On every bag of almonds, granola bars and box of crackers for sale at a grocery store is a date stamped on the side of the packaging.
That “Sell By,” or “Best if Used By” date, can be confusing to both entrepreneurs trying to break into the food business and consumers filling a shopping cart at the grocery store. The date is not an estimate or afterthought—rather it is reflective of the scientifically determined food product shelf life with significant implications for the bottom line of food businesses.
To provide food businesses with a baseline understanding of what shelf life is, and the underlying science and supply chain ramifications, the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute published a shelf life primer. The project was part of AURI’s Ag Innovation Partnership (AIP) program and was conducted with the assistance and expertise of Clutch, a Minneapolis-based acceleration firm.
A shelf life guide was selected as a project to pursue through the AIP program for a variety of reasons, said Jason Robinson, AURI’s Project Development Director for Food.
“We see a lot of confusion around shelf life. It is a common stumbling block for many of the early stage discussions we have with people. Many clients come to AURI with a, ‘Here is my product, now what is its shelf life’ perspective.” Robinson said. “And that is not how a shelf life works. The goal of this guide is to address many of the common questions and misconceptions. And then armed with that knowledge, an entrepreneur could talk with staff at AURI, a vendor or a service provider and have a much more productive conversation.”
The guide is divided into four sections. The first provides a detailed definition of shelf life. The second focuses on the factors that determine a food product’s shelf life. The third section is an introduction to testing for shelf life. The guide concludes with a discussion of some of the business considerations involved in a product’s shelf life.
In the food industry, shelf life is defined as the time period a food manufacturer expects a product will deliver the desired experience to the consumer. Once the date is set, the assumption is that a food product consumed before the end of the shelf life will taste the same way it did on day one. It does not mean that food is unsafe to eat after that date. It is the responsibility of the producer to set the shelf life date, not a government agency.
Food products lose their desired quality experience at different rates. Accurate determination of a shelf life date requires testing and knowledge of the product’s ingredients.
A product’s “mode of failure” is key to understanding how to accurately determine a shelf life. The mode of failure equates to what attribute in a product will fail first and will therefore negatively affect the consumer’s experience. When the product reaches the mode of failure it can taste stale, rancid or soggy.
Crackers, granola bars, and barbecue sauce have different shelf lives and different modes of failure. By correctly diagnosing a product’s mode of failure through testing, food producers may be able to devise a plan to address the problem and lengthen the shelf life.
In the second section, the guide explains the shelf life testing process and what variables can negatively and positively affect the mode of failure. A key point for food producers is the importance of building safety protocols into the design and manufacturing of food products. Products must be created and stored using Good Manufacturing Practices.
“The ingredients in the product, the design and packaging can all affect a product’s shelf life. So too can the amount of moisture, humidity and oxygen content that interacts with a product while it is packaged and sitting on a shelf,” said Robinson. “One of the messages for food producers is to spend time understanding how all those factors work together.”
Lolly Occhino, a scientist of food and nutrition at AURI, said another important message of the guide is that producers should consider shelf life throughout the life cycle of product development. Changes made to packaging, labels and distribution can affect the shelf life without changing the ingredients of the product.
“For food producers, it is so important to build strategies into the product from day one rather than try to fix something when you have already invested in the wrong packaging or the wrong ingredients,” she said.
Shelf life is also a business decision with economic and consumer considerations. It is much more complex than simply stating a product is good for six months. Retailers have rules on length of shelf life before agreeing to sell products which affect distribution, inventory and production. Consumers also have certain expectations based on a product’s shelf life, and not all of those expectations are accurate.
“Ultimately, setting a shelf life is a business decision that is determined by how a product performs over time,” Robinson said. “The level of detail a business puts into defining that shelf life can be a very intense and expensive process. That’s why it is important to connect with people who understand the level of detail truly needed to set an effective and accurate date.”
“Typically, we hear a desire from businesses to obtain the longest shelf life possible,” Occhino said. “The truth is a long shelf life can be a disconnect for some products, especially those that are marketed as “natural”. Consumers don’t expect to see long shelf lives on those products. It is important to consider the length of shelf life and how it matches up with a company’s brand and identity.”
Dave Miller, the director of food business for Clutch, said the end goals of the shelf life project aligned well with his company’s expertise. Clutch specializes in helping agriculture and food businesses grow and realize their peak potential and has worked with AURI on previous AIP research. Miller said Clutch brought an understanding of marketing and working with retailers to the project that partnered well with AURI’s food science capabilities.
“We are very supportive of the work AURI is doing with food entrepreneurs. This shelf life guide was an opportunity to do our part to advance AURI’s mission,” he said. “This is an issue where there was a need to clear up some confusion and offer a resource to businesses. We have the background in this area, so it was the right opportunity for us to do our part to help make some important information available to the people who need it.”
Miller said the guide will be most beneficial for two groups: entrepreneurs on the cusp of scaling up their businesses and groups in the early stages of exploring a business idea.
“For the first group, the rules of the road change when you go from the farmer’s market to a grocery store. For the second group, AURI’s resources are best spent with people past that ‘beginning phase’ that are a little closer to launch,” Miller said. “To be able to refer people in both categories to a shelf life guide will help AURI really concentrate where it can do the most good.”
Another part of the shelf life discussion involves consumers. The average grocery store shopper does not understand how the code date on a food package relates to a product’s shelf life, according to Miller.
“The hope is that someday we are at a point where consumers, producers and retailers are all using the same terminology,” he said. “Almost 80 percent of food waste happens after a product leaves the manufacturing center. If we could educate consumers and entrepreneurs on this topic, so they know what a shelf life and a ‘sell-by date’ is, that would go a long way to reducing our food waste.”
Ag Innovation Partnership Program
AURI’s AIP program is a competitive process. Each year AURI puts out a call for submissions and businesses, researchers, entrepreneurs and producers are encouraged to submit a proposal. A panel of AURI staff members review and select projects based on the submissions that most align with AURI’s mission of supporting innovation and creating long-term economic impact. Projects are also selected based on how they meet a need in the agriculture sector.
The selected projects receive AURI’s resources, funding and support to help businesses turn their ideas into reality and catalyze innovation in the state’s agriculture industry. AURI provides expertise in accounting for diverse funding sources, managing and communicating project activities, monitoring goals and progress, and tracking and reporting successes, among other services.
Each selected project aligns with one of AURI’s core focus areas: biobased products, renewable energy, co-products and food. The information generated from each project is made publicly available to help producers, entrepreneurs, businesses and agriculture processors.
Past AIP collaborations have produced research studies, guides and tools to help businesses utilize Minnesota’s agriculture products.
The shelf life guide is a free online resource and is included in AURI’s Food Entrepreneur Toolbox, along with the clean-label food guide.
To view this guide go to: https://auri.wpengine.com/guides/food-product-shelf-life-guide-for-scaling-businesses/