Keep up to date on shelf life for chilled vacuum pack food

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If you vacuum pack some of the food you produce to help with shelf life or quality you may not be aware that new guidance was published in December 2020 Safety and shelf life of Vacuum packed food 1990 (the guidance also covers modified atmosphere packing but is not discussed in this blog)

What is vacuum packing?

It is the removal of air using an air tight seal to prevent any air returning. Most bacteria require oxygen to grow but some don’t and these are the ones that you need to be aware of.

What’s all the fuss about?

Many caterers produce vacuum packed foods but this can be risky due to a bacteria called clostridium botulinum. This bacteria can produce toxins in the absence of oxygen in vacuum packed products stored at 3°C – 8°C . As such there is a strict shelf life limit of 10 days to control the growth of this bacteria. You must follow these guidelines as botulism poisoning can be fatal.

Botulism poisoning has been linked to smoked fish outbreaks. In Germany in 2000 there were 3 cases linked to smoked trout (Robert Koch institute 2021) and in 2019  a number of cases linked to vacuum packed smoked salmon. (WebMD Health News 2021).

Does the 10 day shelf life apply to all chilled foods?

No, it no longer applies to fresh chilled beef, pork or lamb which can now have a shelf life of up to 13 days. This is because there is no evidence that chilled meat has caused Botulism poisoning to date.  However it does apply if there are any added ingredients or if the meat has been processed e.g. mince. Caterers can still use the 10 day shelf life limit if they prefer.

How do I extend shelf life to more than 10 days?

This can be done by applying further treatment to the food:

  • a heat treatment of 90°C for 10 minutes (or equivalent time/temperature combinations)
  • a pH of 5.0 or less
  • a minimum salt level of 3.5%
  • a water activity (aw) of 0.97 or less
  • a combination of heat and other  factors

See the guidance for more detailed instructions on whether a shelf life of more than 10 days can be applied to a product. This depends on cross contamination risks and validation of the other controlling factors applied to the food.

Re wrapping of Vacuum packed foods

The shelf life must start when the product is first vacuum packed and should not be restarted if the product is re wrapped.

If you do vacuum pack foods make sure that you include this in your food safety management system. You must include the controls  for clostridium botulinum and identify the critical control points. Refer to the guidance and have a copy to hand. If you have relied on any of the other controlling factors make sure you have the evidence to back up what you are doing e.g. scientific data.

If you need further information or advice on vacuum packed foods Contact me for a no obligation chat.