Meat Science and Nutrition
Proper handling and storage are two of the most vital processes undertaken by staff once meat orders arrive at their point of sale. Because foodborne illnesses have not been fully eradicated yet, and food storage is often subject to human error, rigid procedures need to be followed to ensure that all products arriving for sale are checked, refrigerated immediately, and stored correctly. Poor food-handling and storage procedures can prove to be disastrous to a food service company and to customers alike.
In Canada, an estimated 500,000 cases of foodborne illnesses occur annually. Here are some examples of what can happen if a food poisoning outbreak occurs due to mishandling or poor storage procedures:
- Loss of customers and sales
- Illness and even death of clients
- Loss of prestige and reputation
- Costly legal and court costs
- Increased insurance premiums
- Lower employee morale
- Professional embarrassment
- Increased cost to the health care system, such as laboratory analysis, physician time, and hospital care
- CFIA investigation time and possible consequences if charged
Here are several steps to ensure that meat products are handled in a timely and safe manner once they arrive:
- Check to see that the order matches the invoice (number of boxes, etc., and list of product names; have driver and receiver sign off).
- Ensure all packages are still sealed and not damaged.
- Check the temperature of the delivery truck storage area (was it cold on arrival?).
- Sort and move all the meat products immediately to their correct storage coolers.
- Ensure fish, meats, and poultry are kept as far apart as possible and fish containers are kept sealed until ready to use.
- Check cooler temperatures daily and record data according to health department regulations.
- Ensure cooler and freezer doors are kept closed at all times.
- Immediately report any unusual temperature fluctuations to your employer.
Meat should be packaged appropriately to prevent drying out, spoilage, or freezer burn. Whole sub-primals are often vacuum packed as soon as they are removed from the carcass and will have a long shelf life when kept in the original vacuum packaging. Cut meat products for retail use should be wrapped in permeable film on trays or vacuum packaged after portioning. Cut meat products for food service use may be vacuum packed after cutting or stored in food-grade containers, wrapped appropriately, and stored according to food safety standards. Products for frozen storage should be vacuum packed or wrapped tightly in freezer paper to prevent freezer burn.
Coolers should be maintained at 0°C to 2°C (32°F to 35.6°F). This is considered the safest temperature to hold meats and maintain flavour and moisture. Water freezes at 0°C (32°F); however, meat freezes at about -2°C (29°F).
Today the most common cooling units are the blower coil type, in which cool air is circulated via coils and fans from a ceiling-mounted unit that draws air from the floor up through the cold coils and then drives air back into the cooler area. Floor areas of the cooler must be free of containers that may impede the airflow. This means that all food containers and boxes must be elevated above floor level.
For most modern coolers the humidity levels are built into the system and are maintained automatically. For example, lean beef is made up of approximately 70% moisture to optimize its flavour, sales appeal, and value. Moisture content in the air is expressed as relative humidity and is measured as a percentage. To maintain the moisture in meats, coolers need to maintain a humidity level of approximately 75% to 80%. If the moisture level drops below 70%, shrinkage will occur. However, if the humidity level is too high, moisture will condense onto the meat and appear on the walls of the cooler, creating an excellent medium for bacteria growth and sooner-than-normal meat spoilage.
Modern meat coolers and freezers also have a built in defrost cycle, which is usually timed to activate in the early morning hours when there is less traffic in and out of the units. This important cycle is designed to melt away ice buildup on the blower coils (as they operate at below freezing temperatures) into a drain system. This part of the cycle takes about 20 to 60 minutes. Meat freezer temperatures should be maintained at approximately -23°C to -29°C (-10°F to -20°F).
Once processing begins, the following steps must be taken to reduce any additional contamination of the product:
- Do not allow product in any kind of box or container to come into contact with any cutting or work surface or the floors.
- Ensure that all processing tables and cutting boards are already cleaned and sanitized.
- Ensure surfaces are dry with no residue of any sanitizer on them (remember that most sanitizers are toxic while wet).
- Maintain separate cutting and processing boards for different species, especially fish, chicken, and pork.
- Clean and sanitize boards immediately after use and elevate to air dry as quickly as possible.
- Have separate cutting boards for cooked meat slicing.
- Thoroughly clean and sanitize meat slicers and tenderizers between uses for different species and between cooked and raw products. These slicing tools and machines pose a very real risk for cross-contamination and are always subject to scrutiny by health inspectors.
- If possible, process different species and cooked and raw products on different days. This helps minimize risk of cross-contamination in processing areas, tools, and machines that are used for a variety of products.