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Heat-and-Eat MeatHeat-and-Eat Meat

September 25, 2008

10 Min Read
Heat-and-Eat Meat

Crock pots and roasters across the nation are collecting dust thanks to the increasing prevalence and variety of heat-and-eat meats.

Meat today needs to be convenient, says Kim Holman, director of marketing, Wixon Inc., St. Francis, WI. Consumers want to cut down on the steps it takes to prepare, cook and clean-up dinner and meat, which is usually the main course.

Keeping pathogens in check

FDA regulates chemical preservatives in Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 172. USDAs Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) outlines the ingredients permitted in Safe and Suitable Ingredients Used in the Production of Meat and Poultry Products (Directive 7120.1). However, todays heat-and-eat meat designers trend toward avoiding chemical preservatives, opting for natural protectants.

The Gram-positive pathogen Listeria monocytogenes, one of the greatest concerns in heat-and-eat meats, is readily found in the environment. FDA has zero tolerance for Listeria in foods that support its growth.

FSIS has identified two methods for controlling Listeria in post-process cooked meats: a post-lethality treatment, and the addition of an antimicrobial or process to limit Listeria growth during shelf life.

Nisin, a peptide derived from the controlled fermentation of Lactococcus lactis, can be bacteriocidal to Gram-positive bacteria via addition to a meat brine or marinade, or directly to the tumbler prior to industrial cooking.

Because of our greater understanding of the antimicrobial nature of food fermentations, we now have the ability to add metabolites produced by food-fermentation microorganisms to normally unfermented foods to provide significant hurdles to the growth of spoilage and pathogenic microorganisms, says Larry Steenson, principal senior application scientist, food protection, Danisco USA, New Century, KS. Such metabolites can be purified from specific food-grade cultures for use in food protection, or the metabolites can be added in the form of liquid or powdered concentrates (fermentates) obtained by controlled growth of the producer strain in a food-grade substrate, such as milk or dextrose.

One antimicrobial fermentate blend specially designed to enhance the safety and quality of refrigerated ready-to-eat (RTE) meals and meat products is composed of cultured dextrose and is particularly effective against Gram-positive bacteria, as well as Gram-negative bacteria, yeast and mold, says Steenson. Because fermentates are unpurified systems, they can contribute to the flavor profile of foods into which they are incorporated, so they must be added judiciously. Normally, fermentates are not added at more than 1.5% by weight of the finished food. Fermentates are also affected by the pH of the food. Typically, fermentates are more active at lower pH, and can be added at decreasing levels to low-pH foods. Since organic acids can play a significant role in the activity of many fermentates, they tend to be most active at, or below, the pKa value of the acids present in the fermentate.

Robin Peterson, market development manager, meat and poultry industries, Purac America Inc., Lincolnshire, IL, describes another fermentate as cultured corn or cane sugar and vinegar, which adds to its label-friendliness. She notes that it has been shown to inhibit growth of Listeria and other pathogens and it also adds umami, which enhances the flavor profile of many heat-and-eat meats.

Another antimicrobial agent, formulated with natural sodium or potassium lactate and sodium diacetate, inhibits Listeria growth in RTE meats, notes Peterson. The powder form, she says, can be directly added to formed meat products, such as meatloaf and hamburger patties, while the liquid version, which is 60% or 78% solids, can be delivered to the meat via a brine or marinade.

Usage level varies on application, desired shelf life, pH, water activity and if the meat is cured or not, Peterson continues. In general, use levels are 2.5% to 3.5% of the finished product weight.

Yet another option kills pathogens on the surface of meat and poultry products. This lauric arginate surface treatment is an effective bactericidal solution against pathogens, says Peterson. It kills bacteria by acting on the cytoplasmic membrane of microorganisms and disrupting their metabolic processes. It can be applied to cooked and fresh meat products at levels up to 200 ppm of lauric ariginate. In most applications, it is considered a processing aid and, thus, doesnt have to be declared on the ingredient statement.

Multifunctional ingredients

Essential-oil fractions of select plants possess antimicrobial and antioxidant activity. Effective use levels are often high, so these ingredients must be used with other protectants in heat-and-eat meats.

Rosemary extract and nisin work synergistically to prevent Listeria growth. Rosemary extract also contains phenolic compounds that slow oxidation, which can lead to warmed-over flavor.

Precooked meats provide tremendous advantages, but oxidation can take place before and after the cooking process, says Ron Ratz, director, protein development, Wixon, Inc. Following the thermal cooking process, lipid oxidation, which is also known as warmed-over flavor, can occur. He notes ingredient technologies can help retard the oxidation process in an effort to reduce that warmed-over, flat, cardboard taste, while enhancing intended savory flavor profiles.

Different meat sources have varied susceptibility to oxidation, because less-saturated fats are more-readily oxidized. Further, lean meats, such as pork and poultry, which are lower in saturated fats than beef, are more susceptible to oxidation. Unsaturated fatty acids are even more susceptible to oxidation.

Research conducted for the California Dried Plum Board, Sacramento, shows plums natural antioxidants can suppress bacteria growth to extend the shelf life of heat-and-eat meats. Further, dried plumsavailable as purées, powders and juice concentratesnaturally contain high levels of fiber, sorbitol and malic acid, which help meat retain moisture, suppress growth of meat pathogens, enhance savory flavors and control warmed-over flavor.

Plum ingredients can also improve tough cuts of meat. By adding small amounts of dried and fresh plum ingredients through needle injection or vacuum tumbling, tough meat cuts, such as beef chuck, heavy roasting hens, extra-lean pork, and turkey thigh and leg meat, can be marketed as higher-value, whole-muscle meats for further processing into heat-and-eat products.

Quality complexities

Even with tender cuts, cooking drives moisture from meat. With fully cooked, packaged meats, moisture loss can occur during the initial cooking at the manufacturing level and during the heating step at home, says Dan Putnam, technical manager, Grain Processing Corp., Muscatine, IA. Moisture loss also occurs when the meat is held after the initial cooking, at both refrigerated and frozen temperatures. With the moisture goes the meats juiciness and tenderness.

Moisture loss can be ameliorated by the addition of moisture through marination, continues Putnam. Modified food starches assist by holding the moisture in the meat that is added during marination. The key to binding this moisture is in the selection of the starch. One must select a modified starch that is able to hydrate under the conditions used in the thermal processing. It must also stabilize sufficiently to withstand long-term refrigerated or frozen storage.

Marinated meats, often described as enhanced or containing a solution, can help tenderize lean meats to avoid dry gulping, says Tom Katen, technical services specialist, Cargill Texturizing Solutions, Wayzata, MN, where the meat moisture does not stay with the meat during chewing.

Marinade use depends on the size of the cut, notes Chris Kelly, director of technical services, Advanced Food Systems Inc., Somerset, NJ. Larger cuts will be injected, while smaller cuts are tumbled, he says. Further, the marinade must be designed not to purge when reheated and dilute the sauce or adversely affect other components in the meal, such as vegetables or pasta.

A topical sealant system can help maintain the quality of such high-moisture components of heat-and-eat entrées. Basically, quick-frozen vegetables or meat pieces are tossed in the coating, says Kelly. Based on the desired usage, we offer dry and wet versions, both of which absorb free moisture and create a glaze. The coating ingredient can be seasoned and flavored. For example, a butter-flavored liquid sealant can create a glaze around sliced carrots packaged with a heat-and-eat pot roast. He suggests it is typically best to prepare each component separately and combine them under chilled conditions when manufacturing multi-component, heat-and-eat meals, such as those that contain meat, gravy and vegetables.

Meat entrées with sauce will look very unappealing and unappetizing when the sauce loses its integrity when reheated, says Mar Nieto, senior principal scientist, TIC Gums Inc., Belcamp, MD. Thinning and separation of oil from the sauce are common problems that can be prevented by the proper choice and use of gum stabilizers.

Sauce will also cling better if gum thickener is used, continues Nieto. Refrigeration and freezing aggravate the separation and syneresis; therefore, gums that do not retrograde or lose water-binding when frozen need to be used. This includes xanthan, guar, carboxymethyl cellulose, lambda carrageenan, konjac, or a combination thereof. He notes that specially designed gum systems solve issues with cook-chill or sous vide meats, and meat entrées with sauce.

Salt plays a critical role in meat marinades. Salt extracts salt-soluble proteins, which bind moisture and increase water-holding capacity, resulting in a moist and juicy product, says Linda Kragt, technical services manager, Morton Salt, Chicago. Dendritic salt is popular in marinades. This fine-grained salt has a lot of surface area, so it dissolves rapidly.

Some customers have a specified time in which the marinade ingredients have to dissolve, so use of a fast-dissolving salt, such as dendritic, can save on labor costs, continues Kragt.

Building in flavor and appearance

As the local, organic and natural trend continues to increase in the United States, so will the trend of grass-fed cattle, says Susan Parker, creative flavorist, Kraft Food Ingredients, Memphis, TN. Grass-fed cattle often has grassy off-notes vs. prime, corn-fed beef. Our patented product allows our customers to use grass-fed beef without sacrificing the authentic savory beef flavor of a prime cut.

The natural flavor also delivers juicy, meaty and rare notes to other beef applications, notes Parker, and can offset warmed-over and livery-grassy notes found in lower grades of beef.

Pan-dripping flavors add slow-roasted flavor with a single ingredient, says Steve Williams, associate director of research and development, cheese and flavors, Kraft Food Ingredients. Plus, food-product developers can achieve health-and-wellness formula objectives without sacrificing fatty flavor attributes.

Besides providing flavor, smoke flavors give some antioxidant protection through the phenolic content of the liquid smoke, says Ron Jenkins, application specialist, Red Arrow Products Company, Manitowoc, WI. Depending on the nature of the product, our natural smoke products can be applied either externally, or neutralized for internal applications. Other flavors add grill, roast, char, fried, sautéed or caramelized notes.

One freshness technology, notes Ratz, inhibits oxidation, stabilizes seasonings, preserves spice notes, potentiates savory notes, masks soy and is great at reducing that warmed-over flavor thats often an issue for precooked meats.

Above all, remember RTE meats must perform during the first cook cycle at the manufacturing facility and when they are warmed up in consumers kitchens, says Kelly. In addition, they must be effectively packaged to withstand distribution and storage conditions.

Donna Berry, president of Chicago-based Dairy & Food Communications, Inc., a network of professionals in business-to-business technical and trade communications, has been writing about product development and marketing for 13 years. Prior to that, she worked for Kraft Foods in the natural-cheese division. She has a B.S. in food science from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached at [email protected] .

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