How to date label food
Decide which foods need food date labels
Food date and shelf-life labels should be applied to all foods (unless they are unopened and already have a supplier’s date code). This is an essential food safety control measure and HACCP requirement to prevent out-of-date and potentially dangerous foods being used or sold. It also helps with good stock rotation practice (e.g. first-in, first-out) thus reducing food wastage.
Choose suitable food date labels
Find a simple shelf-life label which can be used for ambient, chilled, frozen, defrosted, prepared, and opened foods. Complicated date labelling systems with lots of different types of labels can confuse what needs to be a simple process. Colour coded day of the week labels are popular but only suitable for foods prepared in-house. They are frequently applied inconsistently with some chefs using them for day of prep and others using them for day of discard.
Make sure labels are suitable for freezer use and will not fall off. You should also make sure they are peelable and easy to remove prior to washing preventing duplicate labels and unhygienic residues being left on containers. Labels that dissolve in a dishwasher are also available but tend to be an expensive alternative.
Determine safe shelf-lives
As well as a reduction in food quality, assigning a lengthy shelf-life to perishable foods can be dangerous. Food poisoning bacteria such as Listeria can grow to dangerous levels even when foods are stored refrigerated. Eating foods that appear perfectly fresh but are passed their ‘use by’ date can cause illness, miscarriage, and death. ‘Best before’ dates, however, are an indication of quality and not safety. Here is an example of typical shelf-lives applied to foods in a catering operation. If longer shelf-lives are required, shelf-life testing may be needed.
- Chilled foods prepared in-house – USE BY 3 days (include day made)
- Chilled foods bought in – USE BY manufacturer’s ‘once opened…’ advice
- Chilled ready to eat foods vacuum packed in-house – USE BY 5 days (include day packed) or original use by date (which ever is shorter)
- Chilled raw (or pasteurised in vac pack) foods vacuum packed in-house – USE BY 10 days (include day packed)
- Frozen foods (prepared in-house) – BEST BEFORE 3 months (only freeze if >2 days shelf-life left)
- Frozen foods (defrosting) – USE BY 2 days (including date thawed)
- Ambient foods chilled after opening – USE BY manufacturer’s ‘once opened…’ advice
- Foods decanted thant can be stored at ambient – BEST BEFORE manufacturer’s best before date
Train team members how to apply food date labels
Too often on EHO (environmental health officer) inspections and food safety audits, shelf-life labels are missing or incorrectly completed, resulting in critical control point failures. Having out-of-date foods on site will reduce food hygiene ratings from 5 to 2 according to the Food Standards Agency’s food hygiene rating guidance.
Time constraints, poor training and inadequate supervision can be the cause of food labelling contraventions, but very often it is due to the lack of clear shelf-life guidance and complicated date labelling systems.
Explain the importance of applying food date labels correctly to team members and display a shelf-life guide close to all food date labelling stations. This will remind team members of safe shelf-lives.