The COVID-19 pandemic changed where, when and what we eat, and how that food is sourced and prepared. Ingredient technology helps provide food safety solutions for new or modified spots in the supply chain, such as home delivery, ghost kitchens and commissaries, as well as home stock ups. Meat and poultry processors need to understand the risks associated with their products and take the proper steps to keep them safe in each of these evolving channels.

“Many of our customers had to pivot early during the onset of the pandemic as restaurants, schools and hotels all drastically reduced their volumes while at-home eating increased significantly,” said Jane Quartel, global business unit director-food protection, Kalsec, Kalamazoo, Mich. “This meant that we had to pivot with our customers to offer different solutions as recipes changed overnight.”

Formulating for the new supply chain

Pre-pandemic, meat and poultry processors had a pretty good idea of how their product was being distributed, prepared and served. This knowledge and consistency provided some sense of assurance regarding food safety. The pivots created many unknowns. 

Increased used of contactless delivery, for example, shifted how food items are now handled. Grocery delivery and meal kit subscriptions that include meat and poultry present unique challenges, as the parties involved may not be aware of the necessary steps to keep food safe.

“Considering boxes can sit out in the sun and sometimes be forgotten overnight, there is the potential for higher pathogen risk,” said Chad Boeckman, Wenda Ingredients, Naperville, Ill. “Coupled with the fact that these food shipments are expensive, consumers may resist discarding the goods.”

Michael Cropp, technical service associate with Kemin Food Technologies, Des Moines, Iowa, said, “As a food manufacturer, this could hurt your brand’s reputation even if you are not at fault. To combat this, food manufacturers should revisit their food safety ingredients. For high-risk items such as meat and poultry, it is worth evaluating if a change in dosage levels of food safety ingredients or the addition of one to a product will help ensure safety and limit spoilage concerns.”

Third-party delivery services of prepared foods from restaurants also present many unknowns regarding food safety. Foods may not be consumed as quickly, or they may not be held in a controlled temperature. The freshness of some foods may also be questionable, and if saved for later, there may be food safety concerns.

“Before, a consumer would drive to their fast-food restaurant of choice, dine-in or pull through the drive-through and eat the purchased items in a timely fashion,” Cropp said.

Stocking home refrigerators and freezers continues and comes with special considerations. Reducing food waste by saving leftovers is also trending among the working-from-home population.

“It is important to evaluate the efficacy of food safety ingredients on products that may now be frozen for longer periods of time or are typically sold refrigerated, but are now being frozen by the end consumer, and subsequently thawed out,” Cropp said. “There also continues to be supply chain issues. What once took only a few days to ship out, may take longer. The longer it takes for products to arrive to retail locations, the further along they are in their ‘best by’ date.”

Manufacturers must never assume that consumers will handle or properly cook meat and poultry. There’s always room for cross contamination, too.

“Ready-to-eat meats are well suited for antimicrobial benefits as there may not be any food safety intervention between the packaged product and consumption,” Cropp said. “Hot dogs, for example, are generally grilled, boiled, microwaved or even pan fried prior to eating; however, they may also be consumed right out of the package.”

With rising costs and food insecurities, extending shelf life as much as possible reduces food waste. Food safety ingredients make economic sense.

“Clean-label solutions that meet today’s standards for acceptability and effectiveness include dried vinegar, plant-based nitrite sources such as beet, celery and Swiss chard, cultured dextrose, cultured sugar and more,” Boeckman said. “Let’s not forget the most fundamental – salt.”

Food safety ingredients are not enough. Good manufacturing practices must be incorporated, and some of these newer channels and facilities may require an audit to ensure compliance.

Clean label tips to mitigate risk

Every channel where meat and poultry are sold should be evaluated and every product should be considered. Food safety takes a systems approach. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Fresh-made deli salads containing meat, for example, run the risk of contamination from handling and the environment. Process and food safety ingredients can keep product fresh for a few extra days.

“The best approach would be sourcing meat that already contains an antimicrobial, preferably a clean label one,” said Poulson Joseph, director of food protection and protein innovation at Kalsec. “If that’s not possible, and if the protein sources come frozen, then the next best point of addition is to add the meat during the mixing process of the salad, where the protein is mixed with other ingredients, including a blend of rosemary-vinegar-cultured dextrose.”

He suggests a usage level of 0.5% to 1.5%. This amount should have little to no impact on flavor profile.

“We have sometimes noticed that this blend enhances the savory notes, depending on the application,” Joseph said. “It is interesting to see that even the foodservice sector is taking efforts now to offer clean-label products, even though the label is not quite visible to the end consumer.”

In the past year, Kalsec introduced a new product line of its own unique blend of antimicrobials based on cultured dextrose. This is blended with powerful antioxidants to provide a dual-functioning product that can address oxidation and spoilage issues. 

In efforts to clean up the label of ready-to-eat chicken and turkey sandwich slices, processors are no longer curing these meats with nitrates and nitrites. To keep meats safe in the home fridge as well as in pre-packaged sandwiches now readily available at convenience stores, vending machines and grab-and-go kiosks, ingredient technology is paramount.

“Sodium nitrite is a very effective food preservative to control the growth of Clostridium perfringens initially,” said Philipp Martin, technical consultant at Wenda Ingredients, Naperville, Ill. “Once a wrapped sandwich sits at ambient temperatures there is a good chance for the outgrowth of spores of Clostridium botulinum, which can lead to a potentially fatal illness called botulism.”

Wenda offers a cultured dextrose-based system that contains several peptides and bacteriocins to protect such meats from the growth of Clostridia. The company markets different active ingredients that are functional to control a particular type of microorganism, including a recently developed cultured onion juice.

In August 2021, Kerry was granted a US patent protecting its innovative process for curing meat using cultured celery juice. Produced through fermentation, it can be combined with other ingredients for extra food protection. For example, when combined with buffered vinegar, the system inhibited Listeria in deli-style turkey meat over a 12-week shelf life much like a traditional cure and conventional antimicrobial.

Convenience creates challenges

“Convenience stores are always striving to provide warm, ready-to-eat meals, which works well for consumers who perhaps can’t or won’t eat meals in a shared space like an office cafeteria or restaurant,” said Garrett McCoy, senior research and development manager, Corbion, Lenexa, Kan. “To provide such a product safely, Clostridia should be addressed on top of the Listeria mitigations already common to ready-to-eat meats.”

McCoy recommends ferments plus buffered vinegar ingredients. 

“Not all inhibitors are suited to all pathogens,” McCoy said. “You must go deeper into the science and application to properly fit an optimized ingredient.”

Rob Ames, business development director at Corbion, said, “More is not always better. Processors have plenty of choices to mitigate risk but sometimes need the know-how to stay within nutritional bounds, maximize returns and optimize the product quality. There’s often an opportunity to payback the added cost of this risk mitigation with ingredients that increase cooked yields and sliceability.”

Ready-to-eat meats have long relied on sodium lactate and sodium diacetate for preservation. Corbion’s vinegar and cultured sugar ingredients provide a natural, highly effective alternative to these chemicals. Newer vegetable ferments are being developed and tested in order to offer processors more options.

Renetta Cooper, food protection and preservation business development director, Kerry, Beloit, Wis., shared a recent customer example regarding ready-to-eat chicken that needed to be kept safe in a prepared grab-and-go salad.

“Historically the product would’ve been frozen with no preservation solution added,” Cooper said. “However, a preservation solution was added to provide additional protective hurdles and peace of mind for the customer. This preservation solution also added in an extra layer of protection and supply chain resilience that is very welcome during a time where any food safety recall can be extremely costly.

“In this application, we could have applied either buffered vinegar or a potassium acetate/potassium diacetate blend to achieve the desired level of food protection,” Cooper said. “The advantage of using buffered vinegar is that it supports clean-label initiatives.” 

Buffered vinegar comes in liquid, dry, organic and no-sodium formats. This makes it easy to add to brines, marinades, spice blends or even directly onto meat. 

“Propionic acid-based food safety solutions for ready-to-eat meat and poultry products may be used as alternatives to lactate/diacetate blends,” Cropp said. “They contribute less sodium and reduce cost-in-use for manufacturers. The usage rate of propionic is also usually around three times less to be equivalent to lactate/diacetate blends.”

While high-pressure processing (HPP) and sous vide cooking are technologies that help manufacturers extend the shelf life of ready-to-eat meats without using artificial ingredients, natural preservatives are often included in order to maintain safety and quality once the package is opened and stored in the refrigerator. This is particularly true with all-natural luncheon meats, where HPP has become quite popular. HPP even allows for a reduction in sodium, a natural preservative, allowing for claims such as “no artificial preservatives” and “less sodium.”

Corbion conducted research in 2016 that combined HPP with traditional and natural preservatives. When preservatives were included, the study showed that HPP time and pressure could be reduced, which improves the speed of process and reduces wear and tear on the HPP equipment.

“It is very important to note that antimicrobial ingredient addition is a major tool and cannot be overlooked in food product development,” Joseph said.

Cooper said, “Ingredient systems featuring a building-block approach are a way forward to enhance food safety in the event of a contamination. An integrated systems approach gives the processor added confidence that they have covered all of their bases with an approach across multiple hurdles and/or modes of action.”

Unlike food quality – everything from appearance to flavor to texture – food safety is an expectation rather than an added benefit. 

“Proper food safety systems provide the foundation for trust between food production and the consumer,” Cropp concluded. “The expectation of safety is vital for brand integrity and company longevity.”