods in a small package, except where the food should be consumed before a certain date because of health or safety reasons. The label on a package of bread with a shelf life of <7 d may include instead of a best before date its baked on date (date on which the bread was baked) or its baked for date (date not later than 12 h after the time the bread was baked). The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code indicates the prescribed wording and precise format of the date marking. Furthermore, the label on a package of food must include a statement of any specific storage conditions required to ensure that the food will keep for the period indicated by the use by or the best before date. Additionally, the requirements do not preclude the label on a package of food from including a packed on date or a manufacturer's or packer's code in addition to the required use by or best before date.
Paragraphs 2(1)(c) and (d) (regarding date marking with a best before date) of Standard 1.2.5 do not apply to the Standard for infant formula products (Standard 2.9.1), and a label on a package of infant formula product must contain storage instructions addressing the period after it is opened (Australian Government 2013a). The label on a package of formulated supplementary sports foods must include a statement of the recommended consumption in 1 d (Australian Government 2013b). Foods for special medical purposes must comply with Standard 1.2.5; however, the package label may use the words “Expiry Date” or similar words instead of the words “Use By” if the food is required to include a use by date under Standard 1.2.5 (Australian Government 2013c).
A Guide to the Code's “Standard 1.2.5 – Date Marking of Packaged Food” helps manufacturers determine whether food should be date marked with a best before, use by, baked on, or baked for date, and provides details on the use and form of date marking (FSANZ 2013). Date marking is described in the code as being based on either quality, health (for products having nutrient profiles critical to consumer health, for example), or safety considerations (for foods that may become microbiologically unsafe before discernibly spoiling, for example), and as the length of time a food should “keep” before it begins to deteriorate or become less nutritious or unsafe (FSANZ 2013). A best before date is “the last date on which you can expect a food to retain all of its quality attributes, provided it has been stored according to any stated storage conditions and the package is unopened.” A use by date is “the last date on which the food may be eaten safely, provided it has been stored according to any stated storage conditions and the package is unopened,” after which the food should not be eaten for health and safety reasons (FSANZ 2013). Foods with an expired best before date may be sold provided the food is not spoiled and complies with other applicable legislation, whereas foods with an expired required use by date may not be sold, because consumption may pose a health risk (Australian Government 2012a; FSANZ 2013). The Guide also indicates, with reference to special purpose foods in Part 2.9 of the Code, that foods that need to be eaten within a certain period to ensure that they provide the claimed amounts of nutrients, and thereby achieve their intended purpose, must be marked with a use by date, which will indicate the period that the unopened food is expected to retain all nutrients in the correct amounts provided it is stored according to any stated storage conditions (FSANZ 2013).
Recognizing the increased availability of an expanding range of RTE, short-shelf-life foods and need for use of measures to minimize the potential for microorganisms such as L. monocytogenes and C. botulinum to be present in foods in numbers potentially hazardous to health, the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) produced guidelines (NZFSA 2005) for determining the shelf life of foods capable of supporting growth of these microorganisms and to assist in meeting the requirements of legislation. The guidelines describe in some detail the procedures used in direct and indirect shelf-life studies. Direct shelf-life studies involve storing the product under preselected conditions for a period of time longer than the expected shelf life and checking the product at regular intervals to determine when it begins to spoil. The indirect approach uses accelerated storage and/or predictive microbiological modeling to determine an appropriate shelf life (NZFSA 2005).
In Canada, the Food and Drug Regulations require for prepackaged foods having a durable life of 90 d or less: (a) on prepackaged foods packaged at a place other than retail, a durable life date grouped with it the words “best before” and “meilleur avant,” unless a clear explanation of the significance of the durable life date appears elsewhere on the label, and instructions for proper storage conditions if storage conditions different from normal room temperature are required; and (b) on prepackaged foods packaged at retail, the packaging date and the durable life of the food, except when the durable life appears on a poster next to the food, and the terms “packaged on” and “empaqueté le” (Minister of Justice 2014). Durable life means “the period, commencing on the day on which a prepackaged product is packaged for retail sale, during which the product, when it is stored under conditions appropriate to that product, will retain, without any appreciable deterioration, its normal wholesomeness, palatability, nutritional value, and any other qualities claimed for it by the manufacturer.” Durable life date means “the date on which the durable life of a prepackaged product ends” (Minister of Justice 2014). Packaging date means “the date on which a food is placed for the first time in a package in which it will be offered for sale to a consumer” or “the date on which a prepackaged product is weighed by a retailer in a package in which it will be offered for sale for the first time to a consumer.” The format (showing, for example, the month in words after the year, if the year is shown, with abbreviation allowed, and the day of the month after the month and expressed in numbers) for indicating the durable life date is specified in the Food and Drug Regulations. Foods with an anticipated shelf life >90 d are not required to be labeled with a best before date or storage information (CFIA 2014).
Expiration dates are required on: formulated liquid diets, foods represented for use in a very-low-energy diet, meal replacements, nutritional supplements, and human milk substitutes (CFIA 2014; Minister of Justice 2014). Expiration date means, regarding a formulated liquid diet, a food represented for use in a very-low-energy diet, a meal replacement, or a nutritional supplement, the date “after which the manufacturer does not recommend that it be consumed, and up to which it maintains its microbiological and physical stability and the nutrient content declared on the label.”
Exceptions to this requirement are: prepackaged products consisting of fresh fruits or vegetables, prepackaged individual portions of food served by a restaurant or other commercial enterprise with meals or snacks; prepackaged individual servings of food prepared by a commissary and sold by automatic vending machines or mobile canteens; or prepackaged donuts.
Further, subsection 5(1) of the Food and Drugs Act states that “No person shall label, package, treat, process, sell or advertise any food in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to create an erroneous impression regarding its character, value, quantity, composition, merit or safety” (General Principles for Labelling and Advertising: Requirements 2014).
Canada has a retail guidance document addressing control of pathogens, including L. monocytogenes, in RTE refrigerated foods (Health Canada 2013). The guidance was produced by the Retail Council of Canada, Food Safety Committee, and Health Canada for labeling product at retail that has a durable life of ≤90 d. The guidance contains specifics pertaining to supplier code dates, relabeling, cooked/RTE/processed meat and hard cheeses being vacuum-packaged at retail, overwrapping of cheeses at the store level and other products, and PHFs. PHFs are defined in the guidance document as “foods capable of supporting the growth of pathogenic microorganisms and/or the production of toxin (for example, foods that have a pH level above 4.6, foods that have a water activity above 0.85). Such products might also be referred to as temperature controlled for safety (TCS).” The guidance recommends that PHFs should not be sold beyond their best before date. The guidance also recommends that the durable life applied to store-prepared or assembled multi-ingredient/multicomponent RTE PHFs (for example, sandwiches, cut produce, sushi, salads, fresh fruit flans, cream- or custard-filled bakery products, yogurt parfaits) that support the growth of pathogens and/or toxin production be limited to a maximum of 3 d unless at least one of the following items supports a longer, product-specific, or appropriate product category-specific durable life:
- reference to scientific literature or historical knowledge of the performance of the control measure,
- science-based valid experimental data that demonstrate the adequacy of the control measure,
- collection of data throughout operating conditions representative of food retail operations,
- mathematical modeling (Health Canada 2013).
As of December 13, 2014, Regulation No. 1169/2011 of the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union mandates, with some exceptions, a date of minimum durability or a use by date (EC 2011). The regulation requires that foods that are highly perishable from a microbiological point of view “and are therefore likely after a short period to constitute an immediate danger to human health,” carry a use by date, after which date the “food shall be deemed unsafe” in accordance with Article 14(2) to (5) of Regulation (EC) No. 178/2002, rather than a date of minimum durability. Additionally, any special food storage conditions and/or conditions of use that may be required are to be indicated. The Regulation repeals EC Directive 2000/13/EC among other Directives and Regulation.
The date of minimum durability must be preceded by the words “best before” when the date includes an indication of the day (or “best before end…” in other cases), and accompanied by either the date itself or a reference to where the date appears on the label, and if necessary followed by a description of the storage conditions that must be observed if the product is to keep for the specified period. The date is to consist of the day, the month, and possibly the year, in that order and in uncoded form, with the following exceptions:
- for foods which will not keep for more than 3 mo, an indication of the day and the month is sufficient;
- for foods which will keep more than 3 mo but not more than 18 mo, an indication of the month and year is sufficient; and
- for foods which will keep more than 18 mo, an indication of the year is sufficient.
A minimum-durability date is not required for: fresh fruit and vegetables including unpeeled potatoes; wines, liqueur wines, sparkling wines, aromatized wines, and similar products obtained from fruit other than grapes, and beverages falling within Combined Nomenclature code 2206 00 obtained from grapes or grape musts; beverages containing 10% or more by volume of alcohol; bakers’ or pastry cooks’ wares which, given the nature of the content, are normally consumed within 24 h of manufacture; vinegar; cooking salt; solid sugar; confectionery products consisting almost solely of flavored and/or colored sugars; chewing gums and similar chewing products.
The use by date, which is to be indicated on each individual prepacked portion, must be preceded by the words “use by,” which shall be accompanied by either the date itself, or a reference to where the date is given on the labeling, and shall be followed by a description of the storage conditions that must be observed. The date shall consist of the day, month, and possibly the year, in that order and in uncoded form.
Frozen meat, frozen meat preparations, and frozen unprocessed fishery products must carry the date of freezing or the date of first freezing, preceded by the words “frozen on” and accompanied by the date itself or a reference to where the date is given on the label; the date must consist of the day, the month, and the year, in that order and in uncoded form.
U.K. date-marking requirements are, as in other E.U. Member States, subject to E.U. legislation. The Dept. for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) issued in 2012 a Guide to compliance with The Food Information Regulations 2013, which are intended to allow enforcement of E.U. No 1169/2011 of the European Parliament and of the Council (DEFRA 2012). The Guide indicates that “where a ‘use by’ date is exceeded, action should be taken under the General Food Regulations 2004 (S.I. 2004/3279) which enforce the food safety requirements of Regulations (EC) No 178/2002)….However, a criminal offence will be committed and the enforcement officers may prosecute the FBO for the sale of ‘unsafe’ food.” The DEFRA/Food Standards Agency (FSA) guidance on applying date labels to food that was issued in 2011 (FSA/DEFRA 2011) also applies. The 2011 guidance was issued after determining in 2009 at a joint event with the Waste and Resource Action Program (WRAP) on date marking and food waste that its guidance on use by date marks should be updated. WRAP is a U.K.-based organization that focuses on the benefits of reducing waste, developing sustainable products, and using resources in an efficient way. Additionally, the FSA conducted a consultation in 2010 (FSA 2010) to seek input for the update. The guidance was to help businesses comply with the legal requirements on date marks and decide whether to label food with either a best before or a use by date. The guidance mentions as key legislation Directive 2000/13/EC of the European Parliament and the Council, which it states is implemented in Great Britain by the Food Labelling Regulations 1996 and in Northern Ireland by the Food Labelling Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1996, collectively referred to as the FLR. The guidance indicates that it is an offence to sell food after its use by date, whereas it is not an offence to sell food after its best by date, in accordance with Regulation 44.1(d) of the FLR (FSA/DEFRA 2011).
The guidance illustrates the principles for determining date marks via a decision tree and also provides best practices, which include:
- explore alternative techniques for using date labeling for stock control so that they are less visible to consumers; avoid diluting the key messages of the legally required date marks;
- for foods requiring refrigeration in the home, consider providing instructions that allow flexibility in the temperature of storage depending on the nature of the food (for example, if refrigeration is required for quality reasons, use “keep refrigerated”; if required for safety, use “keep refrigerated below 5 °C”);
- keep in mind when setting date marks that use by dates relate to food safety while best before dates relate to quality;
- apply the best before date to shelf-stable foods that are safe to consume or perishable foods that do not deteriorate rapidly and become unsafe to eat after the date mark.
Building on the DEFRA/FSA date labeling guidance, the trade association Dairy UK published guidance for milk and dairy product manufacturers regarding the appropriate date-marking and optimum storage conditions for a range of milk and dairy products, with the aim to reduce food wastage in the home without compromising food safety and quality (Dairy UK 2012).
Other countries in the European Union
The date labeling requirements as of 2011 in France, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, Italy, Belgium-Luxembourg, and Ireland are provided in LBRO (2011a). In France, nonperishable products carried a “Date Limited d'utilisation optimale” followed by day/month/year and the words “to be consumed before end of…” Perishable products carried a “date limited de consummation,” followed by day/month/year and the words “to be consumed before…,” while extremely perishable foods carried the “date limited de consummation, followed by day/month/year and the words “to be consumed up to…” or “to be consumed no later than…”
In Germany, with some exceptions, products carried a minimum shelf-life date, which referred to the date until which the product maintains its maximum level of quality under proper storage conditions, unless they may for microbiological reasons pose a health threat after a certain storage period in which case they were required to carry a “latest consumption date.” In Ireland, Italy, The Netherlands, and Belgium-Luxembourg, best before dates and variations on day, month, or year were used on products with a shelf life of up to 3 mo, with some exceptions (for example, fresh eggs in Ireland, which were required to be delivered to the consumer within 21 d of laying [at least 7 d before their best before date]); best before end and month and year were used on products with a shelf life of 3 to 18 mo; and best before end and year were used on products with a shelf life of >18 mo. Use by dates with day, month, year, and storage instructions was used in The Netherlands and Belgium-Luxembourg on highly perishable foods. In Italy it was up to those labeling the product to choose between a best before or use by date, and guidance was available. In Poland best before and day/month/year were used, and very-perishable foods carried the “last day of consumption” and storage and use instructions as necessary (for example, if a product appeared to need refrigeration but did not). Italy provided guidance with detailed information that was required on labels (LBRO 2011a).
In the United States, except for infant formula, thermally processed low-acid canned foods packaged in hermetically sealed containers, and certain packaged milk or milk products, date labeling of foods sold at the retail level is generally not required by federal regulations. Infant formula and some types of baby food are required by federal law (21 U.S.C. § 350a (2010) and 21 CFR 107.20 (2013) (c)) to be labeled with a use by date for the purpose of assuring nutrient content. Thermally processed low-acid foods packaged in hermetically sealed containers are required by federal law (21 CFR 113.60(c)) to be marked on each container with a code identifying the establishment where packed, product, year and day packed, and period during which packed (which may be changed as needed to enable ready identification of lots during sale and distribution). Among other requirements, aseptically processed and packaged milk and milk products must be marked with the words “keep refrigerated after opening”; and condensed or dry milk products must also carry a code or lot number identifying the contents and the quantity in the container, and the specific date, run, or batch of the product (HHS/PHS/FDA 2011).
If date labeling is used on meat or poultry, the USDA requires that the month and day of the month, and the year, in the case of shelf-stable and frozen products, be used. If a calendar date is shown, there must be a phrase (for example, sell by or use before) immediately adjacent to the date that explains the meaning of the date (Food Product Dating 2013).
With respect to poultry products, USDA requires a pack date (date that the finished product is packed into the immediate container/consumer package) in the form of a closed code or a calendar date, which is related to the quality of the product rather than safety, on either the immediate container or the shipping container (9 CFR §381.126(a), USDA/FSIS 2013). If a calendar date is used, it must be accompanied by a statement explaining the meaning of the date, as provided in §381.129(c)(2) and the date must include the month of the year and the day of the month for all products and also the year in the case of products hermetically sealed, dried, or frozen. If a code date is used it should not be misleading to a consumer (must not be able to be mistaken for a calendar date). FSIS permits the use of a sell by or use by date in lieu of the required date of packing. Dressed poultry (slaughtered, defeathered, eviscerated whole birds with the head and feet removed, that is, a ready-to-cook whole bird) must be marked on the immediate container with either a lot number, which shall be the number of the day of the year on which the poultry was slaughtered, or a coded number (9 CFR §381.126(b)).
The USDA requires egg cartons with the USDA grade shield to display the pack date (the day that the eggs were washed, graded, and placed in the carton) in a 3-digit code representing the consecutive day of the year (for example, 001 for January 1, 365 for December 31). Further, if a sell by date is used on a carton displaying the USDA grade shield, the code date may not exceed 45 d from the pack date (Food Product Dating 2013). However, eggs not packed in USDA facilities do not need to follow the same rules; instead, eggs that are not packed under USDA's grading program must be labeled and coded in accordance with egg laws in the state where they are packed and/or sold. Shell eggs packed into containers must also be labeled (for example, with “Keep Refrigerated”) to indicate that refrigeration is required (§590.50; §590.410).
At the state and local jurisdiction level, the voluntary Uniform Open Dating Regulation of the Natl. Inst. of Standards and Technology (NIST 2013) allows for 2 options—mandatory uniform date labeling of prepackaged, perishable foods or voluntary uniform date labeling of nonperishable foods. The voluntary regulation serves as a model for state and local jurisdictions to adopt. NIST is a research and advisory body of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce. The Open Dating Regulation was written in 1985 by the Natl. Conference on Weights and Measures (NCWM) in concert with the Assn. of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO). The NCWM is a nonprofit association of state and local weights and measures officials, federal agencies, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers. The purpose of the state-level regulation is “to prescribe mandatory uniform date labeling of prepackaged, perishable foods and to prescribe optional uniform date labeling that must be used whenever a packager elects to use date labeling on prepackaged foods that are not perishable.” The regulation is intended “for use and understanding by both distributors and consumers when judging food qualities.” The regulation exempts (does not apply to) any food that is not prepackaged, perishable fruits or vegetables in a container permitting sensory examination, and prepackaged perishable foods containing open date labeling according to requirements of federal law or regulation.
In 1979, an assessment of open date labeling requirements by the U.S. OTA indicated that some form of open date labeling regulation was practiced by 22 states (OTA 1979). Of those 22 states, 20 specifically addressed milk. By 1998, this had risen to 29 states and the District of Columbia (Labuza and Szybist 1999b). According to NIST (2013), 18 states (Ark., Conn., D.C., Fla., Ga., Md., Mich., Minn., Nev., N.H., N.Mex., Okla., Oreg., P.R., R.I., S.Dak., Wash., and W.Va.) and the Virgin Islands have a state law or regulation for open date labeling. Ten of the 19 states (D.C., Fla., Ga., Md., Minn., N.H., N.Mex., Oreg., P.R., and R.I.) have a law or regulation in force, but which is not based on the NCWM standard. Among those who use NCWM recommendations, 5 states (Ark., Conn., Nev., Okla., and W.Va.) adopt and update NCWM recommendations automatically on an annual basis, and 4 states (Mich., S.Dak., V.I., Wash.) have an NCWM recommendation in place, in whole or in part, but from a prior year (that is, updates are not automatic; NIST 2013).
The U.S. Open Dating Regulation describes how to determine and express the sell by or best if used by date. For perishable food, the sell by date is determined by the manufacturer, processor, packer, re-packer, retailer, or other person who prepackages the food, on the basis of allowance of a reasonable period after sale for consumption of the food without physical spoilage, loss of value, or loss of palatability. Additionally, the reasonable period for consumption consists of at least one-third of the approximate total shelf life of the perishable food. With regard to semiperishable and long-shelf-life food, the person placing the sell by or best if used by date on the package is to determine the date by taking into consideration the food quality, characteristics, formulation, processing impact, packaging or container, and other protective wrapping or coating, customary transportation, and storage and display conditions. Perishable food may not be offered for sale after the sell by date unless it is wholesome and advertised in a conspicuous manner as being offered for sale after the recommended last date of sale. Semiperishable and long-shelf-life food may be sold beyond the best if used by date provided the food is wholesome and the sensory physical quality standards for that food have not significantly diminished. The sell by or best if used by date must be shown on the package or its label or attached tag in a way that is easily readable and visible (NIST 2013). This Open Dating Regulation state regulation does not mention that dates are not tied to safety issues, except for the use of the word “wholesome” with respect to selling past-dated food.
The U.S. FDA Food Code (FDA Food Code 2013) represents FDA's best advice for needed provisions for addressing the safety and protection of food in food retail and food service facilities at the state and local levels. State and local agencies adopt any or all sections of the Food Code as part of their regulations for firms including grocery stores and food service establishments. The Food Code addresses options for date labeling of RTE food that requires time/temperature control for safety to limit growth of pathogenic microorganisms or toxin formation.
Intended for active managerial control while the product is in the food facility, the Food Code indicates that, except for packaging food in the retail establishment using a reduced-oxygen packaging method:
- food that is prepared on premises and held cold for more than 24 h shall be clearly marked to indicate the date or day by which the food shall be consumed on the premises, sold, or discarded, being held at 41 °F (5 °C) or less for a maximum of 7 d;
- and except for deli salads, certain hard and semisoft cheeses, cultured dairy products, preserved fish products, shelf-stable dry fermented sausages, and shelf-stable salt-cured products, food that is commercially processed (“prepared and packaged by a food processing plant”), opened on premises, and held cold more than 24 h, shall be clearly marked at the time the original container is opened to indicate the date or day by which the food shall be consumed on the premises, sold, or discarded, being held at 41 °F (5 °C) or less for a maximum of 7 d; and, the day or date marked by the establishment may not exceed a manufacturer's use by date if it is determined on the basis of food safety.
The Food Code also indicates that a refrigerated RTE time/temperature control for safety food ingredient or a portion of a refrigerated RTE time/temperature control for safety food that is subsequently combined with additional ingredients or portions of food shall retain the date marking of the earliest-prepared or first-prepared ingredient. With respect to food establishments that use a reduced-oxygen packaging method for food that must have time and temperature control for safety, they are to control the growth of and toxin formation by C. botulinum and growth of L. monocytogenes. In addition, with certain exceptions, the establishments are to implement a hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) plan that contains certain information and limits the refrigerated shelf life to ≤30 d of packaging, except the time the product is maintained frozen, or the original manufacturer's sell by or use by date, whichever occurs first.
The NRDC and Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (NRDC 2013) examined the history of date labeling and pertinent federal and state laws and authorities in the United States. This examination found that 41 states plus the District of Columbia require date labels on at least some food items, whereas 9 states (Ala., Idaho, Ill., Mo., Nebr., N.Y., S.Dak., Tenn., Utah) do not require them on any foods. The NRDC report stated that because state statutes are not preempted by federal law, unless they are in direct conflict with existing federal legislation (35A Am. Jur. 2d Food § 10 (2012)), and federal regulation of date labels is limited, states have considerable discretion in regulating date labels. The states differ in the kinds of food required to bear date labeling and the date labeling terminology required. Further, very few states define the meaning of the terminology and few delineate the process for determining the dates (NRDC 2013). Further contributing to date labeling confusion is the potential for regulation at the local level (NRDC 2013). For example, Baltimore, Md., prohibits the sale of any perishable food past its expiration date, while the state of Maryland does not (Baltimore, Md. Code § 6–505.1 (2009)).
The NRDC report grouped the types of date-labeling practices among the states that have date labeling regulations as follows:
- regulate the presence of date labels on certain foods but do not regulate sales after those dates;
- regulate the presence of date labels but broadly regulate sales after such dates if date labels are voluntarily applied;
- regulate both the presence of date labels and, broadly, the sale of products after those dates.
The NRDC (2013) report called for standardizing and clarifying the food date labeling system across the United States, and made the following recommendations:
- make sell by dates invisible to the consumer;
- establish a uniform consumer-facing dating system using unambiguous wording, which distinguishes between safety-based and quality-based dates and includes freeze-by dates where applicable;
- discontinue use of quality-based dates on nonperishable shelf-stable products;
- ensure date labels are clearly and predictably located on packages;
- employ more transparent methods for selecting dates, through a set of best practices for manufacturers and retailers;
- increase use of safe handling instructions and smart labels (time—temperature integrator [TTI] devices)
Additionally, the report indicated that collaboration among industry members, policymakers, food safety experts, consumer behavior experts, and consumer advocates is needed to establish an effective new standardized system (NRDC 2013).
Quality versus Safety
A number of factors influence the perishability, quality, and safety of a food, its shelf life, and the determination of a date for use in date labeling. In the United States there are several major perishability categories of foods:
- perishable foods—those with a shelf life of days to several weeks, and in which spoilage is generally microbial growth or natural aging (senescence). This includes fluid milk; some fresh fruits and vegetables; fresh meat, fish, and poultry; and controlled-atmosphere-packaged meats and deli meats. Perishable foods may carry a use by or freeze by date, or no date (for example, bagged produce).
- semiperishable foods—those that by nature have a longer shelf life than perishable foods or which have an extended shelf life as a result of a processing or preservation method. Semiperishable foods generally are labeled with a use by or best if used by date. This category of foods includes: (a) eggs, some cheeses, ultra-high-temperature-pasteurized dairy products and juices, packaged meals, moist pasta products, and hummus. Semiperishable foods generally have a shelf life of up to 90 d, and should be refrigerated (32 to 41 °F [0 to 5 °C]) for safety; and (b) low-moisture fatty foods (such as potato chips which oxidize) having a shelf life of 90 d.
- dry stable dehydrated or semimoist foods—those which have a shelf life of 6 mo to 1.5 y if stored in a well-sealed package at room temperature, which are generally labeled with a best if used by label such as: (a) RTE baked or extruded cereals, dry pasta products; (b) low-moisture confectionaries such as chocolate, hard candy, peanut brittle; (c) semimoist foods such as chewy protein/granola bars, semidry fruits (such as raisins, prunes, dried cranberries; many candies [such as fruit gum candy, chewing gum]); (d) frozen foods, which if properly stored at approximately 0°F (−17.8 °C) in well-sealed low-head-space packages, have a shelf life of 6 mo to 1.5 y.
- very-long-shelf-life foods—those, such as most canned foods, which if kept at proper conditions (<70 °F [21.1 °C] and <50% relative humidity) generally have a best if used by date of up to 3 y and a potential shelf life of 5 to 7 y. These products typically will not have safety-related concerns during their shelf life due to either being commercially sterilized by thermal processing (low-acid canned foods), or acidified, naturally acidic, or pasteurized and possibly subsequently hot-filled (such as bottled ketchup, salad dressings, mayonnaise). For these foods, date labeling is based on the very slow quality loss that occurs if they are stored at approximately 71 to 75 °F (approximately 22 to 24 °C) and the package (metal can, retort pouch, glass jar) is impermeable to moisture and oxygen. However, if a metal can is dented, spoilage and pathogenic bacteria may enter through the damaged container, or another phenomenon may lead to foodborne illness (botulism, for example, due to germination of any Clostridium spores that may be present).
- infinite shelf life—crystalline foods kept at normal temperature and low humidity. The best example of this category is mined sodium chloride (table salt), which was crystallized in deep caverns underground more than a million years ago (IFT 1981; Labuza 2000).
In the United Kingdom, the food industry categorizes prepared perishable foods differently, as either: (a) short shelf life: 0 to 10 d, or (b) long shelf life: 11 to 42 d.
Food safety is impacted by:
- presence (and growth) of infectious pathogens (for example, Salmonellae, L. monocytogenes; Escherichia coli O157:H7 on meats, fish, and fresh produce) in raw foods, and
- survival and growth of vegetative and spore-forming pathogens in heat-treated foods, for example, psychrotrophic C. botulinum, Bacillus cereus.
Unless initially contaminated by a pathogen and not pasteurized, frozen foods would not be expected to pose a food safety risk due to the holding temperature being below the temperature range for pathogen growth. Frozen meals designed for microwaving therefore pose a risk if one does not follow the explicit microwave cooking instructions on the package. Acidified bottled or canned foods have microbial growth inhibited by water activity (aw) or pH control. For dry foods packaged in plastic containers allowing oxygen migration, the date is linked to the amount of time it takes for enough oxygen to permeate the package and cause oxidation of the product to a point at which quality is less than optimum. In general, these foods have a shelf life of 90 d to 1.5 y. In addition, moisture migration into the package at ≥45% RH (relative humidity) leads to loss of crispness, for foods such as potato chips or pretzels, and caking in powdery foods containing sugar, such as infant formula.
Refrigerated foods, on the other hand, present the greater risk for food safety-related issues because some bacterial pathogens such as L. monocytogenes, nonproteolytic C. botulinum, some B. cereus strains, and Yersinia enterocolitica are capable of growing at refrigeration temperatures. Additionally, even if refrigerated foods are exposed to a treatment (pasteurizing heat treatment, for example) that inactivates a proportion of vegetative microorganisms, there is the possibility of pathogen growth to infective levels or outgrowth of spores, particularly if temperature abuse occurs during distribution or storage or the food is held for sufficient time at refrigeration temperatures for growth or outgrowth to occur.
At the simplest level, 3 factors—the pathogen, the host, and the environment—and complex interrelationships among them affect the potential for foodborne illness associated with a microorganism (IFT 2002). With respect to host factors, for example, L. monocytogenes is of particular concern for the highly susceptible immunocompromised individuals for whom listeriosis can be a very serious, potentially fatal illness. Hence, special considerations are given to the potential for exposure of these populations to L. monocytogenes and ensuring the food safety of refrigerated foods, particularly relatively short-shelf-life deli meat, cheeses, deli salads, and prepared foods, for example, that are prepared at retail.
The U.S. FDA has available for food manufacturers model label statements and guidance on labeling of 3 groups (A, B, and C) of PHF that need refrigeration by consumers to maintain safety or quality (FDA 1997). The statements refer to the importance of refrigeration for safety for foods in 2 of the groups (Groups A and B) and importance of refrigeration for quality in the 3rd group (Group C). The 3 groups and related label statements are shown in Table 2.
Table 2. U.S. FDA guidance and model label statements for 3 groups of foods needing refrigeration by consumers for food safety or quality
Potentially hazardous foods, which, if subjected to temperature abuse, will support the growth of infectious or toxigenic microorganisms that may be present, the outgrowth of which would render the food unsafe.
Characteristics: Product pH > 4.6; (2) water activity aw > 0.85; (3) do not receive a thermal process or other treatment in the final package that is adequate to destroy foodborne pathogens that can grow under conditions of temperature abuse during storage and distribution; and (4) have no barriers (for example, preservatives such as benzoates, salt, acidification) built into the product formulation that prevent the growth of foodborne pathogens that can grow under conditions of temperature abuse during storage and distribution.
|“IMPORTANT” Must Be Kept Refrigerated to Maintain Safety.|
Includes foods that are shelf stable as a result of processing, but once opened, the unused portion is potentially hazardous unless refrigerated.
Characteristics: (1) Product pH > 4.6; (2) water activity aw > 0.85; (3) receive a thermal process or other treatment that is adequate to destroy or inactivate foodborne pathogens in the unopened package, but after opening, surviving or contaminating microorganisms can grow and render the product unsafe; and (4) have no barriers (for example, preservatives such as benzoates, salt, acidification) built into the product formulation to prevent the growth of foodborne pathogens after opening and subsequent storage under temperature abuse conditions.
|“IMPORTANT” Must Be Refrigerated After Opening to Maintain Safety|
Foods that do not pose a safety hazard even after opening if temperature abused, but that may experience a more rapid deterioration in quality over time if not refrigerated. The manufacturer determines whether to include on the label a statement that refrigeration is needed to maintain the quality characteristics of the product to maximize acceptance by the consumer. These foods do not pose a safety problem.
Characteristics include one or more of the following: (1) Product pH ≤ 4.6 to inhibit the outgrowth and toxin production of C. botulinum; or (2) water activity aw ≤ 0.85; or (3) have barriers built into the formulation (for example, preservative systems such as benzoates, salt, acidification) to prevent the growth of foodborne pathogens if the product is temperature abused.
|‘‘Refrigerate for Quality”a or other statement that explains that the storage conditions are recommended to protect the quality of the product|
Given the critical relationship between temperature and length of refrigerated storage on the microbiological safety of extended shelf-life RTE foods that require refrigeration and which support the growth of psychrotrophic pathogens, the NACMCF was asked by its supporting agencies to provide advice on the scientific parameters needed to establish safety-based use-by date labeling (SBDL) for RTE foods and to address the data needs for validating and verifying the adequacy of SBDL (NACMCF 2005). The committee conducted a hazard analysis of refrigerated RTE foods and determined that L. monocytogenes is the appropriate target microorganism for SBDL of most refrigerated RTE foods, which support its growth. The committee noted in its report that, although not required by regulation to do so, some companies have historically applied protocols using scientific methods to establish date labeling for certain products, with the storage time and temperature expectations developed to assure consumer safety and product quality throughout the shelf life of the product. To accomplish this, companies conduct or commission microbiological challenge studies, growth modeling, or both to determine potential growth of pathogens in specific foods under specific environmental conditions; and, industry trade associations have provided technical support for determining safety parameters (NACMCF 2005).
The committee also indicated that “given the morbidity and high mortality of L. monocytogenes infection and the association of L. monocytogenes with refrigerated foods” the use at the consumer and food handler level of an appropriate SBDL (for example, “use within X days” of opening/purchase) on products supporting rapid growth of the pathogen could have a beneficial public health impact if combined with effective consumer education on temperature control. The committee also indicated that the application at the manufacturer level and on a large scale a specific SBDL that is based on a specific food safety objective has many practical limitations, given the magnitude in number, diversity, and complexity of products in the marketplace, and lack of accurate information on initial levels and growth rates of L. monocytogenes for many formulations (NACMCF 2005).
A USDA/FSIS risk assessment for L. monocytogenes in deli meats (USDA/FSIS 2003) found that combinations of interventions, including pre- and postpackaging interventions and use of growth inhibitors, were more effective than any single intervention in mitigating potential L. monocytogenes contamination and reducing the risk of listeriosis (USDA/FSIS 2003). Some manufacturers use ultra-high-pressure processing to postpasteurize deli meats after product packaging.
An Interagency Retail L. monocytogenes Risk Assessment Workgroup (USDA 2013a) provided a scientific assessment of the risk of foodborne illness associated with consumption of RTE foods commonly prepared and sold in retail food store delicatessen stores. Among the key findings relating to controlling growth of L. monocytogenes was that, although strict temperature control during refrigerated storage in retail delis reduced the risk of listeriosis, for suitable products the use of growth inhibitors which mitigate growth of L. monocytogenes in RTE foods at retail and during home storage had a greater impact on risk reduction than temperature control (USDA 2013a).
Zeng and others (2014) used temperature sensors to monitor growth of simulated populations of E. coli O157:H7 and L. monocytogenes inoculated in packaged fresh-cut lettuce mix at fluctuating temperatures during commercial transportation during 4 different seasons, retail storage, and display. They obtained, during a 16-mo period, a series of time–temperature profiles for the bagged salads from different transportation routes and regions. They found that both microorganisms increased (<2 log CFU/g in most cases and up to a maximum 3-log increase) during 2 to 3 d of transportation from the farm (432 profiles), 1 to 3 d of retail storage (4876 profiles), and 3 d of retail display (3799 profiles).
In answering a specific question about the use of mathematical modeling techniques in establishing safety-based use-by date labels, the NACMCF's response mentioned that given the wide range of products, formulations, and production facilities, as well as the wide diversity of distribution, marketing, and consumption practices associated with RTE foods, it does not seem feasible to conduct inoculated pack studies on more than a limited number of product classes and pathways, and modeling of microbial growth will play an important role in developing SBDL (NACMCF 2005).
Inoculated pack studies involve inoculating foods with a specific amount of a pathogen and monitoring its growth or decline during storage by repeated sampling to determine the risk of growth and/or toxin production (IFT 1994). Microbial modeling, or predictive food microbiology, uses mathematical expressions to describe microbial behavior (growth or inactivation/survival, for example), and provides information that is valuable in predicting shelf life, designing foods, and controlling food processes (IFT 1994). Further, growth models can be useful to date labeling by estimating the time for attaining a specified population of spoilage or pathogenic microorganisms. There are a number of modeling software programs that are valuable in this regard. These include the Food Micromodel managed by the Inst. of Food Research in the United Kingdom, and the U.K. Inst. of Food Research–USDA/Agricultural Research Service—Univ. of Tasmania Food Safety Centre Consortium's ComBase (UKIFR–USDA–UT 2003; NACMCF 2005). The NACMCF (2005) also commented that such models, which can assess changes in formulation, contamination levels, and storage times and temperatures should be backed by links to challenge studies.
The U.K.-based Chilled Food Assn. (CFA) published “Best Practice Guidelines for the Production of Chilled Food” (CFA 2006), which provides specific technical limits on shelf life for chilled foods in relation to the thermal process used and target microorganism (L. monocytogenes or C. botulinum):
- maximum 10 d—L. monocytogenes is the target organism to be controlled. A 6-log reduction process is required, for example using a thermal process of at least 70 °C for 2 min, or equivalent. Consideration must be given to the possibility of postprocess contamination.
- more than 10 d—psychrotrophic C. botulinum is the target organism to be controlled. A 6-log reduction process is required, using a thermal process of at least 90 °C for 10 min, or equivalent. This achieves a shelf life of no more than 42 d. Consideration must be given to the possibility of postprocess contamination. Nonthermal means of preventing growth through intrinsic preservation factors (“hurdles”) may also be used, comprising a combination of thermal and nonthermal controls. B. cereus should also be considered as a target organism for long-shelf-life products. The microorganism is managed using raw material controls, rapid chilling after cooking, storage temperature control, and shelf-life limitation.
As described by the CFA, chilled foods include a vast range of food products that depend on refrigeration as the primary means of preservation. The guidelines state that “pathogens must be accounted for by safe product and process design,” and “identification of the relevant pathogens is critical for the successful assessment of safe shelf life.” The guidelines address approaches to shelf-life determination, assignment, monitoring, and verification. The guidelines indicate that shelf-life determination may potentially involve reviewing microbial characteristics, use of predictive modeling programs, and storage trials. The guidelines also indicate that the maximum permissible shelf life is determined on the basis of microbiological safety and stability, physical condition, or organoleptic quality, whichever is shorter. Furthermore, the guidelines indicate that the use by or best before date is determined from the result of the shelf-life determination test, safety margins deducted from the maximum shelf life, and determination of day zero. They also convey that the date of minimum durability must be indicated with a use by date and any exceptions validated through HACCP plans and in accordance with national legislation.
The CFA also published guidance (CFA 2010) that specifically addresses shelf life of RTE food in relation to L. monocytogenes. Produced with the involvement of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and endorsed by the U.K. FSA, the guidance is intended to help address EC regulation No. 2073/2005 and related guidance on microbiological criteria for food. The guidance includes EU-legislated limits on L. monocytogenes in RTE food: 100 CFU/g unless the food is intended for infants or particular medical purposes, in which case the food must not contain any L. monocytogenes throughout the food's shelf life. Furthermore, the guidance requires evidence, based on shelf-life studies (which should initially consist of information on specific product composition (that is, physical and chemical characteristics, including packaging) and relevant scientific literature data. The guidance indicates that if the results of the studies do not provide sufficient confidence, additional studies will be necessary. The additional studies may include historical data (including HACCP verification data at the beginning and end of shelf life), predictive microbiology, and specific laboratory shelf-life studies (that is, durability studies, challenge testing).
The Codex Alimentarius Commission also provides guidance on shelf life in several Codex texts. Examples include the Codex “Guidelines on the Application of General Principles of Food Hygiene to the Control of Listeria monocytogenes in Foods” and the “Code of Hygienic Practice for Refrigerated Packaged Foods with Extended Shelf Life.” The Codex “Guidelines on the Application of General Principles of Food Hygiene to the Control of Listeria monocytogenes in Foods” (CAC 2007b) indicate the necessity of controlling and monitoring the storage time–temperature combination, and that length of shelf life is an important factor in the risk associated with foods supporting the growth of L. monocytogenes. The guidelines indicate that the length of the shelf life should be based on appropriate studies that assess the growth of L. monocytogenes in the food and take into account the potential for temperature abuse. Furthermore, the guidelines indicate that countries should consider labeling of certain RTE foods and, where appropriate, labels should include information on safe handling practices and/or advice on the time frame in which a product should be consumed. The guidance also addresses consumer education, with the objective that consumers have enough knowledge of L. monocytogenes and food hygiene that they understand the importance of shelf life and sell by or use by dates on the food label.
The Codex “Code of Hygienic Practice for Refrigerated Packaged Foods with Extended Shelf Life” indicates that it is very important to establish the shelf life of the product, using scientific data and technological methods, and to take into account the scheduled heat or other preservation treatments, use of hurdles (combination of subinhibitory levels of factors, such as decreased pH and aw and addition of preservatives, for microbial control) and anticipated distribution and storage temperatures. Shelf life is defined in the code as “the period during which the product maintains its microbiological safety and sensory qualities at a specific storage temperature.” With regard to labeling, the code states that labels should conform to the requirements of the official agency having jurisdiction, and provide a use by date and a statement regarding the need for refrigeration (such as “keep refrigerated at [required temperature] or less”). The code also indicates that when the prescribed use by date has been reached the products should be removed from the display case and not offered for sale.
The Local Better Regulation Office (LBRO) commissioned IFF Research (London, United Kingdom) to conduct a survey of organizations in the food retail, distribution, and production sectors in the United Kingdom, and convened an industry-led review group to address concerns that had been expressed to the organization and issues surrounding use by date labeling regulations (LBRO 2011a, b). The review group was comprised of representatives from retail and manufacturing, with members from the BRC, Assn. of Convenience Stores, Natl. Federation of Retail Newsagents, British Meat Processors Assn., and Provision Trade Federation. LBRO was dissolved in April 2012 and its functions are now exercised by the Better Regulation Delivery Office, an independent unit within the Dept. for Business, Innovation and Skills (LBRO 2013). IFF Research surveyed by questionnaire 17 manufacturers, 4 wholesalers, and 5 retailers and conducted telephone interviews of 1 wholesaler and 2 retailers, in total comprising 45% of the food manufacturing market, 17% of the food wholesale market, and 3% of the food retail market in the United Kingdom (LBRO 2011b). The survey captured a substantial amount of insight into the practices and concerns of the different business sectors, some of which is provided below.
The LBRO survey found that most products that manufacturers pack require a use by date, and microbiological safety is typically the main reason for application of a use by date rather than a best before date; retailer specification and product quality considerations, however, are also factors for dairy products (LBRO 2011b). LBRO (2011a) reported that several factors influence the establishment and application of use by dates: manufacturing process, handling and storage within the supply chain, microbiological risks, and product composition including food additives, quality, and brand reputation. Further, it was explained that in determining a maximum safe shelf life the potential for suboptimum storage at any stage of the distribution chain, including by the consumer, is taken into account and a safety margin of several days may be included (LBRO 2011a). Thus, in instances of quality deterioration before the maximum safe life, the use by date is shortened, resulting in a use by date actually reflecting a product's optimum quality rather than its microbiological safety, the report noted (LBRO 2011a). Further, LBRO (2011a) stated that “given the desire to protect quality and reputation, avoid product recalls, as well as to ensure that food is safe to eat, the industry tends to take a risk-averse approach applying ‘use-by’ dates even where the microbiological food risk is low.” The survey found that there is a strong feeling that use by dates are increasingly linked to quality rather than safety; and there is the belief that many products do not require a use by date given the low microbiological risk (LBRO 2011b). The survey also found that a main industry-wide criticism of use by dates is the level of waste that they cause.