COVID’s impact on processed meat, prepared foods safety

CHICAGO – Buffets shuttered. Salad bars got covered. Deli-counter workers were reassigned jobs in the supermarket until protocol was in place to safely slice and scoop fresh foods portioned for customers’ in-person orders. These are some of the changes that occurred at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure food safety. Further, ingredient technology had to evolve to provide food safety solutions for new or modified spots in the supply chain, including home delivery, ghost kitchens, commissaries and home stock ups. Meat and poultry processors need to understand the risks associated with their products and take the proper steps to keep them safe.

“Consumers need to feel confident in the safety of the food supply, and as such, food producers should do everything they can to minimize food safety risks,” said Joseph Stanley, food protection group manager of North America for IFF, Nourish. “This especially holds true for products that are at higher risk of pathogenic outgrowth.”

Michael Cropp, technical service associate at Kemin, said, “Food safety via ingredient technology is more important than ever due to COVID-19, which has resulted in more carryout and contactless delivery options for all aspects of consumers’ food purchasing. This shift in how consumers purchase and obtain food products on a global scale has raised concerns about how well the food items are handled in the interim.”

Before the pandemic, for example, a consumer would drive to their fast-food restaurant of choice, dine-in or pull through the drive-thru and then eat the purchased items in a timely fashion. With the rise of more third-party delivery services, the food items may not be consumed as quickly or held in a controlled temperature.

“The unknowns of third-party handling could result in food safety concerns,” Mr. Cropp said. “In response, many restaurants have shifted their delivery menus to items that do not have as high of a risk for food safety issues or that have ingredients to help prevent spoilage before it gets to the customer.”

Renetta Cooper, technical business development director of food protection and preservation at Kerry, said, “Early in the pandemic, many suppliers were operating on a reduced number of deliveries and seeking ingredient technologies that could help their products maintain appeal and quality through longer time spent in supply chains before consumption. Ingredient technology needed to evolve to allow for protecting food products longer, and in some cases, protecting the components or raw materials utilized in either meal kits for home consumption or new entries in the deli space.”

One of the greatest points of concern for food safety, and one that processors, retailers and delivery services have no control over – unless ingredient technology is incorporated – is when the meat and poultry comes in the hands of the consumer. This is why it is paramount that processors do their part by formulating food safety ingredients into products.

“After homebound consumers finished stocking up on toilet paper, they went after protein, filling their new home freezers with plenty of meat,” said Tom Katen, senior technical services specialist for Cargill. “In response, meat processors had to look at ingredients to help with freeze-thaw properties and longer shelf lives, adjusting as more foods were now held in packed home freezers.

“Elsewhere in the industry, the seismic shift in prepared foods for home delivery had culinary chefs working overtime with food scientists, adding ingredients that helped maintain product integrity, food safety and provided a good eating experience,” Mr. Katen said.

Home delivery, especially in warmer climates where refrigerated and frozen temperatures may not be possible to maintain, presents another new food safety issue.

“This is where food safety could be a huge issue for consumers,” Mr. Cropp said. “If groceries are not stored in the proper temperature or left out on the porch too long, there is higher risk for contamination.”

Home delivery of groceries and ready-to-eat/prepared meals are susceptible to food safety risks when foods are exposed to temperatures in the danger zone of 40°F to 140°F for a prolonged period of time. It is in this zone that harmful microorganisms can grow faster, according to Andrew Lee, research and development manager of food protection at Kalsec Inc.

“Kalsec’s Food Protection Team conducts shelf-life studies at higher storage temperatures for certain groups of microorganisms and these approaches could help us to develop innovative solutions for food safety challenges that have risen from the COVID-19 pandemic,”Mr.  Lee said.

Protect your brand

While many consumers are suffering from cooking fatigue, that does not change the fact that home cooking is at an all-time high. Unfortunately, many consumers do not know how to maintain proper food safety protocols in their home kitchens.

“Consumers may be more prone to abuse meat products by not cooking them fully, not defrosting them properly and not storing them at the proper temperature,” Mr. Cropp said. “Ensuring products are free from pathogens helps eliminate any food-related illnesses that may occur.”

Growth of spoilage and pathogenic microorganisms, and subsequent quality breakdown and even sickness, could hurt a brand’s reputation, even when the brand or delivery service is not at fault. Mr. Stanley emphasizes that brand protection should be front of mind with all food producers. A single recall can cost producers millions of dollars in lost product, revenue, legal fees and related recall expenses.

“Meat and meat alternative producers really need to understand the risks associated with their products and processes and ensure that systems are put into place to minimize consumer and business risks,” Mr. Stanley said. “This includes both production processes, as well as microbial interventions.”

John Wyatt, regional product line manager for food protection at IFF, Nourish, said, “High-pressure processing (HPP) or other kinds of post-processing pasteurization, steam, for example, are widely used and effective to extend shelf life and keep a product safe until the package is opened. When the package is open, though, all of these kinds of protection measures expire.”

Indeed, good manufacturing practices and multiple process hurdles, such as temperature control and packaging conditions (e.g., vacuum and modified atmosphere packaging) may greatly reduce microbial contamination and growth in meat and poultry. There still are numerous groups of spoilage microorganisms and pathogens that can still overcome these hurdles and cause spoilage and foodborne illnesses.

“Psychotropic bacteria such as Pseudomonas spp. and Listeria monocytogenes are examples that contaminate and grow in minimally processed and ready-to-eat meat products,” Mr. Lee said.

That’s where food protection ingredients enter the picture.

“Food manufacturers should revisit their food safety ingredients,” Mr. Cropp said. “For high-risk items such as meat and poultry, it is worth evaluating if a change in dosage levels of food safety ingredients or the addition of one to their product would help delay spoilage.”

Managing moisture

Most spoilage and pathogenic microorganisms thrive in the presence of free water. This is why meat and poultry processors are in the “moisture management” business. They are trying to control the natural moisture that’s found in lean meats and the added water in processed meat items.

“Salts – both sodium chloride and potassium salt – are key to these efforts,” Mr. Katen said. “Salts help unfold animal proteins and enable them to hold both forms of water. We also look to water-holding compounds, like starches, non-meat proteins and hydrocolloids, to help tie up water during processing and in finished packaged form.

“Salt acts as a preservative by altering the activity of water in foods, thereby depriving microbes from using available water as a nutrient. That means the growth of pathogens and spoilage organisms is impeded when salt is present.”

In reduced-sodium applications, processors can replace salt (sodium chloride) with potassium salt by up to 50% in certain applications, without impacting food safety. Similar to sodium chloride, potassium salt also controls microbial growth by decreasing water activity, limiting the ability of microorganisms to grow and reproduce.

“Potassium salt can also be an additional source of potassium, an under-consumed nutrient that is known to counter the effect of sodium on blood pressure,” Mr. Katen said.

Adding antimicrobials

To help prevent microbial growth, meat and poultry processors often incorporate antimicrobials. There are traditional and clean label options, with selection influenced by marketing language, shelf-life goals, and of course, price.

Organic acid salts, such as acetic acid, lactic acid and propionic acid are the most common traditional preservatives. They are often used in a buffered or neutralized format (with a conjugate base). Their mode of action is the same, but their effectiveness varies by the organic acid, specifically the amount of undissociated or non-ionized acid. It is the undissociated acid that penetrates microbial cell walls. Once inside the microorganism, where the pH is near or above neutral, the acid dissociates, lowering the pH. The pathogens and spoilage microorganisms encountered in the meat and poultry processing and distribution environment are pH-sensitive; thus, this change in pH impairs or stops growth. Further, the anionic parts of the organic acid, which are the negatively charged ions, remaining in the microorganism will accumulate, disrupting metabolic functions. This leads to an increase in osmotic pressure that eventually destroys the microorganism.

Acetic acid, which is the primary component of vinegar, is recognized as a label-friendly food safety ingredient. Fermentation technology allows for the development of optimized-performance ingredients, such as buffered vinegar, which comes in dry and liquid formats and has a range of acetic acid concentrations and usage rates. There are low- and no-sodium options, too. Some suppliers include plant extracts to assist with shelf life extension.

Bioprotective cultures are another clean-label approach to food safety. These added cultures, mainly lactic acid bacteria, reduce the acidity of the food, which in turn inhibits pathogens and spoilage microorganisms from growing.

“Deli meats need food-safety ingredient solutions,” Mr. Cropp said. “The more a product is processed, the greater the opportunity for contamination to occur. Not only does deli meat have to go through all the regular processing to become deli meat, but then when it is sliced at the counter, there is more equipment that is coming into contact with the product that if not properly sanitized has the potential to be contaminated right before it is then packaged up and the consumer eats directly out of it.”

The case for antimicrobials in hot dogs and other fully cooked sausages is also strong. That’s because while these encased meats are generally heated prior to eating, they may also be consumed right out of the package.

“You cannot rely on consumers to apply a heat treatment, or a sufficient one,” Mr. Cropp said. “Listeria can grow on ready-to-eat meats if not handled and stored properly. By using an antimicrobial to delay the growth of pathogens, deli meat shelf life can increase, which allows the end consumer to open a fresh, flavorful and safe package of meat each time.”

Mr. Katen concluded, “Ultimately, food safety requires a layered approach using various synergistic formula ingredients, clean animal harvest practices, proper kill steps in cooked meats, and packaging. When employed together, these strategies can help mitigate the effects of possible consumer mishandling, once meat products are out of processors’ control.”