Gas products and tech-nology manufacturer and supplier Air Products says it has made important strides in food safety technology in the last four to five years, particularly in the area of modified atmos-phere packaging (Map), where its Freshline offering brings a complete packaging solution to food manufacturers and suppliers, as well as new safety standards for consumers.
“In Map, the gas composi-tion in food packaging is changed by altering the levels of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2), which inhibits microbial growth, controls reactions of enzymes and biochemicals and reduces moisture loss.
“In simple terms, the com-position of the atmosphere surrounding food is modified, according to the type of food, to extend its shelf life,” explains Air Products speciality gas sales manager Arthi Govender.
She points out that while Map is not an entirely new concept, and is well estab-lished overseas and in Europe, in particular, it is relatively new to South Africa and has only become more widely used in recent years.
“Good looking, fresh and convenient food has become something the consumer demands from the food indus-try. In the past, Map was primarily used to prolong the shelf life of foodstuffs such as processed meat under refrigeration. These days, the technology is used to package anything from fresh salads and meat portions to sandwiches and snacks,” says Govender.
Besides a longer shelf life, Map also ensures that the pack-aged food has a better, more appetising appearance, an important consideration for both supplier and consumer.
Govender notes that, in the packaging and retail process, Map is often used in combination with permitted preservatives, as it does not stop the growth of bacteria entirely – it just slows it down.
There are a range of high-purity gases, delivered in both liquid and gas form that are primarily used for the food industry. CO2 is used widely in Map.
“CO2 inhibits the growth of most bacteria and moulds. It is used extensively in the packaging of bakery products. The higher the level of CO2, the longer the achievable shelf life,” she states.
Nitrogen, another important element in Map, is used as an inert gas to displace air, and oxygen. It is mostly used to extend the shelf life of processed fruit and vegetables.
“Oxygen causes oxidative deterioration, and moisture needs to be reduced or elimin-ated as far as possible, as it attracts microorganisms,” says food scientist and lec-turer on food safety Aubrey Parsons.
“Aerobic bacteria thrive in an oxygenated environment and are able to mutate. “Bacteria are becoming increasingly intelligent and adaptable and find ways of reproducing, which is making food safety technology more important than ever,” he states.
Parsons emphasises that food is subjected not only to bacterial microorganisms but to other harmful agents, such as insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. He highlights two recent international incidents where toxins caused wide-spread illness.
“In 2004, Chinese milk powder manufacturers added the chemical melamine to their products. “Melamine, a rich protein substance, is used to make plastics and fertiliser.
“Many thousands of babies fell ill as a result and the effects of the disaster are still being felt to this day.
“More recently, a month-long e.coli outbreak caused by bean sprouts from a farm in Germany, killed several people and left thousands ill,” he points out, adding that this is why it is crucial to have a proper food safety management system in place.
The World Health Organ-isation plays a crucial role in promoting safe practices and ensuring that food is both healthy and nutritious.
“There is no alternative to food safety but the onus is on food companies and manufacturers to put in place safety systems enhanced by Map. “A good food management system can reduce problems by 99%,” he says.
Parsons asserts that Map is a highly effective means of ensuring food safety in an age where incidents of food poisoning are on the rise. It is becoming widely used among the large food com- panies in South Africa who have a reputation for responsible and reliable food safety practices.
“However, it doesn’t end with Map – there are still risks if factory staff are not trained properly. “Dirty hands, for example, can be lethal weapons,” he adds.
This is where the ISO 22000 food safety standard plays an important role.
“ISO 22000 is used to dem- onstrate food safety manage-ment. “It teaches manufacturers how to train their staff, and it also protects intellectual property,” explains Parsons.
“The ISO 22000 inter-national standard specifies the requirements for a food safety management system that involves, among other things, interactive communication and system management in the food supply chain.
“Since food safety hazards can occur at any stage in the food chain, it is essential that adequate control is in place at all times; therefore, the combined effort of all parties throughout the food chain is required,” he says.
The International Organisa-tion for Standardisation’s (ISO’s) food safety standards also provide formulations for processes such as weigh-ing and sequencing when combining ingredients, which have to be signed off. “Staff must know what they are doing, which includes supervisors, who must be aware of what is happening in the production environment,” Parsons emphasises.
Air Products, whose facil-ities are all ISO-accredited, as well as adhering to good manufacturing practice in food safety, also believes that training is important.
“We provide training and advice in Map technology and its role in food safety to all our clients in the food industry,” says Govender.
The company’s customers include suppliers and packers of red meat, poultry, ready-made meals, beverage prod-ucers (which use CO2 to make sparkling drinks, as well as nitrogen, which retains the rigidity of cans), manufacturers of dry prod-ucts, such as cereals, milk formula, and suppliers of fresh fruit, vegetables and fish.