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Shelf life studies

Services by the SYNLAB Food Institute

European law specifies that the manufacturer must define the shelf life of a foodstuff on its own responsibility.

In most cases this factor is determined during the development of a new product. The procedure must consider all properties of the food product that may have implications for safety and/or quality: ingredients, manufacturing methods, type of packaging (vacuum, inert gas) and storage conditions. The minimum requirements are that the time specified in the shelf life information complies with the microbial criteria defined in Regulation (EC) No 2073/2005. These criteria can be analysed using laboratory examinations conducted at the end of storage tests, in addition to other product-specific guidelines/recommendations for microbial parameters and sensory properties.

We can assist you in these areas as follows:

  • by conducting laboratory testing on packaged products according to your specifications for temperature and duration, i.e. based on the labelling
  • microbial and sensory examinations at the specified date, i.e. in defined intervals for several individually packaged samples, in order to ‘feel our way’ toward the ideal sell-by date
  • review of adherence to statutory requirements and other microbial guidelines and warnings for various microorganisms
  • confirmation of product marketability at the defined sell-by date:
    • based on adherence to guidelines in the final test report, or
    • based on continued unobjectionable sensory properties despite overrunning the guideline values for certain non-pathogenic bacteria (which ‘merely’ cause spoilage) – the latter is only possible if a sensory assessment is commissioned
  • consultation on the options to improve shelf life

Shelf-life and sell-by date

Current labelling regulations specify that the statement of a food’s shelf life must always be provided in connection with the relevant storage conditions (and temperature in particular). Only if these conditions are adhered to can retailers and consumers make the manufacturer liable if the product is not fully marketable or fit for consumption on the specified date.

The legislator permits two alternative designations: The shelf-life and the sell-by date.


(Shelf-life, best before ...) states the date until which the food ‘will retain its specific characteristics if stored correctly’.

This requirement of the EU Consumer Protection Regulation (1169/2011) specifies that in addition to the microbial stability and safety, the foodstuff must also preserve its nutrient and enjoyment value and therefore its faultless sensory properties and unchanged (nutrient) composition as well. In particular, there must be no signs of spoilage before this date. Besides decomposition processes caused by microbial influence that are evident from a sensory perspective (e.g. turning sour due to the formation of acetic or lactic acid), spoilage also includes other abiotic, i.e. purely physicochemical processes or states, such as drying. 

Sell-by date

(use by ...) replaces the shelf-life date for ‘easily perishable foods from a microbial perspective that in consequence may present an immediate danger to human health within a short time’.

It is hence applied to some foodstuffs of animal origin in particular, including raw meat (e.g. mince, poultry products) and raw fish. Foods are no longer considered safe after the sell-by date; they are automatically classified non-marketable, irrespective of their sensory properties.

Improving the shelf life of food

Extending the shelf life of food cab contribute to consumer safety and a reduction in food wastage. How is it possible? The following summarises a number of factors that influence the shelf life:

1. Production method and formulation

Good Hygiene Practice addresses process and personal hygiene in addition to product quality. A hallmark of a good manufacturing business is that it will train its staff regularly in hygiene issues. Innovative products like antimicrobial surfaces and packaging are helping continuously to improve hygiene. Slight modifications of the formulation to alter the pH-value, the salt/sugar content or the freely available water can often produce substantial improvements in the shelf life. Simple changes to process stages, for instance the heating temperature and/or time, can also produce similar results.

2. Raw materials und ingredients

The aim is to eliminate microbial contamination from the manufacturing process. So producers are strongly urged to monitor the raw materials and ingredients regularly.

3. Type of packaging

The material used in packaging is important to he shelf-life in addition to the type of packaging (vacuum, inert gas). It should be antibacterial and not transfer any harmful substances (e.g. plasticisers) to the food.

4. Storage conditions

Compliance with the requirements of the cold chain contributes significantly to the shelf-life of a foodstuff and to consumer safety. New labels (e.g. time/temperature indicators) increase the ability of suppliers, retailers and consumers to assess product freshness and quality.

Our field services would be pleased to visit you and advise you based on the local circumstances, and our laboratories will gladly provide the suitable analysis methods.

Sensory testing

Sensory testing is an important method in assessing the quality of food.

Employees trained in the use of human senses can provide assessments based only on appearance, odour, consistency, taste and mouthfeel. Several persons will always assess one product in cases of doubt. 

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