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.