Noodles & Co. Backyard BBQ
R.-T.-E. meats and dishes that contain fresh vegetables don't require cooking before consumption, and therefore are very susceptible to contamination.

Everything at stake

Most consumers do not think about foodborne illness until someone unknowingly consumes contaminated food and gets ill – or worse – dies. While the U.S. food supply is one of the safest in the world, the C.D.C. estimates that roughly one in six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne disease annually.

In the meat and poultry industries, the greatest threats come from foodborne pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes, E. coli and Salmonella. Staphylococcus aureus, which is carried on the human body, is also a threat, especially in processing facilities where workers’ hands are in direct contact with the food. Antibiotic-resistant strains of Staphylococcus can also be carried by the animal and have been detected in raw meat and poultry. Staphylococcus dies when heated, but until contaminated meat is cooked, it can pose a health hazard in kitchens. Further, the S. aureus species produces a toxin that is heat stable.

“The toxin can make you sick for a day or two,” said Don Schaffner, Ph.D., spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago and professor of food microbiology at Rutgers Univ. in New Brunswick, N.J. “Staphylococcus also thrives in food environments where most other microorganisms cannot survive, such as high-sodium, low-moisture.”

Consumption of food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes can result in Listeriosis, another potentially fatal foodborne-related disease. Listeria is readily transmitted through ready-to-eat (R.-T.-E.) meat and poultry products. Similar to Staphylococcus, Listeria resists historical microbial growth inhibitors such as salt and acidity. It also readily grows at refrigerated temperatures; and although freezing temperatures will stop its growth, this hearty bacterium remains viable.

Proper cooking and reheating effectively controls Listeria; however, R.-T.-E. meats do not require further cooking prior to consumption. Further, with Listeria omnipresent in the environment, R.-T.-E. meats are very susceptible to contamination, as they are repeatedly exposed to microorganisms during slicing, dicing and meal assembly.

Because pathogens do not typically change the taste or smell of food, they go undetected, which makes it imperative that manufacturers of these products take all possible precautions to ensure food safety.

The risk of contamination cannot be prevented, making it imperative that meat and poultry processors do their part to best eliminate the presence of potentially deadly pathogens or prevent their growth. Many food safety ingredients not only protect the product from foodborne pathogens, they can help extend shelf life by reducing growth of spoilage microorganisms and delaying color and flavor loss degradation.

There are several considerations when choosing food safety ingredients, including regulatory and labeling. The U.S. Deptartment of Agriculture-Food Safety and Inspection Service limits some ingredients to specific applications, while others have maximum usage levels. When it comes to labeling, food safety ingredients considered chemical preservatives cannot be used on products described as natural. Further, a growing number of specialty retailers will not stock products made with artificial ingredients such as chemical preservatives.

Processors should also consider ease of use, efficacy against target microorganisms, impact of processing on the ingredient, interaction with other components of the protein matrix, organoleptic effects and economics, as well as packaging conditions, including oxygen and light barriers and modified atmosphere. Intended distribution – fresh or frozen – also impacts formulation.

Organic acids and their salts are the drivers behind many food safety ingredients, in particular those used to control for product adulteration from Listeria. The level of effectiveness of organic acids is determined by the amount of undissociated acid that penetrates the bacteria cell wall and disrupts its physiology. Research shows that organic acids vary in effectiveness, with propionates being much more effective than lactates. Effectiveness further varies by pH and bacterial strain.

For R.-T.-E. meat and poultry, lactates and diacetates have historically been considered the industry standard. As of 2010, liquid sodium propionate is also an acceptable antimicrobial agent for use in R.-T.-E. meat and poultry products. Some suppliers offer blends of organic acid salts, including acetate, diacetate, lactate and propionate to create the most effective antimicrobial system for a particular application.

When a more label-friendly antimicrobial is necessary, processors will often turn to specialty vinegar-based ingredients, including buffered vinegar and fermented corn sugar. These ingredients are labeled as vinegar or vinegar powder and are approved for use in R.-T.-E. and fresh meat and poultry products. The active component in vinegar-based antimicrobials is acetic acid.

Some natural plant extracts, most notably those with high concentrations of polyphenols/flavonoids and antioxidants, have also been shown to be effective against Listeria and other pathogens. Historically, their primary purpose for addition to meat and poultry was to delay color changes and prevent lipid oxidation off-notes, with the food safety function being an extra benefit.

Some fruit and spice extracts, in combination with dried vinegar, also have proven antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. Labeled simply “natural flavors,” these extracts provide protection against pathogens, while preserving the color and flavor qualities of both fresh and R.-T.-E. meat and poultry.