Biological contamination concerns every food processor, although makers of ready-to-eat (RTE) foods face the greatest challenge in combating naked-to-the-eye enemies of safe food.
Guidelines from USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service deal at length with performance standards for various products in terms of Salmonella control, E. coli O157:H7 elimination and Clostridium botulinum safeguards. Listeria monocytogenes, on the other hand, is in a category all its own.
The most lethal of the food pathogens, the bacteria associated with Listeriosis in humans is termed by FSIS “a formidable pathogen” because of its tolerance for heat, cold, sodium and other barriers sufficient to control other food-safety threats.
The danger of post-lethality contamination by this pathogen prompted the agency to issue specific compliance guidelines for RTE meat and poultry products and to devise a three-tier system for processing facilities, based on their use of antimicrobial agents and post-lethality treatments.
Of course, most processors want to be in the lowest-risk group, both for the implied seal of approval it carries and because those facilities are subjected to the least FSIS oversight. The challenge they face is the steps they must take can cause quality degradation or ingredient labels that run counter to the clean-label preference of the market.
At deli-beef supplier Vincent Giordano Corp., Philadelphia, “using a lot of preservatives and chemicals” originally helped lock in Alternative 1 status and deliver 45-60 days shelf life, President Guy Giordano reports, but he wanted more. In 2010, Giordano invested $3 million in refrigeration and a 420-liter high pressure processing system from Hiperbaric. The process extended his products’ shelf life to 90 days, “without any sodium or other preservatives. We could go longer, but if you don’t sell it in 90 days, why would you carry it?” he growls.
The 250,000 lbs. of finished goods produced weekly by Giordano isn’t enough to fill up the HPP press’ capacity, so the firm provides tolling service under the name SafePac. Organic juices and other products are becoming a larger share of the throughput, but RTE meats still account for the majority. Antimicrobials are unnecessary “if you can demonstrate a 5 log reduction” of bacterial contamination, Giordano observes, and HPP helps deliver that level of assurance.
Referring to HPP as “the silver bullet,” Giordano believes food safety ranks with price and product quality as a customer consideration, adding, “You’re one recall away from being out of business.”
Technology providers, on the other hand, are focusing on commercial benefits like extended shelf life and the elimination of thermal degradation. “I never like to sell the technology on the basis of food safety,” says Jaime Nicolas-Correa, director of Hiperbaric S.A.’s North American operations in Miami, Fla. “Safe handling is something processors already know.”
Sometimes referred to as cold pasteurization, HPP typically is a post-packaging treatment that holds food in a chamber for several minutes at approximately 85,000 psi, destroying bacteria, viruses and mold. The U.S. Department of Defense, along with private industry, poured millions of dollars into HPP research and development in the early 2000s with the goal of creating a sterilization step that would render low-acid foods shelf stable, without refrigeration.
Although some sterilization work continues, that goal proved impractical. Pasteurization, on the other hand, has gained broad acceptance and growing use, with more than 200 HPP presses in service in the U.S. and Canada.
Two HPP fabricators currently serve the North American market: Avure Technologies Inc., originally a collaboration between Flow Technology and ABB, and Hiperbaric, a Spain-based OEM that has focused on HPP for food since the late 1990s. Nicolas-Correa recalls rudimentary discussions in years past with food professionals who knew almost nothing about the novel technology. “Now, they’re asking the right questions,” he says.
For whom the HPP tolls
Entrepreneurs and start-up ventures fueled much of the early growth in HPP use. Consequently, a national network of tolling services has been created to serve processors’ post-lethality needs, with RTE meats accounting for the bulk of the traffic.
Milwaukee-based American Pasteurization Co. (APC) blazed the tolling trail in 2004 and added a Sacramento, Calif., service center in 2012. Universal Cold Storage in Lincoln, Neb., was among the refrigerated warehouse operators to add HPP as an added service in 2010. Both APC and Universal participate in a lead-sharing and technical support program with Avure.
Cold-storage customers were moving finished goods from Lincoln to HPP centers for treatment and then back to Lincoln for staging and shipping, recalls Jeff Barnard, president of Universal Pasteurization Co.. “It just made sense to offer HPP as a value-added service.” With a new owner's capital support, Universal built a second location in the Atlanta area and, in February, acquired DL Foods, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Universal now operates nine HPP presses.