The purpose of best before dates on food is a subject that can be complex and confusing for consumers and even for the food industry. One reason for this is that the meaning of a best before date varies based on the product type. In some cases it indicates the timeline for guaranteed food safety (ex: packaged deli meats), in others cases it indicates a deterioration in product quality (ex: dry crackers).
In Canada best before dates are required on perishable food products with a shelf life of 90 days or less. The Food and Drug Regulations generally requires that these products be marked with a "Best Before" date in a specific format, with some exemptions (ex: fresh fruits and vegetables).
Food manufacturers with products that have a shelf life of 90 days or less should conduct science based testing to understand the rate of deterioration of the product from both a food safety (microbial growth) and a quality perspective. The industry best practice is to conduct studies with a 3rd party certified laboratory to test stored product on a set schedule for potential pathogenic (illness causing) and spoilage microbial growth over the expected shelf life and beyond. Since pathogenic microbes are not always detectable by smell, taste or appearance, this is a critical component of keeping consumers safe.
The CFIA has published this shelf life study guidance to help food manufacturers understand the science behind determining the best before date.
For products with a shelf life of over 90 days, there is no regulatory requirement to indicate the best before date. For some longer shelf life products that do not have a risk of pathogenic microbial growth, the voluntary best before date indicates the time period where there is a known drop in quality. This can be determined through studies that test for factors like fat oxidation, moisture loss, etc. It is also assessed using sensory analysis techniques which is a science based approach to product taste testing, typically conducted by many food development centres across Canada. Alternatively, for products where it is confirmed that microbial growth is not a risk, quality based shelf life studies can potentially be conducted inhouse by the manufacturer.
For brand owners, the level of complexity for testing and options for declaring best before dates will depend on the regulatory requirements for the product type and in some cases, how they prefer to inform the consumer.
We could see changes ahead related to regulatory options for communicating product shelf life (food safety or quality). A tip for brand owners is to stay up to date by subscribing to reliable industry publications such as Food in Canada.
Reach out to Venturepark Labs for more insights and if looking for a company to help with shelf life testing, see the Resource Library post on Food Development Centres.
Written By: Marlis Bens, Venturepark Labs Program Manager