The two-year euro 1.2M EU Seventh Framework (FP7) project www.coolmeat.eu, which began in October last year, is investigating a novel technique known as immersion vacuum cooling (IVC) and is based on existing research conducted by University College Dublin.
It involves collaboration between research institutes and firms across Europe, including Irish pork processors McCarren & Co and Stephens Fresh Foods, based in Kent.
Conventional cooling doesn't easily enable producers to meet 'cook-cool' guidelines to minimise the growth of pathogens that survive cooking, according to Lee Gapper, sales director of the Food Machinery Company, which is involved in the project.
"EU legislation says meat products have to be cooled from 90°C to 5°C within two hours, which for ham is actually impossible," said Gapper. "If you take a ham that has been cooked up to 82°C and put it in a blast chiller it will take about 5.56h to cool it down, unless you then dip-freeze the outside, which damages the meat."
Vacuum chillers cool products evaporatively, which produces a dry and tough piece of meat that no-one wants to sell, he added.
IVC cools the product submerged in its brine "so you don't lose any of the meat quality", said Gapper. Cooling takes "less than half an hour, which provides huge energy savings".
Spanish engineering research firm IRIS is building a prototype IVC rig that will produce hams under varying conditions. These will be tested for quality, flavour and Listeria monocytogenes pathogen growth.
Gapper seeks producers to take part in an anonymous online survey to ensure that the equipment being developed meets industry needs.