When the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic turned the meat and poultry industry upside down earlier this year, the high-pressure processing industry (HPP), which serves meat and poultry processors and other food segments, faced many of those same challenges.
But like meat, poultry and food processing, HPP has successfully overcome many of the obstacles. The HPP industry – which includes HPP equipment makers and HPP service operators, often called “tollers,” who provide high-pressure processing to the food industry – continues to grow eight months after this pandemic began in the United States and overseas.
In addition, top officials in the HPP industry agreed one positive result stemming from the pandemic is that there’s an emphasis on increased food safety in their industry, as well as in the meat and poultry processing industry, which hopefully will continue long after the pandemic is gone.
Roberto Peregrina, chief scientific technologist for Hiperbaric, one of two major manufacturers of HPP equipment, explained high-pressure processing.
“It’s a cold pasteurization process subjecting food, which has been sealed previously in flexible and water-resistant packaging, to a high level of hydrostatic pressure, which is pressure transmitted by water.”
He added that the packaged foods are placed in plastic baskets and put into a large chamber or machinery where they undergo the high pressure and water.
Peregrina said HPP is a natural, environmentally friendly process that helps maintain the fresh characteristics of food like its flavor and nutrients.
“It is an alternative to a traditional thermal and chemical treatment at the end of the manufacturing process for food products, including poultry and meat,” he said. “HPP inactivates foodborne bacteria and viruses and extends a food product’s shelf life two to 10 times that of other pasteurization methods.”
Of course, the question is raised immediately:
Does HPP have any effect on coronavirus (COVID-19)?
“Unfortunately, this particular virus (COVID-19) is new and research about it is still scarce,” Peregrina pointed out. “However, it is known that HPP effectively inactivates a variety of viruses, including avian influenza, herpes simplex virus type 1, human cytomegalovirus, and vesicular stomatitis virus.”
Errol Raghubeer, PhD, senior vice president for microbiology and food technology at Avure Technologies, the other major manufacturer of HPP equipment and a subsidiary of JBT, agreed HPP has been shown to be effective against many viruses, including coronaviruses – there are many of those, not just SARS-CoV-2 (the COVID-19 virus).
“Personally, I believe it should be as effective against COVID-19 as it is reported with similar viruses,” Raghubeer said.
But research to date has not tied the danger of COVID-19 to food. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risk of getting sick with COVID-19 from eating or handling food, including frozen food or produce, and food packages, is considered very low. Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that handling or consuming food is associated with COVID-19, the federal health agency said. The agency suggested that after shopping, handling food packages, or before preparing or eating food, people should wash their hands or use a hand sanitizer.
But keeping employees who work with HPP safe, like workers in meat and poultry plants, is an issue. Jasmine Sutherland, president of Texas Food Solutions in Houston developed COVID safety protocols for her own company’s employees. Texas Food Solutions is a “tolling” company using Avure HPP equipment that provides HPP services to meat, poultry and other food processors and manufacturers that don’t do it on their own.
The protocols include: stopping travel and outside visitors a few weeks before stay at home orders started; temperature checking all employees; moving shift start times to have fewer people in the building during crossover; increasing sanitation in all common areas; dividing breaks to allow social distancing; re-training employees on proper glove, sanitation and personal hygiene; and reassuring employees there will be compensation if they or a family member are sick and they need to stay home.
“Equally important, once we had a plan, we communicated it to our customers, so they knew they would not see an interruption in service from Texas Food Solutions,” Sutherland said.
Lineage Logistics, based in Allentown, Pa., is a tolling company using Hiperbaric equipment in addition to offering customers cold storage facilities.
“Sometimes we’re called HPP service providers, sometimes toll operators,” said David Herpai, production manager for the company. “The reason being, our customers pay for the service by the number of packages or weight, like you would pay a toll on a bridge or the Turnpike.”
He explained a broad variety of foods, including meat and poultry products, can be protected from pathogens at the end of processing, as well as having shelf life greatly extended. And many foods lend themselves to the process.
“Anything you can put in a package,” he said. “Including deli meats, poultry and meat products, juices, packaged salad dressings, and pet food, like dog and cat food.”
The company operates under both USDA and FDA inspection. USDA covers much of the food products for people, including meat and poultry, FDA for some other foods like juices, salads and pet foods. Because of the differences in USDA and FDA inspection, he relies on USDA for comments on issues the company faces, even if the product is under FDA inspection.
Justin Segel is president of American Pasteurization Co., an established HPP service provider based in Wauwatosa, Wis. His company uses equipment from both Avure and Hiperbaric. Segel is also chairman of the Cold Pressure Council, a trade group for the high-pressure processing industry.
Some of the vessels he uses for HPP are bigger than school buses and exert pressure of 87,000 pounds per square inch on food products, which is more pressure than at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean.
“I came across high pressure processing in the late 1990s,” Segel explained. “The regulations for Listeria were coming out, and people were looking for post package interventions, because of the danger of that pathogen.
“The process also works in preventing Salmonella, E. coli and spoilage organisms. It is effective on ground beef and other raw products. It is used in the turkey industry a lot, especially in ground turkey, where it targets Salmonella. It is widely employed for raw products. For pathogens, it has at least a 5-log reduction,” he said.
Some companies use HPP in their HACCP food safety plans as a Critical Control Point (CCP), he added.
“When HPP first began, the units doing the process were small – nothing like today. Emphasis was mostly on food safety, eliminating bacteria and pathogens. But the move toward clean label for foods, including meat and poultry, has made that an important growth driver for HPP as well. That is because there is also a great emphasis now in food processing, including meat and poultry, toward getting away from using preservatives in food – making foods as fresh as possible,” Segel explained.
Segel said the ability of HPP to extend the shelf life of food products is a great benefit to consumers, especially during this time when shoppers are trying to be careful, because of the ongoing pandemic. But he noted the use of HPP to make food safe is a major emphasis of the technology.
Texas Food Solutions’ Sutherland pointed out the benefits of HPP both for meat and poultry processing companies has become even more critical during this year’s coronavirus pandemic.
“HPP offers an insurance policy of added safety,” she said. “A lot of processors are increasing volumes and stretching at the seams. This pressure (on them) might mean you are moving faster, and outside of your normal comfort zone.
“So, there is an immense sense of security that you made a great product, and then on top of that, can guarantee absence of pathogenic growth, with a multi-log reduction, while maintaining quality and nutritional integrity, coming from adding high pressure as an intervention step,” she pointed out.
Raghubeer has a final thought about the effects of the pandemic on the meat and poultry industry.
“It is critical that proper, enforceable sanitation and personal hygiene be in place. If there is one thing that can be considered positive from this pandemic, it is that the way of doing business in the meat and poultry and other industries will change for the better in terms of product safety.
“This virus will be with us for some time, so the precautions being used now to protect people and products will hopefully be ingrained in us in the way we do business in food processing plants after it is over. And make us better prepared when the next one comes along,” he said.