Convenience food: quality and food safety are inseparable

We live in an increasingly demanding society where time management is the major limiting factor in our lives. The hectic pace of our lives leaves little time for daily chores. From home to work and from work to home, with intense working days in between, there is no time to cook and eating at work is almost compulsory. We turn to whatever is available on the market to feed us, resulting in a remarkable adaptation of food to current lifestyles and vice versa. All this has led to a significant increase in the popularity of instant, convenience food.

The growing desire for convenience and time-saving solutions has driven the expansion of the convenience food industry. All market studies point to strong growth in the sector over the next decade. It can be said that convenience products (prepared and ready to eat or cooked and just needing a re-heating) are here to stay, hence the adaptation of some food industries and especially the packaging industry. Prepared convenience food is a challenge for the food industry. It requires innovative solutions that meet the highest standards of quality and food safety. The proliferation of this type of industry, both for the end consumer and for restaurants, makes it necessary to follow strict hygiene protocols to ensure that the product reaches the table with the highest quality and without any type of contamination.

In this article, we are talking about the rise of the convenience food sector, which is made up of products that do not contain any additives or preservatives and that maintain their original organoleptic characteristics, taste and nutritional value. These are high quality, fresh, easy to prepare products that require important cleaning and disinfection processes in the bakeries where they are cooked to prevent the proliferation of micro-organisms that make them unsafe. This range of meals completes the ready to eat segment of the market, which includes prepared foods and meals that can be eaten as they are or after minimal preparation.

 

A growing market

According to a report by Market.us, the global ready meals market is expected to reach a value of approximately 244.6 billion dollars by 2032, up from USD 149,2 billion in 2022, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.2% during the forecast period 2023-2032. According to Statista, a statistics portal, the ready meals market revenue will reach 0.55 billion dollars in 2023 and the market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.51% (2023-2028). The average volume per person in the ready meals market is expected to reach 10.58 kg in 2023.

The boom in consumption of this type of product is mainly due to four aspects: the changing lifestyle of consumers, who are looking for more and more fast food options. The proliferation of fast food chains offering a wide range of ready meals. The growth of urban populations looking for healthy, fast food. And fourth, the rise of online shopping. Consumers increasingly have easy access to a wide range of ready meals at the click of a button.

 

Ready to eat products: heat, open and serve

But what is meant by ready-to-eat products, also known as premium foods? The first thing to remember is that these are not pre-cooked or pre-prepared foods. They are ready-made dishes with sauce and toppings, ready to heat and serve, some of which do not even need to be heated to be eaten. These types of products, which include lasagne, cannelloni, potato omelettes, sauces and all kinds of rice dishes, among many other ready meals, do not contain any additives or preservatives, so they need to be kept refrigerated to keep them fresh.

The production of ready meals is a safe process, with two main processes used to guarantee the quality of the final product. One is pasteurisation, which involves heating the food to a high temperature for a short period of time to kill most of the micro-organisms present. The other is the freezing technique, which consists of rapidly freezing the product at very low temperatures to avoid the formation of ice crystals, which can damage the texture and affect the organoleptic characteristics of the food.

Quality and food safety in convenience food

The fact that these convenience foods are ready to eat presents a number of risks that can affect both the organoleptic characteristics of the food, which can affect its quality, and the microbiological contamination of the product, whichcan affect its food safety.

First of all, it is important to distinguish between convenience products that need to be heated before consumption (ready to heat) and those that are consumed fresh (ready to eat).

Products that are cooked and require re-heating before consumption require the use of a microwave oven or air-fryer for a few minutes. This heating can inactivate most of the micro-organisms present in the food, as long as we are talking about a reduced microbial load, but not their spores. It should be noted that food heated in a microwave oven or air-fryer reaches a maximum temperature of 100ºC for a few minutes, so if the food has a high microbial load, heat treatment may not be sufficiently effective.

On the other hand, convenience foods that are consumed fresh (prepared salads, sushi, sandwiches, etc.) have not been cooked and are not heated prior to consumption, which increases the risk that their quality and food safety may be compromised throughout the production process, subsequent marketing and handling by the consumer.

In any case, the quality and shelf life of ready-to-eat products are affected by various factors such as water loss, microbial growth, oxidation processes, changes in the organoleptic characteristics of the food, increase in respiration rate and the ripening process of the product. It is therefore very important to control all the factors that can affect the quality and safety of the product.

What should we focus on?

It is important to focus on all factors that can affect the quality and food safety of this type of product in order to minimise risks and ensure that the convenience food that reaches the end consumer is safe and of high quality (Yousuf et al., 2020; Lehel et al., 2020). The main factors that need to be considered are detailed in the figure below:

Factors influencing the quality and safety of ready-to-eat foods

Figure 1. Factors influencing the quality and safety of ready-to-eat foods. Adapted from Yousuf et al., 2020.

 

  1. Water contamination
    Water is used to wash raw materials, especially in the case of field-grown fruit and vegetables, which have a high microbiological load. This water is usually reused and therefore disinfection at this point is very important to avoid cross-contamination and to ensure the quality and food safety of the product. Chlorinated or peracetic acid-based disinfectants are usually used for this purpose.
  2. Microbial growth
    Most raw materials for fresh ready to eat products are sliced and do not undergo heat treatment or the addition of preservatives prior to marketing. It is therefore very difficult to maintain microbiological safety in this type of product.Foods contain nutrients and moisture that provide optimal conditions for microorganisms to grow and develop. Thus, we can find pathogenic microorganisms, which can cause food poisoning in the consumer, and/or altering microorganisms, which are capable of altering the organoleptic characteristics of the product, reducing its shelf life and causing economic losses.It is therefore important to ensure that good practices are followed in the production process to minimise the microbial load of the cut ingredients.
  3. Environmental conditions.
    Environmental conditions have a major influence on the microbial populations that may be present in food. In a food industry, environmental conditions in terms of temperature, humidity, presence of nutrients, etc. are optimal for microbial growth. A convenience food product can be contaminated during packaging, transport, storage, distribution and shelf life. Special attention must therefore be paid to these stages, ensuring that the refrigeration temperature is maintained so as not to break the cold chain.The most significant pathogen in this categroy of food is Listeria monocytogenes. This microorganism can readily survive in processing plants operating under chilled conditions especially in drains, recesses and in biofilms. This microorganism can result in flu like conditions in healthy adults, however for vulnerable consumers serious consequences including death can result. An EFSA study in 2015 suggested that the risk of death from L. monocytogenes was 900 x that from Salmonella spp. (EFSA, ECDC, 2015).In addition, when fruit and vegetables are cut, they lose the natural protective coating that protects them from external conditions, making them much more susceptible to external conditions and microbiological contamination.It should also be noted that some micro-organisms are able to sporulate under adverse conditions, which is a resistance mechanism that allows them to withstand heat and decontamination treatments, but at room temperature they can take on vegetative forms. Also, some micro-organisms, such as Staphylococcus aureus, can produce thermostable toxins under the right conditions, which can resist heat treatment and cause food poisoning.
  4. Changes in organoleptic characteristics
    The processing of this type of food may involve peeling, cutting, mincing or slicing, which causes tissue damage and increased cellular respiration, resulting in biochemical degradation of the food through browning, loss of texture, release of undesirable odours and increased risk of microbiological contamination.
  5. Packaging materials and conditions
    The packaging phase is crucial for products to maintain their organoleptic characteristics and microbiological safety during their shelf life due to the possibility of microbiological contamination during the packaging procedure or incorrect sealing, for instance. The most commonly used material for food packaging is plastic because of its mechanical strength and low cost. The problem with these plastic containers is that many are not biodegradable. To be more environmentally friendly, more biodegradable plastic packaging is being introduced to the market. In addition, research projects are being developed with the aim of re-using plastic food packaging after it has been properly cleaned and disinfected.To this end, Christeyns is currently participating in a European project called Buddie-Pack, together with other companies, universities and research centres from various European countries. The goal of this project is the reuse of food packaging and Christeyns participation consist in the development of an optimized cleaning and disinfection procedure, performing preliminary compatibility test between packaging materials and chemicals, also analysing the microbiological contamination before and after C+D treatment.

What can we do?

To ensure the quality and food safety of ready meals, the food industry must control the following 10 points:

  • All raw materials must be of good quality and meet the microbiological standards required by current legislation.
  • Raw materials must be washed, especially if they come from the field.
  • Strict hygiene protocols and good practices must be followed at all stages of the production process.
  • Appropriate disinfectants must be used in wash water and on food contact surfaces.
  • In the case of cooked products, it must be ensured that the time and temperature conditions are sufficient to inactivate the microbiological load present in the product.
  • Points where contamination can accumulate, such as cutting or slicing blades, must be properly sanitised. It is also important to analyse and monitor the presence of biofilms specifically at these points.
  • Excess moisture must be removed from fresh produce to inhibit microbial growth.
  •  The product must be packaged in appropriate packaging materials and under optimal conditions to preserve the product throughout its shelf life.
  •  Temperature must be controlled at each stage of the production process to ensure the cold chain.
  • Cross-contamination must be minimised during production and subsequent handling.

Ready-to-eat products have been on the market for a long time, meeting a growing demand from consumers whose lifestyles are changing rapidly. These products are easy to prepare and consume and require maximum guarantees of quality and food safety. The convenience food range is here to stay and occupies an important niche in the market, and food safety must not be compromised.

 

Bibliography

EFSA, ECDC, 2015. EU Summary Report on Trends and Sources of Zoonoses, Zoonotic Agents and Food-borne Outbreaks in 2014. EFSA Journal 2015;13(12):4329).

Lehel, J., Yaucat-Guendi, R., Darnay, L., Palotás, P., Laczay, P. (2020). Possible food safety hazards of ready-to-eat raw fish containing product. Critical review in Food Science and Nutrition, 1-22.

Yousuf, B., Deshi, V., Ozturk, B., Siddiqui, M.W. (2020). Fresh-cut fruits and vegetables: Quality issues and safety concerns. Fresh-Cut Fruits and Vegetables, 1-15.

GlobeNewswire.com. Ready Meals Market Poised To Hold The Value Of USD 244.6 Bn by 2032. (03/07/2023).

Statista.com. Ready-to-Eat Meals – Worldwide. (03/07/2023)

 

Authors

 

María Sanz

PhD in Biological Sciences from the Universitat Politècnica de València. She has participated in numerous national and European projects to improve food safety in the food industry. Head of R&D Microbiology at Christeyns Spain.

Joan Estornell

Marketing Manager Food Hygiene en CHRISTEYNS. Licenciado en Ciencias de la Información. Máster en Dirección de Cuentas Publicitarias. Innovación estratégica en Marketing y Publicidad (UAB). Máster en Digital Business. Marketing Digital (ESIC Business & Marketing School). Curso Higienista en la Industria Alimentaria (Betelgeux).

Authors

Similar Stories