Startec Project successfully completed on 31/01/2015

  • 4-20-2015

Executive Summary of the outputs of the STARTEC Project

Food business operators must make daily decisions about food safety and quality, often based on limited scientific data, or full knowledge of the consequences of deviations for the consumer, due to the limited capacity to carry out scientific analyses and detailed risk assessments. The purpose of the project has been to develop the an IT tool and guidelines based on scientific evidence and predictive models to enable food operators estimate the quality and safety level in their products (ready-to-eat foods) if alternative ingredients, process and storage conditions are applied. Pathogens studied include: Listeria. monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella enterica, Bacillus cereus, Verotoxin-producing E.coli (VTEC) and Clostridium spp, as well as Staphylococcus toxins. The effect of high pressure treatment, dielectric heating, bio-preservation and packing technologies were investigated. Food quality and cost/benefit factors were also assessed. The project focused on normal and vulnerable consumers where increased quality and safety levels are needed, e.g. patients at nursing homes, hospitals, old and sick people living at home. The project ran for three years and involved eight participants, of which five were SMEs. Producers of convenience and RTE products were actively involved in the project as well as experts in food microbiology, food chemistry, food process technology, information technology and modelling, laboratory analytical methods, cost-benefit analysis and risk assessment.

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A prototype tool for multidisciplinary decision support has been developed and validated in terms of the IT structure of the tool, relevance and user-friendliness of the user interface, and the prediction of L. monocytogenes of the primary and secondary models developed in the project. The tool was found conceptually correct. If further developed, the tool can help SME operators to quantify and manage spoilage and pathogen risks in a way which is not currently possible. The strongest point of the prototype tool is that it is flexible and can be adapted to: different types of food company in terms of products, processes, complexity of flow charts, etc.; any multidisciplinary aspect and model for any parameter, which can be inserted; customized categorization using a traffic light system which can be applied for normal and vulnerable consumers; use of a corrective action/support section, which can easily further developed; and new functionalities based on either the database, models or both. The tool was developed based on the needs expressed by industry partners at the beginning of the project, and based on mapping challenges and possibilities for corrective actions in industry production, wet lab studies and surveys addressing cost/benefit aspects of ready-to-(h)eat foods. The industry mapping is highly relevant as a basis for development of future decision support tools, making them more suitable for use in industry.

Deli salads were extensively studied in the project. For pasta salads with vegetables and meat, the Baranyi no lag model is well suited as a primary model for L. monocytogenes, while the Rosso model is a promising secondary model. For potato salads, formulations considering the dairy product in the sauce and/or late addition of heated chicken meat can be used to reduce and even eliminate the Listeria risk so the product can be served even to vulnerable consumers. Vitamin C is an important parameter for the nutrition value of salads. The vitamin levels are reduced if the vegetables are cooked and the products are stored in air. Among the novel technologies studied, high pressure treatment was the most promising, both because it was effective for reduction of the Listeria levels, the technology has become scalable and relatively affordable, and because it can be combined with other technologies, e.g. bio-preservation, to limit outgrowth of surviving bacteria.

 

Overview of the Project Activities

This three year project involved eight participants, of which five are SMEs. The SME participants included three food producers of convenience and RTE products (Matbørsen, Kohinoor, and Forno Ramgnolo); one research-providing SME (IRIS), and one research management SME (Halbert Research). The SMEs were active in the management and research activities of the project, along with multi-disciplinary research teams from the National Veterinary Institute of Norway, Queens University Belfast, University of Bologna, as well as IRIS. The food producers are situated in Norway, Ireland, and Italy, and deliver a wide range of mixed RTE products including deli salads, full meals, and cold cuts, to supermarkets, nursing homes, hospitals, and airlines. The research partners from Norway, UK, Italy and Spain, have considerable expertise in food microbiology (food pathogenic and spoilage bacteria), food chemistry, food process technology, including preservation technology, information technology and modelling, laboratory analytical methods, cost-benefit analysis and risk assessment.

 

In the first phase of the project, the consortium investigated and established critical food safety and quality challenges that typical SME food producers deal with on a daily basis. The three SME food producers were actively involved, and their production systems were used as practical models for the research work. In the second phase, the research team, in collaboration with the food SMEs, investigated in laboratory experiments how the safety and quality (including storage stability and organoleptic quality) of foods develops or is affected when different ingredients (meat, seafood, dairy and vegetables) of variable quality and contamination levels are mixed in raw and heat treated RTE and convenience products. Both ideal and deviating process conditions, as well as abuse storage conditions during distribution and by the consumer were considered. The purpose of such studies is not only to obtain more knowledge, but also to suggest possible performance objectives (POs) and process criteria (PCs) for ingredients and production processes to ensure the required quality and safety levels of the products. The approach in this part of the project was to use the food safety objectives (FSOs) and microbial criteria for final products in the EU-legislation and estimate POs and PCs by “tracing back” to the processes and ingredients. In terms of food safety, the following pathogens were included in the study: Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella enterica, Bacillus cereus, Verotoxinproducing E.coli (VTEC) and Clostridium spp, with particular emphasis on Listeria and Staphylococcus, as well as Staphylococcus toxins. For the spoilage and food quality aspect, the approach was to develop criteria based partly on existing knowledge about limiting factors for shelf life, and partly on new analyses of specific spoilage bacteria and organoleptic analyses. Other quality parameters, being related to processing as well as to storage conditions were included; these are emulsion instability, texture deterioration, moisture related problems, microbial and non-microbial related odour development.

 

It can be foreseen that it will not always be possible to meet the required safety and quality level for vulnerable consumers by using standard process and preservation technology. Products with increased quality and safety levels are however needed, as patients at nursing homes, hospitals, old and sick people living at home, and so on, consume a lot of RTE and convenience products. In fact, many of them have no other choice than to eat the RTE and convenience foods they are served. These people are not only susceptible to food borne diseases, but also to under- and malnutrition. SME food providers therefore have an ethical (as well as legal) duty to make sure that products are produced, transported and stored in ways that maintain safety and quality, or at least to inform customers whether the products are suited for serving to vulnerable consumers or not. A possibility to change the process conditions to make the products safer, and thereby introduce an extra “safety switch”, or correspondingly a “nutrition switch” or “quality switch”, would be very useful in such cases. Therefore, in the third phase of the project, the possibility of obtaining a higher quality and safety level of the products was investigated, such as the use of more robust process conditions, replacement of ingredients that are not suited for tougher process conditions with more stable ones, and/or use of mild preservation methods. Novel, advanced, mild, preservation methods are often costly and typically not useful in large scale food production. At a small scale, when customised products are produced for some consumers, however, technologies like high pressure treatment, dielectric heating, bio-preservation and packing technologies may be useful, not only for food safety, but also for quality of the food. Another approach included in this part of the project is to reduce the temperature during distribution and storage of the products, or use of time-temperature indicators on the product package indicating the quality and safety level. Safety and quality parameters were evaluated in a methodical and systematic way to allow probabilistic modelling of their values with different raw materials and manufacturing processes. In this way, a database was created which led to the creation of a tool for interaction and development.

 

The fourth and final phase of the project was to develop the tools based on the scientific evidence and predictive and probabilistic models produced in the early phases of the project. The main tool is an IT based system where food providers can insert their data and estimate the quality and safety level in their products if alternative ingredients, process and storage conditions are applied. This decision making tool will enable the SME operator to quantify and manage spoilage and pathogen risks in a way which is not currently possible. A cost-benefit module in the tool, could allow the food providers to compare quality, safety and costs of their actions, for example, lowering the storage temperature, apply different preserving methods, using different ingredients, and so on. A prototype of the tool as tested and validated by the food providers and other experts participating in the project.

See Report Attachment Documents Below:

Final Results


Attachments

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