New ingredients and technologies help ground beef processors create safer burger patties.

KANSAS CITY — It was 23 years ago, back in 1993, that a pathogen new to a lot of people, E. coli O157:H7, was found in undercooked beef patties served in the Jack in the Box restaurant chain. The outbreak of the pathogen caused 732 illnesses in 73 Jack in the Box restaurants in California, Idaho, Nevada and Washington, and the majority of victims were children under age 10. Four children died, and 178 other victims suffered permanent injuries, including brain and kidney damage.

The incident turned both the meat industry and the safety of American food upside down. The contamination, sicknesses and deaths led to the complete revamping of inspection and food safety in the industry, with the introduction of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) food safety system in the meat and poultry industry, followed by HACCP in virtually all areas of the food industry, including seafood and produce.

Ironically, while this was the first time many people had heard of E. coli O157:H7, it was not the first outbreak of this pathogen resulting from undercooked ground beef patties. The pathogen had previously been identified in an outbreak of food poisoning 11 years earlier, traced to undercooked burgers sold by McDonald’s in Michigan and Oregon. In fact, even before the Jack in the Box outbreak, there had been 22 documented outbreaks in the U.S. resulting in 35 deaths.

But even with the adoption of HACCP programs and resulting pathogen reduction after Jack in the Box, the meat industry has continued to face the fact that raw ground beef still poses a danger to consumers, and Salmonella poses a danger to people from not only poultry but also beef. That’s because there hasn’t been any way for consumers to protect themselves, other than by fully cooking meat products.

The industry has been exploring different ways to protect consumers. Some ground beef processors have gotten out of the raw side of the ground beef industry, changing their operations to completely cooked products. Some processors have resorted to treating ground beef with irradiation as well. But this process hasn’t proved very popular, with many consumers reluctant to eat beef that’s been irradiated – the idea of food treated with “radiation” has proven off putting.

In the last few months, however, two companies have come up with technologies to treat raw ground beef and other meats and poultry to fight not only E. coli O157:H7 but also Salmonella and other pathogens.

Antimicrobial technology

Chicago-based Newly Weds Foods, a global purveyor of food coatings, seasonings and marinades since 1932, in more recent years has become even more involved in the food safety arena. In 2004, the company created the IsoStat Products Group to focus on developing a portfolio of food safety, shelf-life extension and other functional products. Just a few months ago, Newly Weds announced the launch of DefenStat, the latest addition to its IsoStat Products Group portfolio of food safety products.

Made from all “clean-label” ingredients, with no synthetic or artificial ingredients, DefenStat is a new antimicrobial designed for use in raw meat and poultry products. DefenStat protects against three systemic failures that lead to E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks. Tom Downs, Newly Weds' senior director for global marketing, and Roger Maehler, senior director for research and development, said DefenStat works by inhibiting the proliferation of pathogens in meat and poultry by substantially reducing the potential for cross-contamination and, at the same time, by enhancing the susceptibility of Salmonella and E. coli to destruction by heat.

“DefenStat delivers significant intervention of pathogen proliferation, like that of E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella during meat processing, as well as the growth of pathogens that’s known to take place during distribution of the meat products,” Mr. Maehler said.

Mr. Maehler said that, even with careful handling and storage of meat products, mistakes can be made in food preparation, presenting multiple opportunities for cross-contamination.

“By using DefenStat in uncooked meat and poultry products during the processing phase, an extra layer of defense is delivered, should proper safeguards not be adhered to further down the product cycle,” he said. He estimated DefenStat application reduces the potential for cross-contamination by greater than 90%.

Mr. Downs said that E. coli and Salmonella that are present in raw meat and poultry can be eliminated if they are cooked to the proper temperatures.

“However, bringing the product to that heat level is not assured without using a thermometer," he said. "Using DefenStat can significantly reduce the survival of pathogens known to occur in non-HACCP (home) cooking by making the pathogen organisms more susceptible to destruction by heat. The combined interventions resulting from the use of DefenStat dramatically lower the risk of foodborne illness.”

The company began its efforts in food safety a long time ago with sodium lactate, sodium diacetate and other carcass washes, but people were still getting sick. Now what’s involved is more natural protection methods, including products like DefenStat.

“About eight or nine years ago, we began expanding our food safety products, with the start of our IsoStat products,” Mr. Maehler said. “We saw a growing interest and consumer awareness in food safety – there was a natural offshoot from marinades that there was an increasing need for food safety. The products basically did everything from microbial inhibition to shelf-life extension. But DefenStat has been a real breakthrough. The antimicrobial has reduced pathogen transfer by more than 90% in both chicken and beef, based on independent and third-party lab results.”

“The product was finally released at the end of January, to tests by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture," Mr. Downs said. "The idea was to protect consumers from the fact that they wouldn’t fully cook ground beef, for example, to 160˚F, the temperature it should be cooked to. People were cooking at home not even to 145˚F, probably only to 130˚F in some cases. No wonder they were getting sick."

The product is made with a liquid blend of vinegar, a complex mixture of spice extractives and natural flavors. It is a product that meat and poultry processors can add early in the manufacture of their products that will be sold in food service, in restaurants, and also in meats and poultry sold frozen in grocery stores.

“It’s added by the processors,” Mr. Maehler said. “A processor is U.S.D.A. inspected. They have to know what the temperatures are, and the products always get cooked to the right temperature. That’s unlike at home, where only 6% of people even bother to use a meat thermometer.”

Eventually, DefenStat will also be added to raw products. The makers are optimistic that there is a lot of interest in it. Field tests are also being done with the product for the U.S.D.A. Eventually, Mr. Maehler and Mr. Downs said they feel, with testing protocols, the product will be used by both very large and smaller processors.

“We’re starting with the bigger processors to get it out first to the marketplace,” Mr. Downs said. “But the smaller processors make up part of the marketplace, too, so we’re anxious to get it to them, as well.”

The pair said they are hopeful DefenStat will be helpful in more meat products sold in grocery stores.

Mr. Downs and Mr. Maehler said they believe the product will also be used for pathogens beyond E. coli and Salmonella.

“Others include staph and clostridium perfringens," Mr. Downs said. "And it looks like it would control the proliferation of those, also. If you limit the proliferation in clostridium, and you stop the growth, then there are no toxins."

Cooking technology

Sandusky, Ohio-based JBT Corp. recently introduced a new cooking technology and system to kill pathogens in meat called “reduced temperature pasteurization” or R.T.P. This system is designed for ground beef and other proteins for food processors and restaurants. John Strong, D.S.I. business director, and Jon Hocker, director of technology and product line management for JBT Corp., said this system was developed by JBT food scientists and engineers and delivers significant advances to both meat processors and food service operators.

According to Mr. Hocker and Mr. Strong, the system is based on a time-temperature process control.

“The system has been approved by U.S.D.A. for field trials and is a bag-less technology delivering results similar to that delivered by the sous vide process, which in French means 'under vacuum.' Although we do it without the bags,” Mr. Hocker said. “It captures the benefit of low and slow cooking, enhancing food taste and texture while ensuring food safety.”

Mr. Strong said the system can operate as low as 131˚F, using precision controls, instruments and equipment designed and made by JBT.

“In the R.T.P. process, meats are steam pasteurized and frozen before shipment to restaurants, killing the pathogenic bacteria, but without overcooking,” he said. "And once at the restaurant, cook times for the meat are then reduced by as much as 30%."

Mr. Hocker explained why a temperature as low as 131˚F can be used.

“While 161.6˚F is the temperature at which many pathogenic bacteria in food are killed instantly, this low temperature cooking process requires the processor to measure time and temperature, not just temperature," he said. "Now the benefits of time-temperature cooking control outweigh the challenges of doing so.”

Mr. Strong, who is the director and lead inventor of the R.T.P. process at JBT, said the company has done heat lethality testing of the process in their labs.

“In our lab we measured time and temperature and determined a predicted microbial kill for selected bacteria," he said. "The U.S.D.A./F.S.I.S. has reviewed the process and results and has approved the process for field trials."

Mr. Hocker said using the process doesn’t limit the cooking to 131˚F.

“We typically cook between about 131˚F and 143˚F, depending upon the customer’s preference, product type, throughput rates and equipment size limitation," he said. "We can cook at higher temperatures, but for some products, we begin to lose the moisture and texture advantages of low temperature cooking."

When R.T.P. process is compared to traditional peak temperature process for fully-cooked product, Mr. Hocker said the biggest difference is R.T.P. leaves more moisture in the product so it is less dry. Because of the process control, he said it is possible to market a food-safe hamburger that is slightly pink in the middle. Other benefits, he said, include restaurants offering thicker hamburgers in the same cook time.

“Instead of freezing hamburger patties immediately, they can be put through the initial cooking step, then at the restaurant they can finish the cooking,” he said. “This process gives the restaurant a lot of choices.”

Eventually, both these processes, DefenStat and R.T.P., could be used to help people cook hamburgers and other meats in their homes more safely.