The meat and poultry industries use a multi-hurdle approach to food safety. Antimicrobial dips and sprays aid in food safety by being one of those interventions used to reduce and limit microorganisms, pathogens and potentially harmful bacteria that may be on the animals. As such, antimicrobial dips and sprays lower the chance of consumers becoming ill from meat and poultry products.

Antimicrobial dips and sprays are one intervention area that continues to be under development, but for a long time several antimicrobials have held a stronghold in this area, says Sid Cunningham, director of food safety and quality assurance at Harris Ranch Beef Co., Selma, Calif. In the beef industry, lactic acid and peroxyacetic acid are two that have been well-recognized as having great efficacy and are widely used.

“While it’s been an evolving area, it’s been slowly evolving,” Cunningham says.

Scott Russell, a professor of poultry processing and products microbiology at the University of Georgia in Athens, says a lot of experimentation is happening with where and how to apply the dips and sprays along with which chemicals to use. For example, poultry processors now are experimenting with treating cut-up parts instead of just the whole carcass to reduce the pathogenic bacteria on parts.

On the other hand, in the last few years experimentation with new chemicals has decreased tremendously in the poultry industry because of the economy.

“Many people are not investing in chemistries lately because the economy has just been bad, and it’s just been difficult to get people to invest in it,” Russell says. “But before that, it was quite common to have new chemicals come along and new testing being done to see which new chemicals could treat Salmonella. That was very common before 2008.”

Since then, new antimicrobial research has not really picked up. “Some of these chemicals that they’re using have been approved for 10 years or more, so many of them now are older chemicals that they are using,” Russell says. “They are just trying to find new ways to use them.”

In the beef industry, new blends of antimicrobials are showing better efficacy against microorganisms, Cunningham says. Another advancement in the beef industry is applying antimicrobials at different points in the process.

“It’s been going on for a few years now, but there are companies that came out with antimicrobials that can be applied in the beef industry in spray chill systems and provide an additional intervention,” Cunningham says. “Even on the poultry side, you are seeing more work on reuse systems such as poultry chillers and places like that where there is the opportunity to recycle or reuse the antimicrobials and maintain its efficacy.”

In the beef industry, antimicrobial sprays are used in numerous points throughout processing.

Antimicrobial sprays often are used on the harvest floor in both hide-on carcass washes and once the carcass has been opened up. Some companies have a pre-evisceration cabinet that sprays an antimicrobial, while others have pre-evisceration cabinets that spray hot water. At Harris Ranch, the processor applies them to a variety of meat items as well, such as head and cheek meat, to help reduce the bacteria load.

On the cold side, some beef processors use carcass antimicrobial spray cabinets prior to fabrication, similar to what was done when it left the harvest floor, Cunningham says. Sometimes sprays are applied after the carcass is broken down into sub-primals as well as to trim before making combos in fabrication. Some companies also do needle tenderizing and apply an antimicrobial intervention prior to putting steaks through the tenderizer.

Many of the current antimicrobials are well-received in the beef industry and considered consumer-friendly. For example, lactic acid is a pretty common name. Yet, one of the challenges of antimicrobials is getting consumers to understand what they are, despite chemical-sounding names, which can be a turnoff to some.

“There are probably a lot of good compounds out there that we could use; however, their names carry a negative connotation,” Cunningham says. “They sound too much like a chemical and not an antimicrobial.” 

A prime example is bromine, he says, which is used in hypobromous acid, which doesn’t sound friendly to the consumer. Japan, for one, has delisted it as an approved antimicrobial agent.

Processors also have to be able to treat the meat and poultry products with the chemical, and then it has to disappear before the final product is packaged, Russell says. “Otherwise, it’s an ingredient and no one wants to list on their chicken as an ingredient some sort of chemical,” he says. Add to that the fact that antimicrobials also need to be process friendly, Cunningham says.

“A lot of the current antimicrobials are safe to handle, but you still have to take into account the human safety factor when working around them,” he explains.

Russell’s hope for the future is that more companies would invest in new chemistries because opportunities exist for new antimicrobials to be developed for different applications. “Without investment money, it’s very hard for them to do that,” he says.

Cunningham projects that the industry will continue to see new antimicrobials emerge as well, probably in the form of new compounds or blends. For example, a compound called Beefxide, a combination of lactic and citric acid, has become a popular blend in the beef industry.

“The theory is that blends give the antimicrobials better efficacy,” Cunningham says.

He also believes the application technology will continue to approve in how the industry applies the antimicrobial sprays and the rate at which they are applied.

Russell believes advancements in antimicrobial sprays and dips will continue as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration persist in making regulations and laws that require the poultry industry to reduce bacteria levels, particularly of Salmonella       and Campylobacter. Outbreak situations also cause the industry to do additional interventions and act as drivers to look into new prevention methods.

“The drivers are going to continue to force the industry to meet those regulations; they don’t have a choice,” Russell says. “The industry has been doing a great job, but it’s difficult.”