Monday, December 5, 2011


Food technology strives to process and preserve food raw materials into consumable form for periods ranging from a few days to several years. But the consumer perception about fresh quality food does not help the technologists to actively pursue the research efforts to evolve processes that can ensure shelf stability beyond a certain extent. With the advent of refrigeration many foods can be preserved for a few days to a few weeks at temperatures ranging from 0C to 8C while most foods are preserved at sub-zero temperatures for a few months with minimum quality deterioration. While safety is of paramount importance, eating quality is the critical factor that decides the acceptability or other wise of the processed foods. It is always asked whether it is possible for food technologists to preserve food indefinitely or for long periods, say about 5 years. But a counter question would be who wants to eat a 5 year old food even if there is a workable technology?

A consumer is unlikely to pick up a product from the supermarket with 5 year shelf life if he has a choice of an alternative with two weeks life. Practically every house has a refrigerator with capacity ranging from 100 liters to more than 500 liters and the freezer chest coming with the Frig can carry a few items for consumption in 1-2 months. There are stand alone freezers with small to large capacities which are useful to larger families. These gadgets are normally useful for storing both short term needs as well as long period storage with the latter coming handy to "hoard" those products offered in the market from time to time at promotional or stock liquidation programs. The very fact that consumers have a tendency to pick up products from the shelves with most recent manufacturing date reflects their innate desire to buy products as fresh as possible. This again raises the question whether there will be any takers for products with extra long life?

Food is to be preserved from two angles. First and foremost it has to be safe. The eating quality comes next but it is crucial for a competitive market that food offered has most acceptable sensory quality which includes flavor, texture and taste. Historically preserved foods using salt, sugar, acidity and dehydration were only the choices till the middle of the last millennium and the consumers of yesteryear were contented with the same for want of an effective alternative. To day situation is different with a vast array of technologies available that include canning, aseptic packing, vacuum packing, retort pouch process, irradiation, high pressure processing etc that can give products with varying shelf life from a few months to a few years. The outer space missions by countries like the US, EU, China and Russia require long life food products while military missions in far away places also stock such products. Natural calamity, undeveloped remote areas, especially in the third world countries also depend on preserved products with long shelf life.

Another relevant question is who will make products with long shelf life? The food industry which works incessantly to lure the customers to the products turned out by it wants the customers to increase the frequency of purchase as much as possible and by putting long life products in the market the manufacturers naturally are bound to suffer due to slower turn over. The industry requirement is a maximum shelf life of 9-12 months which gives them sufficient time to distribute the products with least damage and minimum recall in large countries like India. One of the biggest problems faced by the industry is the mandatory provision under the labeling regulation to indicate the manufacturing date on the label which leads to the customers picking up the most recent ones which they believe to be of best quality. The possibility of products manufactured during earlier dates remaining on the shelf without sale and evetually being returned is very high. The market pull will always be the force that is capable of dictating terms to the food scientists for their development agenda and probably long life products will invariably be the ones with least priority.    


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