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Originally, processing was used simply to preserve food for consumption beyond a product’s normal life cycle or place where it was grown. Until the industrial revolution, food production remained rudimentary; people generally ate what they or others living nearby could produce and preserve. In addition, food production employed a very large proportion of the population.

Today, the food industry in Europe is totally different: three per cent of the population produces three quarters of the region’s food. The rest is imported from all over the world. Demographic changes have also triggered an increasing demand for convenient foods and variety as well as nutritional quality and affordability.

All these changes have combined to shape the modern food processing industry. Despite new products and the increasing reliance of consumers on processed food, the fundamental purpose of food processing remains the same to make food available when and where it is needed.

The food processing industry strives to meet consumer expectations for food that is safe, unspoiled, nutritious, convenient, enjoyable, available in a wide variety and affordable.

Food safety. Consumer confidence in the safety of food is vital to the food processing industry. Confidence is one of the key elements in building brand loyalty which, in turn, determines the success and profitability of individual food companies.

The safety of processed food involves eliminating and/or preventing the multiplication of the microbes that exist in all food and which can cause foodborne diseases.

Preservation. Preserving the taste, smell, look and feel of food and preventing spoilage is also an important function of food processing. Preservation is accomplished by inactivating basic natural processes in food:

Enzyme action all food contains natural enzymes that break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates to facilitate animal and plant growth. Once an animal has been killed or a plant harvested, these enzymes, if left uncontrolled, continue to work, breaking down the food itself and resulting in spoilage.

Microbial action all food can be attacked by bacteria and fungi that cause food to rot or become mouldy. If permitted to multiply, these microbes can cause spoilage.

Oxidation many food components can be attacked by oxygen in the air, making them rancid or resulting in an unpleasant taste. This, too, must be controlled.

Nutrition. Processing techniques preserve natural nutrients or increase the nutritional value of some products such as vitamin enriched cereals, breads and dairy products. Processing also makes some foodstuffs more digestible, thus increasing both their appeal and the bio availability of important nutrients. For example, cooking can increase the bio availability of starches.

Convenience. With the increase in the number of families with two wage earners, single persons or single parent households, providing food products that are convenient to prepare at home is an increasingly important function of the food processing industry. Products include complete meals for almost instant serving from freezer to microwave to table; frozen pizzas ready for the oven; special mixes for pastries and breads.

Variety. As a result of modern food processing, today’s consumer in Europe has unparalleled choice: fish from the North Atlantic and South Pacific;
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frozen lamb from New Zealand; exotic canned fruits from the tropics; fresh or frozen pastries. The list is nearly endless: the world is the consumer’s garden. Data from one large supermarket chain indicates an increase from around 600 food products in a typical supermarket of the mid 1950s to more than 10,000 food products available today.

Affordability. Food that is not affordable is also not available to the average consumer. The food processing industry has played a major role in ensuring that the varied and nutritious products available today are also affordable. In the most developed countries in Europe where the widest variety of processed food is available, consumers spend between 12 to 20 per cent of household budgets on food and drink; in other European countries, food spending accounts for as much as 40 %.

Almost all food must be processed in some way before it can be eaten. Even fresh vegetables from the garden must be cleaned and trimmed. There are various levels of food processing:

Harvesting crops, slaughtering livestock or catching and killing game or fish is the preliminary step

Cutting, cleaning, packaging and refrigeration of these raw foods make them practical to use for the consumer while preserving moisture content, and preventing (or retarding the growth of) microbes

Secondary processing goes a step further in creating a whole array of food products from canned and frozen vegetables to fully prepared dinners, baked breads, cheeses, milk, chocolate bars, biscuits, convenience meats and a variety of other products.

The main methods of secondary food processing include:

Heating. Pasteurisation involves heating to temperatures of at least 72C for 15 seconds to kill most foodborne pathogens and then quickly cooling to 5C. However, food is not totally sterilised; refrigeration is required and shelf life is limited. Sterilisation involves heating to temperatures of at least 120C or more for a couple of seconds, which kills most microbes and inactivates enzymes; the heating process is followed by rapid cooling. Sterilisation significantly increases shelf life and reduces the need for refrigeration as long as the package remains unopened.

Cooling. Refrigeration and freezing maintain food at controlled, low temperatures to keep enzymes inactive and inhibit the growth of microbes. To remain effective, cooling and freezing must be maintained consistently through transport, retail sale and storage at home until shortly before preparation and consumption. The fact that food might spoil at ambient temperatures makes temperature control critical.

Drying. This produces stable foods by reducing their water content, which, in turn, denies microbes the environment needed for reproduction. Food products where this technique is used are: powdered milk and soups, pasta, meat, fish, potato flakes, cereals, etc.
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