“The commercial market is not going to want to provide foods with a five-year shelf-life, they want you to be buying food all the time,” NASA advanced food technology project scientist Michele Perchonok told FoodProductionDaily.com.
“The only area where this technology is wanted is in the military or on occasions where people don’t have refrigerators and freezers, when going camping, during natural disaster or in third world countries.”
FoodProductionDaily.com spoke to Perchonok following the publication of a report commissioned to evaluate the benefit of different food processes in preparation for the exploration of Mars – for which the space agency will need food with a shelf-life of at least 5 years.
Lessons learnt from the NASA study could be used to extend the shelf-life of most products for up to five years - something the industry is not interested in, said Perchonok.
No need for long shelf-life
An industry insider concurred with Perchonok’s evaluation that “the only customer group looking for more than two years is the military.”
“The normal consumer does not accept shelf-life of more than two years and the industry uses this as an excuse to throw it away,” an industry insider told FoodProductionDaily.com.
The industry insider, who preferred not to be named, used the producer of a salad dressing as an example.
“The dressing was sold and stored as a chilled product even though it didn’t have to be. It made for a better image for the company. These days companies want to promote their products as fresh.”
“In the current market there is no need for long shelf-life, as most food is consumed or thrown away within a couple of weeks.”
“Some promote the use of shelf-life, others do not – it’s quite a controversial topic.”
Higher quality product
NASA scientist Perchonok did however suggest that despite a lack of interest in long-term shelf-life, the research could “mean they can provide a higher quality product.”
“Food starts off at a certain quality and then goes down from there, it degrades, chemistry happens throughout the shelf-life.”
“But if you can improve the process, then when it does degrade it’s not going to reduce down to the level it does currently."
“If we take the project to the next step and identify new preservation processes, then we can also provide the commercial market with new products.”
Mission to Mars
The purpose of the report, Assessment of the Long-Term Stability of Retort Pouch Foods to Support Extended Duration Spaceflight, was not to necessarily extend shelf-life, said Perchonok.
NASA’s intention was to discover what the maximum shelf-life for certain food products is, and whether this will need to be extended beyond that point for a mission to Mars.
“The technology exists, all we are trying to determine what the maximum shelf-life is,” she added.
“We took 13 representative food items and tested those foods for up to three years at three different temperatures.”
These food items included pork chops, roasted vegetables, sugar snap peas and apricot cobbler.
“What we found was that meat items and a couple of desserts had a shelf-life of five years or better at room temperature and the rest of the food products don’t, and if we’re going to Mars we need a five year shelf-life.”