Current distribution systems require extended periods of time between farm and supermarket display case. This, coupled with the time from point of purchase to when the meat is cooked and served, makes fresh product vulnerable to microbial contamination.

KANSAS CITY — In 2014, 864 foodborne disease outbreaks were reported in the U.S. This resulted in 13,246 illnesses, 712 hospitalizations, 21 deaths and 21 food recalls, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta. Seeded vegetables were the No. 1 food category associated with outbreak illnesses, followed by chicken, which was responsible for 354 illnesses from 23 outbreaks. Ground beef was responsible for five multi-state outbreaks.

Even though the U.S. meat and poultry processing industry may supply the safest food in the world, there remains a need to offer extra protection against microbial contamination, in particular pathogens such as Escherichia coliform, Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella, the bugs that cause foodborne illness. Thanks to many behind-the-scenes additives — natural and traditional chemical — processors are able to be proactive and provide consumers an extra defense against potentially deadly microbes. This is important since even in the cleanest conditions, the risk of contamination cannot be completely prevented.

Ensuring food safety is critical because of the vulnerability of meat and poultry to microbial contamination. Widely publicized food-safety incidents have emphasized these risks among consumers, who are quick to switch between product brands or might think twice about a purchase. Producers must therefore ensure the safety of their products in order to retain the trust of their customers.

“The refrigerated meat and poultry market remains a challenging place for processors who want to excel,” said David Charest, vice-president, meat industry, Corbion, Lenexa, Kas. “Consumers want lean, tasty and tender meat and poultry products, with stable color and minimal additives. These products must also be convenient to use, good value for the money and — above all — safe and healthy with easily recognizable labels.”

While consumers trust manufacturers and retailers, more than half (56%) of consumers surveyed by the Food Marketing Institute, Arlington, Va., believe food safety issues are most likely to occur at processing plants. Their greatest fear is contamination by bacteria or germs, with 79% of respondents identifying bacteria or germs as posing some or a serious health risk. This is up four percentage points from 2015.

In order to safeguard animal proteins from such contamination, processors typically employ one or more preservation techniques. This includes ingredient systems coupled with modified atmosphere technologies and barrier packaging.

“Overall food safety, and more specifically the prevention of foodborne illness, are top priorities for government agencies and food industry professionals alike,” said Roger Maehler, senior director of research and development, Newly Weds Foods, Chicago. “Now, the Food Safety Modernization Act mandates that processors anticipate ‘known or reasonably foreseeable’ hazards and implement preventive controls to address these hazards.”

The challenge with ensuring food safety is that label-scrutinizing consumers increasingly question the inclusion of additives. This is why a growing number of processors are turning to clean-label options. Yet, there still is a very large market for traditional chemical additives that are very effective at low usage rates, making them economical options for processors. There are varied ingredient systems to meet processors’ economic, labeling and shelf-life objectives. When it comes to clean-label and all natural, vinegar, with or without other plant-based extracts, has emerged as a shining star.