High bacteria content, discoloration and ballooning product packaging are examples of food problems that can arise from extending the shelf life. But it possible to counteract these problems with microbiological risk assessments and preventive efforts.
Current food-industry trends to lower salinity, implement milder processing and remove preservatives – while extending the shelf life at the same time – can have undesirable consequences.
At best, discoloration, poor taste, ballooning packaging or different texture will ‘only’ affect a product’s aesthetic or sensory characteristics. At worst, these changes could make consumers sick, forcing products to be withdrawn and damaging the brand.
– “Making minor changes to pH value, for instance, can be enough to create an environment in which a certain type of microorganism flourishes,” says Birgitta Bergström, RISE microbiologist.
“As soon as an ingredient ends up in a new context, you may need to make a risk assessment”
Sometimes problems crop up where least expected.
– “They can be caused simply by changing the country of origin of an imported spice,” Birgitta Bergström says. Or by taking leftover ingredients from one production process and adding them to another, such as vegetable residue, for instance. As soon as an ingredient ends up in a new context, you need to make a risk assessment. If problem already exists, it’s a matter of getting to the root of its causes and fixing them.
We look at worst case scenarios for transport, warehousing, domestic delivery and how the product is stored in the home
The RISE team for microbiological risk assessment and troubleshooting helps food companies effectively counteract and address every conceivable problem.
– “We look at the product’s characteristic features and ingredients and at how different prerequisites – such as temperature, salinity, pH value and moisture – can impact the food and its packaging,” Birgitta Bergström says. We look at worst case scenarios for transport, warehousing, domestic delivery and how the product is stored in the home.
In some instances – especially involving a potential risk of illness – we carry out practical tests in which products undergo trials in a laboratory environment.
– “Then we do things like add microorganisms to the product or expose it to the environments we think it will end up in, and study what happens. We do all of this to make sure no one gets sick from eating the product or that the product gets fouled,” Birgitta Bergström says.
How to remedy problems
In many instances, problems are simple to resolve.
– “Lowering the pH value slightly, or replacing a preservative that better fits the pH value could do the trick,” Birgitta Bergström says. In bread, you can add acids or replace the refined sugar with another type of sugar that microorganisms can’t live on. Sometimes the product needs to be refrigerated to keep microorganisms from growing. Other times, heat processing or proper packaging may be what it takes.
The team assesses the impact of various possible processes and recommends possible combinations of measures. In some cases, thorough troubleshooting is necessary.
– “To track an infection or see where a problems arises, you may need to take samples at several points in the process,” Birgitta Bergström says. In some instances, the fault may even leave a ‘fingerprint’. Sometim