If KFC can flavor a chicken product to replicate the taste of beef, what’s next? The short answer is, marketing warfare. At issue is the ingredient profile for Kentucky Grilled Chicken, KFC’s new chicken recipe made with a marinade including beef powder and rendered fat.

The protagonist in this case is Costa Mesa, Calif.-based El Pollo Loco, which specializes in citrus-marinated flame-grilled chicken. El Pollo Loco is challenging KFC in a TV ad campaign taunting the fast-food chain that institutionalized southern-style comfort food with a “secret recipe” for fried chicken.

The marketing controversy aside, flavoring ingredients have been used for thousands of years. Thanks to modern technology, such solutions can be injected into animal protein muscle and rubbed on the surface for another enhancement solution.

“Marinating is an extremely popular way to flavor meats,” confirms Wesley Osburn, associate professor and extension processed meats specialist at Texas A&M University’s Department of Animal Science. “Consumers can make homemade marinade using water or oil, sugar, salt and spices to soak meats for a period of time to allow the solution to soak into the meat and absorb the marinade flavor.”

Injection process

Not only does marinating enhance the flavor of meat, it also increases the juiciness and tenderness of cooked product, Osburn says.

“These advantages make enhanced or marinated meats a growing segment of the meat industry,” he adds.

Modern systems use either needle injectors, tumblers or a combination to marinate meat in a more accurate and efficient manner. Osburn explains that needle injectors incorporate marinades directly into the thicker whole-muscle pieces or subprimals. “The needle footprint [number of needles] and size are important,” he says. “The injector can be adjusted for specific amounts of percent pump by adjusting needle tip pressures, conveyor belt speed and, in some instances, selection of either a two-way (marinade injected on needle down and up stroke) or one-way (marinade injected on needle down stroke) injection.”

The injector’s throughput or amount of product that can be injected per hour and the ease in which the injector can be cleaned and sanitized are also important, Osburn emphasizes.

“If marinating is conducted using only injectors, it may be advantageous to pump 2-3 percent above the targeted percent pump due to marinade drain off prior to further cooking or packaging,” he adds. “For example, use 12-13 percent for a 10 percent marinade pump level for beef.”

Today’s injectors can be designed for a specific product line or multifunctional applications, which means they can inject a wide range of boneless or bone-in products.

“The key is to have the right injector setup — footprint, needle size, strokes per minute and pump pressure for the type of animal protein product to be marinated,” Osburn says. “The size of the cut, species and product type determine the size and number of needles used to create the proper needle footprint to ensure proper dispersion of the marinade solution without tearing up the meat or bending or breaking the injector needles.”

Regulatory issue

Although no new regulations have been issued, FSIS has placed greater scrutiny on control programs forE. coliO157: H7 in non-intact beef products in recent years, reports Ann Wells, directory of scientific and regulatory affairs, North American Meat Processors Association. A policy clarification came from FSIS in 1999 concerning non-intact raw beef product to include injected or vacuum tumbled product. The policy determined that product would be declared adulterated if found to be positive forE. coliO157:H7.

“Since that time, processors of these products must address E. coli O157:H7 in their food-safety systems,” Wells points out. Although primary benefits of marinating or injection include improved tenderness, juiciness and added or changed flavor, Wells points to other benefits.

“Some ingredients act as antioxidants or antimicrobials, which can improve shelf life,” she says. “Processors who are injecting their product can use many tools to reduce the likelihood of contamination.”

Wells offer the following tips:
• Control raw material to reduce the likelihood that E. coli O157:H7 or other pathogens being present.
• Apply a microbial intervention on subprimals prior to injection.
• Control brine and the intervention process associated with the brine.
• Adhere to proper sanitation of equipment.
• Focus on temperature control.

“To minimize the risk of introducing pathogens into meat, the ability to easily clean injector components (pump, piping, and needles) and control the marinade temperature during the injection process is critical,” Osburn concludes.