Extending Shelf-Life: A Key To Expansion In APAC

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018

Delivering a fresh and appealing product is as important as ever to consumers of meat products, but in an evolving, expanding market, the best method to do it may be changing. By Stephanie Carlson, global marketing manager, Corbion.


For meat producers looking to go where the growth is, the Asia-Pacific region is clearly the land of opportunity. According to a 2017 report by the Brookings Institution, 88 percent of the next billion people to enter the middle class will be in Asia. Moreover, increasing urbanisation in the region is driving growth in the supermarket channel, which presents a chance to reach higher-value customers, and to achieve more efficient sales and distribution. With the ASEAN Economic Community poised to lower import duties on meat products, meat industry players are focusing intently on meeting the rapidly growing demand for animal protein in this part of the world.

But successfully expanding into (or further into) this dynamic market requires that producers overcome a number of challenges that come with the territory—in particular, challenges related to product shelf-life. Inconsistencies in distribution channels and storage infrastructure all too often present obstacles to delivering products that meet consumer expectations for both safety and freshness.

In the supermarket channel, storage freezers and warehouses sometimes fail to provide the conditions needed to prevent product spoilage, resulting in costly product returns. In wet markets, improper handling and storage, a lack of modern facilities and extended transport time to remote locations, all contribute to shelf-life challenges. In the food service space, client shelf-life requirements can be difficult to meet, especially when dealing with strong price competition. The degree to which processors navigate and overcome such shelf-life hurdles can play a large part in determining their success in the APAC region.


Factors Affecting Shelf-Life

Consumers assess the acceptability of meat products based on a number of factors. Visual appearance (including colour and the amount of free liquid or purge in the package), tenderness, juiciness, fat and protein, drip and cooking loss in preparation, aroma and, of course, flavour, all shape the consumer’s perception of product freshness. Each of these product attributes can be negatively impacted by spoilage bacteria, so meeting shelf-life requirements is a matter of inhibiting the growth of that bacteria.

To understand the breadth and diversity of variables that influence the microbial challenge, it is essential to consider characteristics and conditions, both inside and outside the product itself. Internal factors include the initial microbial load inside the product, as well as the quality of raw materials, spices and other ingredients. Conditions affecting bacterial growth also include other internal variables such as pH, moisture content, oxygen availability and water activity, the presence of antimicrobials, as well as the composition of the product.

Microbial load, appearance, yield and purge are also affected by external parameters, including processing, heating and cooling, post-pasteurisation handling, packaging, storage, conditions in distribution, as well as sanitation practices.


Traditional Ingredient Solutions

While some longstanding preservation methods have proven their effectiveness over time, their acceptability has been increasingly called into question by a growing number of consumers, both curious and concerned about the content and origins of the foods they eat.

Salt has been used as a highly effective and inexpensive means of preserving meat for millennia; it prevents spoilage by drawing moisture from the meat and creating an environment that is inhospitable to bacteria. Yet the well-researched connection between excessive sodium intake and health concerns such as high blood pressure and heart disease have led many consumers to demand foods lower in sodium content.

Nitrites and benzoates are also examples of ingredients that have demonstrated their effectiveness as antimicrobials and antioxidants for many years, lowering pH and moisture levels to slow the growth of microorganisms. But these synthetic food additives also are seen by some consumers as potentially harmful chemicals, so many of the world’s meat processors are reformulating their products, opting for more natural or “clean label” methods of preservation.


Non-Ingredient Options

Microbial growth can also be effectively slowed by freezing and refrigeration, but those options can be costly, and in some regions, not reliable or even viable. Heat treating as a final step in processing can also inhibit microbial growth, but this method requires that strict hygienic measures be implemented to avoid recontamination, and ultimately, product spoilage. Thermal treatment also can result in unintended compromises in product quality, including loss of flavour or texture.

Shelf-life can be extended by up to 10 days using advanced packaging techniques that delay oxidation. Modified atmosphere packing (MAP) or vacuum packing (VP) may not, however, be effective over longer periods, as they may not prevent the growth of aerobic spoilage microorganisms, like C. botulinum, which can cause food poisoning.

High pressure processing (HPP) is another non-ingredient alternative in which the product, already in its sealed package, undergoes cold pasteurisation, being subjected to a high level of isostatic pressure (300–600MPa) transmitted by water. This technique effectively inactivates certain spoilage bacteria—however, it can sometimes have an undesirable effect on the product’s colour, tenderness and flavour.


“Clean Label” On The Rise

Historically, Asian consumers and manufacturers have focused primarily on cost and shelf-life in meat products. But with the continuing emergence of a middle-class demographic in the region, more and more Asian shoppers are paying attention to the ingredients in the products they purchase. Processors are beginning to anticipate a much higher demand for “clean label” products, whether that means ingredient lists declaring more familiar, understandable contents, or lists that are simpler because they include fewer ingredients.

While the clean label movement may be at a relatively early stage of maturation in Asia, research by Mintel, a leading global market intelligence agency, indicates that more than half of city-dwelling consumers in Indonesia buy products with natural attributes or claims, while more than 40 percent of Chinese shoppers look for products labelled with some kind of symbol or certification providing an assurance of food safety.

In general, label-focused meat consumers are motivated by their desire to reduce or eliminate product ingredients (such as nitrites, phosphates and artificial preservatives) and/or nutritional elements like sodium, sugar and fat. They believe it is important for health reasons to avoid these things, or at least control or minimise their intake.

Still, delivering acceptable product shelf-life is no less important when catering to the demands of “clean label” shoppers, so it is essential that any replacement for traditional antimicrobials be equally capable of overcoming the storage and distribution challenges that come with tackling the dynamic Asia-Pacific market. Many processors are now turning to organic acids as an important tool for effectively extending shelf-life in a way that meets the approval of consumers in this market segment.


Organic Acids: A More Natural Approach

A highly effective substitute for traditional synthetic antimicrobials can be found in organic acids such as sodium lactate and potassium lactate, which inhibit bacterial outgrowth by lowering water activity and disrupting bacterial metabolism.

One clean label challenge for manufacturers involves reducing salt content for consumers concerned about their sodium intake. Often, removing salt makes microbial inhibition more difficult because it reduces water-binding in the product and increases water activity. But in studies conducted by Corbion—a global ingredient supplier specialising in lactic acid fermentation—organic acid-based salts, such as potassium lactate or blends of lactate and acetate, had a bacteriostatic effect on meat, effectively inhibiting the growth of microorganisms, prolonging the dormant phase of bacterial growth and extending shelf-life by 50 to 100 percent.

Similarly, another Corbion study showed that a higher-concentration potassium lactate ingredient in a cooked, reduced-sodium pork ham product suppressed the growth of Lactobacillus sakei (among the most common spoilage organisms worldwide), extending shelf-life 7 days longer than a ham without any organic acid-based salt.


Considering Other Product Attributes

Whether reformulating to accommodate the demands of “clean label” consumers or sticking with more traditional solutions, processors must also concern themselves with cook yield, moisture loss, slime formation and product appearance (colour)— factors beyond spoilage bacteria that can also limit product shelf-life. For most manufacturers, accepting the challenge of delivering on all these expectations is nothing new. But for many, achieving the product parameters their customers demand while creating a cleaner label is uncharted territory.

Again, lowering salt content can bring unwanted consequences, including reductions in cooking yield and the loss of desirable colour over time as myoglobin degrades into metmyoglobin. But organic acid-based solutions also perform well in regard to these product attributes, as confirmed by Corbion’s studies of potassium lactate/diacetate antimicrobial blends. One study demonstrated the ability of these more natural solutions to compensate for sodium reduction in terms of cooking yield in a ham product. In another, a high-concentration potassium lactate/diacetate blend added to beef patties increased shelf life by 30 percent, while significantly improving product colour at 10 days.

Organic acids have also proven helpful in providing moisture control in meat products during storage, when moisture can be lost and ropy slime can develop on the product surface. A study published in Meat Science in September 2000 compared the ability of nisin and sodium lactate to inhibit purge and slime formation in a Chinese-style, vacuum-packed sausage product over 30 days at 20 degrees Celsius. Results showed that at a similar cost in use (at the time of the study), the sodium lactate outperformed nisin, delivering a shelf-life of 25 days, compared to 5 days before ropy slime was detectable in the control and the sample containing nisin.


Think Cost, Not Price

For every player in the highly competitive meat industry, cost matters, but so does creating product differentiation. The key to success for many processors lies in achieving the right balance between the two.

“It is an exciting time for meat producers in Asia-Pac, but there are many moving parts,” says Edwin Bontenbal, business development manager, Corbion. “Managing cost will always be important, but with a growing segment of consumers willing and able to pay more for products that deliver all the attributes they care about, the cost picture is changing.”

Mr Bontenbal explains that, particularly in a time of change, processors should think broadly about how their costs will be impacted by the choice of a specific ingredient—not just focus on its price per pound. When evaluating shelf-life alternatives, he recommends comparing cost-in-use as well as differences in ease of handling, blending, storing and shipping that can positively or negatively affect overall costs.

“Choosing a solution in a powder format, for instance, offers higher concentration and lower usage levels, which means a lower impact on both flavour and costs,” Mr Bontenbal says. “It also can help reduce manufacturing errors and cost less to ship and store.”

With much of the current and future growth in the region taking the industry in new directions, it makes sense that processors are taking a fresh look at shelf life.


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