Consumer preference for convenience combined with the increasing sophistication of the American palate is driving food companies to find more efficient ways to quickly deliver safe, fresh and delicious foods to market. Fast-casual dining restaurants are significantly growing in popularity, as consumers still seek the convenience provided by traditional fast food establishments, but demand greater food quality, freshness and taste. "This is a fast growing food service sector being driven by innovative food processing technologies," said chef Eric Carré, founder of ErdaTek. "A critical component of developing ready-to-eat foods is capable equipment. Multivac has been working with me for 20 years on developing prepared entrée systems and solutions. Their machines are reliable, durable, efficient and tremendously versatile. They were a natural choice for the new facility."
The Cook-In-Pack Process
Among the technologies used by ErdaTek to create prepared entrée foods is a process known as cook-in-pack, a method by which ingredients are cooked in a pouch or vacuumed airtight tray, and then quickly chilled and refrigerated or frozen. Prior to serving, the packaged food is reheated in simmering water, or in microwave or convection ovens. Under refrigeration, shelflife from 6 to 45 days can be achieved, depending on the formulation and packaging method.
"Cook-in-pack is unique and gentle in that it allows the cellular structure of food to remain intact," said Carré. "The food's natural moisture and juices are retained, preserving flavor, aroma, and nutrients. Natural flavors are so enhanced that far less seasoning is required."
Using cook-in-pack methods, natural fibers soften and dissolve, leaving foods like beef tender enough to cut with a fork. The food is improved in taste and it retains its nutritional content. Also, measurable shrinkage of cook-in-pack products is 10% or less compared to 20% or more on conventionally cooked products.
To process cook-in-pack applications ErdaTek will install several new Multivac systems, including a T200 traysealer and a C500 double chamber vacuum packaging machine. The systems facilitate hot-fill and high-pressure pasteurization, and accommodate MAP technology.
"What really appeals to me about Multivac systems are their hot-fill capability," said Carré. "They have a unique feature that regulates the amount of vacuum pulled on products when they are hot. This is a critical component, and a necessity for success when using hot-fill methods to create cook-in-pack entrees." The new systems will double ErdaTek's production capability, and significantly accelerate speed to market.
Each day, ErdaTek will produce a full range of fresh ready-to-eat entrées, soups and sauces to customers, often with very little lead-time for preparation. They require systems that are very versatile and can quickly be modified to accommodate different recipes.
"During the course of a day we may be looking at 10 to 20 different potential applications," said Carré. "We need systems that adapt quickly to our changing needs." ErdaTek chose Multivac systems for efficiency, durability and quick changeover time.
Food Safety First
In addition to customer demand for convenience, the outbreak of food borne illnesses in the prepared meals industry is another factor driving cook-in-pack technology.
Cook-in-pack is one of the few technologies delivering safe, delicious, extended shelf life products under controlled (32°F to 34°F) refrigeration or freezing. Using precision calibrated, reliable and above all sanitary vacuum packaging equipment, entrees with an average shelf life of up to forty days can be created.
"In addition to providing precise process control, Multivac machines are incredibly sanitary," said Carré. "They are 100% stainless steel, easy to clean and wash down. And, their design helps to prevent bacterial causing substances like water or unused product from collecting."
The Future of Food Processing
Today consumers are busier than ever and less time can be spent in home kitchens preparing meals. People want convenient food that is easy-to-prepare, fresh and flavorful.
"As we move into the future this trend towards fast yet fresh, safe food is only going to grow," said Carré. "Food processors who fail to recognize this will soon find themselves at a significant disadvantage in the marketplace."