Food safety is the top priority for all food manufacturers, but protein processors may face more inherent risks than others, and they live with additional regulation because of it. However, food safety isn't their only concern.
Whether its beef, lamb, salmon or free-range hens, the raw materials involved are expensive and the margins are sometimes as thin as the blade on a good filet knife. Animal welfare is an ongoing issue, and like any other manufacturers, meat packers, poultry plants and seafood processors must raise the bar on meeting these concerns, while lowering their carbon footprint.
All that said, these plants have plenty of opportunities, too, as innovative techniques and new technologies have emerged in recent years. The desire to improve performance in all areas has led to a new paradigm, where plant managers are less likely to retrench and stick with SOPs simply because they are SOPs.
Kill facilities are more likely to be located off the farm, and further processing often is done in separate buildings, or with some segregation arrangements. Equipment manufacturers offer more hygienic design, sanitation suppliers offer new solutions and farm and animal health practices continue to be looked at in terms of how they will express themselves throughout processing and most importantly in the finished product.
Ongoing technological innovations allow protein processors more speed and efficiency and better control over tolerances, within the parameters of an industry where each unit of raw material is nearly as unique as a snow flake.
"Even though meat, poultry and seafood processors face many of the same challenges as others in the food industry, it seems they have endured some of the most scrutiny as it pertains to the ever increasing number and severity of regulations controlling the way they do business," says Craig Colgrove, eastern sales manager with NuTec Manufacturing Co., New Lenox, Ill.
"The specter of foodborne illness and the many regulations and compliance mandates that operators have to now operate under are growing every day."
Looking at the history of U.S. food borne illnesses, several major incidents have involved beef, pork and poultry. Just last year, tainted Atlantic salmon caused sickness in hundreds of people in the Netherlands and the U.S. Other food segments including dairy (historically) and produce (more recently) also have dealt their share of tragedy, but meat plants might face the most challenges when it comes to finding ways to eliminate or control pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella bacteria and Listeria monocytogenes.
Sanitation is just one part of the food safety picture, and many plants enlist the services of an outside sanitation services company. Even within the realm of sanitation services, protein plants have a handful of options, says Charles Giambrone, technology and regulatory manager for the safety division of Rochester Midland Co., Rochester, N.Y.
"There's not just one approach to control the pathogens in your product," Giambrone says. "There are really three different avenues." These involve sanitation, intervention chemistry and ingredient solutions, he explains. He describes them as options A, B, and C.
"A is the ingredient approach, using something like nisin to control pathogens, often in combination with one of the other approaches," Giambrone says. "There are not a lot companies using this because they do not like the idea of using additives if they are trying to keep a clean label."
Solution B has to do with improved surface and equipment sanitation, while C involves interventions -- chemicals used to clean the product. Most meat and poultry plants use some combination, along with segregation of work functions and other precautions that are part of their hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) plans. Surface and equipment sanitation might be the most well-established piece, but more than ever it the overall program includes verification.
"Intervention has been in vogue since the 1990s," Giambrone says. "Various acids and acidified chloride and chlorine oxide as well as acetyl bromide [are in use]. Paracetic acid is very big with poultry."
Steam pasteurization of the carcass surface also is used sometimes on beef carcasses to rid the surface of E. coli.
"Plants have changed tremendously, too, and plant design and floor plans are now key parts of food safety," Giambrone adds. "The old segregation pattern and traffic flow was haphazard and problematic. A flow-through pattern with separate ingress and egress has become standard."
Different colored smocks and boots are used for the raw and cooked sides, sometimes there are even segregated break rooms. Zone segregation is another approach that makes it easier for personnel to develop clear and consistent procedures for segregating equipment and dealing with contact contaminations.
In the end, a multi-pronged approach is needed. "You hit (pathogens) in as many different places as you can to try to overcome them," he says.
Among those innovations that might be around the corner are things like bacteriophages (or phages) virus technologies including a product called EcoShield from Intralytix Inc., Baltimore. Phages are viruses that attack specific bacteria. In the case of EcoShield, that would be E. coli 0157:H7, one of the most common and most devastating bacteria the meat industry has had to battle. The company received USDA clearance in 2011 for the use of the phage, and it says that it can reduce E. coli O157:H7 in ground meat by more than 95 percent.
Filling the customer's meat cases with safe, healthful products may be job one, but not far behind is the need to be competitive on quality, flavor and price. For the quality and flavor, there is an ancient craft of butchery that offers principles that can still be translated into a modern automated processing environment. The key, of course is in balancing those sometimes conflicting priorities.