Practical reasons to know your food product’s shelf life

Shelf life helps determine how and where you can market your commercial food product.

Shelf life can be thought of as the time it takes for a food product to remain in fresh condition, often described as premium food quality or food safe condition, under food storage and store shelf conditions that are product specific. Non refrigerated or shelf-stable products often spend some time in dry, cool food warehouses then go to grocery stores which may be warmer and brighter for the shopper’s comfort. For perishable foods, including refrigerated or frozen, maintaining proper storage temperature at all times is important.

As time goes by, a product can change in many ways including taste, color, consistency, brittleness, or chewiness through a deterioration process. For perishable foods, shelf life failure would occur when food is no longer safe to eat and spoils. Knowing when this change begins is the key to shelf life.

Depending upon the type of food, package, process and market, you may be able to do your own shelf life testing through monitoring unopened packages under controlled conditions. Commercial food laboratories are also a source for shelf life determination offering microbiological, physical and chemical analysis. Commercial food laboratories should be consulted for perishable food shelf-life evaluations.

“Clients may test shelf stable products under storage conditions established such as ambient or cool, dry storage” said Dianne Novak, Michigan State University Product Center specialized services coordinator. “Obtain advice from the MSU Product Center for testing protocol for your particular food item.”

Once you have a good idea how long your food product can remain in its golden standard quality condition, you can communicate this to your retailer or wholesaler. Establishing and placing a “sell-by” or “use-by” date will help you feel comfortable that your product will be enjoyed by the consumer as you intended and be purchased again. The grocery retailer benefits by this practice in determining purchasing plans and in rotating existing stock to keep product in check with the first in - first out inventory standard.

Michigan State University Extension and MSU Product Center’s field-based innovation counselors advise food businesses operators and on basic product development needs, including shelf life determination and “sell-by” dating. To access food business development assistance, select the request counseling on the MSU Product Center’s website or call 517-432-8750.

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