Is an extension overdue on the shelf-life of fresh chilled meat products?

The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) and the Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) have jointly funded a project to provide research into whether a retail shelf-life of greater than 10 days can be applied to fresh chilled meat. 

This is a crucial issue that could vastly cut waste, improve sustainability and cut costs.

The issue of shelf life is one where a precautionary approach to food safety has been adopted given the potential for botulism. The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has provided Vacuum Packed/Modified Atmosphere Packed (VP/MAP) Guidance (FSA 2017) where shelf life of VP/MAP foods including fresh meat held at 3-8 degrees Celsius to 10 days unless suitable grounds for a longer shelf life can be identified.

The results of this study however indicate that retail shelf life could be extended beyond this current recommended 10 day shelf life limit for VP/MAP fresh meat.

The ability not to be constrained by a 10-day shelf-life, as indicated in present FSA (2017) guidelines, and the freedom to adopt a shelf-life greater than 10 days at 3°C to 8°C for fresh chilled beef, lamb and pork is of significant economic/social/sustainability benefits to producers/processors/retailers. Such freedom removes a technical barrier to trade. There may also be environmental/consumer benefits through lower food wastage.

The project used a risk assessment approach and carried out a challenge test experiment, to establish whether a shelf-life of greater than 10 days can be applied to fresh chilled meat (as it lacks a single known controlling factor).  Fresh meat is taken to mean “meat that has not undergone any preserving process other than chilling, freezing or quick-freezing, including meat that is VP or MAP wrapped”.  The study conducted extensive document searches looking at hazard characterisation; specified meat species and product types; industry practice; exposure assessment (market/sales data); exposure assessment; food borne botulism incidents related to fresh meat; data on growth/neurotoxin formation by C botulinum in fresh meat.

Currently the UK industry typically applies a chilled retail shelf life at 3-8 degrees Celsius of up to 11-13 days to packs of fresh beef, pork and lamb with a maximum of 23 days for beef, 27 days for lamb and 18 days for pork. This practice provides a high level of protection with respect to C botulinum.  The estimation of the level of protection and the results from the new challenge test experiment both support a shelf life of greater than 10 days for fresh chilled beef, lamb and pork held at 3-8 degrees Celsius and supports currently applied UK shelf lives combined with current production standards.

The shelf life of fresh red meat is of great significance to the industry and any general baseline should be considered in light of all the evidence available, with food safety at its' core, however technical restrictions to marketing meat products should, where disproportionate, be removed. In light of this report the FSA should review the 2017 guidance; where food safety is not compromised more  flexibility should be permitted underpinned by due diligence and risk assessments support extending shelf life of any food product.

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