In 2021, consumers have a heightened awareness of health and food safety because of the COVID-19 pandemic and are expecting food products to be safe and wholesome, perhaps more than ever.

That’s why food processors are looking for new ways to prevent and detect E. coli, while also saving on costs and supporting sustainability initiatives – all without compromising food safety.

After all, consumer buying patterns shifted during the pandemic. People previously consumed more of their meals from restaurants and often sourced ingredients from farmers markets, where the produce and meat are often fresher and less processed. Now, with limitations stemming from COVID-19, more people are buying their food from grocery stores and other retail environments.

For manufacturers, this means preserving or adding chemicals to food, so it has a longer shelf life better suited for the inventory schedule of grocery and retail environments. Longer shelf life means a greater need for E. coli and other pathogen verification, but also monitoring the extra ingredients and chemicals added to products to ensure they are at levels that are safe to consume.

Elis Owens, director of technical services for Birko Corp., Henderson, Colo., notes the meat industry in particular faces the challenge of reducing water usage, as meat processors can use hundreds of thousands of gallons per day.

Beef carcass washing cabinets, for example, can go through 300 gallons of water per minute, which is not only a heavy use of resources, but also costly.

“Processors can’t simply cut back on the volume of water they’re using, as doing so would pose risks to food safety, which is of particular concern in the context of the pandemic,” Owens said.

There’s also the question of chemical use. Processors don’t want to waste chemicals, but some of the processes don’t allow for controlling overspray. That’s why one of the main conversations right now is about how processors can keep treating their products effectively and preventing outbreaks of foodborne illness while using fewer resources.

Carl Zerr III, vice president of produce integrations for Calgary, Albert-based FoodChek Systems Inc., noted companies consider E. coli prevention and testing more important than ever to protect the consumer and protect the brand.

“It’s a high-level target organism, especially with a grinding plant,” he said. “Different types of assays are out there to detect E. coli, and by testing, they save recalls and maybe save lives.”

According to Zerr, applications such as sprays when used properly, will be a great mitigation step, but the grinding plant needs to take samples to be tested for strains of E. coli. That’s why having a top detection system is so important.

Unfortunately, the testing that supports E. coli prevention and detection is highly regulated by federal bodies such as the USDA, which doesn’t leave much room for innovation.

Waylon Sharp, vice president and chief operating officer of food and agriculture at Bureau Veritas North America, Mississauga, Ontario, noted the innovation is more around E. coli prevention, and we are seeing a trend of manufacturers putting more proactive measures in place to reduce potential outbreaks and maintain product quality.

“This includes incorporating interventions, additives or processing aids to food to increase the protection against E. coli,” Sharp said. “Additionally, more leaders are investing in hygiene control measures for their plants and facilities. For instance, facilities are using newer materials that are less conducive to spreading E. coli and implementing better layouts to avoid cross contamination.”

The latest and greatest

Zerr champions having the newest thing on the block when systems improve, because this is an area a company like FoodChek should never overlook.

Birko offers a number of solutions for the prevention and detection of E. coli that also help address the ongoing challenges for food processors. Most notably is the company’s Elite 360 system. Developed in partnership with Colorado State University, the system uses electrostatic technology by applying an electrostatically charged antimicrobial solution peracetic acid (PAA) to every surface of a product as it rotates through the system.

“The use of the electrostatic application creates an attractive force between the PAA and the meat surface, which results in a higher transfer efficiency and complete coverage,” Owens said. “This revolutionary process means processors can now achieve 360-degree antimicrobial coverage on their products while reducing overspray, water and chemical use.”

The technology has been approved by the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) for the use in applying PAA to red meat trimmings and poultry parts.

“Improving coverage while reducing waste is one of Birko’s greatest successes with this technology,” Owens said. “Concentrating on the delivery of the antimicrobial at the meat surface increases efficacy against microbials like E. coli while eliminating overspray.”

Bureau Veritas has specialized ISO 17025 accredited laboratories throughout North America that provide chemical and microbiological testing services.

“We utilize a wide array of Health Canada and AOAC methods approved by the CFIA, USDA and FDA that vary in matrix applicability, sensitivity, turnaround time and cost,” Sharp said. “Our microbiology tests apply to product testing, environmental monitoring, water safety and air safety.”

The company’s advanced technology mines data based on trends and past events, so that its partners can anticipate potential issues and adjust accordingly.

“For example, if our data shows that there was an E. coli outbreak around this time last year, we work with our customers to help them prepare for any spikes by doubling down on-site hygiene or ramping up testing,” Sharp said.

Damage control

Beyond the health concerns, it is also important for meat and poultry companies to consider the lasting damage to public perception of a brand and erosion of brand equity, which can cause issues for both private and public companies.

“When consumers see negative news coverage regarding food products and recalls, they avoid those items in the grocery store even after the products are deemed safe to consume,” Owens said.

Looking ahead

The consolidation of meat and poultry production into fewer larger facilities and the growth of foodservice outlets have created a number of possibilities – and challenges – when it comes to food safety.

“Larger facilities allow for the more controlled and consistent application of E. coli control measures, but the consequences of a failure in the food safety systems are larger, as more meat or meat products may be impacted,” Owens said. “At the same time, increased testing and greater publicity of foodborne illness outbreaks has raised public awareness of those issues. Fortunately, new application systems and new, more effective chemistries have given processors a greater arsenal of weapons to deploy against E. coli.”

Birko anticipates that the meat and poultry industry will see more sustainable technologies, chemistries and intervention methods that allow for the control of E. coli in the years ahead.

“We expect that use of electrostatic technology will expand from the current application on parts and trim to use throughout the harvest process including on whole carcasses,” Owens said. “Additional antimicrobials may also be validated for use with the Elite 360 or other systems.”

Over the next five to 10 years, Sharp foresees more technology being implemented across plants to reduce the labor needed, increased technology and more interventions to ensure food safety is maintained and E. coli problems are prevented.