Guidance on date marking and related food information: part 1 (date marking)
A risk‐based approach was developed to be followed by food business operators (FBO) when deciding on the type of date marking (i.e. ‘best before’ date or ‘use by’ date), setting of shelf‐life (i.e. time) and the related information on the label to ensure food safety. The decision on the type of date marking needs to be taken on a product‐by‐product basis, considering the relevant hazards, product characteristics, processing and storage conditions. The hazard identification is food product‐specific and should consider pathogenic microorganisms capable of growing in prepacked temperature‐controlled foods under reasonably foreseeable conditions. The intrinsic (e.g. pH and aw), extrinsic (e.g. temperature and gas atmosphere) and implicit (e.g. interactions with competing background microbiota) factors of the food determine which pathogenic and spoilage microorganisms can grow in the food during storage until consumption. A decision tree was developed to assist FBOs in deciding the type of date marking for a certain food product. When setting the shelf‐life, the FBO needs to consider reasonably foreseeable conditions of distribution, storage and use of the food. Key steps of a case‐by‐case procedure to determine and validate the shelf‐life period are: (i) identification of the relevant pathogenic/spoilage microorganism and its initial level, (ii) characterisation of the factors of the food affecting the growth behaviour and (iii) assessment of the growth behaviour of the pathogenic/spoilage microorganism in the food product during storage until consumption. Due to the variability between food products and consumer habits, it was not appropriate to present indicative time limits for food donated or marketed past the ‘best before’ date. Recommendations were provided relating to training activities and support, using ‘reasonably foreseeable conditions’, collecting time–temperature data during distribution, retail and domestic storage of foods and developing Appropriate Levels of Protection and/or Food Safety Objectives for food–pathogen combinations.