Shelf life is the length of time that a product is acceptable for consumption based upon the condition of its organoleptic attributes, including taste, smell texture, odor, color, appearance, etc.
This length of times varies dramatically depending on the type, microbial, and chemical make up of your product.
Many fresh, perishable items are only good for days to weeks, while many shelf-stable items may be good beyond one year.
Perishable items must be conducted in real-time format while shelf-stable items are typically conducted in an accelerated format by which 1 week equals 1 month.
Finally, shelf life studies are an evaluation and documentation of quality, NOT SAFETY. The safety of your product needs to be holistically examined and systematically controlled. See our partners page for links to food safety consultants.
Some vendors require that you supply a third party documented shelf life study before they will agree to sell your product while others to not.
If you are not required to have a third party shelf life study, you should determine the shelf life of your product yourself.
Furthermore, if you produce multiple variations of the same item which perhaps are only different in flavor, inquire with your vendor for clarification on any requirement to examine each flavor separately.
Shelf life studies are conducted on finished product (product which has been produced and packaged in the same way as real-world samples from 1 production batch).
According to a design, you provide the requisite amount of packages to MBL for testing. MBL will store the samples appropriately with 1 or 2 packages being analyzed at each testing iteration, as defined by the schedule.
The schedule will span the length of time the product is expected to last and beyond by 10 to 20%.
The cost for a shelf life study on 1 product is $750 to $1250.
Similar items can be analyzed simultaneously at a bulk rate (~$500 to $750 per item).
Depending on the study design, MBL requires 8 to 20 individual containers of the product from the same production batch. MBL will let you know exactly how many containers are needed before proceeding with a study.
The following categories are assessed and reported for each product:
- Organoleptic quality including color, texture, odor, taste. Packaging changes are also recorded;
- Microbiological activity;
- Chemical activity.
At the end of the study, MBL will process all of this information and make a shelf life recommendation.
- MBL always recommends that producers also perform their own organoleptic evaluation in a real-time format to determine at which point they deem that the organoleptic properties of their product degrades beyond an acceptable level for their brand.
The following are some of the main ways you can extend the shelf life of your product:
- Vacuum packing
- Nitrogen flush
- Other types of Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP)
- High Pressure Pasteurization
- Hot-fill or cooking in package
In order to protect and stand behind their own brand, it is important that producers conduct their own organoleptic assessments of any products they produce, independent of any shelf life study conducted by a laboratory. Because producers have an intimate knowledge of their product, they are the most qualified in judging their products organoleptic qualities.
All producers should validate and document the shelf life of all their products in real-time format over multiple production batches, whether or not they have had third party studies conducted.
To do this:
- Determine a shelf life schedule that involves multiple testing days over the span of the expected shelf life (depending on the length of the shelf life, a minimum of 8 iterations is recommended). Always include the beginning, middle, and end.
- Decide how many packages you will need according to the schedule, including a few extra. Sequester this amount from the production batch and label them and place them in a secure area that mimics the storage conditions of the products in the real-world.
- At each evaluation iteration, take images, assess and document package integrity and organoleptic quality.
- Repeat at each evaluation iteration.
- Determine at which iteration you deem that he organoleptic properties degrades beyond an acceptable level for the brand. The acceptable evaluation iteration prior to this point would be the general shelf life of the product.
- Repeating this evaluation over multiple batches will help you to pin-point an exact and reproducible shelf life.
MBL does not conduct shelf life studies on frozen products because generally accepted standards are 6 months to 1 year as there are no sustainable methods to conduct an accelerated study on frozen product.
It is impractical for MBL to conduct studies which take 6 months to 1 year to complete.
Freezer burn is the main concern with products which are stored frozen; therefore airtight packaging is recommended.
Other textural changes may be observed in products which are stored frozen.
It is important that producers of products which are stored frozen validate and document the shelf life of their products in real-time format.