When chicken became a protein option in the meal kits, sales took off. To meet demand, Choice leased 3,000 sq. ft. inside CFC Logistics’ Quakerstown, Pa., cold storage facility. “We were a completely manual process at first, doing only 800 cases a day,” recalls Poulos, a third-generation member of Choice Trading’s owners.
The throughput proved inadequate to satisfy demand, and a fully automated material handling and packaging system came on line in February 2013. Fastback horizontal-motion conveyors deliver the meal components to a waterproof blend-weigher for precise metering and delivery to a f/f/s machine and then through quality-control checks, all part of an integrated system engineered by Heat and Control.
The commissioning came none too soon: sales almost doubled in 2013, and Poulose anticipates another doubling this year. “We’re now doing 2,400 cases a shift,” he says.
From his perspective, the product is low risk: Since the components are in-fed in a frozen state, splattered food is not an issue, and microbiological issues are dealt with before the shrimp is exported. Nonetheless, the line is washed, foamed and subjected to high-pressure washdown after each shift. Although USDA doesn’t require it, swab tests are taken, mostly as a safeguard against allergen residues.
Whether testing for allergens or pathogens, rapid results from swabs are a priority, with reliability and sensitivity givens. Affordability also is an issue, and two scientists and entrepreneurs have developed a series of flow-based tests that match molecular diagnostics but don’t require expensive lab equipment and extensive sample preparation, according to Ben Pascal, chief business officer of Invisible Sentinel Inc., Philadelphia.
The firm recently received certification from the Assn. of Analytical Communities for its third rapid-diagnostic test. Earlier AOAC certifications covered a campylobacter assay and a Listeria monocytegnes assay, but those tests are run on finished goods.
“The challenge in food & beverage is environmental sampling,” Pascal believes, and the latest assay detects the Listeria species, making swabs of contact surfaces practical. A positive result within 24 hours would trigger sampling of finished goods.
The firm also collaborated with Jackson Family Wines of Sonoma on a rapid molecular diagnostic for the Brettanomyces yeast, which is associated with a whiff of barnyard in wines.
Testing is a good defense, but offense wins the game, and RTE processors long have relied on sodium lactate, sodium diacetate and nitrate to control Listeria. Those additives carry baggage in a time of ascendancy for clean labels. Fermentation-based ingredients can deliver the same antimicrobial effect and still support “made with natural ingredients” or “no artificial preservatives” claims, says Simone Bouman, director of business development-meat & culinary at Corbion Purac, Lenexa, Kan.
Corn sugar and vinegar are used to create organic acids during fermentation of Corbion’s Listeria inhibitor called Verdad N16, which the firm debuted at January’s International Production & Processing Expo in Atlanta. The formulation controls Listeria growth for up to 120 days in cured meats, Bouman adds. “The market is continuously looking for a clean label solution,” she says, and a 1.5-2.5 percent concentration of the ingredient typically will produce desirable results, depending on the product’s sodium level, pH and other factors.
Active packaging is another long-discussed RTE safeguard. For some packaging suppliers, pursuit of packaging that delivers an antimicrobial punch resembles a Grail-like quest. Chemists at the food care division of Sealed Air Corp., Duncan, S.C., have researched the effectiveness of adding an antimicrobial to the surface of film.
“To this point, we have not found a solution that meets our criteria and could be taken to the market,” says Mike Rosinski, marketing director of smoked & processed meats.
“We continue to look at it,” Rosinski continues, but additives are effective and less expensive, and the film additive would have to be disclosed on the label. “Microbiologists developed solutions we’ve tested in a Petri dish, but when we use them in practice, the performance is significantly different and not as effective,” he says.
Tried and true thermal treatments that deliver verifiable kill rates will be the food-safety weapons of choice for decades to come, and if Listeria defense was the only issue, there would be no need for new technologies. But flavor considerations, appearance and other factors also influence purchases.
High-temperature steam and infrared tunnels are technologies film suppliers are trying to support, though those processes can generate temperatures that exceed the limits for the clean resins that meet food-law criteria.
HPP is particularly effective for sliced meats and their exposed surfaces, and Rosinski says Sealed Air research into films that won’t crack or develop pinholes began in the 1980s. About 15 percent compression of meat occurs during the process, he points out, and the film must have sufficient elasticity to withstand the compression and subsequent return to its original shape.
High pressure was used in many industries before it was applied commercially to food. Likewise, advancements in molecular science, chemistry and engineering are bringing new tools to the RTE market. There may not be a silver bullet, but there’s an impressive arsenal.