All you need to know about sterilization of gourmet preserved food or ready meals for subsequent commercialization
Packaged food sterilization is a process that seeks to eliminate any kind of living micro-organism, spore, enzyme or virus, in order to reduce the probability of infections and contagious diseases.
Usually, when we talk about sterilization we immediately think of sanitation issues. In fact, it should be noted that the first people to use it worked in that field. For example, it is known that before Christ, Galen —the founder of experimental surgery— used to boil the instruments he used in his treatments or operations. However, sterilization itself is a wider practice that concerns diverse sectors, including nutrition.
Sterilization is divided into two groups:
- Physical methods, characterized by avoiding the use of gases or reagents against microorganisms. Instead, it prefers physical procedures such as ionizing radiation, heat or filtering solutions using membranes. Preserved food sterilization falls into this group, as it is a physical technique which uses humid heat, namely boiling water at a temperature of over 212 ºF (100 ºC).
- Chemical methods, which, as you can imagine, uses lethal substances to kill microorganisms. Those substances include ethylene oxide and hydrogen peroxide. This procedure is not used in the food industry, but in other industries such as pharma and medicine.
Sterilization of Preserved, Packaged Food and/or Prepared Meals
Packaged food sterilization dates back to 1810, when Nicolas Appert, master confectioner and chef, developed his technique for food preservation using heat, now known as appertization. Appert had this brilliant idea of placing food into glass bottles sealed with a wire-tied cork and sealed with wax or sealing wax, and then introducing them into boiling water for quite a long time.
Evidently, a lot of time has passed since then, and everything involving preserved food sterilization has evolved significantly. However, now as then, preserved food sterilization —also known as commercial sterilization— continues to involve the same: subjecting hermetically packaged ingredients to high temperatures for some seconds or minutes, with the purpose of completely eliminating microorganisms, whether pathogenic or not, and spores within.
Therefore, with sterilization your gourmet preserved food and/or prepared meals do not need to be kept in a cold environment. Besides that, its shelf life can expand over fourth months and up to 2-5 years, depending on the food type and treatment applied.
Packaged food sterilization methods
When thinking of food sterilization, you probably imagine a pot full of water and crystal jars. That is called domestic or house-made sterilization, the traditional one that uses double boiler (bain-marie) to disinfect jars and sterilize ingredients. This technique is great to produce preserved tomato and/or jams in home environments during a season. However, this procedure is not suitable for preserved food commercialization, since it does not ensure a complete elimination of microorganisms and spores from food. Nor does it offer a register of how and how long canned products have been treated.
If you want to commercialize your preserved food and/or prepared meals, there is only one approved method. Professional sterilization, which is characterized by the use of automatic and professional equipment strictly complying with current regulations for health and hygiene.
When talking about professional sterilization, we recognize two types of professional production:
- Handcraft, common among business owners, restaurants and farmers, as it consists in producing packaged food at a small scale.
- Industrial, used by big companies which produce high quantities of canned food and prepared dishes using high-capacity autoclaves.
Importance of Sterilizing Packaged Food
Packaged food sterilization should not be taken lightly. It is a serious thing, because it involves more risks than you can imagine at first.
Not eliminating the entirety of microorganisms and spores in gourmet preserved food or prepared meals may cause food poisoning or something much worse, like the presence of Clostridium botulinum, a very dangerous pathogen which resists high temperatures and produces botulinum toxin — the cause of botulism. Botulism is a rare, serious disease that blocks nerve function causing respiratory and muscular paralysis or even death.
PH and Acidity Effects on Packaged Food Sterilization
PH means the level of acidity in food, which allows for the growth of different kinds of pathogens. Depending on an ingredient’s pH, we should subject it to a specific temperature for a given time period.
Foods with a higher acidity level require higher temperatures, and vice versa. If your goal is to commercialize your gourmet preserved food or prepared meal at a room-level temperature, then eliminating all microorganisms —either pathogenic or not— and potential spores is a must. In order to do that, if your food has:
- a neutral pH (>4.5) you should apply temperatures over 212 ºF (100 ºC).
- an acid pH (<4.2), you can subject it to less aggressive processes and lower temperatures —under 212 ºF (100 ºC)— for less time.
There are two types of thermal values, F0 and P0, both of which depend on the time-temperature pair and are used to ensure efficiency of treatment and minimize potential changes in color, texture, scent and nutritional values of preserved food. Sterilization thermal value is “F0”, which refers to the use of temperatures over 212 ºF (100 ºC). P0 on the other hand is for pasteurization at temperatures under 212 ºF (100 ºC).
High temperatures used in packaged food sterilization end up affecting the quality of the product. Some vitamins and scents are removed, which reduces nutritional value. Some organoleptic changes may occur. You can prevent all these from happening by using different tricks that will allow you to avoid your gourmet preserved food or prepared meals from suffering any changes during sterilization.
Suitable Packaging for Food Sterilization
Any type of package may undergo a sterilization process, as long as the material it is made of withstands high temperatures. There is a wide variety of recipients in the market for this, varying in size, shape and material. When choosing the most suitable for you, it is key to consider all the pros and cons depending on the food you want to preserve, the appearance you want for product, storage and later use, etc.
The HACCP Protocol in Packaged Food Sterilization
As a producer of gourmet preserved food or prepared meals, you are required to adopt an HACCP Plan to ensure your products are harmless.
The HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) System aims for food harmlessness by identifying, analyzing and controlling physical, chemical and biological hazards in raw materials during all stages of production and distribution. For this, a series of measures are established to prevent any contamination and ensuring food safety.
Handcraft Sterilization of Preserved, Packaged Food and/or Prepared Meals
Whether you are a small producer, micro business person, farmer, restaurateur, cook or chef, professionally producing gourmet preserved food and/or prepared meals is a gravy train.
A gravy train? Yes, because it adapts to you, to your field or in-kitchen activities, and allows you to monetize on your raw materials and time.
Think about it. For you, a farmer or small producer, making preserved food allows you to make a higher profit from your harvest as well as forget about seasonal limitations. And for you, who work in the restaurant business, producing preserved food gives you the possibility to eliminate downtime, and therefore save time and money.
Benefits of this new business line are so many that we couldn’t list them all: profitting from your surplus, giving a second chance to unsold fruits and vegetables due to their appearance, reducing losses, and having seasonal products year-round.
We at TERRA Food-Tech® believe that the best is for our customers to explain their decision of making gourmet preserved food —and their experience so far— to you. Just check out our success stories.
TERRA Food-Tech® Autoclaves for Handcraft Sterilization of Packaged Food
With our vertical or top-loading autoclave you will be able to cook, pasteurize and/or sterilize all kinds of packaged food. Its capacity, ranging from 7.3 to 38.5 gallons (33 to 175 liters), is ideal for entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, farmers and chefs.
At the same time, the TERRA Food-Tech® compact autoclave meets the current regulations in terms of safety and hygiene for preserved food. After you purchase it, we will provide you with our food consulting service and initial professional support.
Furthermore, with the goal of helping you estimate the viability and performance of your project, TERRA Food-Tech® has created a free online calculator so that you can figure the per cycle production capacity and find out the number of containers you can produce according to the type of recipient and the autoclave model.
For more information, contact our sales team. We are looking forward to hearing from you!