CHICAGO — It’s been more than a year since that historic Friday the 13th when many packed up their corporate desks and moved into a home office. As March melded into April, consumers adjusted their shopping habits, seeking out longer shelf-life foods to reduce trips to the market. At the same time, many consumers became more discriminating with their food purchases in terms of naturalness and degree of processing. With meat and poultry, shoppers increasingly were drawn to fresh-frozen raw poultry, minimally processed frozen prepared meals, and refrigerated ready-to-eat meats with natural, organic or “free-from” claims.
Processors competing in these spaces often rely on plant extracts and fermentation to naturally preserve and protect the meat to ensure a satisfied customer. Solutions based on vinegar and certain plant extracts – namely rosemary, green tea, acerola and celery – possess the unique ability to assist with extending the shelf life of meat and poultry by maintaining color, flavor and quality.
“In general, the pandemic has driven – and continues to drive – a heightened emphasis around the food-as-medicine approach to eating,” said Laurie Demeritt, chief operating officer, Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash. “Needs that relate to health and wellness such as an increased desire for fresh and less processed and moderation have increased significantly as consumers look to proactively support their health and immunity with food and beverage choices.”
The pandemic not only changed the way consumers shop, it also impacted distribution channels and put unprecedented demands on retailers. At the same time, meat and poultry manufacturers found themselves in unchartered territory with having to formulate products to withstand these evolving environments and the stresses they put on product quality and safety.
Time and temperature fluctuations are almost always a recipe for disaster. Heating, freezing, exposure to oxygen during storage and reheating fully cooked meat products makes them susceptible to oxidation and warmed-over flavor development, while increasing their vulnerability to microbial growth.
Companies such as Wayne Farms LLC, Oakwood, Ga., had to pivot from being a foodservice supplier of flame-grilled, vacuum-sealed and fully cooked sous vide-style chicken breasts to packaging the product for the retail frozen channel. By the fall of 2020, Chef’s Craft Flame Grilled Chicken Breast Fillets were rolling out to Walmart stores across the United States, and now can be found in other retailers.
The chef-inspired seasoned products are made with 100% farm-raised, vegetarian-fed chicken and contain no artificial ingredients. The breasts only require thawing and warming prior to consumption. In addition to the safety step from sous vide, the marinade includes vinegar, an everyday ingredient long recognized for its preservation properties.
Natural flavoring appears on the ingredient statement. This is a term that may encompass various plant extracts that provide antioxidant activity to delay rancidity and protect product color and flavor. These ingredients enabled companies such as Wayne Farms to utilize inventory that wasn’t running through foodservice while providing for a longer shelf life required through the retail distribution channel.
“As people continue to cook at home more, they are asking for access to high-quality products they would expect from restaurants,” said Keri Bauder, brand manager of Wayne Farms. “Cooking at home is a trend that is not going away. Families are looking for nutritious, affordable ingredients they can easily prepare at home.”
Tyson Foods, Springdale, Ark., had some pivoting to do with its inventory as well. The company now offers large family packs of 100% natural individually frozen boneless skinless chicken breasts that are ice glazed with up to a 10% solution that includes natural flavor, which most likely includes rosemary extract as a natural antioxidant.
To assist home cooks with COVID-19 cooking fatigue, the company is rolling out Tyson Simply Roasted, a line of fully cooked refrigerated chicken breast strips. To assist with maintaining quality and safety, the marinade contains vinegar, cultured corn sugar and the ubiquitous “natural flavor.”
These label-friendly ingredients may allow for the types of claims consumers are increasingly seeking out in their meat and poultry purchases. These are claims that give them permission to keep animal protein on the plate.
“Consumers equate claims-based meat with it being a healthier option, better for the animal and better for the environment,” said Anne-Marie Roerink, president, 210 Analytics LLC, San Antonio. “The organic and grass-fed claims, in particular, are highly correlated to healthy in the minds of consumers.
“You often see claims-based meat being a solution for people who have concerns over eating meat and poultry or want to eat a little less of it,” Roerink said. “To them, it is a solution that addresses their planet, animal and health concerns and allows them to keep meat on the plate.”
Driven by these concerns, there is a big crossover with blended items and plant-based meat alternatives. Blended items, using vegetables or mushrooms and meat, are of particular interest.
“Typically people are more likely to upgrade a current habit than adopt a whole new one,” Roerink said. “And blended items, in that regard, are a short bridge away from meat and allow shoppers to feel a little better about their meat choices.”
That’s what Seemore Meats & Veggies, Brooklyn, NY, is all about. The vegetable-forward meat company made its debut right before the pandemic with a line of sausages that combine fresh vegetables (up to 35% per link) with responsibly raised meat. Launch varieties were Broccoli Melt (pork, broccolini, spicy pepperoncini, garlic and Monterey Jack cheese), Bubbe’s Chicken Soup (chicken, carrots, celery, garlic, parsley and dill), La Dolce Beet (pork, beets, garlic and fennel seed) and Loaded Baked Potato (pork, potatoes, sharp cheddar cheese, bacon and chives). Recently the company added Chicken Parm to its lineup. It is made with humanely raised chicken, roasted tomatoes, basil, cheese and toasted breadcrumbs. The blended sausages either contain vinegar or celery powder, or both, depending on variety, eliminating the need for artificial preservatives and curing agents and allowing for a claim of “no artificial ingredients.”
Curing with extracts
Many sausages rely on curing salts made with synthetic nitrates and nitrites to develop flavor and color. The most common clean-label alternative is celery extract. The term “uncured” has long been used to describe meats prepared with such natural ingredients that are inherent sources of nitrates and nitrites.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires companies that take this natural approach to label the product as “uncured” with “no nitrates or nitrites” and to include a disclaimer that identifies the natural source of nitrates and nitrites. This is about to change as a result of petitions by consumer activist groups that have shown how these products have about the same amount of residual nitrates and nitrites as those that use synthetic sources.
Nitrates and nitrites produce desirable color in processed meats. They also are responsible for adding a zingy, tangy flavor. This is regardless of source. The petition asks USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to require a label that states that the product includes added nitrates and nitrites even when natural sources of nitrates and nitrites are used. That petition has been partially granted.
FSIS intends to conduct rulemaking to propose to prohibit the statements “no nitrate or nitrite added” and “uncured” on products manufactured using any source of nitrates or nitrites. FSIS also intends to approve non-synthetic sources of nitrates or nitrites as curing agents. However, rather than requiring disclosure statements about the use of nitrates or nitrites on labels of meat and poultry products, as requested in the petitions, FSIS intends to propose to amend and clarify its meat and poultry labeling regulations to establish new definitions for “cured” and “uncured.” The tentative publication date is May 2021.
Taking on pro-oxidants
Processors currently using plant extracts that are inherent sources of nitrates and nitrites will have options when the new law goes into effect. They could change the vernacular on labels and supporting marketing materials to comply with the law or they may reformulate with ingredient systems that are not inherent sources of nitrates or nitrites. These may be blends based on fruit and spice extracts that contain polyphenols and flavonoid antioxidants that fix the iron in the meat myoglobin and create cured color and flavor with no or very miniscule amounts of residual nitrites.
The ascorbic acid in acerola extract, for example, works as a reducing agent. It helps keep the iron in myoglobin in its ferrous (reduced) state. Once oxidized to a ferric state, the meat appears brown. Acerola extract also assists with delaying lipid oxidation and is often paired with all-natural food safety ingredients as well as other plant extracts in order to assist with shelf life.
Rosemary is one such extract. One of the active components in rosemary is carnosic acid, which naturally protects the rosemary plant from heat and light when growing in the wild. That same compound provides a natural way to combat pro-oxidants, such as oxygen, light and temperature in meat and poultry, thereby helping retain product quality. Rosemary can be blended with other plant extracts to offer different levels of protection.
This includes green tea extract. The main difference between the two is that green tea extract has a lower negative flavor contribution to the final product. Thus, using a lower level of rosemary extract in combination with green tea extract allows the manufacturer to increase the natural plant extract usage rate, often resulting in an extract blend that works better in the meat product than using rosemary alone. Research also shows that when acerola extract is used in combination with rosemary and green tea extracts, acerola is more effective at delaying early discoloration than either extract alone.
Clean-label meat manufacturers also find ferments, such as vinegar, attractive natural food safety ingredients. Industrial vinegar ingredients are typically produced by fermenting grain alcohol, thereby producing acetic acid, which is known to help keep food safe by suppressing the growth of pathogens and a wide range of spoilage bacteria.
Bio-fermentation products also may function as clean-label antimicrobials. The bio-fermentation processes typically use dextrose or non-fat dry milk as the feed source for the fermentation, yielding a product containing acids, peptides and other components that have been shown to be effective antimicrobials. Such bio-fermentation products may be blended with vinegar and plant extracts to provide a broad-spectrum shelf life extending ingredient for clean-label meat and poultry.
Developing an organic cure
Americans consume an estimated $150 million worth of organic processed meat every year, according to the Organic Trade Association, Washington, DC. Conventionally grown celery powder has been allowed for use in such products since 2007; however, developing an organic meat curing agent has long been a research priority for the National Organic Standards Board.
Delayed initially by the pandemic, a current research project is now investigating potential plant-based powders that can be organically produced. Specifically, the project will develop best management practices for organic crops that can be used as the raw product for producing the curing powder, identifying crop varieties, fertility management and harvest/storage protocols.
“Since last October we have been conducting a greenhouse pilot study investigating nitrogen uptake of the crop, using various organic nutrient amendments,” said Owen Washam, graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We are interested in how timing between nutrient applications and harvest date affect nitrate accumulation. As we take samples of each treatment, we hope to identify methods conducive for producing organic celery with a nitrate level where it is worthwhile to juice these plants for powder.”
The project will also explore the impact of organic alternatives on cured meat quality and safety, as well as assess the economics and market. The team is working closely with organic farmers to ensure the development and communication of practical solutions to this industry need.