Treating fresh or ready-to-eat meat and poultry products after initial processing and before they are shipped through the distribution chain to the consumer is not a new concept. From irradiation to bacteriophages to the use of ultraviolet light, various interventions have been set up in the supply chain.
High-pressure pasteurization (HPP), an intervention in which sealed foods placed in a vessel or chamber are subjected to high levels of water pressure (hydrostatic pressure), may be a form of cold pasteurization but it’s certainly hot right now among many food and beverage processors, including meat and poultry companies.
HPP accomplishes a variety of purposes for food products like ready-to-eat (RTE) meats and other fresh protein products. The intense pressure – which can reach up to 87,000 psi – preserves and sterilizes foods by killing potentially harmful microorganisms that can lead to foodborne illness. In addition, the use of HPP allows for clean label, preservative-free product claims, given the fact that the pressure inhibits pathogens that would otherwise be controlled with the use of preservatives. HPP is approved by the US Dept. of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Those who have developed and provide HPP technologies point to the multiple benefits of such systems.
“There are three key advantages: food safety to inactivate pathogens such as Listeria, E. coli, and Salmonella; added shelf life to increase distribution range and decreased costs; and the ability to introduce new products like clean label foods,” explains Lisa Pitzer, marketing director at Avure Technologies Inc., an Erlanger, Ky.-based HPP machinery provider with more than 60 years of experience in HPP science and manufacturing.
Interest in utilizing high-pressure pasteurization as one intervention in a multi-hurdle approach to food safety and in ensuring that products meet the needs of consumers when it comes to the product profile is underscored by the advent of HPP tolling facilities around the country. HPP tolling allows food companies to take advantage of HPP technology by sending their products to dedicated third-party facilities that accomplish high-pressure pasteurization for them and ship the finished product to the retailer, foodservice operation or other point in the chain.
Using HPP tolling centers provides a variety of benefits to meat and poultry processors. It’s a win-win proposition for processors and their customers, according to Jeff Barnard, president of Universal Pasteurization Co. (UPC) in Lincoln, Neb., a large provider of HPP tolling services in the US, with locations in Nebraska, Texas and Pennsylvania. “By outsourcing the HPP to one of our facilities, meat processors can avoid a large capital investment while relying on our multisite redundancy,” he says, adding that UPC offers related services including pack-off, palletizing, inventory control and order picking. “In short, once their product is in its final package, they can ship to UPC and we’ll take care of it from there.”
One of UPC’s customers backs up those positives. “Universal Pasteurization Co. and Universal Cold Storage provide a valuable service to our company. Food safety is extremely important to our company and having the ability to send product to Universal Pasteurization to go through the HPP process is a valuable resource,” says Jordan Woodbury, director of sales and R&D for Dakota Provisions in Huron, SD.
Alan True, founder and CEO of True Fresh HPP, an innovation-based HPP tolling platform based in Irvine, Calif., also points to the many advantages of the technology.
“First and foremost, research has shown the trends today are not just the traditional consumer drivers of price, value and convenience – consumers today are also looking for healthy, safe, sustainable ways to source food for the table, and these trends are across the board in terms of age, salary and regions,” True says. “HPP delivers on all of these points the consumers are looking for in the center-of-plate protein category.” True says his center utilizes Hiperbaric HPP machines, produced by the Spanish manufacturer Hiperbaric HPP with US offices in Miami.
True also underscores the reasons why processors would turn to a third-party HPP company. “As a service provider, we are an extension of them – we receive the product, bundle it or unbundle it and put it in the machine. We’ll palletize it and even handle logistics if necessary. We intend to be a solution, not a restraint, in the way that they execute their business,” he says.
Currently, there are about a dozen such tolling stations around the country that have been designed and built to meet the needs of food and beverage processors, including meat and poultry companies. Many of those sites are located near major processors or distribution centers.
“There are obvious logistical advantages to processing close to the manufacturing facility. However, since True Fresh HPP’s first facility is located near major customer consolidation/distribution centers, other suppliers across the nation can benefit as well,” True says.
In their facilities, tollers deploy equipment developed by HPP equipment providers such as Avure or Hiperbaric. The technology is most commonly used for RTE items like deli meat, hot dogs and sliced and cured ham, along with raw ground poultry and fresh ground beef and beef patties.
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Growing interest in HPP
According to Barnard, as interest in HPP grows, so does the type and number of applications. “The refrigerated meats category, both ready to cook and ready to eat, is growing as more producers are targeting the perimeter of the store. HPP has been a key technology making refrigerated offerings possible, where historically frozen was the only option,” he says. “Meat producers are also now HPP-treating raw materials and are increasingly focused on extending shelf life while maintaining a clean label.”
Those who provide HPP for and at tolling facilities say that number is only going to increase – and perhaps substantially.
“It is an exciting time for HPP as interest and demand are growing exponentially each year. HPP is moving away from being a novel process to being a normal process,” Pitzer says. “Ten years ago the question surrounding HPP was, ‘What is this technology?’ Five years ago, the question changed to, ‘Can I afford it?’ Now, it is a normal, not novel technology so the questions are changing to normal food manufacturing questions.”
According to Pitzer, Avure helps its tolling partners and their customers implement HPP from recipe development and process validations to installation, regulatory affairs and post-installation support.
Those in the tolling business agree that strong interest and demand across many food and drink categories is leading to expansion. True Fresh HPP, for example, has developed technology-rich HPP facilities, including a new site in Southern California.
“Our customers are getting pressure from their retailers, and we have many asking when we’ll be able to offer HPP,” True says. “We want to break the bottleneck in the supply chain that has traditionally been HPP and have the infrastructure in place. All a customer has to do is put product in a container or package of choice and give it to us.”
To accommodate that interest, True Fresh continues to build upon its business model.
“Right now, we are building the largest single high-capacity facilities on the West Coast, and we’ve purchased four Hiperbaric machines with the additional capacity to expand further into the Midwest and East Coast regions,” reports True, who also points to longer-term capabilities. “We continue to work closely with packaging industry leaders with the intention to provide state-of-the-art, unique packaging options designed for the HPP process. It is our plan to provide our customers with services beyond HPP to include product innovation, packaging design recommendations, efficient and safe product flow, and full-chain process management.”
Likewise, Barnard says that UPC’s tolling facilities reflect the demand and capability for HPP tolling. “Universal continues to invest in new locations and additional HPP machines,” he says, citing the company’s new 170,000-sq.-ft. HPP and cold storage facility in Malvern, Pa., that offers two 525L HPP machines with a capacity to add up to four additional machines. “At each location and across our network, we provide redundancy in equipment, cold storage capabilities and distribution services. We make it not only possible, but easy for producers to provide their customers with the benefits of HPP.”
Avure has provided HPP systems for other tolling businesses in the US serving food processors, including Stay Fresh Foods LLC in Meriden, Conn., HPP Food Services in Wilmington, Calif., National Foodworks Group in Denver and Pressure Safe LLC in Oregon. Hiperbaric HPP, likewise, continues to provide systems to tollers in North America, such as Arctic Cold Storage in St. Cloud, Minn., SafePac in Philadelphia, and Fresh Advantage in Danvers, Mass., among others.
As meat and poultry processors turn to HPP as another tool in their quest for product quality and safety to meet their own consumers’ needs, they may also step in and educate consumers about how and why products are being treated.
“Clearly, as the food industry as a whole continues to adopt the HPP process and as consumers get more educated on the benefits of HPP, the early adopters will be in the forefront of capturing the market share – and getting the brand recognition along with establishing to the consumer that they are a food safety-centered provider,” True says.