If it gets the go-ahead, the three-year project will be co-ordinated by Campden BRI and part-funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Link scheme.
“We are now at the stage where contracts are being finalised [between the various industrial participants], so it is still possible that it won’t come off, but DEFRA has okayed the project proposal," said Dr Greg Jones, a senior research officer for the preservation, processing and spoilage group in Campden BRI's microbiology department.
The aim is to look in more detail at how ‘super-chill' or ‘deep chill’ technology, in which products are partially frozen, (generally between 0°C and -12°C), could be applied in practice in the food industry.
Super-chilling could potentially reduce energy costs (full freezing is very expensive), increase shelf-life (the lower the temperature, the harder it is for unwanted micro-organisms to flourish) and improve consumer perceptions (many shoppers regard chilled foods as fresher than frozen), said Jones.
It could also save money by allowing larger batches of products to be made and stored before delivery to customers, improving efficiency.
Food storage and distribution
He added: “Realistically it is probably a storage technology rather than a retail or consumer technology [ie. supermarkets and shoppers probably won’t be super-chilling products]. It’s more a case of supply chain benefits.”
The project will attempt to quantify the extension in shelf-life that could be achieved for a range of products and explore how best to achieve super-chill storage in order to deliver acceptable product quality.
Part of this quantification would use a novel high-throughput sequencing technique that could identify the majority of micro-organisms in a product, allowing firms to provide accurate instructions on post-superchill storage, he said.
“What we don’t know in detail is what the effects on shelf-life are when a super-chilled product is then put in a chiller. The literature has some interesting claims about dramatic increases in shelf-life achieved on certain products by super-chilling them, but then what happens when you bring the temperature back up?”
The project will also quantify the potential savings in energy and waste that can be achieved through super chilling, he said.
Legal grey area?
As for the legal status of super-chilled food, this remained something of a grey area, as it was neither chilled nor frozen, added Jones. "It's not really covered by existing EU legislation."