Meat Safety Under the Microscope

The initial bull market for beef created huge trade for low-priced, good quality meat. But it also opened the door to food safety and health issues.

By Chuck Jolley

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Thanks to continued research and technological advances, meat processors now have multiple ways to ensure the safety of products like this beef roast.

In December 1997, several companies began testing public reaction to the process of irradiation to kill pathogens on meat. The only current fully commercial resource in the U.S. is Food Technology Service in Florida. Colorado Boxed Beef Co. contracted with FTS to irradiate its retail brand of case-ready ground beef and frozen hamburger patties. Omaha Steaks uses FTS for all its ground beef patties, and Schwan’s and Huisken Meats also irradiate their ground beef products.

A newer technique for neutralizing microorganisms uses ultra-high pressure (UHP). This process, introduced in the U.S. by Avure Technologies, involves packaging food in a flexible pouch or container, then placing it in a chamber under ultra-high pressure (80,000 to 100,000 psi). The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke recently reported some research showing that processing hot dogs at pressures higher than 100,000 psi combined with high heat inactivates the prions that cause mad cow disease.

Avomex uses UHP on its fajita kits, pressurizing a pre-assembled beef, guacamole, salsa, peppers and onions kit before adding the tortillas. Another company uses UHP on its roast beef.

ALF Ventures, a joint venture between National Beef and DMV International, sells Activin, a patented form of lactoferrin, as a natural bacteriocide. Certified as GRAS (generally recognized as safe), it protects against E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter. The lactoferrin is electrostatically sprayed onto beef carcasses and binds with bacteria to remove their attachment structures. Once the pathogens are bound, they are safely washed off with a cold-water rinse. National Beef is the primary user of the product, promoting it as part of their biologic food safety program.

Ozone (O3) received GRAS status as a sanitizer or disinfectant for foods in 1997. Although not widely used commercially on meat products, a few small operations use it in aging rooms to prevent the mold growth on beef carcasses.

An unstable gas formed from oxygen, ozone quickly decomposes into oxygen. Its rapid oxidation quickly destroys bacteria. Ozone is a broad spectrum biocide, not specific to any microorganism, and kills bacteria, viruses and molds.

For worker safety reasons, OSHA regulates the use of ozone at 0.1 ppm concentration in ambient air over an eight-hour period. Ozone's high reactivity means it must be generated on-site, as needed. Beef carcasses are sprayed with ozonated water before cutting, an effective way to reduce E. coli contamination. A drawback is that "over-ozonating" meat can speed up oxidation of fat and increase rancidity.

Chuck Jolley is the former publisher of Meat and Poultry magazine and executive director of Jolley and Associates, a public relations firm in Shawnee, Kan.

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