Ground Beef Technology 101- Part One*

A National Provisioner research project
By Barbara Young, Editor-In-Chief
Lisa White, research assistant

Food recalls due to E. coli O157:H7 have put the grinding industry on the defensive yet again. Thanks to a technological breakthrough and other initiatives, the industry may regain its footing.
Ground beef, which is marketed under several brands and offered in a variety of grinds, represents the largest segment of U.S. fresh-meat processing, with the hamburger as a mainstay product — especially for the foodservice sector.
Challenges abound, however, for ground beef, an easily perishable product that can harbor deadly pathogens requiring sophisticated procedures aimed at eradication.
“It all starts on the kill floor and the pathogen interventions that a processor or slaughterer or harvester has in place,” explains Trevor Caviness of Caviness Beef Packing Ltd., Hereford, Texas.
Pinpointing the various aspects involved, Caviness emphasizes that the hurdle approach begins with employee GMPs (good manufacturing practices) on the kill floor, backed up by using steam vacuums on the carcasses and carcass washes.
“We apply a pre-evisceration wash on carcasses while they are still in one piece, prior to removing internal organs,” he says.
After removing internal organs and splitting the carcass, the company washes its carcasses twice, first with water at 180° F and then 80° F and ending with a lactic-acid spray.
“All these steps are critical,” Caviness stresses. “Getting good microbial counts is also critical.”
Aside from the animals themselves — inherent food-safety risks are linked to the nature of the processing process and the lack of an efficacious kill step to deal with biological hazards.
To offset such predictable challenges, experts recommend that grinders implement best-practice procedures to safeguard their raw and finished ground beef products.
“Food safety is a top priority for Cargill,” relates Ivan Brown, brand manager, ground beef, for Wichita, Kan.-based Cargill Meat Solutions. “In the past 10 years, we’ve invested more than $1 billion in our processing facilities to develop and equip our plants with innovative food-safety interventions.”
Total process control throughout the grinding operation is the ultimate goal. To that end, beef processors and their supplier-industry partners must in part rely on the development and employment of technology in equipment and systems.
Consider the news concerning USDA’s willingness to grant conditional licensing approval of an E. coli vaccine for cattle. This technology aims to improve the food-safety aspects of beef — especially raw ground beef.
The cattle vaccine, developed in 2000 by a strategic alliance in Canada led by Bioniche Life Sciences Inc., a Canadian biopharmaceutical company, stops the bacteria from attaching to the intestines of vaccinated cattle to reduce reproduction inside the animal. The end result is a reduction in the amount of the bacteria in cattle manure, long known to be the delivery system for E. coli O157:H7 infestations on cattle hides, with potential for the pathogen to end up in ground beef. Notably, while potentially lethal to humans, E. coli O157:H7 causes no disease in cattle.
In February 2008, USDA confirmed that the latest data concerning the Canadian vaccine indicates that it “meets the ‘expectation of efficacy’ standard,” thus making it eligible for a conditional license which, when granted, gives Bioniche restricted access to U.S beef and dairy producers to further test the vaccine.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC) at Clay Center, Neb., is collaborating on the development of a new test for detecting E. coli O157:H7 in beef trim.
“Our mission is to develop scientific information and new technology to solve high-priority problems for the U.S. beef, sheep and swine industries,” noted Mohammad Koohmaraie, USMARC director. “In the case of E. coli O157:H7 detection, we’re looking at collaborative ways to quickly develop a new test.”
The project, announced in February 2008, is in conjunction with DuPont Qualicon, Wilmington, Del.
Technology governing equipment such as mixers, grinder and pattyformers play a key role in the evolution of the food-safety process of ground beef production.
Ground beef as hamburgercoincides with the invention of mechanical meat choppers in the 1800s. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that wood, tin, and pewter cylinders with wooden plunger pushers became common. Steve Church of Ridgecrest, Calif., uncovered some long-forgotten U. S. patents on meat cutters. E. Wade received a patent in 1829 for what may be the first patented meat cutter. The patent shows choppers moving up and down onto a rotating block. G. A. Coffman of Virginia received a patent in 1845 for an “Improvement in Machines for Cutting Sausage-Meat” using a spiral feeder and rotating knives something like a modern food grinder. ¹
To be sure, changes in recent years concerning the ultimate safety of ground beef include issues related to functionality, sanitation, yield and capacity. Although ground beef processors may develop their owndistinctive patty manufacturing and packaging systems, often using specialized interleaving paper, equipment suppliers continue todeliver systems with optimal design features. Paper-feeding systems, for example, now come with patented side notch paper that eliminates paper chips while facilitating the interleaving process.
Thanks to a new series of pumps and grinders developed by Beef Products Inc., a South Dakota meat processor specializing in“high-quality” lean beef trimmings, Otto & Sons, an Aurora, Ill.-based OSI Group LLC company, and McDonald’s, its burger partner, the bar has been raised on productionefficiency and food-safety capabilities.
There had been no significant innovation in grinders since the development of the old screw auger grinding system more than 50 years ago.
The revolutionary pump-and-grinding system was installed in the Otto & Sons’ West Chicago, Ill.,facility in spring 2005. McDonald’s officials acknowledged that grinding facilities producing products for their restaurants are continually updated with new technology that is frequently developed by their suppliers. Processors then install those systems in their plants. Featured benefits include yields of ideal raw material texture since meat is not “overworked,” and meat comes out of the system with a “clean cut” enabling it to hold the fiber and integrity.
Defining ground beef
Ground beef and chopped beef are synonymous terms based on section 319.15 of the USDA Code of Federal Regulation (CFR). The regulation stipulates that such products must be made with fresh and/or frozen beef with or without seasoning and with the addition of fat as such and should contain a maximum of 30-percent fat. Moreover, no water should be added to ground beef/chopped beef, nor binders or extenders. Beef cheek meat of not more than 25 percent is allowed.
Ground beef used in the production of patties may take on a variety of shapes and sizes from modern patty-making machines. The most common is round; however, square patties and oval-shaped patties are not uncommon. The most common sizes of patties are 6/lb., and 3/lb. (2.6, 4, and 5.3 ounces respectively).²
Grinding/Processing Best Practices
Temperature of the ground product should be maintained and documented throughout all steps in the process. Specifically, steps should be employed to prevent species cross-contamination and proper labeling to maintain end-product identity. An organoleptic evaluation of the raw material ingredients should becompleted during pre-grind and prior to adding the meat to the batch. Ingredients should be evaluated for chemical composition (percent fat and lean) to formulate finished product to desired end point. Procedures for ensuring properfinished product characteristics (i.e., weights, size, shape, quantity, etc.) should be in place. The in-plant tracking mechanism should allow for batch identification and time of batch production. ³
Noting that E. coli O 157:H7 has been the major food-safety concern confronting the grinders in recent months — mainly tied to an upswing in product recalls — Shane Dorrian, advises strict adherence to preventative measures.
“Proven preventive measures include lactic-acid and acetic-acid washes incorporated into specific steps of the process, such as the last step on the harvest floor, or the last step in grinding before packaging,” says Dorrian, supervisor, University of California, Meat Science Lab, Animal Science Department, Davis, Calif. “These preventative measures have been expensive for the beef industry, but have proven to prevent or reduce contamination. The downside is the cost and the change this has on the flavor or meat.”
The simple and essential food-safety standards to follow include keeping raw product below 45° F until it is cooked and not cross-contaminating cooked with raw product, Dorrian says.
*Part II coming in the second quarter of 2008
1. (History of Hamburgers by Linda Stradley)
2. (The Meat We Eat, 12th Edition, p.545)
3. (Best Practices for Raw Ground Products, facilitated by: Department of Animal Science, Texas A&M University, June 2006, p. 15)