Use-by date and TMC, EFSA guidelines for reducing food waste


EFSA’s Scientific Panel on Biological Hazards published guidelines on the labeling of the durability term of food on 2.12.20. Offering new insights into the possibility of applying the minimum storage term (MCT), as an alternative to the expiration date, on some products subject to the cold chain. (1) An in-depth study.

EFSA guidelines, objectives

The goal of the EFSA guidelines-in line with the Brussels mandate-is to help reduce food waste without compromising food safety. In fact, 10 percent of the 88 million tons/year of food waste in the EU is attributed to exceeding the expiration date (European Commission, 2018). Therefore, it is appropriate to share the risk assessment criteria that preside over the determination of the durability term(date marking) and proper consumer information.

‘Clear and correct information on packaging and a better understanding and use of date marking on food by all actors can help reduce food waste in the EU, while continuing to ensure food safety. This scientific opinion represents a step forward in this direction.‘ (Kostas Koutsoumanis, chair of the EFSA Panel on Biological Hazards, 2.12.20)

Expiration date and TMC on label

EFSA ‘s guidelines on ‘date marking‘ aim to clarify when an expiration date (‘bestby…’, ‘use-by…’) should be applied – on the label, or in commercial documents. And when it is instead possible to refer to a minimum shelf life (‘bestbefore…’, ‘best before…’).

The document provides a comprehensive review of pathogens-as well as process, packaging, sanitation and storage conditions-to be considered in hazard identification andanalysis of microbiological risk associated with food consumption over time. Analysis that, it is stressed, must come under periodic review.

Hazard identification

Hazard identification must consider pathogenic microorganisms that can survive and proliferate, in relation to three groups of factors:

intrinsic (pH and aW, linked through the oxidation-reduction potential characteristic of each food as a ‘medium,’ and other variables),

extrinsic (outdoor temperature, outdoor relative humidity, etc.),

implied. That is, the overall microbial ecology (not only the pathogens but also, if not especially, the degrading bacteria) that determines the evolution of a framework where antagonists of pathogens can limit them or succumb to them.

Risk analysis

Risk analysis in turn must integrate predictive models and laboratory analysis(challenge testing), while also taking into account the peer-reviewed scientific literature. The food business operator (FBO)-in the microbiological risk analysis that presides over the definition, on his or her own responsibility, of a food’s durability term-must assess the ‘reasonably foreseeable conditions‘ of its distribution, storage and use after sale. And so:

– Identify relevant pathogenic (or altering) microorganisms and their initial levels,

– Characterize the factors that influence their growth and behavior,

– Evaluate growth and behaviors of said microorganisms during product shelf-life.

Decision tree

The decision tree proposed by EFSA in Figure 1 is worth to distinguish the hypotheses in which a food can be considered as ‘not rapidly perishable from a microbiological pointof view’ if it is subject to temperature-controlled storage (cold chain).

fig.1 EFSA decision tree

A Copernican revolution, from which the possibility of legitimately affixing the TMC on the labels of a range of products (e.g., butter, aged cheeses) in the EU may result.

Safety, quality and legal compliance

In any case, date marking must consider not only safety, but also the organoleptic qualities of food. The EFSA guidelines therefore indicate how the earliest date between that which affects food safety, from a microbiological point of view, and that which adheres to quality from a sensory point of view, should still be given.

The shelf-life moreover, as noted above, is also relevant in other aspects of legal compliance of food products. (2) With particular regard to phenomena unrelated to food degradation, such as weight loss, which can lead to serious seller liability in the event of deviation from the claims offered on the label.


Trade associations will have to update their good hygiene practice manuals, which have already been notified to the European Commission under the Hygiene Package (EC reg. 852, 853/04 et seq.). For the express purpose of simplifying the risk analysis burden s on microenterprises. (3)

The European Food Safety Authority will publish the second part of the EFSA guidelines under review in 2021. Regarding storage conditions, the timing of food consumption after opening the packages, and the correct way to defrost.

Possible reforms

The European Commission, drawing on EFSA guidelines, may consider possible reforms to simplify date marking on food and promote its better understanding by operators, regulators and consumers. With the ultimate goal of reducing food waste (SDG 12.3). (4)

One knot that needs to be resolved is the absolute presumption that food is unsafe from the day after the labeled expiration date. A praesumptio iuris et de iure inopinently introduced in reg. EU 1169/11, contrary-as the writer has already inferred-to the criterion of risk analysis and often to common sense as well (one example out of all, yogurt). (5)

The European executive must then demand the repeal of national regulations that illegitimately define the ‘legal expiration date’ of certain products. As in the case of fresh milk in Italy, which the writer denounced in vain to Brussels and the European Ombudsman.

Dario Dongo


(1) EFSA panel on biological hazard. Guidance on date marking and related food information: part 1 (date marking).
EFSA Journal 2020;18(12):6306.
doi: 10.2903/j.efsa.2020.6306.

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

(3) Communication 2016/C 278/01 on the implementation of food safety management systems regarding prerequisite programs (PRPs) and procedures based on HACCP principles, including facilitation/flexibility on implementation in certain food businesses.

(4) To this end, a special sub-group was formed in April 2018 in the EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste. SEE https://ec.e,

(5) Reg. EU 1169/11, Article 24.1

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.