Oklahoma State center researches 'carwash for meat'
By Rebecca Bailey
You enter onto an automated conveyor belt rolling through a darkened tunnel, while passing several pieces of equipment, each with a specific purpose--rinse, soap, foam and dry. You exit squeaky clean and free of flaws.
What if this same concept were applied to meat products to eliminate possible bacteria that could harm consumers and devastate a meat manufacturer?
Oklahoma State University's Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center is doing just that--researching what some are calling a "carwash for meat."
Preparing to enter
The FAPC is currently collaborating with Ross Industries, Inc., headquartered in Midland, Va., to research the use of antimicrobial spray treatments on blade tenderized meat.
"Many companies in the meat industry use mechanical tenderization to render cuts of beef a little tenderer than they currently are," said Peter Muriana, FAPC food microbiologist.
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 an opportunity for potential external bacteria to enter the meat.
"The United States Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Services has recently taken issue with mechanically tenderized beef as non-intact beef," Muriana said. "The concern is that pathogenic E. coli 0157: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."
Rolling through the process
To tackle this issue and reduce the risk of bacteria, the FAPC teamed up with Ross Industries, Inc., one of the largest manufacturers 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, to put in laymen's terms.
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.
"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," said Wayne Spillner, Ross Industries, Inc. manager of processing equipment development.
The initial project included using 14 different antimicrobials from 10 different suppliers, all approved for use on meat by the FDA and USDA.
"We examined the antimicrobials for effectiveness against E. coli 0157:H7 on inoculated lean beef discs passing through the Ross spray system, as well as the effectiveness of antimicrobials on beef sub-primals in combination with blade tenderization," Muriana said.
A clean exit
According to Muriana, the initial results revealed that those antimicrobials showing the best reduction in the lean beef discs demonstrated the least translocation during beef tenderization.
"We proved that if you have an effective intervention product, you don't have to worry, but if you don't have an effective product, yes, a blade tenderizer can possibly drag any potential pathogenic bacteria on the surface into the internals of the meat," Spillner said.
With the outcome of the results, Ross Industries, Inc., implemented spray systems on the front end of its commercial blade tenderizers.
"Over 50 percent of the meat in the marketplace has been tenderized to make it palatable," Spillner said. "If we can't make non-intact meat safe, the price of meat is going to be exceptionally high."
According to Spillner, the research was accepted by USDA-FSIS, and has been referenced in many articles, which has led to more interest in the research.
"Having availability of an academic outlet in research is beneficial when a customer comes to us and asks 'how can I do a validation study?' and we have somewhere to send them," Spillner said. "It's been a good collaborative partnership for getting additional customers to OSU, as well as Ross industries, Inc., but the person who wins the most is the general processing industry, where they get to see the results once we have them summarized and publishable."
The data has been advantageous for meat equipment companies, processors and antimicrobial suppliers.
"Antimicrobial suppliers are using our data to help entice customers, and Ross Industries, Inc., has sold more machines," Muriana said. "The safer their customers are, the more capable they are of selling."
John Williams, president of Chef's Requested, said he supports this research and stresses how food safety is a critical priority for food manufacturers.
"You can address a product's flavor, quality, how it eats and appears on the plate, but before anything else, the product must be assured to be 100 percent wholesome and safe to consume," Williams said. "This research plays a huge role in addressing this issue."
This research has benefited Chef's Requested in revising the composition of their meat marinades. Based on this research, and previous work done by Muriana, Chef's Requested was able to utilize one of the antimicrobials that allowed an enhancement in flavor, plus increasing the shelf life of their refrigerated beef products.
Down the road ahead
Sherry Nichols, wife of a beef producer in Arnett, Okla., and avid beef consumer, said she believes the food safety research being conducted at the FAPC is beneficial to not only beef producers and manufacturers, but also consumers.
"The United States has the safest food supply in the world," Nichols said. "However, with that being said, the food industry is constantly working to make sure that food is continuously safe for consumers."
This kind of research is what limits the amount of outbreaks caused by foodborne illnesses.
"The livelihoods of food manufacturers are on the line if there are outbreaks or food recalls," Nichols said. "Any kind of food safety research is considered insurance for their livelihoods and the health of consumers."
Williams said this research is relevant to any consumer who purchases meat products.
"This research benefits consumers in that they can continue to enjoy a beef steak or roast at a cooked temperature that they love; rare to well done, with the assurance that it is safe," Williams said.
Although they have achieved these results, the FAPC and Ross Industries, Inc., will continue to work together to carry on research regarding blade tenderization.
"We will continue to research with Ross Industries, Inc., in the future to find additional, better solutions," Muriana said.
The discovery of this research will lead to continuous research development to ensure safe and wholesome products are supplied to consumers.
"The more intervention effectiveness we can apply to fruits and vegetables, as well as the meat and poultry supply, means the less the public has to worry about," Spillner said. "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."