No one in the meat industry can afford to ignore food safety. Any food-safety scare involving meat can mean lost sales but even worse — a loss of confidence in the meat industry as a whole. As a result, meat-industry professionals including food-science researchers are working to develop more interventions to help the industry deliver safer meat to consumers.

One area of food-safety concern is when raw meat is mechanically tenderized. A number of foodservice companies, chefs and even retailers use mechanical tenderizing techniques in order to make cuts of meat more tender and palatable to the consumer. One form of mechanical tenderization includes blade tenderization, which consists of a group of blades piercing a cut of meat. While this process improves tenderness, it can also create a food-safety risk. If there are any pathogens on the surface of the meat cut before tenderization, there is a higher risk that the pathogen will be passed into the meat and with it a higher risk that the meat, if not cooked properly, could be a food-safety risk to the consumer.

“Many companies in the meat industry use mechanical tenderization to render cuts of beef a little tenderer than they currently are,” said Peter Muriana, a food microbiologist with Oklahoma State Univ.’s Robert Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center (FAPC).

“Over 50 percent of the meat in the marketplace has been tenderized to make it palatable,” added Wayne Spillner, Ross Industries Inc. manager of processing-equipment development. “If we can’t make non-intact meat safe, the price of meat is going to be exceptionally high.”

“The US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has recently taken issue with mechanically tenderized beef as non-intact beef,” Muriana said. “The concern is that pathogenic E. coli O157:H7, or other Shiga-toxin producing E. coli serotypes, may be on the surface of the meat and be translocated 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,” he explained.

Because mechanical tenderization can increase the food-safety risk, researchers, including those at FAPC, are studying options to reduce or eliminate this concern.

‘Washing’ up

The FAPC teamed with Ross Industries Inc., a manufacturer of meat tenderizers, food-packaging equipment and food-processing systems, to research the application of antimicrobial sprays to treat meat.

“It’s kind of like a brushless car wash for meat,” Muriana said.

He explained that Ross Industries felt compelled to add what they call “an integral intervention” to the front end of their blade-tenderizing system “to help reduce and mitigate translocation of E. coli into the meat product,” Muriana said.

The meat gets loaded in the front end of the machine and is pulled through an antimicrobial spray system. Then, the meat continues on and reaches the blades used for tenderization. In theory, Muriana explained, the antimicrobial spray would reduce or eliminate surface pathogens on the meat prior to anything being translocated during the tenderization process.

“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,” Spillner said.

The initial project included using 14 different antimicrobials from 10 different suppliers, all approved for use on meat by the Food and Drug Administration and USDA.

“We examined the antimicrobials for effectiveness against E. coli O157:H7 on inoculated lean beef discs passing through the Ross spray system,” Muriana said. Then researchers took the seven most effective antimicrobials and applied them to beef sub-primals also inoculated with E.coli.

According to Muriana, initial results showed those antimicrobials with the best reduction in the lean beef discs demonstrated the least translocation during beef tenderization.

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

“Antimicrobial suppliers are using our data to help entice customers, and Ross Industries has sold more machines,” Muriana said. “The safer their customers are, the more capable they are of selling.”

Research continues

Although they have achieved results from the studies, the FAPC and Ross Industries Inc., plan to continue to work together to carry on research regarding blade tenderization.

“Our goal is to ensure safe and wholesome products are supplied to consumers,” Muriana explained.

“If we make food safe without having to do the extra steps, the food supply chain is going to be safer and America is going to be healthier,” Spillner said.

However, since the addition of such a step is not mandated by any regulatory agency, it will be up to individual meat processors to decide whether they want invest in adding this process to their production system. It’s not a large capital investment, Muriana said, but it will take some adjustments to existing blade-tenderizing systems.

“Every processor will need to evaluate their processes to decide if it’s worth it to add this intervention to their system in an effort to reduce risk,” Muriana concluded.