The European Union recognises that traditional methods of food production are a valuable and irreplaceable heritage that must be preserved over time. Therefore, Regulation (EC) No. 852/2004 permits a degree of flexibility in its application provided food hygiene goals are not compromised. For decades, both plant and animal-based foods have been produced in Spain which are air-dried outdoors until reaching a low water activity (aw) that enables their preservation at room temperature. These foods include, raisins, dried apricots, dried figs, ñora peppers, dried fish or octopus that are at least partially air-dried, among others.
The Scientific Committee of the Spanish Agency for Food Safety and Nutrition (AESAN) is of the opinion that the processing of naturally dried foods leads to their correct preservation, provided they reach an aw that inhibits the proliferation of pathogenic microorganisms and the production of toxins in them. Some of the stages in the process may cause microbial inactivation.
Above all, it is necessary to ensure the absence of the formation of toxins, with aflatoxins being the ones that have been most frequently identified. Thus, it is considered that the drying should be conducted in the least time possible, ensuring a decrease of aw within the first 2-3 days of below 0.90 to inhibit the development of aflatoxins, and this drying should be continued until aw levels lower than 0.70 are reached, preventing the growth of pathogenic microorganisms that cause spoilage. It is necessary to guarantee suitable hygienic conditions during processing in order to prevent contamination by pathogens and/or toxins.
Although they cannot proliferate in the stated preservation conditions, they can remain viable in the final product, therefore they may pose a risk to consumer health. Microorganisms with a low infective dose and those that have been identified in dried products (such as S. aureus and Salmonella) and microbial toxins are especially relevant. Autonomous Communities must monitor compliance with the requirements to ensure that they do not pose a risk in these products.
Although these types of products have a low aw, within the range of 0.6 to 0.8 according to avail-able literature, given that this information is not available for each assessed product, the level of safety reached cannot be established on an individual basis. Additionally, the diverse factors used in some of them (additives and preservatives, pasteurisation processes, etc.) require individual assessment once all the necessary information is available. Therefore, the drying must reach aw levels below 0.70 in the least time possible for these types of products to be considered stable, as given these conditions, there is no scientific evidence that shows that the safety and stability of the dried products are compromised, provided good hygiene practices are maintained during their preservation and storage.
For final levels of aw that are higher, correct preservation may be achieved through a combination of factors which proves that it is effective throughout the shelf life of the product, maintaining the aforementioned appropriate hygiene practices.