Fully cooked meat and poultry products are increasingly being embraced by home cooks seeking out convenient meal options during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, health and wellness is top-of-mind, and includes consumers wanting assurance that food is safe for consumption.

Meat and poultry processors have many technologies to ensure that product is free from pathogens. Many rely on a hurdle approach, where multiple preservation methods, including physical, chemical and biological, are applied to the product. This involves managing attributes such as pH, temperature and water activity to eliminate pathogenic microorganisms from the product.

This is particularly critical with ready-to-eat (RTE) proteins, such as cold cuts, deli/luncheon meats and charcuterie. These are perishable foods that are not heated before consumption. Even heat-and-eat fully cooked meats pose a risk, as the consumer may not heat the product enough to kill dangerous microorganisms.

Providing meal solutions

The popularity of such meats has never been greater. After all, more than half (51%) of consumers are now preparing 91% to 100% of meals at home, according to IRI, Chicago. Almost the same number (49%) find that their biggest challenge is meal ideas or lack of inspiration to cook. Enter fully cooked meat and poultry solutions.

From March 15 to June 7, the pandemic purchasing period when many states had stay-at-home orders in place, processed refrigerated RTE meat sales were $5.1 billion, a 45% increase in dollar sales from the same period a year ago and a 33% increase in pounds. Smoked ham and pork had the strongest sales, followed by sausage, hot dogs and bacon.

“People returned to the familiar amid COVID-19 and meat returned to the center of plate,” said Anne-Marie Roerink, president of 210 Analytics LLC, San Antonio. “Processed meats have had their sales dreams come true. Sales are up strong in all four main categories. One big opportunity is helping consumers with meal planning.”

Fully cooked products may assist. The time is now for processors to explore new forms and flavors, e.g., from seasonings, rubs and marinades. This includes everything from fully cooked refrigerated chicken cubes and kabobs to turkey breast slices to gourmet sausages.

Ensuring safety is paramount. The 2020 Food & Health Survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC), Washington, DC, was conducted between April 8 and April 16, about one month into the COVID-19 mayhem. The survey showed that 85% of Americans have made at least some change in the foods they eat or how they prepare food. While consumers’ top food safety issues have been stable in recent years, this year concerns about food handling and preparation related to the risk of COVID-19 has shot up to the second most important issue for Americans (or the top issue if looking at what people rank as No. 1 only). More than a third of Americans also say that they actively avoid certain foods and beverages as a result of their concerns about the food safety issues.

A total of 4,500 consumers from across the globe were asked in a survey by DNV GL, Høvik, Norway, about their food purchasing habits and the results indicate a strong preference for factors impacting the individual consumer. Food safety (55% of respondents) and health issues (53%) were regarded more important than wider external factors, such as environment (38%) and social aspects (35%). 

“Food safety is top of the agenda for consumers,” said Joy Franks-Laing, global food and beverage manager. “Consumers are even willing to pay more for products that they trust. If the product information is verified or if the product or manufacturer is certified to a food safety standard, 69% are willing to pay more. Food safety certification is quite common at the manufacturer level.”

Multi-hurdle technology

Fully cooked meat and poultry products pose some of the highest potential dangers in the food industry. At the same time, however, processors of these products have a plethora of technologies available to ensure safety.

Apple cider vinegarThe goal is to maximize the quality of the food without compromising food safety. The hurdle technology approach integrates individually mild preservation technologies that work in synergy.

The oldest form of preservation technology is salting and is always one of the technologies included in fully cooked meats. Sodium chloride, or table salt, is the most common salt; however, if lower sodium is desired in the final product, some of the sodium chloride may be replaced with potassium chloride.

Both salts may be injected into whole muscle via a brine solution before cooking or blended in as a dry ingredient in processed meats. They function by decreasing water activity, or conversely, increasing osmotic pressure. The increase in osmotic pressure in the environment causes water to move through the cell membrane and out of microorganisms. Basically, this dehydrates the cell and it loses viability.

Salt is a major component of the soy sauce used as a marinade in the zero-sugar beef jerky from Old Trapper, Forest Grove, Ore. In addition, the soy sauce contains sodium benzoate, another common salt preservative. Sodium nitrite and apple cider vinegar also keep the product safe while contributing flavor. With only 2 grams of carbohydrates per serving, the smoky, full-bodied jerky is intended for low-carbohydrate and keto dieters.

Sodium nitrites and nitrates produce desirable color in processed meats and are responsible for adding a zingy, tangy flavor. But more importantly, they are a highly effective preservative in cured fermented sausages and charcuterie, many of which are stored at room temperature.

Many ambient-held sausages include bioprotective cultures. The science here is to introduce competing microorganisms – mainly lactic acid bacteria – into the system. Through fermentation they reduce the acidity of the food, which in turn inhibits pathogens from growing.

A growing number of meat and poultry processors include bioprotective cultures in products such as bacon, cooked ham, cooked poultry strips and fresh sausages to provide an extra layer of safety. It’s one more hurdle in their food safety plan.

Nitrates and nitrites do not have to be directly added to cured products. They may be added by formulating with natural ingredients that are inherent sources of nitrates and nitrites. This includes plant extracts, usually in powder form. Celery powders are the most common, followed by spinach and Swiss chard. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires companies that take this natural approach to label the product as “uncured” with “no nitrates or nitrites.” Labels must also include a disclaimer that identifies the natural source of nitrates and nitrites.

Apple cider vinegar, just like other types of vinegar, functions as a natural preservative. Acetic acid is the primary component of vinegar. 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.

Other food-grade acids that assist with food safety include lactic acid and propionic acid. Like acetic acid, 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 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.  

It is the amount of undissociated acid that determines the organic acid salt’s effectiveness as an antimicrobial. Dissociation is dependent on pH and quantified by pKa value. The pKa of an acid is the pH where 50% of the acid is undissociated. Propionic acid has a pKa of 4.87 and acetic acid’s is 4.75. Lactic acid is much lower at 3.83. When pH is higher than pKa, the amount of undissociated acid decreases and the acid is less effective at destroying undesirable microorganisms.

Butterball Premium Snacks ThanksgivingSome natural plant extracts and spices, most notably those with high concentrations of polyphenols/flavonoids and antioxidants, have also been shown to be effective against specific pathogens. Suppliers customize blends for specific applications, such as RTE meat and poultry, in order to preserve color and flavor while providing protection against pathogens. Rosemary and green tea extracts are both proven ingredients for their ability to positively impact the appearance, taste and quality of meat and poultry.

The new line of refrigerated meat snacks from Butterball, Garner, NC, relies on vinegar as a natural preservative. The refrigerated premium snack line features high-quality, seasoned turkey breast slices paired with unique sweet and savory sides. Inspired by distinct meal occasions, there are three varieties. They are: Cajun seasoned turkey breast with cornbread crisps and dried apple pieces; citrus teriyaki seasoned turkey breast with sesame sticks and dried pineapple pieces; and Thanksgiving seasoned turkey breast with stuffing bites and dried cranberries.

Technology advancements

Various processing and modified atmosphere packaging technologies may assist with food safety. One such technology is sous vide, an innovative cooking technique that involves vacuum sealing food in a specially designed pouch and slow cooking it in water at low temperature. The package is then flash frozen or refrigerated. The sous vide cooking process eliminates pathogens and microorganisms that may have been present in the raw state. Doing this minimizes the chance for any type of contamination because the product is not further handled after cooking or exposed to the environment until opened by the end user.

Chef's Craft chicken breast filletWayne Farms LLC, Oakwood, Ga., is rolling out its Chef’s Craft Flame Grilled Chicken Breast Fillets to Walmart stores across the United States. The seasoned and grilled chicken was previously sold exclusively through foodservice. Cooked via sous vide, the chicken is 100% farm-raised and contains no nitrates or artificial ingredients. 

In addition to the safety step from sous vide, the chicken breast marinade includes cultured celery powder and rosemary extract. Wayne Farms also markets all-natural fully cooked andouille chicken sausage that includes vinegar and cultured celery juice powder.

High-pressure processing (HPP) is another technique for preserving fully cooked meat and poultry. Also known as cold pressure technology, it uses extremely high pressure to eliminate pathogens while maintaining a higher yield of vitamins, minerals and enzymes, and preserving a fresher taste.

The HPP system involves the loading of airtight/hermetically sealed packages into carrier baskets. These baskets are inserted into the HPP vessel, which then gets sealed by plugs. At this point, potable water gets pumped into the vessel creating isostatic pressure (equal pressure on all sides) on the packages. Product is held at a high pressure for up to six minutes, with pressures and times varying by product. This pressure disrupts the microbial biochemistry of pathogens and spoilage bacteria, which helps preserve freshness and increase shelf life.