5 things to know about mold before formulating snack foods
There have been more than a dozen mold and microbe-related food safety recalls in the last year.
Nobody is safe – the biggest brands to the most nimble startups get hit almost regularly. Mold tends to show up when manufacturers expect it least. When it does show up, it’s tough to scrub it off a brand, if not a product.
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With all the innovative food science and modern packaging in the industry, why does mold keep showing up in packaged goods? Shouldn’t we have a simple solution by now?
The simple answer: Yes. There are solutions. But before manufacturers can apply them effectively, they’ll need to understand what they’re up against.
1. Mold is determined and sneaky
Mold reproduces by releasing microscopic spores into the air. These spores are like tiny bunkers that protect the mold until environmental conditions are ideal for growth.
Spores – and other microorganisms – are everywhere. The air we breathe, the things we touch, even in the packaged foods we eat – usually in small enough amounts that they won’t matter. But given the right environment, a single mold spore develops into a mat of unappealing fur – often in a day or less.
Food scientists have developed several methods to keep microbes from growing, but without the right knowledge, it can be difficult to find the right method for the product.
2. Without the right information, mold can be tough to predict
Predicting microbial growth can get overwhelming quickly.
Consider the variables: packaging materials, nitrogen flushes, water activity levels, water content levels, manufacturing methods, killsteps, hurdles, and plenty more. Compound that with the misconceptions about what measurements and indicators are most important.
To anyone without a food science degree or decades in the business, it can be easy to drown in the overlapping variables. Even with a sound understanding, some products are more susceptible than others. It’s no surprise that even the most well-known brands get blindsided by food issues with surprising regularity.
There are a few surefire ways to predict microbial growth, but depending on product and facility, it could still require a combination of several factors to be sure.
3. Mold is highly visible – in more ways than one
Fortunately, most molds aren’t harmful. Even to people with mold allergies, consuming it isn’t likely to be fatal, just irritating.
Unfortunately, consumers don’t know that, don’t care, or both. They’re more concerned with mold’s taste and appearance – they expected a satisfying snack, but opened an inedible blob.
Even small issues can snowball. Whether they get coverage from mainstream media or on social media, the potential to devastate brand image is high. Not only do recalls and negative incidents damage the brand in question, they lift that brand’s competitors.1
The average cost of a food recall is $10 million – not including brand damage and lost sales. Unsurprising, then, that recalls have been called the food industry’s biggest threat to profitability.2
Even when a brand manages to survive, food safety incidents can continue to turn up on search engines – and turn customers off – for years to come.
4. Mold is drawn to natural products – just like consumers are
The trend toward natural foods can make the battle against mold even tougher. Many consumers don’t understand that ingredients they haven’t heard of aren’t always harmful – they often improve the product’s quality and shelf life. When consumers demand that those ingredients go, food can become vulnerable.
Cold-pressed bars are a recent example – to align with customer desires, companies quickly formulated preservative-free, “clean label” products. But a clean label often comes with a shorter shelf life, and several companies faced issues with mold or unappealing textures.
Not all clean label products are at risk. With the right tools and know-how, formulating a natural product with an acceptable shelf life can be fairly simple.
5. Mold doesn’t care how expensive or high-tech your packaging is
Consumers have come to expect packaged goods to be edible almost indefinitely, with no consideration for the complex food science and potentially expensive packaging necessary.
It can seem like a simple and easy solution to over-package the product, trust the science and only adjust formulations if problems arise. Somewhat counter-intuitively, environmental changes outside can cause mold to grow inside, no matter how impermeable the packaging.
How is that possible? Temperature changes can cause a bump in water activity levels. That change means water that was already in the product but unavailable to mold spores to become available. The result? A moldy product inside an expensive package.
Understanding the problem is only the first step
- The Impact of Food Safety Incidents Across Brands, Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics
- Recall: The Food Industry’s Biggest Threat to Profitability, Food Safety Magazine