Reduced Oxygen Packaging: Are you doing it correctly?

Reduced Oxygen Packaging (ROP) is a process used in packaging food to extend its shelf life, as well as retard and control microbial growth in foods, it is also used for quality control issues. However, it is crucial to note that ROP can be dangerous if not done correctly. Two pathogens, clostridium botulinum and listeria monocytogenes, are of particular concern when oxygen is removed or decreased dramatically from foods. This creates an environment for these bacteria to grow, possibly leading to the formation of toxins or spores, which cannot be killed during the cooking step. To mitigate these risks, a retailer must have a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan in place before any ROP takes place. The plan should include identifying the risks, critical control points, critical limits, monitoring, corrective actions, verification, record keeping, and labeling of the foods.  Proper temperature control is the primary barrier to control the risks. 

Unfortunately, in recent years, many facilities have been packaging food using ROP, Vacuum Sealing, or Sous Vide cooking without proper knowledge. This poses an unnecessary risk to the consumer and can cost the facility. The most common mistakes I have come across while working with clients include:

• Using a vacuum sealer on fish that is not frozen first – Fish must be frozen before, during, and after packaging. It is also not allowed to package a product containing fish for Sous Vide cooking or use the cook > chill process for items containing fish.

• Caterers often use ROP for ease of transporting food. Often, the process used is Cook > Cool > Cold Hold >Package using a vacuum sealer. This is not allowed. The proper process is Cook > Package > Cool (chill) > Cold Hold.

• Repackaging soft cheeses to extend the life of the cheese. This is only allowed for hard cheeses, and one must have knowledge of what a hard cheese is.

• Cooked seafood, such as crab cakes, cannot be reduced oxygen packaged under any circumstances.

• Using sous vide cooking without having a self-sealing thermometer to ensure temperatures are being met.

There are other guidelines that must be followed, and the State of Maryland has an easy-to-understand document entitled “Reduced Oxygen Packaging at Retail” available for download here

If you are currently doing any Reduced Oxygen Packaging and it is not part of your HACCP plan, call us at 410-687-1015 today, and we can help you become compliant.

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