Shelf life

Shelf life

How long does your packaged food have to ‘live’?

The manufacturer
should conduct properly
constructed storage trials
under realistic, defined
conditions to determine
the shelf life of products.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

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Jamaicans love to see a cupboard or pantry that is well stocked—whether they feel it’s a sign of prosperity, or they love to whip up something to eat in a flash on one of those lazy days, or if friends stop by unexpectedly. If you really want to see a cupboard stock up real fast, let there be a weather alert signifying a storm approaching and you would wonder if they are about to go into the grocery business.

But wait! While overloading the shopping cart on every aisle to make sure that you never run out of the ready-to-eat canned stuff, it all boils down to one thing: By the time you are ready to eat, some of the foodstuff might be of little use to the body. In fact, sometimes they may pose a danger to your health.

You should consider the shelf life of products and how this affects food quality. Shelf life is the length of time that a commodity may be stored without becoming unfit for use, consumption, or sale. It refers to whether a commodity should no longer be on a pantry shelf (unfit for use), or just no longer on a supermarket shelf (unfit for sale, but not yet unfit for use). In other words, what is the time frame over which food products can be relied upon to retain quality and nutrition?

Shelf life is an important property of any food and is of interest to everyone in the food chain, from producer to consumer. It had its genesis from lobbying of consumer groups who argued that, with the rapid changes occurring in food manufacturing, packaging and retailing, consumers could no longer rely on traditional wisdom and habits to dictate how long food may be stored.

A “use by” date means the date which signifies the end of the estimated period — if stored in accordance with any stated storage conditions — after which the food should not be consumed because of health and safety reasons. This form of date marking relates to food safety. It is illegal to sell packaged food past its “use by” date.

The “best before” date signifies the end of the period during which packaged food, if stored in accordance with stated storage conditions, will remain fully marketable and will retain any specific qualities for which expressed or implied claims have been made.

You might wonder who is responsible for determining the shelf life of a food. The answer is the manufacturer — who should conduct properly constructed storage trials under realistic, defined conditions. This may be challenging for smaller manufacturers, in particular those just entering the market. They may seek out a rapid method to measure and estimate shelf life to allow them to put their product on the market as quickly as possible.

Larger, more established manufacturers tend not to rely solely on conventional storage trials to determine shelf life. Preferred trials may involve tests usually based on storage of the product at higher than normal temperatures or computer-based models. This is important, particularly for us who live in a tropical climate, because storage of foods at higher than normal temperatures can induce changes in the food which would not occur at normal temperatures. Also, the manufacturer must be assured of the rate at which normal changes are speeded up by higher temperatures.

Commercial pressures usually mean that a product must be marketed as quickly as possible after its development. Retailers may also have their own demands about shelf life of particular product categories, especially those with a relatively short shelf life. All shelf life studies include an assessment of the safety of the product; this assessment would normally precede any assessment of shelf life.

It is accepted in industry circles that the most effective way to ensure food safety is to meet the internationally recognised Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system. Technological Solutions Limited (TSL) is the only company in the region to have implemented HACCP systems that have been approved by the regulatory authorities in the United States and European Union, thereby facilitating exports to these markets.

One of TSL’s main concerns for some of its client companies is to assess the overall quality of their foods from the processing line through distribution, marketing and ultimately to the consumer.

According to Natasha Gordon, TSL’s lab manager and technical officer, it is important to do the groundwork to establish the shelf life of products in order to determine how long the products will last on the shelf before it is no longer palatable for human consumption.

“Foods are always competing with bacteria,” she says, while explaining the process that the TSL lab goes through to provide accurate information on the shelf life of some foods.

Among some of the products which TSL examines are sauces, dairy products, jams and jellies, and water. “This can be a tedious process and can sometimes take up to nine months for one product,” Natasha indicated.

Some of the products are kept at specific temperatures and put under stressful environments to determine how well it will cope. The findings will determine the shelf life of the products. Among the indicators of changes in the quality or characteristics of products which point to deterioration are: colour fading, excessively watery consistency, diminishing taste, moisture changes, and alterations in sensory properties such as aroma and textural changes, which can produce off-flavours and slime.

The laboratory work at TSL is careful to provide agro-processing clients with findings which are based on scientific calculations. Clients are also advised that consumers have a right to know the nutritional contents of their products and also information on labels which will give pointers on the shelf life of the products.

A variety of dating styles may appear on labels of various food products. Among them are:

• pack date: The date on which the food was manufactured.

• display date — the date the food was placed on the store shelf.

• sell by/pull date — the date the food must be sold or removed from the shelf.

• best if used by dating — the date of the maximum quality of the product.

• expiration date/use by date — the date by which the food must be consumed or discarded.


So, next time you are about to stock up on certain packaged food items be aware of information on the labels which will educate you on the shelf life of products on which you are about to spend your hard-earned cash.


Dr Wendy-Gaye Thomas is group technical manager, Technological Solutions Limited. Send comments to the Observer or

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