Ready to eat food (RTE) is exactly what it sounds like, food that is ready to eat. It typically requires no further cooking, adding of ingredients, or further instructions before it can be your next snack or meal. Ready to eat foods are available in a wide variety of products in everything from prepared meats and candy to breads and salads. We live in a fast paced world where reaching for ready to eat foods are a common practice to help us keep up with our busy lives.2018 saw food recalls linked to a variety of RTE foods including peanut butter, cereal, salad kits, and sweets, proving no food group is safe from contamination. Unlike other foods like frozen vegetables or meats, once packaged, RTE foods are consumed by individuals without prior cooking. Proper handling and cooking of other types of food can assist in killing off bacteria, but since RTE foods don't require cooking, there is no step by the consumer to kill off bacteria. It is the expectation of the consumer and the FDA that RTE products can be safely consumed once opened.
Food safety is of the utmost important in food processing facilities preparing RTE foods. Facility employees can be the last point of contact before a food is consumed so keeping hygiene top of mind is crucial. We've noted a few key tips to help processors keep RTE food safe.
Use hygienic equipment - Hygienically designed equipment should be any processors first step to ensuring food safety. Specific designs which limit harbourage points decrease the likeliness of bacteria growth. It is important that equipment cleaning be done frequently in RTE food processing facilities so CMP ensures that hygienically designed equipment is easy to clean, minimizing downtime.
Segregation of RTE foods - Staff working in raw areas of the plant should not be permitted into the RTE zone for fear of cross contaminating product. Different areas of the plant should be clearly marked for easy identification by staff and a thorough set of policies and procedures should be established to prevent cross contamination.
Sanitizing - Sanitizing equipment and testing for pathogens should be conducted more frequently in RTE plants due to the absence of the cooking process by consumers. Create a sanitizing schedule that prioritizes food safety and test for pathogens and bacteria on a frequent basis. Catching contamination early can help prevent massive product recalls and food borne illnesses.
Keep it dry - The growth of organisms flourish in moist areas. Ensuring equipment, floors, and surrounding areas are thoroughly dried will minimize the risk of contamination and bacteria growth. A proper ventilation system will help to control the potential for condensation, limiting rapid bacterial growth.
Choose the right temperature - Bacteria grows more rapidly in warmer facilities so it is important to maintain a cool enough temperature that will eliminate or at least reduce the growth rate of bacteria. Familiarize yourself with food temperature safe zones, and ensure you create policies and procedures around maintaining a stable plant temperature.
CMP can help get your started on the right track when you're processing ready to eat food for customers. Reach out to a member of our technical sales team who are happy to work with you to keep food safe.