Packaged meats, expiration date and 'best before cooking'

Dear Dario,

on the occasion of audit in a supermarket I observed that some packaged meats carry the expiration date on the label, others the minimum conservation term (TMC), still others the wording 'to be consumed after cooking'.

Can you please clarify the rules to apply to their labelling, even in the case of pre-wrapped foods for direct sale?

Many thanks

Marco


The lawyer Dario Dongo, Ph.D. in European food law, answers

Dear Marco,

the minimum conservation term (bestbefore) – or the expiry date (use by date), for rapidly perishable products from a microbiological point of view – it is always mandatory information on the label. With the sole exception of the (few) products expressly excluded from this obligation. (1)

1) Expiration date or retention period?

The expiration date applies to 'highly perishable foods from a microbiological point of view which could therefore constitute, after a short period, an immediate danger to human health'. (2)

The label packaged fresh meat must therefore always bear an expiry date. Frozen or deep-frozen meat, on the other hand, can report the minimum conservation term. (3)

2) Expiration and conservation term, which wordings?

'Best before (…)' it is the only wording allowed to express the deadline within which the perishable food can be consumed in safety conditions. Alternative locutions (e.g. 'Expiration date,deadline,scad. ' etc.) are otherwise prohibited.

The alternative mandatory wording, for non-perishable foods, is 'to be consumed preferably by'. Also in this case, the words to be used are exactly those foreseen by reg. EU 1169/11. And lexical variations are not allowed.

3) Conservation methods

'For food which require special storage conditions and/or use, these conditions must be indicated. To allow proper storage or use of the food after opening the package, the storage conditions and/or the period of consumption, if applicable, must be indicated' (EU regulation 1169/11, article 25. Conditions of storage or use).

It is a must therefore specify in the label the range of temperature necessary to guarantee the continuity of the cold chain ('store in the refrigerator at a temperature between 0 and +4 °C'), close to the expiration date. Based on the risk analysis of the proliferation of pathogenic bacteria, the evidence of shelf life and the subsequent determinations of the responsible operator (4,5,6).

4) Meat packaged for direct sale

The meats and other foodspackaged at the request of the consumer and those prepacked for direct sale', as well as food products sold in bulk, are not vice versa subject to the mandatory information on the label established by the Food Information Regulation (EU regulation 1169/11, article 2.2.e, concluding paraphrase). (7)

The 'pre-wrapped foods' o 'prewrap you' are therefore subject only to the mandatory information defined by the concurrent national legislation (in Italy, Legislative Decree 231/17, article 19). These products are also subject to mandatory indication of the batch which can be usefully replaced with the expiry date. (8)

5) 'To be consumed after cooking'?

'To be consumed after cooking' it is a wording that often appears on the labels of meat, meat preparations and meat-based products, whether they are pre-packed or pre-wrapped. (9)

5.1) Meaning and method of information

The meaning of the warning'consume after cooking' is to clarify to the average consumer that certain products, such as i sausage, they must not be eaten raw since may contain heat-sensitive pathogenic bacteria (Eg. salmonella, campylobacter, Listeria).

The general warning however, it is not suitable for guaranteeing the use and consumption of food in conditions of food safety. It is therefore necessary to specify the cooking methods and temperatures (e.g. 'cook for minutes in boiling water o 'x minutes in the oven at a temperature of … °C'), so that the heat treatment is suitable for guaranteeing food safety (see above, par. 3)

5.2) Microbiological criteria

The abuse of the indication 'to be consumed after cooking' on cuts of meat typically intended for raw consumption (e.g. very thin slices for carpaccio use, knife-pounded meat for tartare use) does not in any case exempt responsible operators from dutifully complying with the microbiological criteria established for raw meat.

Risk analysis microbiological – during self-monitoring e audit, as well as by the veterinary services in charge of official controls - must in fact consider the 'normal conditions of use of the food by the consumer (see paragraph 6 below). The wording 'to be consumed after cooking' should rather be evaluated as a practice of incorrect information, capable of misleading the consumer. (10)

6) Food labeling and safety

Responsible operators of the information on the label – that is to say, the owner of the trademark under which the food is sold and the distributor, who is in turn co-responsible (11) – must always guarantee the safety of the food placed on the market.

Food safety must in turn be evaluated in relation to:

  • 'the normal conditions of use of the food by the consumer at each stage of production, processing and distribution’,
  • 'the information made available to the consumer, including information on the label or other information generally accessible to the consumer on how to avoid specific adverse health effects caused by a food or food category'(EC reg. 178/02, article 14.3).

Cordially

Dario

Footnotes

(1) Dario Dongo. TMC and expiration date. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 31.3.18

(2) EU Reg. 1169/11. See articles 9 and 24, Annex X

(3) TMC or expiration and method of conservation on the label of frozen foods. The lawyer Dario Dongo answers. DO (Food and Agriculture Requirements). 31.12.21

(4) V Range, storage temperature on the label? The lawyer Dario Dongo answers. DO (Food and Agriculture Requirements). 20.2.20

(5) Dario Dongo. Shelf-life, food safety and weight loss. An integrated approach. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 17.8.20

(6) Dario Dongo. Factory location and identification mark. DO (Food and Agriculture Requirements). 5.11.22

(7) Dario Dongo. Bulk and pre-wrapped foods, community. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 19.3.18

(8) Dario Dongo. Supermarket meat, prepackaged or prepackaged foods? FARE (Food and Agriculture Requirements). 17.9.22

(9) German-Hungarian fresh sausage label, the lawyer Dario Dongo replies. DO (Food and Agriculture Requirements). 8.8.17

(10) In violation of reg. EU 1169/11, combined with articles 36 and 7.1.a.

(11) Dario Dongo. The responsibilities of the large-scale retail trade. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 17.3.18



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