What Exactly Is Vacuum Sealing?
When we vacuum seal, we’re reducing the amount of oxygen and air in the package. This is a process known as Reduced Oxygen Packaging. The advantage of vacuum sealing is that we’re removing the air inside the package, which means we’re also changing the environment in which different bacteria and microbes can grow. Of course, as with anything, there are advantages and hazards in the process, especially with potentially hazardous foods such as fresh meat, lunch meat and sausage.
Vacuum sealing dramatically extends the shelf life, preventing odors, slime, discoloration, shrinkage, moisture loss and texture changes in the foods we freeze. It also slows the growth of spoilage organisms and pathogens.
However, both Clostridium botulinum (the bacteria that causes botulism) and Listeria monocytogenes (the bacteria that causes listeriosis) both can grow in anaerobic environment – ones without oxygen.
There are 4 controls used in the packaging industry for the above hazards:
- Temperature – Keep all fresh meat, lunch meat and sausage at a temperature of 41 degrees F or less. Plus, since Listeria can grow in temps as low as 32 degrees F, the colder, the better. Make sure your meat does not sit out for long periods of time as you’re processing and packaging.
- Barriers or Flavor Enhancers – When making sausage, the addition of Cure or nitrites will act as an additional barrier to pathogen growth, helping to prevent Botulism and Listeria.
- Shelf Life – If refrigerating vacuum packed meat, limit the shelf life to only 14 days or less. Your vacuum packed meat will stay wonderfully fresh in the freezer for many months, though. Bear this in mind – the longer you wait to consume the food, the longer pathogens and organisms have the chance to grow. Label each package with the type of food contained and the date it was packaged.
- Sanitation – Keep a checklist of required cleaning after processing. Make sure to include equipment used (and how to break down and re-assemble equipment, such as a grinder), non-food contact surfaces and your facilities (sinks, shelving, coolers, floors, carts, etc.). Everything should be cleaned with hot, soapy water.
Additional Tips & Tricks to Vacuum Sealing:
- Properly cook your vacuum sealed meats to fully eliminate any bacteria. Sausage should be cooked to 165 degrees F.
- Keep food covered or packaged at all times to prevent cross-contamination with other foods, especially when cooling sausage.
- Keep your vacuum sealing materials covered and stored off the floor to prevent contamination from cleaning products and dust.
- When sealing, do not touch the food with your bare hands. Use a utensil or latex gloves to prevent transferring bacteria onto foods. If using gloves, change them frequently to prevent contamination. Make proper hand washing a priority as well.
- It is important to use your vacuum sealer according to the manufacturer’s instructions and recommendations. In other words, get to know your product manual.
- Check your sealed packages to make sure the seal is tight and there’s nothing trapped in the seal. Your package should also have a tight vacuum. If it doesn’t, repackage immediately.
* Information adapted from The Retail Meat and Poultry Processing Training Modules produced under a cooperative agreement with USDA FSIS and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.