Hindsight shows us that 1984 was a defining year for the aseptic packaging of food products.
It was in that year that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed food processing companies to use hydrogen peroxide as a sterilant for the aseptic packaging of products. This was big news, and several companies like Tetra Pak, Inpaco and Combibloc began selling their aseptic packaging machines to food and beverage companies in the US. This led to much innovation, and the food processing industry thought the sky was the limit. And it also showed that flexible packaging is a great option for aseptic particulate products.
While aseptic beverages took off, there was not a lot of action on the food processing side of the industry. I joined the aseptic world in 1986, and I ran an aseptic pilot plant for Tetra Pak. Food and beverage companies came to me to produce samples of their products for consumer testing. The question they all had was “why can’t anyone produce aseptic products with particulates?”
The answer from the packaging suppliers was, “We can pack it. The problem is on the processing side.”
The answer from the food processing equipment suppliers was, “Our equipment can process particulates. The problem lies with FDA.”
The FDA said, “We have no problem. Bring us data.”
As with any thermally processed, shelf stable product, one must ensure that the product reaches sterilization temperature and remains at that temperature for a prescribed amount of time in order to achieve commercial sterility. A temperature-measuring device mounted in the piping of the processing system can measure the fluid temperature, but how do you measure the temperature of the center of a particle that is moving in that fluid? How do you measure how fast the particles are moving?
Fast forward to 1995. A workshop at The National Center for Food Safety and Technology in Illinois brought together the greatest food science and engineering minds from academia, government and industry with a follow-up session in 1996. They worked together to determine how to develop a process with its supporting data that would deliver safe commercial aseptic food products with particulates.
This group developed both computer simulation models to predict particle temperatures and velocities. They also developed protocols for microbiological validation using inoculated, simulated food particles. Tetra Pak followed by employing this resulting methodology to file a process for a particulate product with FDA which received a letter of no objection.
The result? – Nothing! No companies commercially launched aseptic foods containing particulates that year.
Then, in 2003, a large soup company assembled a group of engineers, food scientists and microbiologists to use that pathway to launch a line of aseptic soups with vegetable particles. I can tell you that it took several years, a lot of hard work and innovation, and close collaboration with FDA to achieve this milestone, as I was a member of that group.
However, since then, there have been few, if any, followers down that pathway. Why? Because it’s very difficult and very expensive. Companies require capital for the processing and packaging equipment. They must also conduct numerous commercial scale trials with the actual product to gather the data required for simulation. Companies would have to invest before they even knew if they had a viable product. Also, most food processing companies don’t have the microbiology staff and facilities that are needed.
I see a brighter future in aseptic particulate products with all of these technologies working together to deliver methods that are easier and less expensive.
What I am seeing recently is the development of the tools and equipment to make it easier to develop aseptic processes and manufacture aseptic products with particulates.
As I stated at the start of this blog, flexible packaging is a great option for aseptic particulate products. One example is how the Fres-co FSU1000 vertical form-fill-seal, low-acid aseptic filler is well suited for particulate products as the seal is made above and not through the product. This prevents leakers, which are caused by product being trapped in the seal. I see a brighter future in aseptic particulate products with all of these technologies working together to deliver methods that are easier and less expensive.
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