Food safety threatened by milder treatments

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Demand for more lightly processed foods, containing fewer additives and preservatives, could lead to more cases of food poisoning
Demand for more lightly processed foods, containing fewer additives and preservatives, could lead to more cases of food poisoning
Consumer demand for more lightly processed foods containing fewer additives and preservatives could be compromising food safety, leading scientists have warned.

Moves away from thermal processing techniques and a reduction in the use of preservatives, such as salt, sugar and fat – together with other additives that prevent food spoilage – meant that processors were having to find alternative ways of ensuring food remained safe to eat, while not reducing shelf-life, speakers at Leatherhead Food Research’s (LFR’s) ‘Food safety day’ last week (May 23) reported.

Dr Helen Payne, a senior food safety adviser with LFR, said that the trend for milder processing and a move away from thermal treatments, as a way of raising product quality, were increasing food safety risks.

This had led to increased interest in food safety treatments such as high-pressure processing, ozone and pulsed field treatments, as well as the use of ultraviolet light and microwave ovens to kill off pathogens, she said.

‘Spoilage organism growth’

Payne added that the move away from using some preservatives and additives in favour of “clean-label” ​and “natural”​ alternatives was also leading to the search for combinations that would maintain a sufficient “hurdle”​ against pathogen and spoilage organism growth, thus ensuring food safety and an acceptable product shelf-life.

Christine Endacott-Palmer, microbiology science leader with Unilever Research and Development at Vlaardingen in The Netherlands, described how her company was dealing with the food safety risks in condiments and sauces, posed by these consumer demand changes.

“We use synergistic preservation technologies,”​ said Endacott-Palmer. Products such as mayonnaise and cooking sauces rely heavily on the fact that they are acidic (typically with a pH below 4.2), contain the preservatives salt, sugar and mustard, and are heat treated to inhibit pathogen growth, she said. Unilever uses sophisticated software models to predict how different process treatments and additive combinations affect product shelf-life.

‘Manufacturing processes’

However, Endacott-Palmer described how changes to manufacturing processes – such as moving from hot to cold processing and reformulation changes – could adversely impact on predicted shelf-life, thus expert knowledge was imperative. To address this problem, Unilever had developed a “tool box” ​to predict what effect moving to “milder formulations and processes”​ would have.

She also claimed that as some emerging pathogens became more acid resistant, it would become necessary to have “higher hygiene standards in production”.

But she warned that changes coming into force later this year in the US under the Food Safety Modernization Act could pose problems for companies such as Unilever by restricting the use of computer models to predict the risk and behaviour of products over time.

“It is becoming clear to us that the use of predictive tools​ [in the US] will become an insufficient method of proof,”​ said Endacott-Palmer.

 

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2 comments

It's not a black and white situation

Posted by Ivo van der Linden,

There’s definitely substance behind Leatherhead’s observations and it’s right that the food industry strives to ensure safety isn’t compromised when ingredients, processing parameters or cooking methods are changed.

I anticipate an increased focus on food safety and tighter regulation in future. This is something Purac welcomes. Predictive modelling is a key aspect of food safety at the moment, and a valued one, but it would be wrong to think it does, or ever will, eliminate all risk entirely. Comprehensive food safety programmes are essential.

It’s worth noting, though, that there are ingredients that can help manufacturers to achieve clean label, food safety and shelflife targets simultaneously. So, while removing additives and preservatives may appear to be a concern, there are solutions available.

The situation is not black and white.

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Food safety

Posted by Ivo van der Linden,

Great initiative by Leatherhead Food Research.

It has raised interesting issues but no surprise. We are currently involved in questions related to the safety and shelf life aspects of food products.

Consumers actually demand less processed food and it has to be recognized and authentic.

Food safety and shelf life is based on the hurdles used in the food matrix. As mentioned by Unilever you can find a balance, but with the demands of consumer it is extremely difficult. All hurdles have their limits.

Purac has been very successful with predictive modelling as tool for R&D to make predictions on listeria. We are surprised it is mentioned as 'proof' but actually it is not and stress modelling always needs validation.

Also, a model cannot take into account the supply chain - and hence any environmental factor such as logistics.

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