Process development of retorted foods – your top three most frequently asked questions
By Sarah McFarland - 30 June 2017
Thousands of new food and drink products are launched in the UK each year. Many of those products will require a company to purchase a retort/autoclave cooker. I have seen many companies – even experienced manufacturers – invest in a retort only to be left feeling in the dark because it’s a completely new area for them.
Companies can unfortunately find out the hard way when developing and processing retorted products that it is not just as simple as putting the packaged product in the retort, closing the door and pushing an ‘on’ switch in the first instance. Over the years there have been many situations where process development has not been as satisfactory or efficient as anticipated, resulting in undesirable consequences, such as delayed product launches. A common mistake in product and process development is taking short cuts from product concept to launch sometimes to the point of eliminating any real focus on process development – an essential step to producing retorted food.
To help you, here are the answers to the three most frequent questions we get asked by clients who wish to produce retorted products:
1. What type of retort/autoclave should we buy?
“Is this retort/autoclave right for us?”, is one of the most frequent questions that we are asked by clients. There is a wide range of retorts on the market that can process the same product and packaging. To ensure you select the right retort/autoclave for your needs, you should consider the following:
- Flexibility – what different packaging type or sizes can the system accommodate?
- Target thermal process cook – does the product need to be pasteurised or sterilised?
- Volume of product to be processed
- Is batch or continuous processing the best option?
- How much will it cost to buy and run?
- What considerations are needed during installation and which utilities are required? –
We can provide impartial advice to help you choose a retort/autoclave system that is best suited to your individual needs, working with you to take account of the above factors.
2. What process cycle should we use?
There is no one–size–fits all solution. There are many process cycles/programs available as each one is specific to a particular product and packaging combination. Food packaging types behave differently during processing and are influenced by the product recipe and other processing parameters such as in–pack headspace. Therefore it is not as simple as providing an off the shelf solution.
Testing your kitchen NPD samples in a pilot retort before deciding on which type of retort to buy enables you to evaluate your packaging and product during process development. Some of our clients tweak the recipe based on what they see and taste whereas others choose to change the retort cycle/programme so that the product is exposed to lower temperatures or higher temperatures for a shorter period of time. The choice is yours, but this choice can be better informed when you see the results first hand and have the advice of an expert in the field to adjust the retort cycle/program to suit your product and packaging. We often use our pilot plant facilities to help companies with this.
3. When should we validate our scheduled process?
Thermal validation is the last step of process development. It can only take place once you have done all of the following:
- Chosen your recipe/packaging specifications and product loading specifications, and confirmed the developed retort programme delivers the product you desire.
- Ensured your production team are trained to operate the retort and can cope with the quantity of product required loading/unloading of the retort.
- Determined your worst case conditions based on production data.
- Agreed on your target lethality that encompasses both safety and quality.
This list is a minimum and not fully comprehensive. It depends on your product and scheduled process. If you make any changes to the product or retort cycle/program after validation it will invalidate the process. Companies that give process development the same priority as recipe/product development can benefit from more effective and efficient innovation in food processing.
Food manufacturers sometimes need a helping hand with process development. Our team of processing support specialists often make onsite visits to walk clients through the steps and considerations for their specific factory and products so they can choose a retort best suited to their needs and to help develop the scheduled process. For more information about process development, investing in a retort, or to arrange a one–day consultation with a member of our processing support team please get in touch.