Keeping Foods Fresh
Donna Berry
January 01, 2004 - Article
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Consumers like - no, love - the concept of fresh food. However, fresh and convenience foods don't always go together. While a number of ingredient and processing technologies can help foods stay fresher longer, they may not meet the government's idea of "fresh" as far as the label. But product designers draw on these to provide or enhance the fresh characteristics of products as long as they avoid the legal faux pax of mislabeling.

Fresh rules

Codified since January 1993 in Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Section 101.95, the 11-year-old definition of "fresh" has its fans, but many more challengers. For the most part, food manufacturers using advanced technologies to keep foods fresh, per se, cannot actually label the foods as such, as the definition rigidly limits the term.

The FDA definition applies to all direct or implied references to foods on their labels, including use in a brand name and as a sensory modifier. In general, FDA says that the term "fresh," when used on labels in a manner that suggests or implies that the food is unprocessed, means that the food is in its raw state and has not been frozen or subjected to any form of thermal processing or any other form of preservation. This has four exceptions: the addition of approved waxes or coatings; the post-harvest use of approved pesticides; the application of a mild chlorine wash or mild acid wash on produce; and the treatment of raw foods with ionizing radiation, as specified in 21 CFR 179.26. The definition also states that the necessity of refrigeration does not preclude use of the term.

FDA further says that manufacturers can use "fresh" on labels if it does not suggest or imply that a food is unprocessed or unpreserved. Thus, the term can describe pasteurized milk because it does not imply that the food is unprocessed, and consumers understand that milk nearly always undergoes pasteurization. However, it cannot be applied to pasta sauce that has been pasteurized or that contains pasteurized ingredients, as this implies that the food is not processed or preserved.

The CFR also states that the terms "fresh frozen" and "frozen fresh," on the label or in labeling food, mean that the food was quickly frozen while still fresh. Blanching before freezing does not preclude use of the term.

Many in the food industry believe that codifying and enforcing the definition of "fresh" has strengthened consumers' confidence in the term, creating greater certainty in their minds and greater value to the industry. Others believe that the 1993 rule was short-term and only was created to remedy misuse at the time in the marketplace. These groups want FDA to reexamine the "fresh" definition to correct any inconsistencies and to consider accommodating new processing technologies. Some proposed approaches would require that the agency evaluate each food product on its own merit to determine whether the term "fresh" applies.

Because this requires financial and manual resources, it is unlikely that the current definition of "fresh" will be changing any time soon, as FDA is not equipped for such an evaluation process. So for now, manufacturers should put aside the idea of using the term on product labels if they choose to include most of the following process or ingredient technologies.

High energy, safe food

Of the freshness-enhancing nonthermal technologies, many consider irradiation to be the most effective approach to eliminating pathogens and spoilage microorganisms from the food supply. Not only does it make food safe and extend shelf life, it does so while maintaining the product's freshness and nutritional wholesomeness. Irradiated foods undergo no major chemical, physical or sensory changes.

Unfortunately, when many people see the word "irradiation," they associate it with radioactivity. Unlike the gamma rays of radiation, however, irradiation uses ionizing radiation, also referred to as electronic beams, to zap microorganisms.  

In general, irradiation exposes food, either prepackaged or in bulk, to controlled levels of ionizing radiation. This type of energy is similar to radio and television waves, microwaves and infrared radiation. However, ionizing radiation's high-energy output allows it to penetrate deeply into food, disrupting the genetic material of microorganisms, thus destroying them.

Scientific studies, including many long-term, multi-generation animal-feeding tests conducted during the past five decades, have fully established the safety of irradiated food. More than 40 countries throughout the world have approved the use of food irradiation, and numerous national and international food and health organizations and professional groups have recognized its usefulness. FDA has approved irradiation for beef, poultry, pork, eggs, fruits, vegetables, roots and tubers, grains and legumes, spices and other types of foods.

In anticipation of a greater need for irradiation, the Institute of Food Science and Engineering at Texas A&M, College Station, TX, is establishing the National Center for Electronic Beam Food Research through a $185,000 USDA grant. The center will focus on conducting research, training and outreach on the use of electricity as an energy source for irradiating foods. It will work in conjunction with the year-old Electron Beam Food Research Facility, the result of a 10-year, $10 million research contract between Texas A&M and SureBeam Corp., San Diego, CA.

This past year, USDA approved a first-of-its-kind food irradiator located inside a cold-storage space in Pennsylvania. The irradiator accommodates food manufacturers' standard packaging up to 24 in. thick, in any shape or size. The facility meets the requirements for maintaining the cold chain of the meat, poultry, fruit and vegetable, and spice industries. The 4.4-million-cu.-ft. storage facility is dedicated to meet the needs of food companies in the Northeast, says Jim Wood, president of CFC Logistics Inc., Hatfield, PA. "Having an irradiator located within a cold-storage/logistics operation provides a unique service opportunity to food companies in the Northeast that want to irradiate their food and perishable products to kill foodborne illnesses," he says.

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