Reaction to prevention

by Donna Berry
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Ingredients do double-duty as interventions against foodborne pathogens.

The US food supply is one of the safest in the world. However, increased globalization of the food industry coupled with consumers’ demands for convenience can create vulnerabilities in the food-safety supply chain. Because the risk of contamination cannot be prevented completely, it is imperative that processors do their part to eliminate the presence of potentially deadly pathogens or prevent their growth.

The Food Safety Modernization Act requires food processors to shift their focus from reaction to prevention. In the meat and poultry industries, prevention focuses on protection from pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes, Escherichia coli and Salmonella.

“There are pathogenic bacteria that are inherent in the processing of meat and poultry products and they must be controlled to ensure product is safe to consume,” says John Wyatt, regional product manager-health division of DuPont Nutrition & Health in New Century, Kan.

Tom Rourke, senior business development manager, for Corbion Purac, Lenexa, Kan., adds, “Listeria is ubiquitous in the environment, so even the best meat processors could have issues.”

What makes Listeria such an issue with meat and poultry is that this pathogen resists historical microbial growth inhibitors such as salt and acidity. It also readily grows at refrigerated temperatures. And though freezing temperatures will stop its growth, this hearty bacterium remains viable.

Proper cooking and reheating of foods effectively controls Listeria. However, certain refrigerated foods such as ready-to-eat (RTE) meat and poultry products, in particular, those purchased through the deli or in a hand-prepared sandwich, are susceptible to contamination, as these products are repeatedly exposed to microorganisms in the environment. Because these products do not require further cooking prior to consumption, they can be carriers of this deadly pathogen. Because the presence of Listeria does not change the taste or smell of the food, it easily goes undetected. This makes it imperative that manufacturers of these products take all possible precautions to ensure safety, including inclusion of food safety ingredients.

Grilled Cuban sandwich
Listeria is often the main concern in production of ready-to-eat meat products.

“Food safety ingredients help to extend the shelf-life of meat and poultry products by protecting the product from microbial spoilage and foodborne pathogens, as well as delay color and flavor loss,” says Courtney Schwartz, marketing manager of Kemin in Des Moines, Iowa.

By themselves, food safety ingredients may not give the level of safety required in the food, according to Wyatt. “As part of a comprehensive system, they can play an important part in achieving and maintaining food safety objectives,” he said. “They should be used as part of a multi-hurdle approach that includes consideration of processing temperatures, salt content and pH.”

Hurdle technology combines treatments and ingredients to enhance shelf stability, safety and quality of foods. Antimicrobials, such as organic acids, bacteriocins, antimycotics and essential oils, can eliminate or inhibit the growth of microorganisms, including pathogens.

It is important to distinguish between technologies that ensure quality throughout shelf-life, e.g., prevent spoilage, off flavors, discoloration, etc., and those that keep a food safe to eat. Some technologies will do both, but the fact is that most reported cases of food-borne illness result from the consumption of perfectly palatable food. Invisible pathogens invade the body and wreak havoc. Because the end result can be fatal, the product is typically recalled when pathogens are detected in food.

Schwartz explains, “Microbial spoilage is more of a concern in fresh applications, whereas Listeria is often the main concern in the RTE products.”

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