Few would dispute that the emergence of chilled and frozen food technologies in the last century was a major advance for modern society, transforming all our lives and bringing convenience and choice.
In Europe today, consumption of chilled and frozen foods is rising by more than 10% a year.
© Fotolia, 2012
But there is a downside. The safety issues
associated with the handling of such food
products remain a major public concern. Food
scares regularly hit the headlines. And food
poisoning caused by the incorrect handling of
these products can be fatal.
The problem is the large number of stages
in the production process "from farm to
fork" from farm producers to intermediate
suppliers to final manufacturers, all through a
range of transportation links. Many stages, in
other words, when a small lapse can easily go
unnoticed and have catastrophic results.
CHILL-ON, a major EU-funded research
project, set out to provide a solution to this
problem. The ambitious goal was to achieve
seamless control and monitoring from start
to finish of the supply chain, thus allowing risk
to be assessed, controlled and minimised in a
way never possible before.
If it could be achieved, it would be a precious
prize indeed, not only for the consumer, but also
for the food industry, with strict regulations to
observe, competitive pressures to deal with,
and precious reputations to protect.
Led by the Technology Transfer Centre of
Bremerhaven, Germany and involving 31
partners from 13 countries, the € 15.5 million
project took four and a half years. It was
truly multi-disciplinary, bringing together
experts in fields ranging from bio-chemistry
to information technology, from genetics to
packaging, and from microbiology to logistics,
engineering and mathematics.
The numerous breakthroughs incorporated
in the final CHILL-ON system included
methods not only to detect the presence of
food pathogens - the bugs, which can cause
poisoning but also to predict their future
growth in given temperature conditions.
A 'Shelf-Life Predictor' allows a product's
remaining shelf life to be assessed at any
point along the supply chain. And clever
devices called 'Time Temperature Indicators'
are labels attached to each product which
change colour in accordance with exposure
to different temperatures over different time
scales. This information can be transmitted
wirelessly to a control centre.
All this information, and much else besides,
is fed into the heart of the system an
information management system accessed
via the web known as TRACECHILL. Through
this, users can gain real-time information
on the exact freshness and previous history
of every single product, wherever it is on its
journey from farm to fork.
In effect, this radical new system provides not
just a "snapshot" of any product at any point,
but a continuous "video" of its journey along
the supply chain. Tests have already tracked
Atlantic cod from Iceland to France, hake
being transported from Chile to Spain, and
frozen tilapia as it journeyed right through the
supply chain to China.
Where consumer food safety is concerned,
there is no room for compromise. Safety and
confidence are vital. For the food industry,
reputation is vital and easily lost. As a
result of the CHILL-ON project and its unique
combination of specialisms, society can today
enjoy the enormous benefits of chilled and
frozen food in greater confidence than ever