By Lynn Petrak,
Special Projects Editor
Interventions may not be divine, but they are effective in many points in the production and processing chain.
If food safety can be compared to a long-term battle, there are an increasing number of weapons available to protect the nation’s meat and poultry supply. During the past 12 to 15 years, when food safety moved to the forefront of the industry due to high-profile outbreaks of foodborne illness and product recalls, there have been a plethora of breakthroughs on virtually every side of the business.
As anyone well-read on food safety knows, efforts span the entire food chain. From feedlot changes to new interventions in the slaughter and processing side to packaging innovations to points in between, strategies have been born and proven successful.
Starting with the animal is a natural progression, says Alden Booren, Ph.D., professor and specialist in the department of food science and human nutrition at Michigan State University (MSU) and current president of the American Meat Science Association (AMSA).
“It is important that we have a mix of fundamental and applied work. In academics, we work more toward the fundamentals — why does this happen?” he says, adding that research is most effective when it is integrated and broad in scope. “If you don’t understand the chemistry and science of meat as you put these products together, it is very hard to understand food-safety issues relative to pathogens and to still end up with the highest-quality product.”
Universities around the country are working on projects related to meat safety. Booren has been involved in several recent projects, among them studies on how pathogens attach to a muscle, and on post-processing steps — such as the use of slicers that can cause contamination.
Industry-funded projects that target pre-slaughter interventions truly run the gamut. The American Meat Institute Foundation (AMIF) regularly sponsors research as part of its aggressive mission to bolster meat and poultry safety.
“Our focus has, up until the last year, been exclusively on Listeria control in ready-to-eat products and E. coli O157:H7 in fresh beef. But last year, our executive committee asked us to include and expand our scope to include Salmonella control on fresh products,” relays Randall Huffman, vice president of scientific affairs. “The reason was to cover all the bases because it is an issue that some processors have to deal with.”
AMIF is currently involved in several safety-related projects, Huffman says. One ongoing study is on the use of various GRAS (generally recognized as safe) ingredients in ready-to-eat (RTE) meats, while another focuses on ways to reduce E. coli O157:H7 on the pre-harvest side, including through the use of probiotics as a feed ingredient.
Meanwhile, the National Pork Board (NPB), Des Moines, IA, continues its research work. Among other initiatives, the group recently funded an evaluation on environmental management inside barns and its effect on Salmonella levels in pigs. “We’re looking at the temperature the animals are kept in, whether or not they are heat-stressed or cold and whether humidity is a problem,” says Liz Wagstrom, NPB assistant vice president of science and technology.
The Pork Board is also working on a study to determine if sodium chlorate concentrations can be used in swine to reduce incidences of Salmonella and on a program that educates producers on the responsible use of antibiotics. “One of the concerns we have is that resistant bacteria may go through the food supply. Another big concern is consumer confidence —and the perception of how we produce food and treat our animals,” Wagstrom notes.
Farmers and ranchers have funded several research efforts. Among several ongoing research initiatives, the Centennial, CO-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) has promoted projects relating to a lacto-bacillus product added to feed to reduce animals testing positive for E. coli and on vaccination as a possible intervention.
Meanwhile, at the processing plant level, there are myriad examples of successful food-safety strategies that have been implemented. Listing all potential tools would be an exhaustive effort.
It is safe to say, though, that most plants have various weapons in their food-safety arsenal. Measures are in place from the receiving dock to the shipping dock, ranging from high-tech rinse-and-chill systems to steam cabinets to carcass washes to security and surveillance systems to an array of surface treatments and irradiation options.
Bar-S Foods Co., Phoenix, AZ, is one company that has engaged a variety of technologies in its food-safety efforts.
“We have always looked at food safety as not one silver bullet but a multi-tiered approach,” says Warren Panico, vice president of operations. Panico relays that Bar-S employs many intervention steps, including applying sodium diacitate and potassium lactate as antimicrobial inhibitors in its entire ready-to-eat (RTE) line of products. Bar-S also seeks to procure the latest technology that allows the most advantages for food safety, such as suspended web packaging systems, high-tech, easy-to-clean loading systems, all stainless paneling, and single-skinned brine chill systems. Ozonated water is used throughout the process as an antimicrobial for product and product-contact surfaces, while UV light is used in all air make-up as well as continually cleansing brine chill water. Entrance into the company’s clean rooms is monitored, and takes nearly five minutes of preparation in dressing and sanitizing before entering RTE areas, while the company has opted to do laundry in-house to ensure fully sanitized hoods and gowns.
“We test throughout our facilities very aggressively, in excess of three-thousand tests monthly, in an effort to find any potential challenges and eradicate them if they exist,” reports Panico.
Bar-S is currently evaluating technologies that would supply additional pathogen inhibitor and kill steps in the final package. “We are always looking for new and better equipment that allows us to achieve our food-safety goals,” says Panico, adding that the company often works with industry partners. “We don’t look at food safety as a competitive advantage. If it is new and innovative and helps the industry as a whole, we are willing to share that information.”
Bar-S is certainly not alone. The industry’s leading companies, as well as regional, mid-sized, and small processing operations, have been vocal about their multiple and broad-based strategies that they have invested in over the years, in compliance with and beyond formal HACCP (Hazard Analaysis and Critical Control Point) programs. And like Bar-S, other meat and poultry processing companies have shared information with one another, through industry summits, events, as well as other channels.
In this work, the quality-assurance and safety teams at processing plants certainly have been busy. “Certainly, in the last ten years, and even more so in the last three to five, we have seen a real focus with many different technologies that solve different scenarios,” Huffman says, adding that such a situation is good for the industry. “There are so many unique product types and marketing and packaging channels that no one technology is good for every product.”
With that observation in mind, there are several categories of food-safety strategies in place in plants around the country.
Antimicrobial action
For a while now, antimicrobials used for both product and contact surfaces have been particularly appealing to those seeking to enhance meat and poultry safety. From lactic acid to acidified calcium sulfate to garden-variety herbs like oregano, ingredients have been tested and in many cases are being applied to fresh and RTE products to control various pathogens. Whether applied in a carcass spray, acid rinse, or mix-in ingredient, such products have been shown to effectively reduce harmful microorganisms and result in real log reductions.
World Technology Ingredients Inc. (WTI), which opened a new world headquarters in Jefferson, GA, in January, is one example of a company that has focused on new avenues for ingredient technology. Currently, the company is marketing its buffered sodium citrate and sodium diacetate blends under the brands IONAL LC and IONAL Plus. The readily-soluble products, available in dry form, are used to inhibit the growth of Listeria monocytogenes associated with RTE products and have been shown to increase the shelf life of raw and cooked meat and poultry products.
WTI is currently focusing on applications for marination and brine technology, says general manager Rick Hull, and it is dealing with regulations that affect the control of Listeria in RTE products.
“We’ve been fortunate that as we fine-tune sodium-buffered citrate technology, we’ve been able to come up with an effective blend for Listeria. But we are not near the end of rigorous challenge studies, and we’ve had to go to product-specific challenge studies for different products under different conditions and formulation barriers,” he explains, adding that beyond that ongoing process, WTI is also continuing to evaluate alternative technologies.
Beyond use on carcasses, antimicrobials are used in other ways to control microorganisms. In meat- and poultry-plant settings, antimicrobial treatments are applied to various surfaces, from machinery nooks and crannies to sizable components of a plant’s infrastructure.
Starting at a literal basic level, even flooring systems get the antimicrobial treatment these days. In 2004, AgION Technologies Inc., Wakefield, MA, developed “self-cleaning” coatings that utilize the antimicrobial attributes of silver. In addition to concrete floors and curbs, AgION Clene Coat™ coatings are used to offer protection on other areas, such as acid-brick floors and grout, concrete walls and ceilings, overhead piping, and non-process walls and ceilings.
“We have a unique, safe, long-lasting antimicrobial epoxy flooring system. The key is the AgION antimicrobials incorporated throughout the coating, which provide resistance against colonization of a whole range of bacteria,” explains Joseph Geary, vice president of technology, product development and upgrade solutions. “It uses the safe technology of silver, which inhibits reproduction and cell metabolism and will break down cell walls. It is effective when sanitizers are not sometimes.”
Tests have shown that the Clene Coat products are effective against an array of harmful microbes. “The AgION antimicrobials have been used in medical devices and other consumer goods for years, so we know they are effective against bacteria that are problematic for food processors. We recently had a food processor that tested in their lab against the most feared bacteria in ready-to-eat facilities, and we demonstrated effects against that as well,” notes Geary.
Since the suite of products was introduced last year, Geary says several meat and poultry processors have been interested in the technology. “We are seeing excitement on the poultry side, and we have high interest from a number of beef processors,” he says.
Another type of antimicrobial system utilizes ozone and UV light technology. BOC, Murray Hill, NJ, started a new food-safety technology and consulting arm in 2004 called Intervent that focuses on antimicrobial for treating food products, food-contact surfaces, processing fluids, and plant atmospheres. Among its products: ultraviolet (UV) light pathogen destruction technology and an antimicrobial ozone system that dispenses ozone, one of the strongest available oxidants and disinfectants. The ozone system is acknowledged by the USDA/FSIS as a post-lethality process for Listeria monocytogenes on RTE products and food-contact surfaces,  and it has improved from an efficacy standpoint, relays BOC business manager Mark DiMaggio.
“We've maximized the ‘kill ratio’ of species-specific organisms for food, food-contact surfaces, atmospheres, and fluids. Working with respected universities, we've modeled the foundation properties of ozone and UV and to maximize the anti-microbial effects —we know exactly how much ozone is required to kill various organisms," he says, adding that the company's technologies are efficient in terms of capital investment, and they have been engineered to meet AMI guidelines for sanitary design.
Business has been strong so far, says DiMaggio. “The market has grown as the result of government initiatives,” he remarks. “There is species-specific legislation that has driven the market, as has effective policing by USDA/FSIS. As a result, the industry has been proactively seeking solutions.”
There are a host of other antimicrobial options available for meat and poultry processors. Some products are in use and others are in the research and development phase, but this remains an area ripe with activity.
Clean and simple
In addition to working to kill microbes that may be growing in various hotspots, technology also works to halt their spread in the first place. Already an essential component of HACCP systems, sanitation is a key stopgap in the food-safety battle.
Companies specializing in sanitation systems for meat and poultry plants have been especially busy in the past decade, offering increasingly powerful sanitizers designed for the harsh washdown environments like meat and poultry settings.
Personal hygiene is a key concern of those seeking to enhance product safety. Meritech, Englewood, CO, offers automated-handwashing systems that work to reduce variations in employees’ techniques for a more consistent and effective wash cycle. The company’s CleanTech system, run on patented rotating cylinders, includes programmable times and options — including the most commonly used wash cycle with cleaning and sanitizing solution followed by a rinse cycle.
Alex C. Fergusson Co. (AFCO), Frazer, PA, also offers sanitation services to meat and poultry companies. Among its latest-generation of cleaners is a Per-Ox® HRS™ Sanitizing System, a thick foam that provides visual identification allowing users to see where the sanitizer has been applied to prevent missed or over-applied cleaning.
Sanitizing products go hand in hand with equipment designed with easy sanitation and maintenance in mind. Equipment manufacturers of all types increasingly tout their sanitary-design features, from stainless steel components to parts like conveyors that have been treated with antimicrobials.
Detective service
For safety and liability purposes, detection and traceability have evolved in recent years to become significant food-safety strategies. To that end, various suppliers have honed their technology designed to find pathogens where they may exist and to uncover potential problems in processing, handling, or shipping.
Starting with a review of basic processing methods, surveillance has been one tool that addresses both security and safety challenges. Recently, ADT Security Services began marketing its Select Vision remote video auditing equipment and services to meat and poultry processors to ensure that HACCP standards are being met and to help guard against potential food-safety issues. Through this system, security cameras and digital records are set up throughout processing areas to determine non-compliance with standards and to uncover potential safety and security missteps — ranging from improper usage of protective gear to ineffective washdown of surfaces.
“Basically, the customer works with us to define critical control points throughout the process. We audit them daily and deliver compliance results at the end of every week,” explains Lisa Ciappetta, product marketing manager, who works in the company’s commercial division in Boca Raton, FL. "The technology in terms of security cameras and digital recorders has been around a long time, but the application has evolved in recent years because of the availability of bandwidth and the expansion of computer and internet technology.” In addition to being briefed by weekly reports, users can access their video footage through a computer hyperlink to ADT’s system.
Ciappetta adds that ADT has worked with meat industry consultants to help train the company’s auditors on issues specific to this industry. “Food processors around the country are much more concerned about food security and safety, so we are trying to create a program that increases safety of products — but at the same time can deliver a return on investment in other ways,” she adds, noting that waste and inefficiency have also been detected with audits.
The detection of foreign objects has also been a bigger priority for processors in recent years. Mettler-Toledo Safeline Inc., Tampa, FL, provides high-sensitivity metal detectors to the beef and poultry industry. “The high frequencies found in our detectors are better suited to meat and poultry plants as they consistently detect stainless-steel contaminants found in these processing environments,” explains George Louli, director of marketing, adding that in addition to the rugged construction suited for harsh production environment, the company also offers 24-hour service.
Louli relays that the systems are in place at many processing companies around the country, including some of the largest plants as well as smaller and regional operations. Safeline has made some upgrades to its technology recently.
“Our largest improvements on the detectors are found in the higher frequencies that were introduced recently with the Powerphase PLUS line of detectors and a more water-tight liner that effectively seals the detector,” he says. “The new liner is so water tight that since its introduction in 1998 there have been no service requests due to water ingress.”
Not to be left out of a discussion of detection methods are detection tools for products themselves, used to discover the presence of certain contaminants. Sebastian, FL-based eMerge Interactive Inc. continues to supply processors with its VerifEYE™ detection system that uses natural fluorescence to find organic contaminants like feces and ingesta. The product line includes the automated VerifEYE Carcass Inspection System (CIS) and the portable VerifEYE Solo inspection tool, says David Foth, director of marketing. “The CIS is designed to scan entire sides of beef within a slaughter plant and then automatically segregate any carcass bearing traces of organic contamination,” he explains. “The Solo product is a lightweight, portable scanner that can be used in just about any meat-processing and handling environment — not only for slaughter lines, but also for distribution, grocery, and other retail environments.” Foth says the Solo tool highlights any surface contamination on a self-contained liquid crystal display (LCD) screen showing a user precisely where to trim.
The company is working on other endeavors as well, Foth adds. “We are preparing to launch a new HandScan VerifEYE system in 2005 for use in scanning the hands of food handlers in the food processing, retail, and foodservice industries,” he notes.
Another type of immediate test for pathogens present in various locations in a plant has been developed by Microbiology International, Frederick, MD. The company supplies meat and poultry companies with automated tools including PATH-CHEK self-contained swabs that can be used in key areas of a facility, including processing equipment.
“The technician does not need to be a microbiologist to use this product. The PATH-CHEK is simple to use and completely self-contained, and no additional reagents or media are needed,” says Gina M. Dunn, sales and marketing associate, adding that the system is efficient in other ways. “With this product, most plants can take control of their environmental swabbing move their testing in-house, save an average of fifty percent on their environmental swabbing costs — and obtain results in six to twenty-four hours.”
As with antimicrobials, there are plenty of additional technologies that aid in detection, from adenosine triphosphate (ATP) bioluminescence testing to other types of UV technology.
With a trace
As safety, security, and concerns about BSE converge, traceability has become another hot-button issue. Indeed, companies that supply high-tech traceability systems report more interest from the field.
“Especially in light of recent regulations and safety expectations, our systems have become the operational systems of record,” says Scott McLeod, vice president of marketing for Atlanta-based Ross Systems Inc., a vendor of enterprise software systems for food processors.
In addition to supplying software used to run business operations from accounting to customer service to distribution, Ross also provides safety-related systems.
“When we talk about an operational system of record, it includes other functions that are not only helping to contain the scope of a food-safety problem should there be one, but to prevent one in the first place. We are tying together a lot of data that is often disparate for a company,” McLeod explains. “By doing that, we can prevent mistakes from occurring, be they accidental to intentional, like an act of bioterrorism.”
McLeod cites an example of a sausage-processing customer that uses the technology. “Each daily batch they process is a unique lot. With the traceability of the system, if there is an issue with any one product, they can immediately trace it back to the original lot if necessary,” he explains, adding that other customers have benchmarked traceability to the store shelf within 20 minutes. In addition, the system includes a panic-button feature to immediately identify all customers that potentially received a tainted lot, in order to help them swiftly remove the product from the shelf.
Another company working on traceability is Computerway Food Systems, High Point, NC. The company began providing poultry processors with overhead sizing and weighing systems more than 20 years ago, and has expanded to offer inventory control, warehouse management, shipping, and order-management systems, all offered under the Computerway banner.
Integration is one of the keys to safety, says Andrew Couch, who works in the company’s sales and marketing division. “It’s being able to apply technology to hold more data and being able to access that data quickly to cross-reference,” he observes, adding that the industry has embraced such advances at a greater rate. “Probably in the last five years things have taken a leap. Technology has become more usable in these (processing) environments — not just the hardware but the databases and the integration of databases.”
That can be said for large plants and to some extent mid-sized and smaller operations. “They all have the same challenges. Although some products go to storage warehouses and others may to go another site, we can still maintain traceability. No one can say anymore, ‘It’s not my problem, I shipped it’,” Couch remarks.
Testing, testing
As operators well know, just because a product is off the line doesn’t mean safety work is finished. Food testing of products has grown from quality assurance to a critical component of safety programs.
Several types of testing equipment and services are available, for use in-house or for samples tested at third-party laboratories. DuPont Qualicon, Wilmington, DE, has created an automated genetics-based system called the BAX® system for detecting bacteria including Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria species, Listeria monocytogenes, and Enterobacter sakazakii in raw ingredients, as well as finished products and environmental samples. “BAX system test results are based on the DNA of the target bacteria rather than its phenotypic response. Compared to immunoassay tests, the system provides reliable results at a lower detection level with fewer false results,” explains Ravi Ramadhar, marketing manager, adding that the PCR-based system includes extensive training.
Ramadhar says that after enrichment, test results are available within four hours, compared to some services that can take up to one week. As it works to refine the BAX system, the company regularly seeks feedback from its customers.
“DuPont Qualicon works closely with the industry to hear their concerns and provide solutions. Most recently, we introduced an updated BAX system assay for E. coli O157:H7 with broader inclusivity to detect new, unusual, or modified varieties of the organism,” Ramadhar explains. “We also offer a proprietary media that cuts enrichment time to eight hours, and an express three-hour processing protocol, all of which combine to deliver reliable same-day results.” The system is a part of many processors’ formal HACCP programs, as well.
In addition to providing swabs for plant surfaces, Microbiology International also offers testing components for finished products in the form of Listeria ID strips, which enable users to generate rapid confirmation of the identity of any Listeria species isolated from food or food ingredient samples.
Listeria ID strips can be used with bacterial colonies taken directly from selective agar plates. Most other systems require the test to be performed on colonies from non-selective plates or purity plates,” points out Dunn. “Only one colony is required per test, so there is no problem of multiple species contamination, all distinct colonies can be tested separately. Furthermore, the multi-well strip is a self-contained test system which requires absolutely no setup, and it delivers the complete result without the need of additional confirmatory tests.”
Another major name in food-product testing is Homewood, IL-based Silliker Inc., which offers a range of laboratory and microbiological services. Recently, says Kurt Westmoreland, division vice president, the company has fielded many requests from meatpackers about Listeria.
“We have become more involved with our clients, especially those in the RTE categories, in the review of their environmental Listeria monitoring programs,” he says, adding that the company’s technical sales managers, account managers, and technical consultants aid in assessment and troubleshooting. “We have also been working closely with our clients to help them develop total solutions approaches to food safety to help ensure they have programs in place that provide them not only with pathogen test results, but also preventative training programs, supplier monitoring programs, GMP, and HACCP assessments.”
Westmoreland relays that testing is one of the most important fronts in the safety battle. “While the war is not over, progress is definitely being made. More rapid and sensitive test methods are being developed on a continuous basis, and companies, as well as suppliers and end users, are all more aware of the ramifications associated with positive pathogen results in finished products,” he notes.
On that point, many suppliers to the meat and poultry processing industry would agree that there has been remarkable progress in recent years, despite the reality that organisms continue to lurk in various points in the food chain.
“Everyone is working like crazy to make sure the food products that pass through are safe and sound,” sums up AgION’s Geary. NP
Technology providers featured in this report include:
• ADT Security Services Inc., phone (800) 500-4943 or visit
• AgION Technologies Inc., phone (781) 224-7100, fax (781) 246-3340, or e-mail,
• Alex C. Fergusson Co., phone (800) 345-1329 or visit
• BOC Gases, phone (908) 464-8100 or (800) 742-4726, or visit
• Computerway Food Systems, phone (336) 841-7289, e-mail, or visit
• DuPont Qualicon, phone (302)695-5300 or (800) 683-6842, e-mail, or visit
• eMerge Interactive Inc., phone (772) 581-9700 or (877) 578-2333, e-mail, or visit
• Meritech Inc., phone (303) 7904670 or (800) 932-7707, e-mail, or visit
• Mettler-Toledo Safeline Inc., phone (614) 438-4511 or (800) 523-5123, e-mail, or visit
• Microbiology International, phone (800) 396-4276, visit or email
• Ross Systems Inc., phone (770) 351-9600 or visit
• Silliker Inc., phone (708) 957-7878 or (888) 967-5227, e-mail, or visit
• World Technology Ingredients Inc., phone (706) 355-3007 or (800) 827-1727, or e-mail