Why is the shelf life of food important?

When was the last time you forgot something at the back of your fridge, realised it had gone out of date and thrown it away? Probably not that long ago.


Over the past few years, we’ve heard a lot in the food industry about environmental consciousness. A lot of the time, conversation around this turns to creating more recyclable or sustainable packaging.


While this is a very worthwhile endeavour, there is an even more serious sustainability issue in our sector that often goes under the radar.

Food Waste


The statistics around food waste in Australia are almost mindboggling.


According to Foodbank Australia, 7.6 million tonnes of food is lost or wasted every year. And while 70% of this food is still perfectly edible, Australian households throw away around one in five bags of groceries, equal to around 312kg per person.


Australia uses 2600 gigalitres of water (equal to the amount of water in 5 Sydney Harbours), 25 million hectares of farmland (that’s bigger than the state of Victoria), and over 3% of total greenhouse emissions just to grow food that is ultimately wasted.


Such extravagance should suggest an overabundance of food, but 1 in 6 Australian adults haven’t had enough to eat in the last year, and 1.2 million children have gone hungry.


Food waste is a massive problem for our country, and the Australian Government has set a goal to halve it by 2030.


What can we do?


So, how can we, as members of the food industry, do our part to reduce the massive burden of food waste.


Shelf Life Extension


The key concern here is shelf life. Shelf life refers to the amount of time a product can be stored while remain fit for use or consumption. Extending this period is key to reducing waste.


Storage and transport time and conditions are important, and measures like sourcing locally and precise temperature control can help with this.


Product packaging is also considered a vital aspect of shelf-life control. The correct type of packaging can better preserve food and extend its natural shelf life considerably.


For instance, multi-layered plastic packaging can be utilised to build up multiple different barriers for the food – against moisture, oxygen and contaminants. Or, vacuum packaging can extend shelf life, as trapping food in a vacuum prevents most bacteria growth, which requires oxygen.


Often, it takes collaborative testing of packaging materials between a food manufacturer and their packaging supplier, to determine they know they exact length of time the food can safely be stored for under various conditions, and methods to extend that time where possible.


It can make a lot of difference if food manufacturers choose the packaging material that will best suit their product and allow it to stay fresh the longest.


Labeling & Education


The second priority in reducing food waste is reviewing how food is labelled, and how customers perceive this.


A large portion of all food waste occurs after the food is bought by a consumer.


To control food safety, FSANZ (Food Safety Australia and New Zealand) imposes arbitrary requirements around ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates. However, it’s been suggested that this rigid deadline – which is often only a manufacturer’s best guess – can cause people to throw out a lot of still safe food.


So, some food suppliers are moving away from ‘use by’ dates to ‘best before’ markings instead, to allow for more leeway and encourage customers to think more before throwing things away. For instance, Asda Supermarket in the UK, has moved the labelling on all its yoghurt to the ‘best before’ option.


Of course, the possibility of doing this depends on the type of food being packed.


It is also important that customers are better educated. A fuller understanding of things like how to store different types of food to maximise its freshness, and how to accurately determine if food is spoiled could help reduce our wastage.


Some food and packaging manufacturers have worked together to create solutions to this, by altering the messaging on their packaging to explain these ideas.


Some simply include the amount of energy, water, and resources which have been used to make a pack of food on its labelling. That small adjustment alone can be enough to make an end user think twice before tossing their food.


Australia’s food waste problem is a little bit out of control, and its going to take a lot of work to pull it back into line, so its important everyone involved in the food supply chain considers what part they play in bringing change.