All about the design
In deli and prepared food processing, sanitary equipment is of the most importance, especially its design. “The technology in slicing has changed. Those of us who prepare food for retailers and the retailers themselves are looking for easier ways to do this handling, slicing and cutting,” he says. “The equipment designers have to make it easier for us to keep the equipment clean. I look at the equipment – how easy is it to clean and sanitize? That’s crucial. There needs to be fewer moving parts. It’s got to be easy to take apart and sanitize. The equipment makers – Weber, Textor, Provisur and others -- are moving in that direction.”
When Bimmy’s receives its meat, Fread says, there’s zero bacterial count. But meat is handled, sliced and exposed to the environment. He also says training his staff to handle meat, poultry and other products safely is critical. “I just don’t tell an employee what to do. I involve my employees as much as possible in everything we’re doing from a food safety standpoint, so they really understand, not only the stakes involved, but what to do to make sure our products are safe.”
Butts says eliminating packing materials and non-essential equipment from areas where deli meats are being processed is vital to minimizing risks. Sanitary equipment is also critical, and great progress has been made by the supplier community, he says. “Over time, equipment makers discovered design faults in the equipment being used like display cases, cutting tables and slicers. They’ve been changing the design and making that equipment better.”
The North American Meat Institute’s (NAMI) development of the Sanitary Equipment Design Principles Checklist and Glossary has been invaluable in evaluating equipment used for further processing deli meats.
According to KatieRose McCullough, director of scientific and regulatory affairs at NAMI, meat and poultry brought into retail delis, markets and sandwich shops from processing plants using Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures, Good Manufacturing Practices and HACCP plans are in good shape. If the delis are producing products on-site, these retail facilities fall under regulations set by state or local authorities, or both.
“Once a meat or poultry product arrives at a deli, there is a potential it could become contaminated with a pathogen during handling at the deli itself,” she says. “Several years ago, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) published good advice for retail delis and sandwich shops to use, in the form of Best Practices Guidance for Controlling Listeria (a major food safety threat to deli foods) in retail delicatessens. The guidance deals with product handling, cleaning and sanitizing, facility and equipment controls and employee practices.”
Among other things, the guidance recommends food processing equipment be disassembled during cleaning and sanitizing; retailers scrub surfaces to prevent biofilm from forming; and retailers rotate and change sanitizers to prevent Listeria from establishing niches in the environment and forming biofilms.
The FSIS advice also recommends products should not be pre-sliced, but sliced at the time it is requested by consumers. The shelf life of an RTE product opened, prepared and held in a retail setting should be limited to 24 hours. After slicing, RTE products should be returned to refrigerated units, to slow pathogen growth.
While some consumer groups continually call for more product testing, McCullough, like most in the industry, doesn’t believe that’s helpful. “The best way to make sure products are safe is to start with a clean and sanitary environment, handle the products in a sanitary manner, and prevent recontamination during handling,” she says. “Under the Listeria Rule, establishments are required to test food contact surfaces in the post-lethality processing environment. Many facilities routinely test their food contact surfaces internally for cleanliness and the presence of Listeria.”
Butts believes that the changes in the supermarket business, including Amazon’s plans to get into the brick and mortar grocery business, and Wal-Mart and similar companies becoming major grocery sellers, mean substantial changes in how deli products will be prepared and sold. There will always be fresh and prepared deli choices, but deli operations are becoming more segmented.
“If you look at national grocery chains, you’re already seeing more prepared deli products – poultry, meat, cheese,” he says. Examples include Wegman’s and Aldi. Some national sandwich chains switched to prepared deli items. That’s because prepared deli products pose less of a food safety threat than fresh meat versus prepared deli products that have gone through the food safety standards at processing plants, according to Butts.
“That’s not to say fresh deli is going to disappear. It’ll always be there – maybe more on the local level. But they’ll have to take the food safety steps needed with fresh deli, with the increased handling of the products, the breaking down, cleaning and sanitation of the equipment used for deli.”