Add a dash of this, a pinch of that and get…safe meat and poultry? Not quite – or at least not quite yet. But using ingredient technology to help control pathogens and enhance food safety is a tool that many processors have found effective with certain types of products.

Donald Schaffner, Ph.D., director of the center for advanced food technology at Rutgers Univ., cites current applications and the work conducted in labs and R&D departments around the country for possible future uses. “When I think of meat and poultry and ingredients that help make food safer, I think we’ve seen great progress with control of Listeria monocytogenes in cold products,” Schaffner says, adding that he has been reviewing a plethora of recent studies on other innovative ingredient-based pathogen controls, including modern uses of time-tested food substances. “There is abstract after abstract about things like using certain spices or oils to control pathogens. A lot of research is going on in those areas.”

Antimicrobial properties
To that point, a wide range of natural ingredients have been found to have antimicrobial properties, ranging from oregano to cinnamon. Some of those ingredients are a bit surprising. One 2010 study, found that certain varieties of wines may be effective against Campylobacter in marinades formulated with other antimicrobial ingredients.

While such findings can be encouraging and intriguing, it doesn’t mean that extensive applications in meat and poultry products are on the immediate horizon. After all, it can be a tall order to get the right mix of ingredients for functionality, palatability and safety. “The trick in this is that we want something that is very cheap, has no color or unacceptable flavor, looks green on the label and is perfect in controlling pathogens,” Schaffner points out. “And that’s just not out there right now.”

What is out there, however, is the continued multi-hurdle approach to food safety that combines pathogen-thwarting ingredient technology with other traditional interventions in the farm-to-plate chain. “I think the industry has shown that by systematically looking at the food-safety problem and different aspects of it, you can have better controls,” Schaffer observes.

The high stakes have a lot to do with the multi-pronged approach to food safety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) peg the incidents of foodborne illness in the US at more than 76 million a year.

Expanding development
Those who have focused on ingredient technology as an effective weapon in the food-safety arsenal continue to expand on product development and applications and underscore the key role of such products. “Food-safety ingredients are a very cost-effective way to increase the safety of foods, far more cost effective then processing technologies such as HPP, post pasteurization or freezing,” declares Robin Peterson, market manager of the Americas for meat and poultry with Lincolnshire, Ill.-based Purac, sharing a basic cost analysis. “Ranging from $0.005 to $.06 a lb. cost in use, a wide range of products exist to meet the needs of processors based on product attributes and food-safety goals.”

Even as ingredient suppliers’ work focuses on the efficacy of ingredients in controlling pathogens, suppliers and processors are also cognizant of growing consumer interest in cleaner labels.

“As food safety becomes more of a priority in the industry, manufacturers are seeking label-friendly alternatives that are backed by science. Consumers now demand labels that they can easily understand and ingredients they can recognize,” observes Betsy Blades, marketing manager for the Food Technologies Division of Kemin Industries, Des Moines, Iowa.

According to Blades, Kemin has been working with deli manufacturers to help reduce pathogens that cause Listeria monocytogenes with ingredients that are deemed cleaner. “Kemin scientists discovered an alternative to traditional synthetic preservatives, which allows for lower dosage rates and is a more cost-effective way to ensure meat safety,” she reports.

That alternative, BactoCEASE NV, is a buffered vinegar product with an optimized flavor profile that ensures enhanced product food safety with minimal sensory impact in processed and ready-to-eat (RTE) meats.

Ultimately, Blades agrees, that kind of ingredient technology, which is now available for testing, is designed to be used in tandem with other food-safety measures. “The most effective approach to food safety in meat processing facilities is by putting multiple hurdles in place, which control the growth of pathogenic microorganisms,” she says.

Purac, for its part, also is enhancing ingredients that fit both needs and wants: the global food market’s need for food safety and the consumers’ “want” of more natural and/or fewer ingredients. According to Peterson, one of Purac’s most popular recent introductions is its Verdad line that allows for clean labels. “The Verdad range of ingredients consists of cultured sugar and/or vinegar products designed to inhibit the growth of pathogens and spoilage organisms,” she explains.

More recent introductions to the market, Peterson says, include other low-cost ingredients targeted toward the suppression of Listeria.

“These ingredients are based on organic acids, and through the most commonly used type of pathogen inhibitor, the derivation, types and ratios of these acids continue to be expanded or optimized,” Peterson explains. “Organic acids are the core of pathogen inhibitors, especially in the RTE segments. Those companies that provide pathogen kill or inhibition ingredients continue to bring improved products to market and cleaner flavors, less effect on pH or yield and stronger compounds have been assisted.”

More market additions include lauric arginate and phages, Peterson says.

Other ingredient companies are also working on various food-safety solutions. WTI Inc., Jefferson Ga., is developing solutions based on processor demands, including interest in cleaner labels and cost effectiveness. “Our processors are in the business to be profitable. However, at the forefront of their efforts is the desire to provide their customers the safest food possible,” says Kevon Ledgerwood, director of sales and marketing, who says that one economic inhibitor from WTI is its Marinal ProTek. “With usage rates of less than 0.5 percent to finished product and the fact that it is a dry powder that can be incorporated into any seasoning blend, a processor does not have to cut corners to provide their customers the safest food on the market.”

A&B Ingredients, Fairfield, NJ, recently received approval from the US Dept. of Agriculture for its new antimicrobial as a Salmonella intervention agent in ground poultry products. Based on lauric arginate, a derivate of naturally occurring lauric acid, L-Arginine and ethanol, A&B’s CytoGuard LA is specifically designed for use in RTE processed meat and poultry products.

Research continues
Meanwhile, additional lab and university research in this area of food safety continues. Last year, scientists at Purdue Univ. developed a carb-based nanoparticle shown to reduce Listeria contamination: the nanoparticle helps keep the antimicrobial nisin stable for a longer period of time. The nanoparticle could be administered to food in a spray form. Other researchers are similarly delving into food safety ingredient technology with fervor.

“The good news is that everyone out there is looking for the next best thing – and some of them will work,” Schaffner concludes.