STILLWATER, Okla. – Midland, Va.-based Ross Industries, Inc. and the Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center at Oklahoma State Univ. (FAPC) are collaborating on an antimicrobial spray treatment for blade tenderized meat.

Mechanically tenderized meat received renewed attention in 2012 after several confirmed illnesses caused by E. coli O157:H7 were linked to beef steak products sold in Canada. Public health officials said it was unclear if the steaks were contaminated before or after arriving at retail because the products mechanically tenderized. Health officials announced an investigation into the practice and whether consumers should be advised to cook their steaks longer.

In the US, a coalition of consumer and public health groups wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging him to approve a proposal to label mechanically tenderized beef products on concerns such products present a "higher risk" of foodborne pathogen contamination.

“The United States Department of Agriculture - Food Safety and Inspection Services has recently taken issue with mechanically tenderized beef as non-intact beef,” said Peter Muriana, FAPC food microbiologist. “The concern is that pathogenic E. coli 0157:H7, or other Shiga-toxin producing E. coli serotypes, may be on the surface of the meat and be trans-located into the interior of what may appear as solid beef cuts, such as tenderized steaks. It could manifest itself as a health hazard if someone were to consume a tenderized steak that was cooked rare or medium rare.”

So, the FAPC teamed up with Ross Industries, a major manufacturer of meat tenderizers, food packaging equipment and food processing systems, to research the use of antimicrobial sprays to treat mechanically tenderized meat.

“We wanted to prove that a blade tenderizer with an intervention integrated into it would prevent the situation or risk of a recall, and wanted to conduct research at an academic facility,” said Wayne Spillner, manager of processing equipment development for Ross Industries.

The collaboration produced a machine in which meat gets loaded in the front end of the machine and is pulled through an antimicrobial spray system. The meat continues on the blades used for tenderization.
“It’s kind of like a brushless car wash for meat,” Muriana said, to put in laymen’s terms.

Researchers used 14 different antimicrobials from 10 different suppliers, all approved for use on meat by the FDA and USDA. Muriana said researchers examined the antimicrobials for effectiveness against E. coli 0157:H7 on inoculated lean beef discs passing through the Ross spray system. The research team also studied the effectiveness of antimicrobials on beef sub-primals in combination with blade tenderization. Antimicrobials showing the best reduction in the lean beef discs demonstrated the least translocation during beef tenderization, Muriana said.

“We proved that if you have an effective intervention product, you don’t have to worry, but if you don’t have an effective product, yes, a blade tenderizer can possibly drag any potential pathogenic bacteria on the surface into the internals of the meat,” Spillner said.

With the outcome of the results, Ross Industries installed spray systems on the front end of its commercial blade tenderizers.

“Over 50 percent of the meat in the marketplace has been tenderized to make it palatable,” Spillner said. “If we can’t make non-intact meat safe, the price of meat is going to be exceptionally high.”