It’s that time of year when a growing number of consumers fire up their grills. It’s also a time when there’s increased concern about food safety, as many foodborne pathogens – microorganisms that cause illness, which can lead to death – grow fastest at summertime temperatures and high humidity. Improper outdoor cooking practices, such as undercooking meat, exposing raw meat to the elements and cross contamination, increase the likelihood of harmful microorganisms proliferating all while remaining incognito – as they are not visible to the human eye.

There’s no escaping these microorganisms. They are everywhere and can be introduced into meat and poultry at any point, starting from when the animal is alive to when its meat is being served. With many pathogens, good manufacturing practices followed by proper handling and cooking will keep meat and poultry safe.

Because consumers are not in direct control of their food from farm to grocery, food safety is a growing concern among today’s shoppers, according to the hot-off-the press report US Grocery Shopper Trends 2014 from Food Marketing Institute (FMI), Washington, DC. The brunt of consumer concerns about food safety falls on processing and industrial plants, with the vast majority (54 percent) in the FMI study believing that it is there where food-safety issues are most likely to occur, a pattern consistently observed since 2007.

Not surprisingly, the No. 1 food-safety concern is microbial contamination. The good news is that according to the study, consumer confidence in the safety of meat, poultry and fish has jumped six percentage points from 2010 (40 percent) to 2014 (46 percent).

Confidence might be up, but the number of Americans contracting a foodborne illness has gone almost unchanged during this time frame. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Atlanta, indicates that each year, roughly one in six Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick from a foodborne illness. Though most are minor afflictions, CDC statistics show that these cause as many as 128,000 Americans to be hospitalized annually and about 3,000 to die each year.

According to CDC, meat and poultry are the greatest culprits in the number of deaths, being responsible for 29 percent of foodborne illness-related deaths from 1998 to 2008. During this period, meat and poultry products were also responsible for 22 percent of reported cases of foodborne illnesses that did not result in death.

Ingredients provide assistance

There are numerous ingredients, some old standbys and others recently discovered, that assist processors with inhibiting the growth of pathogens. Many of the traditional antimicrobials do not complement today’s trend toward all-natural and clean labeling. One example is the nitrites used in many sausages. Nitrites not only contribute flavor and color, but also prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that causes the potentially fatal paralysis of body organs known as botulism. Though highly effective, nitrites are perceived by many consumers as negative. In fact, Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, has nitrites on its unacceptable ingredient list.

Clean-label alternatives to nitrites are ingredients that are inherently concentrated sources of natural nitrates, such as celery. Celery juice, as a liquid or dried into a powder, has been shown to be effective in controlling bacterial growth. Because the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA), Washington, DC, defines an uncured product as one that has been preserved without the use of chemical agents, such as sodium nitrite or sodium nitrate, these products can be labeled “uncured,” “no nitrites added” or “no nitrates added,” very label-friendly terminology.

Olive powder is also very labeling friendly and has been shown to be effective in combatting E. coli O157:H7 in hamburger patties. E. coli O157:H7 is a leading cause of foodborne illness and is blamed for more than 73,000 cases of illness annually. Many E. coli outbreaks have been traced back to ground beef that had been improperly cooked.

Scientists at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), a branch of USDA, and the Univ. of Arizona – Tucson, discovered that olive powder, an olive processing byproduct, can reduce the amount of E. coli in raw ground beef. This finding was part of a research project examining the effects of various plant extracts, including olive powder, apple powder and onion powder, on potentially harmful substances in burgers. The research team found that of these naturally derived substances, olive powder was the most effective at improving ground-beef safety. The researchers have yet to determine what part of the olive compound was responsible for this function.

Controlling pathogens in raw meat and poultry is a whole different story than controlling the growth of Listeria monocytogenes, the greatest nemesis to ready-to-eat (RTE) products. According to CDC, approximately 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths due to listeriosis occur annually.

L. monocytogenes is readily found throughout the environment and in many foods, primarily animal-based products. It also readily grows at refrigerated temperatures and growth goes undetected. Proper cooking and reheating of RTE meat and poultry effectively controls Listeria; however, many such RTE products, such as sausages and luncheon meats, are consumed cold or at temperatures not high enough to destroy the microorganisms. Products most susceptible to contamination are cut-to-order meats purchased through the deli as these products are repeatedly exposed to microorganisms in the environment.

To prevent growth, processors can add organic acids approved by USDA-Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). These ingredients function by reducing the pH of meat. Their level of effectiveness is determined by the amount of undissociated acid that penetrates the bacteria cell wall and disrupts its physiology.

On Dec. 9, 2002, USDA-FSIS put into effect a directive identifying antimicrobial agents formulated with sodium/potassium lactate and sodium diacetate as a means to control for Listeria in RTE meat and poultry. Since May 6, 2013, liquid sodium propionate can also be used.

Specialty vinegar ingredients produced by the fermentation of corn sugar with selected food cultures provide a clean-label option to inhibit Listeria growth in fresh and RTE meat and poultry products. These ingredients can be simply labeled “vinegar” on ingredient panels.

To best prevent foodborne pathogens from proliferating on meat and poultry, processors want to start with high-quality raw materials from healthy animals. Include hygienic slaughtering and butchering to avoid contamination of freshly exposed meat surfaces. Thoroughly cook products and ensure they are packaged and stored under proper temperature. Because cooked meats served cold are susceptible to contamination by L. monocytogenes, a proven antimicrobial should be included.

Donna Berry is a contributing editor from Chicago and owner of Dairy & Food Communications.