New Ingredient Tools Put Safety in Foodservice

Processors must step up sanitation efforts when providing minimally processed foods.

By Frances Katz, Senior Technical Editor

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Apple Dippers, an alternative to french fries in Happy Meals, will use some 20 million pounds of apples per year.
As the foodservice sector adds more “healthful” offerings, it also adds potentially unhealthy items. Meeting current consumer interest in healthful fare often means fresh produce, minimally processed foods and rare or even raw meats – all of which demand special handling.

But food safety always has been foremost in the minds of the foodservice industry. Now, along with the foodservice sector’s increased vigilance come some new technologies for processors to keep these fragile foods safe.

When McDonald’s decided to add a fruit item, the restaurant chain was prepared for the impact that menu addition would have. Apple Dippers, an alternative to french fries in Happy Meals, will use some 20 million pounds of apples per year, says William Whitman, a McDonald’s marketing director. Add another 35 million pounds for the firm’s new apple and walnut salad, and McDonald’s has 55 million reasons to be concerned about apple handling and processing.

The apples are scrubbed, peeled, sliced and given a quick bath in calcium citrate to adjust the acid levels and keep the flesh white, according to Sarah Schlukebir, vice president of sales and marketing for Peterson Farms Fresh Inc., a Shelby, Mich., apple processor and packer for McDonald’s Dippers. Then they are popped into modified atmosphere packaging, The apples are never allowed to exceed 35°F, during the process or during holding.

The McDonald’s folks didn’t want to talk about food safety, but their awareness that a case of foodborne illness could devastate the market is present. Privately, they comment that they haven’t just been lucky, they’ve been very careful.

Despite improvements in understanding of foodborne disease and the reduction of incidence per thousand of population, the increase in total population keeps the numbers high. During 1999, the most recent for which figures were available, the Centers for Disease Control identified 10,697 laboratory-confirmed cases of nine diseases under surveillance: 4,533 of salmonellosis, 3,794 of campylobacteriosis, 1,031 of shigellosis, 530 of E. coli O157:H7 infections, 474 of cryptosporidiosis, 163 of yersiniosis, 113 of listeriosis, 45 of Vibrio infections and 14 of cyclosporiasis.

The per-capita decrease in foodborne illness corresponds roughly with disease prevention efforts, including changes in meat and poultry processing plants, new requirements for foodservice establishments and increased attention to good agricultural practices for produce and eggs on farms.
While traditional types of foodborne illness decreased, some lesser-known ones appeared.

In 1999, several large salmonellosis outbreaks were traced to produce, including unpasteurized orange juice, mangos and raw sprouts. A decline in Shigella followed an outbreak in 1998 traced to imported parsley, which increased attention to produce-associated shigellosis. A new threat arrived in early June, when Robert Brackett, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, announced the agency was “aggressively working with federal and state partners” to determine the source of fresh basil thought to have caused several cases of cyclosporiaosis in Florida. Consumers and foodservice employees were reminded of the necessity to wash vegetables and herbs, especially leafy ones, thoroughly.

In the meantime, a lot of research at the university level is busy finding the best treatment for individual produce crops. Produce suppliers can shop through the various technologies and choose (and possibly license) the one that fits best.

The usual suspects

While fresh fruits and vegetables are a current concern of CDC and FDA, eggs and salmonella have been high on the radar for a number of years. Industry has chosen two ways of combating the problem: pasteurized egg mixes and precooked egg products such as egg patties. Both go a long way toward eliminating the possibility of microbial contamination.


NOTE TO PLANT OPS
(or the foodservice kitchen)


It’s important to remember that even a safe egg, bag of produce, oyster or other ingredient or product must be treated like the sensitive ingredient that it is. Products that are pasteurized can be recontaminated. While these safe ingredients help avoid foodborne illness, constant vigilance is required to prevent recontamination on a processing line, in the kitchen or in packaging lines. It’s important not to get careless, despite the extra margin of safety that these special products provide.
A newer development that has been moving toward national distribution is pasteurized in-shell eggs. They offer safety from Salmonella organisms even when prepared sunny-side-up or used in Caesar dressing. National Pasteurized Eggs (www.safeegg.com), Lansing, Ill., operates under patents issued to James and Duffy Cox in the mid-1990s with additional patents issued later. The firm first developed the process, then financed the building of machines that could be FDA approved.

The original FDA approval came in 1995, but it was the early part of 2002 before the shell egg with the approval rating made it to a broad market. Most of the company’s product is sold to foodservice organizations; a major customer is Sysco Systems. Another major user is importers from Hong Kong, who supply the safe eggs for Hong Kong’s favorite dish: raw egg over rice.

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