Broadening applications for existing on-farm and in-plant food-safety intervention technologies continues to be constantly researched and tested by industry, technology suppliers and academia. Currently, the most important alternative intervention technologies being used by the meat and poultry industry appear to be HPP [high-pressure processing or pasteurization], ultraviolet (UV)/ advanced oxidation processes and bacteriophages, says Dr. James Marsden, Kansas State Univ. Distinguished Professor of Food Safety and Security, associate director of the Biosecurity Research Institute located at KSU and senior science advisor for the North American Meat Association.

“One [intervention technology] taking hold in ready-to-eat [RTE] products is Listex – a bacteriophage for controlling Listeria,” Marsden says. “HPP is widely used for processed ready-to-eat products and shellfish. UV is widely used for environmental control of Lm and for direct decontamination of trimmings and subprimals.”

In May 2011, the US Dept. of Agriculture approved Listex from Wageninhen, Netherlands-based Micreos, formerly EBI Food Safety, as an antimicrobial processing aid to combat Listeria monocytogenes.

Phages are bacteria-specific, enabling targeted bacterial control – and they are harmless to plants, animals and humans. The phages in Listex do not affect “good” bacteria – but are lethal to only Listeria, which – despite rigorous cleaning controls – can hide in the nooks and crannies of processing equipment, and can be present on skin of cattle and more.

Interventions galore

Although technically impossible to produce a bacteria-free, fresh-meat supply, industry continues tirelessly researching new strategies that reduce bacteria to as close to zero as possible. Some of the most common on-farm interventions used by the US meat and poultry industry are vaccines and probiotics – probiotic bacteria are harmless, beneficial and compete with pathogens to reduce or prevent their colonization of the gut, according to The American Meat Institute Foundation (AMIF).

Common in-plant interventions include hide washes, sanitary hide removal, carcass washes/hot water washes, steam vacuums, thermal treatment /steam pasteurization, acidified sodium chlorite, lactic acid wash, lactoferrin or calcium hypochlorite, chlorine dioxide and bacteriophages, the Foundation iterates.

As the market for HPP grows, so does the market for third-party HPP processing options.

HPP on the move

More US meat and poultry companies are incorporating high-pressure processing or pasteurization (HPP) to process their products, one insider says. HPP preserves and sterilizes food while product is processed under extremely high pressure, leading to inactivating certain microorganisms and enzymes in the food.

“We see the market growing more than 25 percent per year for RTE products with an even faster uptake in raw, especially raw ground poultry,” says Jeff Barnard, president, Lincoln, Neb.-based Universal Pasteurization Co., an arm of Universal Cold Storage. “Many are driving this through HPP outsourcers in order to save on capital equipment costs, keep batch systems out of their lines, maintain capacity flexibility and system and location redundancy.”

Whether they advertise it or not, most of the larger meat and poultry processors use HPP in one product or another, Barnard claims.

“The most well-known are Hormel with the Natural Choice product line, Applegate Farms sliced RTE products and Perdue Short Cuts chicken strips,” he adds. “Jennie-O processes their ground turkey chubs with HPP. Costco, HEB, Whole Foods and even Walmart want clean-label products for their store brands.”

As the market for HPP grows, so does the market for HPP tolling services. There are currently 12 such locations in the US, Barnard says. “Many have actually doubled or more capacity in the past 12-24 months. Universal has three of these locations with nine HPP systems,” he adds.

“HPP tolling services, or third-party HPP processing options are definitely increasing in size and number,” says Jaime Nicolás-Correa, Global Commercial Manager, director of North America, Hiperbaric USA, based in Miami. “They include Millard, SafePac, Ameriqual and APC. Setting up an HPP operation is not easy. You need to have the expertise, space and capital to invest. It is much easier and faster [for a processor] to go to a toll processor.”

Other US processors using HPP include Foster Farms, Columbus Foods, Cooper Farms, West Liberty Foods, Vincent Giordano Corp., Quantum Foods, and some companies that prefer to not be named, he adds.

More processors are using HPP for several reasons. “Some are primarily using HPP as a kill step to ensure their product does not succumb to a recall, which can be fatal to a brand and very costly,” says Tim Hunter, spokesman for Avure Technologies Inc., Franklin, Tenn. “Others are using HPP to deliver all-natural meat products to their customers, such as all-natural, preservative-free chicken sausage and meatballs [Aidells, for example], as well as cooked deli slices without nitrites and other preservatives.”

Avure currently has nine tolling-partner locations in the US, some with up to five high-throughput HPP systems under one roof. “Our tolling partner, Universal Pasteurization Company, just opened a new tolling facility in Villa Rica, Ga., and has one Avure system installed and running, with another installing (last month),” he adds.

The tolling network is increasing and expanding. “I recently asked one of our tolling partners why they were buying a second system. He said many of his customers had grown 300 to 400 percent over the last couple of years because of HPP,” Hunter says.

Irradiation update

Meat irradiation continues in the US. Three forms of food irradiation exist: gamma, x-ray and electron-beam.

Omaha Steaks and Schwan’s irradiate all of their uncooked ground beef. “These companies were pioneers in food irradiation and have irradiated every pound of ground beef sold since 2000,” says Ronald Eustice, a food- quality and safety-assurance consultant based in Minneapolis and Tucson. “Wegmans, a Rochester, NY-based upscale retailer, is also a firm believer in irradiation of ground beef,” he says. “They offer several different fresh irradiated ground-beef choices. Another major retailer has begun to offer fresh ground beef that has been irradiated and sells in certain markets.”

Gamma and electron-beam irradiation are both being used very successfully on ground beef, Eustice says. Three facilities in the US currently irradiate ground beef in addition to other food items. Those facilities include: Food Technology Service Inc., Mulberry, Fla.; Sadex Inc., Sioux City, Iowa; and Texas A&M Univ., College Station, Texas. “At this point, no irradiation is taking place in-plant, but there is interest.” he adds.

Interest in irradiation as a food-safety intervention among US meat and poultry processors is sustained in part because of the new E. coli strains and Salmonella that are being found in beef and poultry, as well as vibrio in fresh oysters, Eustice says. The volume of irradiated ground beef sold in the US has remained steady at 15 million to 18 million lbs. annually since 2000. Consumer response has been very positive. Within the past year, a food irradiation facility was opened at Gulfport, Miss. Gateway America has irradiated a huge amount of oysters for several companies to reduce vibrio to undetectable levels, Eustice adds.

According to Eustice: “While significant progress has been made by the beef industry to reduce the incidence of E. coli O157:H7, ‘new’ serotypes of E. coli are being discovered including E. coli O103, E. coli O111, E. coli O121, E. coli O145, E. coli O26 and E. coli O45. Most laboratories do not test for these serotypes, thus, the incidence is unknown. Random testing shows that the incidence of non-O157:H7 serotypes may be as high as 2 percent. Very little progress has been made in reducing the incidence of Salmonella in ground beef and poultry. Irradiation is an effective intervention to eliminate Salmonella as well as E. coli and other harmful bacteria.”

The future

As consumers continue demanding clean-label products, meat and poultry processors are responding by using HPP instead of additives, Barnard says. “We see upwards of 27 percent of all RTE meat products being produced using HPP by 2017,” he adds. “In addition, as the government continues to focus on zero food illnesses, processors are turning more to HPP as a food-safety intervention step for raw ground and whole-muscle products. If color changes for ground beef can be overcome, the uptake for HPP for these products could be huge.”

Hiperbaric USA’s Nicolás-Correa thinks HPP will be extended and generally accepted. “With the new high volumes model that we have launched [Hiperbaric 525] the cost per lb. has been reduced significantly and the throughput has increased,” he adds.

As HPP becomes more widely accepted and adopted, it will be embraced as the primary solution to achieve safer, healthier and higher-quality products, says Avure’s Hunter. “Also, more applications will be discovered and applied, such as tenderization, taste and texture improvement,” he adds. “Packaging will adjust more to this type of processing. Throughput will continue to be at the forefront of improvement.”

Avure has been spending a lot of time and energy working to improve efficiencies and throughput, as well as making the per-lb. processing costs more affordable, he adds.

Although irradiation is under-utilized as a food-safety and phytosanitary tool, its future is bright, Eustice says. “Irradiation is one of the most effective tools to increase the safety of our food supply,” he adds.

“Consumer acceptance of irradiated ground beef sold by Omaha Steaks, Schwans, Wegmans and others has been excellent.”