Chilled food producers using vacuum and modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) could face big cost rises as the government tightens controls designed to prevent outbreaks of botulism, a potentially fatal disease.
New guidance on the production and storage of chilled foods throughout the supply chain is likely to emerge from a desk-based study by the Norwich-based Institute of Food Research (IFR). The results of the study are to be presented to the Food Standards Agency's Advisory Committee on the Micro-biological Safety of Food (ACMSF) in June.
Although there have been no incidents of botulism associated with consumption of prepared chilled foods in the UK, increasing sales of vacuum-packed and MAP products could threaten that safety record.
Both create the anaerobic conditions favourable to the growth of the toxin non-proteolytic clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism, said IFR's Professor Mike Peck, programme leader for the research project. As little as 30 nanograms of the neurotoxin can cause illness and even death, but temperature can play a crucial role in reducing the risk, he added.
"Temperature is really, really important. If [chilled food] could be kept below 5°C throughout the food chain that would be a huge step forward. If you could keep it below 3°C throughout the food chain you could eliminate the problem. The difference between 3°C and 8°C, for example, is massive," said Peck.
As well as changes to temperature control, there is likely to be pressure on the committee to revise the '10-day rule' for short shelf-life products, especially since there are differences in the FSA's own storage recommendations. These advise 10 days at a maximum of 5°C or five days at 10°C, but an industry code of practice drawn up in 1996 that recommends 10 days at 8°C or lower.
Any major changes to recommendations on temperature and shelf life would have significant cost and logistical implications for the rapidly growing sector.
The Chilled Foods Association, which represents manufacturers, is known to have been looking at the extent of vacuum-packaging and MAP within the industry and there are likely to be calls for further studies.
The committee is also likely to focus on the unsafe conditions in which consumers keep chilled foods at home.