A New Solution to Processed Food Safety

Currently, the primary method used to kill off germs in and on food is heat. Even foods which don’t appear to be cooked probably have been treated with heat. But this method doesn’t work for fresh food like meat and produce. While there may not be a good solution for fresh produce other than washing it, there may be ways to treat fresh meat, poultry and seafood that doesn’t involve heat or loss of flavor.

One of the most difficult types of food to make safer is ground meat. In the U.S. that means hamburger. Because it is ground, there is greater surface area for contamination to occur. A solution the meat industry proposed a few years ago was irradiation. In this method, the packaged meat would be hit with a quick dose of low-level radiation to kill any unwanted organisms. But this idea proved to be unacceptable to the consuming public who feared anything involving any radiation, no matter how small.

The food products company Cargill has a solution for its line of fresh ground beef patties used in food service businesses. The company uses High Pressure Processing (HPP) to keep the bad bugs away. While this method has been applied to a number of processed foods, this is first time it’s been applied to burger patties.

HPP uses pressure instead of heat. It reduces pathogens and microbes that cause spoilage, giving the meat patties a longer shelf life, an important thing for food service companies. Also, that means preservatives and chemicals aren’t needed. The lack of heat means flavor and nutrition are preserved.

The process starts with already processed and packaged burger patties, meaning that the usual food safety rules have to apply up until this point. The packages are placed in a pressure chamber, where air pressure is increased and held at a particular level for a specified amount of time. This is like the treatment divers receive to prevent or treat the bends. Because the pressure is equal on all sides of the packages, it doesn’t affect the wrapping or safety seals. The pressure interferes with cell growth by breaking the vulnerable cell walls.

Food safety experts are praising this method, but point out it doesn’t solve all contamination problems. Cargill says proper food safety and handling procedures need to be followed. Restaurants also are praising these patties because they can now cook burgers to a lower level of doneness instead of being well-done, since many customers prefer medium-done meat.

Other food companies are using HPP with success. The method preserves naturalness, nutrition and flavor without the addition of chemicals and too-hard-to-pronounce ingredients. Researchers believe the use of HPP will increase as more fresh food is processed with this method.