Value-added meat product manufacturers are under increasing pressure to deliver safe products while satisfying consumers’ increasing desires for foods that taste great, are convenient and exhibit an extended shelf life.

Consumers across most demographics are scrutinizing the foods they eat closer than ever before, avoiding products viewed as overprocessed.This ongoing food evolution has spurred a migration to developing clean-label meat and poultry products, formulated with ingredients the average consumer recognizes.

Shoppers are also demanding more-convenient foods offering a longer shelf life. Ready-to-eat and heat-and-serve products are joining or replacing more-traditional raw cuts in meat departments throughout the country while made-from-scratch cooking declines and the demand for easy-to-prepare entrées increases.

Recipes for food safety

Maintaining and enhancing food safety continues to grow in importance. From a microbial standpoint, it’s a veritable jungle out there -- and it’s not just spoilage organisms invading protein products: Salmonella has been found in frozen potpies, Listeria uncovered in lunchmeats and E. coli has infected hamburgers and pepperoni pizza. Last year’s listeriosis outbreak in Canada serves as a cautionary tale.The outbreak resulted in 22 deaths, sickened approximately 60 others and cost the company approximately $50 million.

Such pathogenic outbreaks are fueling demand by consumers and the federal government to create safer meat and poultry products. The Obama administration has created the Food SafetyWorking Group to coordinate federal efforts to increase the safety of the U.S. food supply, including new rules and standards to reduce Salmonella and Escherichia coli O157:H7.

The convergence of these issues means meatproduct developers must carefully consider product formulations and choose ingredients that mesh the latest product-protection technology with ingredients that support a clean label at an affordable cost.

Three core principles guiding the development of the U.S. food-safety system have been identified by the Food Safety Working Group. The first priority is protecting consumers, which includes implementing sensible measures to prevent problems before they occur.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service requires that establishments producing certain RTE meat and poultry products take steps to reduce the incidence of Listeria monocytogenes. Strategies employing both a post-lethality treatment and a growth inhibitor for Listeria on RTE products are highly recommended.

Processors’ Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point programs have reduced contamination levels in meat products. But once products leave the plant, they are subject to potential mishandling and cross-contamination prior to reaching consumers’ homes or foodservice kitchens.These facts spell out the need to incorporate ingredients that prevent microbial growth.

Clean sweep for labels

Demand for clean labels has moved beyond naturalproducts retailers and organic butchers to the conventional grocery sector. As a result, national brands are moving toward eliminating artificial ingredients, including preservatives. One of the top-10 trends of 2009 according to Mintel, Chicago, is "Pure simplicity: The rise of clean labels." This refers to products exhibiting ingredient statements featuring simple language easy for consumers to understand — such as sugar and vinegar.

More than 70 percent of consumers currently monitor food and beverage labels, according to the Natural Marketing Institute, Harleysville, Pa. , half of consumers base their food selections on the ingredient list, and about half are also looking for a short list of ingredients.

Many consumers avoid meat products with artificial preservatives on labels. Ingredients like sodium benzoate, sorbates, nitrates, nitrites and sulfites increase shelf life and provide protection from dangerous microbes, such as Salmonella, Listeria, E. coli O157:H7 and Clostridium. Often, however, these ingredients also carry the stigma of having unappetizing "chemicals." In many cases, these ingredients have been unfairly linked to various maladies, ranging from ADD to allergies and even cancer.

In most cases, consumers realize the benefits of incorporating ingredients in foods to prevent meat and poultry products from spoiling too quickly and for keeping them safe. NMI finds 37 percent of consumers’ rate natural preservatives as "beneficial." Fifty-five percent of the segment NMI identifies as a "Natural Channel Shopper" exhibit the highest willingness to pay a 5 percent premium for a food product with natural preservatives vs. one with artificial preservatives.

"U.S. Food Antimicrobials Market," a report from Frost & Sullivan, San Antonio, Texas, notes: "Despite their irrefutable role in ensuring food safety and extending shelf life, the preference for natural antimicrobials over synthetic preservatives is proving to be a significant challenge for participants in the U.S. food antimicrobials market."

Clean label solution

What can meat scientists do to develop a clean-label statement while formulating a safe product? Lincolnshire,Ill.-based PURAC has developed a way to fight fire with fire—microbially speaking—by fermenting corn or cane sugar with specific selected cultures to produce a range of organic acid salts and fermentation products with antimicrobial properties.

The company has developed new label-friendly products that help extend shelf life and fight pathogenic and spoilage organisms in a wide variety of meat and poultry products, ranging from cured and uncured deli products and wholemuscle heat-and-eat meats to prepared entrées.The PuraQ™

Verdad family of ingredients carries simple label statements like cultured (cane or corn) sugar and vinegar.

Products designed specifically for the meat industry include:

¶! QvsbQ™ Verdad NV10, which consists of cultured corn sugar, has broad antimicrobial activity against spoilage organisms in fresh meats and can be used to extend the shelf life of fresh meat and poultry items. It also increases color stability in meats.

¶! QvsbQ™ Verdad NV15, which consists of cultured corn sugar and vinegar, is effective against L. monocytogenes in cured meats.

¶!QvsbQ™Verdad NV55, the most powerful of our ferments, consists of cultured sugar and vinegar, and is effective against L. monocytogenes in uncured meats.

¶!QvsbQVerdad NV10, NV15, and NV 55 also add value by enhancing meat and savory flavors, and improve taste in the finished product.

Other ingredients in the PuraQ line targeted for general food applications include:

¶!QvsbQ™Verdad RV70, which consists of cultured sugar, is effective against gram-negative and positive pathogens, such as Bacillus cereus and Salmonella enteritidis, in a variety of foods in the 4.5 to 6.0 pH range.

¶! QvsbQ™ Verdad RV75, which consists of cultured sugar, is effective against spoilage organisms, including mold, yeast and bacteria, in processed foods in the 4.5 to 6.0 pH range.

The PuraQ Verdad ingredients are the result of a controlled process that creates effective fermentation intermediates, such as organic acids, polysaccharides and peptides. This composition allows the product developer to add the functional benefits achieved by fermentation without actually fermenting the food product itself. The ingredients outperform standard food fermentation in terms of protection due to their consistent composition, which is a function of the fixed metabolic routes of the cultures. PuraQ Verdad ingredients are standardized, so the final composition isn’t left to the vagaries of Mother Nature.

A word about labeling

The PuraQ Verdad line provides clean labels in USDAregulated products. Despite the natural pedigree of certain ingredients, USDA has stringent rules for finished products. The agency currently does not distinguish between a natural antimicrobial and a chemical preservative, and chemical preservatives are not allowed in "Natural Meat products". Only a few, duel functional ingredients, which may be added for flavor, are allowed.

However, due to the source and derivation of Verdad ingredients, a claim of "no artificial ingredients" may be possible on products using these clean-label ingredients if the rest of the formula complies with the statement. In products not regulated by USDA, FDA may allow products with naturally derived antimicrobials to carry a "natural" label.

Backed by research

Whatever the current labeling status,there’s little question that PuraQVerdad ingredients are effective weapons in the battle against potentially dangerous microbes. PURAC has done extensive testing, both internally and via third-party research,of meat,poultry and other foods to benchmark the ingredients’ effectiveness and compare them with chemical preservatives and antimicrobials currently in wide use.

Many target Listeria, a bacterium that is increasingly causing serious problems in foods, especially refrigerated products. Although cooking destroys the bacteria, recontamination is possible post-cook in many RTE meat products, such as hot dogs and deli meats, and serious illness or death can occur from the contaminated product. CDC estimates approximately 2,500 illnesses and 500 deaths are annually attributed to listeriosis in the U.S.

Listeria is a ubiquitous threat in RTE meat and poultry products, particularly after it leaves the processor. An effective weapon that provides the added benefit of a clean label is needed and particularly valuable.

Any number of missteps can cause problems from everpresent pathogens. If the ingredients are contaminated, inadequate processing can leave live organisms in the products. A sterile product can be contaminated by stubborn biofilms on food-contact surfaces in a plant, or it can be exposed to environmental contamination or cross-contamination in the post-lethality processing environment. Even packaging materials and processes can create problems. In fact, the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act consider an RTE product adulterated if it contains L. monocytogenes or contacts a food surface that is contaminated with it.

Once a product leaves the processor, it is subject to potential mishandling, cross-contamination and poor storage practices by the retail outlet or end user. In 2009, the USDA released a report titled,"FSIS Comparative Risk Assessment for Listeria monocytogenes in Ready-to-eat Meat and Poultry Deli Meats".In a large, four-state study, a large percentage of illnesses and deaths from L. monocytogenes were from deli meat consumption attributed to deli meat sliced at retail facilities. Therefore, using an antimicrobial ingredient proven effective for control of pathogen growth is an essential step in assuring food safety.

In one inoculation trial, researchers tested a vacuumsealed turkey roll made with PuraQ Verdad NV55 challenged with a four-strain cocktail of L. monocytogenes. During 90-day storage at 39°F, the control (with no cure or preservatives) saw the pathogen grow more than 2 logs in seven days.A level of 3.5 percent of PuraQVerdad NV55 in the turkey prevented a 2-log outgrowth of L. monocytogenes for 80 days, and fully controlled the outgrowth during the entire 90-day period at a 4.5 percent level.

Another test was done in vacuum-packed frankfurter sausages with PuraQ Verdad NV15, challenged with the five-strain L.monocytogenes culture and stored for 120 days at 39°F.The control sample supported the Listeria outgrowth (+2 log at 60 days), while the sample containing 2 percent of NV15 prevented the growth of L. monocytogenes during the complete 120-day trial.

Finished products were also tested for the ingredients’ organoleptic effects.Trained panelists performed a triangle test with samples of frankfurter sausages and found no significant difference (95 percent confidence level) in flavor between the control sample and the sample with 2.0 percent PuraQVerdad NV15.

To test the shelf-life-extension properties of PuraQ Verdad NV10, 3 percent and 4 percent of the cultured corn sugar was added to fresh sausages and stored at 39°F. At set time intervals the antimicrobial properties of the ferments were tested by performing a total plate count. The addition of 3 percent and 4 percent showed an extended microbial shelf life of 40 percent to 60 percent, respectively.

Another test described two different batches of pork loin enhanced with 0.3 percent salt and 0.3 percent phosphate were sliced, vacuum-packed and stored in the dark at 39°F. One batch contained 3 percent PuraQ Verdad NV10; the other did not. The color stability of the batch with NV10 was increased significantly, and was protected from discoloration for two weeks longer than the control (28 days vs. 14 days on the control).

Meat-containing entrée-type products can receive an antimicrobial benefit, too. PuraQ Verdad RV70 was tested for its antimicrobial efficacy at appropriate cooled and refrigerated temperatures for microbial growth in a prepared meal containing chicken, potatoes and spinach.The test entrée was inoculated with different types of pathogens, such as the gram-positive, spore-forming bacterium Bacillus cereus. Depending on the pH, a concentration of 1.0 percent to 1.5 percent RV70 was effective against growth of most pathogens in the product under the range of test conditions.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison are conducting a research project to identify ingredients to suppress growth of L. monocytogenes in RTE deli-style meat and poultry using ingredients that meet organic or "natural" requirements defined by USDA. The first part of the two-phase study has been completed. PuraQ Verdad NV55 was one of the ingredients screened in combination with an uncured control and three different nitrite treatments (traditional nitrite; vegetable powder plus starter culture; and prereduced vegetable powder) in a model turkey system. PURAC’s cultured cane sugar and vinegar blend at 3 percent level inhibited growth (less than 1 log increase) of L. monocytogenes during the 4-week study at 39°F for both the uncured and naturally cured products. The next step is to test Verdad 55 in other meat products against those made with lactate and diacetate.

Final thoughts

Along with extensive research, PURAC works closely with processors to assist them with a dedicated technical team and clean-label ingredients proven to reduce bacteria and increase shelf life. Ingredients for meat and poultry products and entrées that are easy to use, effective and provide a clean label dovetails with today’s strongest trends.

Manufacturers want to keep their processes as seamless as possible and find clean-label solutions. Consumers want to serve their families’ good-tasting, wholesome foods. And everyone wants to keep the food supply safe from pathogens. For all meat and poultry products — frozen and refrigerated, heat-and-serve, and RTE—the answer may be found in the PuraQVerdad family of ingredients.

For more information, contact PURAC at 888-899-8021 and visit us at