Novel technologies like high-pressure processing can win the war to lengthen shelf life and eradicate foodborne illness, according to industry experts.
Ata Baroudi, vice president of QA and food safety for restaurant chain The Cheesecake Factory, told FoodProductionDaily the fight against foodborne illness is a war members of the food industry wage every day.
“We’ve been fighting two wars overseas, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we’ve lost only about 5,000 soldiers in 10 years of fighting,” he said. “Right here at home, foodborne illness is killing 5000 of us every year.”
Baroudi added consumer confidence in the country’s food supply has been “significantly eroded” by a surge in high-profile recalls and deadly pathogen outbreaks. Polls place food safety as the highest-rated, non-economic issue in the minds of US citizens for the past two years.
Winning the fight, he said, requires food professionals along the supply chain to be braver in trying novel pathogen-fighting technologies. Ozone, for example, can be used to destroy bacteria and viruses.
Ozone has its disadvantages, Baroudi pointed out. For one, the gas has a relatively short shelf life—after 20 to 30 minutes, ozone deteriorates and goes back to regular oxygen.
However, use of oxygen in fighting pathogens in ready-to-eat foods has a number of advantages, Baroudi told FPD. It can eliminate offensive odors associated with decay, kills E. coli and other undesirables more quickly than chlorine and other substances, effectively combats Norovirus and other viruses, reduces the amount of floor space dedicated to storage of chemicals, and it is considered safe to humans and animals.
Additionally, ozone has been proven to extend the shelf life of various organic food products, Baroudi said. Seafood treated with ozone can be safely consumed for an additional four-day period, tomatoes get an extra 10 days of consumption, and lettuce treated with ozone can last an extra 25 days, he said.
Baroudi pointed out that ozone, high-pressure processing, and other emerging food technologies are facing a certain degree of resistance. However, he said, scepticism is a common reaction to emerging ideas.
“At the beginning of the 20th century, milk pasteurization was facing the same resistance,” he told FPD. “Now, almost no one in the US would consider buying and drinking non-pasteurized milk.”
Battling for shelf life
Christopher Doona, senior research chemist with the US Army, shared with FPD some of the food processing and safety innovations the agency has come up with over the years, borne from the need to meet the tough conditions of military life.
“Military feeding has particular constraints,” he said. “It has to offer long shelf life, survive being dropped out of airplanes, endure extreme temperatures.”
Military meals frequently are engineered to nourish soldiers safely, after sitting in storage for years. The MREs (meals ready to eat) issued to soldiers in battle conditions come with entrees, beverages, condiments, and a heating element than, when water is added, cooks the food in a matter of minutes.
Additionally, astronauts frequently eat meats irradiated for long-term storage, pilots eat pureed foods that can be eaten through tubes while wearing helmets, and soldiers on the march frequently carry dehydrated foods (they’re light, and take up less space).
One technology the military has explored is high-pressure processing, which uses extreme pressure to process food, rather than heat. The military, like many commercial food processors, have noted the technique leads to reduced losses in food quality, higher retention of flavor, and improved appearance compared to conventional heat-processing methods.
Donna F. Schaffner (associate director of food safety, QA, and training programs for the Rutgers Food Innovation center), told FPD researchers have observed favorable results with ozone treatment, HPP, and other novel processing methods. However, she said, producers should realize not every method will deliver the same results for every food product and operation.
“Nothing is one size fits all,” she said.