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Becoming more flexible with cryogenic technology

10 August 2020

Neil Hansford explains how developments in freezing technology have helped the food industry to adapt more quickly to rapidly changing consumer demands as a result of the current pandemic. 

It is no secret that Covid-19 has forced the food processing industry to adapt its operations right across the board. With restaurants closed and supermarkets facing shortages, changing consumer habits and logistical difficulties around safe production and distribution all impacted how companies tackled the crisis. Every facet of many operations has needed to change and many of these changes will remain with us for the foreseeable future.

As the pandemic situation has progressed, advances in technology have helped many to cope in a way they would not have been able to do even a few years ago. Developments in freezing technology offer a good example of this, with more food producers moving away from traditional mechanical freezers and towards cryogenic freezing. This technology has given producers more flexibility to adapt, as well giving them the ability to tackle change in a way which maintains quality and efficiency.  

Cryogenic freezing uses liquid nitrogen or CO2 to freeze or individually quick freeze different types of food. Liquid nitrogen systems can offer a cost-effective alternative to traditional methods of food freezing, processing larger quantities faster, while occupying less floor space and providing more processing flexibility. Due to its extremely cold temperature, liquid nitrogen freezes food within minutes which causes the formation of smaller ice crystals, helping ensure a higher quality frozen product once thawed.

A need for flexibility
Having the ability to ramp operations up or down depending on customer need, or to take advantage of shifts in the market has been a necessity during the pandemic. With some companies needing to handle increased demand and others left with no choice but to shift from food service sales to other sources of income, production flexibility has been crucial. 

What has been important is not just the ability to change, but the speed with which change is possible. Cryogenic freezers score over mechanical alternatives by allowing production lines to be scaled up or down to meet demand quickly. Temperature change in the freezing process can be achieved within minutes, rather than the hours it can take using mechanical freezers. This increased speed allows products to bee processed more quickly, as well as allowing for quick temperature changes to accommodate different product lines. 
 
The changing habits of consumers during the pandemic has also brought into sharp relief the usefulness of being able to ramp up operations at short notice. A gravitation towards products which offer an extended shelf life, while still offering options for healthy eating, has revived the popularity of frozen food, a trend which is unlikely to reverse any time soon – with the latest figures from the British Frozen Food Federation predicting that frozen food sales will exceed £10 billion by 2025.

From a safety perspective, the importance of modern, reliable freezing technology speaks for itself.  This must always be a producer’s primary concern, but particularly now, at a time of heightened sensitivity, the food safety and microbiology will come under more intense scrutiny as practices are reviewed across the board.

With concerns over a second peak still very clearly in people’s minds, it is heartening to see we have the resources at our disposal to provide a foundation for success. Regardless of whether this comes to pass, however, the progress we are making, both through technology and improved practices, will long outlast Covid-19.

Neil Hansford is an industrial cryogenic and food expert at Air Products.


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