Why shelf life testing is so important

Every food product that makes it to our shelves has either a best-before date or a use-by date but the question is: what should these be?


Finding the answers that benefit both customers and manufacturers requires a lot of scientific analysis and even more technical experience. Here Senior Associate Principal Scientist Rob Griffiths tells you the testing he and his team perform to make sure these dates satisfy both the consumer and the manufacturer.


Discover more about our shelf life support here.

Video transcript


Hello, my name's Rob Griffiths, and I'm a Lipids Technical Specialist at RSSL. Over the next few months, our team at RSSL will be sharing a series of videos which will share our knowledge and expertise around shelf life and discuss the latest insights and development in testing. You can follow RSSL on LinkedIn or subscribe to our YouTube channel to be the first to see these, but if there's anything in particular you'd like to discuss, or if you have any questions for our team, please let us know. But today we'll discuss shelf life and testing and why this is important.


So, in the UK the 'use by' date indicates the date up to which a food is considered safe to eat from a microbiological point of view when stored under the specified conditions. This mainly relates to foods that will perish quickly over a short period of time, such as meat or milk. The 'best before' date relates more to food quality and is a date after which the quality of the food might have deteriorated and so would be considered not at its best. This can cause a difference between the product and what the consumer might expect and in worse cases it can become unpalatable, which can result in customer complaints, and ultimately damage to the reputation of the product and brand.


It's the responsibility of food businesses to determine whether a product needs either a 'use by' or a 'best before' date and to provide justification for the dates given. When determining the 'use by' date there are a number of microbiological tests that can be carried out. However, for 'best before' dates there are a broad range of ways a product can deteriorate over time, which we call the 'failure mechanism'. This can include changes in flavour, texture, appearance or loss of key nutrients. There are also several factors that can contribute to these changes in product quality, including the product format, the formulation, the ingredients, processing conditions, packaging and storage conditions.


So it can be a challenge for the food businesses to predict how their product might change over time and this is where RSSL can help by advising on the most likely changes in the product or the failure mechanism, and also the factors that are likely to have the most significant impact. We always advise to get our team involved as soon as possible, ideally in the product development stage, since we can highlight some of the changes that might occur.


Now, the use of accelerated shelf life testing is particularly useful to speed up the product development before going on to conduct full shelf life storage studies. We can also provide support in the design of shelf life storage studies and it's even possible to accelerate these to speed up the shelf life determination. But if a product does fail during shelf life, we can investigate and also suggest ways to mitigate these issues, such as reformulation or packaging solutions.


So to sum up, shelf life evaluation is an incredibly important consideration for new and commercialised products to ensure they are not only safe, but consumers can continue to enjoy the product throughout the whole of its shelf life. Hopefully you can see that by maintaining the level of quality that consumers expect from products and brands, it ensures their continued loyalty and trust which contributes to the ongoing success of the product. Please look out for our next video in April when we will be discussing shelf life in the new product development process.

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