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Enthusiasm for refrigerated foods chills out.

For the last three or four years, there's been a lot of talk about "new generation refrigerated foods." Some of the talk has been about how the market is ready to take off, other talk has been about ventures that failed, and there have been somber predictions of food safety hazards in the category.

With a few notable exceptions (like Contadina and DiGiorno fresh pastas and sauces) the market has not taken off. There have been entries and there have been withdrawals. While concerns about product safety may have kept some prospective players from entering the game, at least one product developer thinks that the secrets of controlling overall quality (the attribute that is supposed to elevate the category) have yet to be effectively practiced.

"Safety is obviously critical," said Lou Cooperhouse, Director of Technical Service for Idle Wild Farm, "but so are other factors like the maintenance of product quality, appearance, packaging, and cost. As far as entrees go, there have been no successful products to date. Pastas and sauces have done well, but many believe the big home run will be entrees. Entree products need to be developed and designed so they can maintain their flavor, texture, visual appeal, and microbiological integrity over the course of their shelf life."

Dr. Andrew G. Ebert, Technical Director of the Chilled Foods Association was more specific about factors affecting quality. Ebert said, "The single greatest impediment to growth of the category has been development of a reasonable distribution system...reasonable with regard for safety, cost, and time."

In general, pastas and sauces have physical advantages that give them an edge in the distribution system. Sauces are acidic and pasta has low water activity; both properties retard the growth of microorganisms. Shelf life of these two products is long enough that they can be distributed through conventional refrigerated warehouse channels. Accordingly, time and costs have been "reasonable."

Conversely, some entrees that have been attempted did well in test market, but failed after rollout. Chilled Foods Association Executive Director Richard Cristol explained that during some market tests, products were nursed through distribution and retail by personnel of the product developers. The tests determined that consumers liked the products, but they did not predict product failures for lack of the ability to stand up in realworld distribution. "As long as they were able to send in their own personnel in test markets, they were okay," Cristol said.

In attempts to more tightly control the distribution and retail rigors, store-door delivery methods combined with processor-owned display kiosks have been attempted. The high-cost of this alternative has resulted in other product failures. Consumers have been willing to only pay a finite amount more for refrigerated food quality over competing frozen foods.

Interest continues

Despite setbacks in refrigerated food introductions, interest in the category remains high. "These products are so outstanding in terms of quality and consumer appeal, that if we can form some new partnerships [to overcome distribution and merchandising obstacles] the consumer stands to reap great benefit," said Cristol.

Some retailers, capitalizing on consumer desires for "restaurant quality" prepared foods have taken to opening commissaries and preparing their own products. Cristol said, "Retailers are doing more of their own processing because they can't find willing food companies." He feels that retailers would gladly divest themselves of production tasks if processors could be found.

According to one retailer, however, it was more than the lack of a willing processor that led to their current entry into commissary production of fresh refrigerated foods. "We felt we could do it better, we could do it safer, and we could do it more economically through our own commissary," said Fred Reimers, Corporate Sanitarian for San Antonio-based H.E. Butt Grocery Company.

H.E. Butt uses HACCP-designed systems to produce a broad range of products including dips, salads, sauces, soups, and more. They have also taken the commissary venture as an opportunity to centralize baking operations that had been "in-store." The intent is to present customers with freshly prepared foods on a daily basis.

"We're limiting the distance of distribution," said Reimers referring to valuable shelf life consumed during transportation. "You don't keep the shelf life on your side, you give it to the customer."

Processor activity continues

Idle Wild Farm is preparing to enter the refrigerated market, hoping to buy itself extra time for "reasonable" distribution through the application of technology. Many refrigerated foods are produced in environments intended to protect the product from contamination following preparation and before packaging.

Idle Wild intends to utilize the sous vide process, in which cooking takes place after the product is vacuum packaged. Since microorganisms are destroyed within the sealed container, post cooking contamination cannot occur unless the package is breached. They intend to utilize this process, not in a pouch, but in an easy-open tray that will be visually appealing and more consumer friendly.

Idle Wild may also employ the safeguard of using additional barriers in its formulations such as acidic marinades or sauces. With pH reduced to around 4.6, the potential for pathogenic microbial growth is greatly retarded. Further protection will be granted by storing finished product under super-chilled conditions (28-31 F) while in pre-distribution storage.

Once in distribution, intensive quality audits are planned to confirm proper handling of products through transportation, storage, and merchandising. Time/temperature indicating devises also are to be incorporated in packaging.

To assist in promoting inventory turns, products will be packed 6/cs. The small number of pieces per case will promote frequent turn-over and help prevent large numbers of a single product lot from being present at a given time.

But what about safety?

Many regulatory agencies remain skeptical of the refrigerated foods category, despite assurances from industry that safeguards are effective. New York State is considering legislation that would bar the sale of many refrigerated foods. According to Dr. Guy Livingston, President of Food Science Associates, draft guidelines for refrigerated foods were published in 1991. "I feel that parts of the guidelines are poorly conceived," Livingston said.

Livingston spearheaded a campaign to have the guidelines examined prior to putting them before the New York legislature to be passed into law. Currently, public hearings are planned but remain to be scheduled.

In the meantime, Livingston says that New York officials have taken the guidelines to heart, and are now enforcing them on products manufactured within the state's borders. The major thrust of the guidelines is to require that water activity be .91 or less, or that pH be 4.6 or less. According to Livingston, some foods meeting the guidelines might still carry pathogens, while other perfectly safe products would be banned. If adopted by the legislature, the guidelines would also apply to products produced outside New York.

As has been argued with so many other regulations, the Chilled Foods Association holds that some agreement at national and state levels needs to be developed. Cristol and Ebert support a system in which regulatory authorities accept detailed documentation of the safety aspects of the food company's process, rather than the setting of arbitrary standards for the entire category of chilled foods.

Dr. Catherine Adams, Director of Scientific Affairs for Grocery Manufacturers of America said, "The bottom line is that regardless of the size of the operation, these products can be manufactured to be safe products. They merely require that assurances are in place confirming that controls are followed."

Adams continued, "These assurances need not be microbiological-testing intensive, but they will require a comprehensive quality assurance program with effective controls and adequate documentation to ensure food safety. These quality systems should incorporate HACCP.

Idle Wild's Cooperhouse agrees: "Processors choosing to market foods that are low-acid and/or high water activity, however, should complete a standardized regimen of microbiological testing including product inoculation studies with Listeria and C. botulinum. They should subsequently provide to the regulatory authorities these results as well as a complete HACCP program for all products."
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Title Annotation:Spotlight: Refrigeration and Freezing; once distribution and quality obstacles are overcome, industry believes the chilled entrees market will take off
Author:Eilers, James R.
Publication:Food Processing
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Words:1323
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