The Modern Fermented Foods Industry

The fermented foods industry, like all other segments of the food processing industry, has changed dramatically in the past fifty years. Certainly, the average size of a typical production facility has increased several-fold, as has the rate at which raw materials are converted to finished product (i.e., throughput). Although small, traditional-style facilities still exist, as is evident by the many microbreweries, small wineries, and artisanal-style bakery and cheese manufacturing operations, the fermented foods industry is dominated by producers with large production capacity.

Not only has the size of the industry changed, but so has the fundamental manner in which fermented foods are produced (Table 1-1). For example, up until the past forty or so years, most cheese manufacturers used raw, manufacturing (or Grade B) milk, whereas pasteurized Grade A milk, meeting higher quality standards, is now more commonly used. Manufacturing tanks or vats are now usually enclosed and are constructed from stainless steel or other materials that facilitate cleaning and even sterilization treatments. In fact, modern facilities are designed from the outset with an emphasis on sanitation requirements, so that exposure to air-borne microorganisms and cross-contamination is minimized.

Many of the unit operations are mechanized and automated, and, other than requiring a few keystrokes from a control panel, the manufacture of fermented foods involves minimal human contact. Fermented food production is now, more than ever before, subject to time and scheduling demands. In the so-called "old days," if the fermentation was slow or sluggish, it simply meant that the workers (who were probably family members) would be late for supper, and little else. In a modern production operation, a slow fermentation may mean that the workers have to stay beyond their shift (requiring that they be paid overtime), and in many cases, it could also affect the entire production schedule, since the production vat could not be turned over and refilled as quickly as needed.Al-though traditional manufacturing practices may not have always yielded consistent products, lot sizes were small and economic losses due to an occasional misstep were not likely to be too se

Table 1.1. Fermented foods industry: past and present

Traditional

Modern

Small scale (craft industry)

Large scale (in factories)

Non-sterile medium

Pasteurized or heat-treated medium

Septic

Aseptic

Open

Contained

Manual

Automated

Insensitive to time

Time-sensitive

Significant exposure to contaminants

Minimal exposure to contaminants

Varying quality

Consistent quality

Safety a minor concern

Safety a major concern

rious. Besides, for every inferior cask of wine or wheel of cheese, there may have been an equally superior lot that compensated for the one that turned out badly. Even the absolute worst case scenario—a food poisoning outbreak as a result of an improperly manufactured product—would have been limited in scope due to the small production volume and narrow distribution range.

Such an attitude, today, however, is simply beyond consideration. A day's worth of product may well be worth tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, and there is no way a producer could tolerate such losses, even on a sporadic basis. Food safety, in particular, has become an international priority, and there is generally zero tolerance for pathogens or other hazards in fermented foods. Quality assurance programs now exist throughout the industry, which strive to produce safe and consistent products. In essence, the fermented foods industry has evolved from a mostly art- or craft-based practice to one that relies on modern science and technology. Obviously, the issues discussed above—safety, sanitation, quality, and consistency—apply to all processed foods, and not just fermented foods. However, the fermented foods industry is unique in one major respect—it is the only food processing industry in which product success depends on the growth and activity of microorganisms.The implications of this are highly significant.

Microorganisms used to initiate fermentations are, unlike other "ingredients," not easily standardized, since their biochemical activity and even their concentration (number of cells per unit volume) may fluctuate from lot to lot. Although custom-made starter cultures that are indeed standardized for cell number and activity are readily available, many industrial fermentations still rely, by necessity, on the presence of naturally-occurring microflora, whose composition and biological activities are often subject to considerable variation. In addition, microorganisms are often exposed to a variety of inhibitory chemical and biological agents in the food or environment that can compromise their viability and activity. Finally, the culture organisms are often the main means by which spoilage and pathogenic microorganisms are controlled in fermented foods. If they fail to perform in an effective and timely manner, the finished product will then be subject to spoilage or worse. Thus, the challenge confronting the fermented foods industry is to manufacture products whose very production is subject to inherent variability yet satisfy the modern era demands of consistency, quality, line-speed, and safety.

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