Shelf Life - Shelf Life

Shelf Life

For food, shelf life is different from expiration date: the former refers to food quality, the latter to food safety. A product that has passed its shelf life might still be safe, but quality is no longer guaranteed. In most food stores, waste is minimized by using stock rotation, which involves moving products with the earliest sell by date from the warehouse to the sales area, and then to the front of the shelf, so that most shoppers will pick them up first and thus they are likely to be sold before the end of their shelf life. This is important, as consumers enjoy fresher goods, and furthermore some stores can be fined for selling out of date products; most if not all would have to mark such products down as wasted, resulting in a financial loss.

Shelf life is most influenced by several factors: exposure to light and heat, transmission of gases (including humidity), mechanical stresses, and contamination by things such as micro-organisms. Product quality is often mathematically modelled around a parameter (concentration of a chemical compound, a microbiological index, or moisture content).

For some foods, health issues are important in determining shelf life. Bacterial contaminants are ubiquitous, and foods left unused too long will often be contaminated by substantial amounts of bacterial colonies and become dangerous to eat, leading to food poisoning. However, shelf life alone is not an accurate indicator of how long the food can safely be stored. For example, pasteurized milk can remain fresh for five days after its sell-by date if it is refrigerated properly. In contrast, if milk already has harmful bacteria, the use-by dates become irrelevant.

The expiration date of pharmaceuticals specifies the date the manufacturer guarantees the full potency and safety of a drug. Most medications continue to be effective and safe for a time after the expiration date. A rare exception is a case of renal tubular acidosis purportedly caused by expired tetracycline. A study conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration covered over 100 drugs, prescription and over-the-counter. The study showed that about 90% of them were safe and effective as long as 15 years past their expiration dates. Joel Davis, a former FDA expiration-date compliance chief, said that with a handful of exceptions - notably nitroglycerin, insulin and some liquid antibiotics - most expired drugs are probably effective.

Shelf life is not significantly studied during drug development, and drug manufacturers have economic and liability incentives to specify shorter shelf lives so that consumers are encouraged to discard and repurchase products. One major exception is the Shelf Life Extension Program (SLEP) of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), which commissioned a major study of drug efficacy from the FDA starting in the mid-1980s. One criticism is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refused to issue guidelines based on SLEP research for normal marketing of pharmaceuticals even though the FDA performed the study. The SLEP and FDA signed a memorandum that scientific data could not be shared with the public, public health departments, other government agencies, and drug manufacturers. State and local programs are not permitted to participate. The failure to share data has caused foreign governments to refuse donations of expired medications. One exception occurred during the 2010 Swine Flu Epidemic when the FDA authorized expired Tamiflu based on SLEP Data. The SLEP discovered that drugs such as cipro remained effective nine years after their shelf life, and, as a cost-saving measure, the US military routinely uses a wide range of SLEP tested products past their official shelf life if drugs have been stored properly.

Preservatives and antioxidants may be incorporated into some food and drug products to extend their shelf life. Some companies use induction sealing and vacuum/oxygen-barrier pouches to assist in the extension of the shelf life of their products where oxygen causes the loss.

The DoD Shelf-Life Program defines shelf-life as,

The total period of time beginning with the date of manufacture, date of cure (for elastomeric and rubber products only), date of assembly, or date of pack (subsistence only), and terminated by the date by which an item must be used (expiration date) or subjected to inspection, test, restoration, or disposal action; or after inspection/laboratory test/restorative action that an item may remain in the combined wholesale (including manufacture's) and retail storage systems and still be suitable for issue or use by the end user. Shelf-life is not to be confused with service-life (defined as, A general term used to quantify the average or standard life expectancy of an item or equipment while in use. When a shelf-life item is unpacked and introduced to mission requirements, installed into intended application, or merely left in storage, placed in pre-expended bins, or held as bench stock, shelf-life management stops and service life begins.)

Shelf life is often specified in conjunction with a specific product, package, and distribution system. For example, an MRE field ration is designed to have a shelf life of three years at 80°F and six months at 100°F.

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