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020619 Making Individual Sandwich Meats Safer

June 12, 2002

HealthScoutNews - If you're worried about contaminated luncheon meats, here's something to chew on.

Purdue University researchers say they've developed a way you can pasteurize your bologna, ham and salami at home, killing off harmful bacteria in the process.

Just wrap each slice in plastic, dip it into water heated to 185 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 seconds, then slip it into cold 39-degree water for the same amount of time, says Tim Haley of the university's Center for Food Safety Engineering.

Haley says the procedure will eliminate harmful bacteria from the surface of prepared meats, where the germs are most likely to be found, without affecting the taste or quality of the food.

His team's research also found that treating meat with this process apparently extends its shelf life. Some of the meat used in the study has been refrigerated since December 2001 and, after five months, is comparable in quality to fresh-packed bologna, Haley says.

The study will be presented at the Institute of Food Technologists' annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., later this month, Haley says.

Haley developed the process as a means for food companies to eliminate potential contamination, but he says it could be easily adapted to the home.

"Certainly, this is something consumers could do as well, if someone wanted to take that extra step," Haley says.

Two slices can be wrapped together and treated at once, but the length of immersion should increase to 60 seconds, according to the researchers. They report that it's not practical to treat more than two slices at once, because the longer immersion time causes the food quality to deteriorate.

Haley's research focused on sterilizing bologna that had been tainted with Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterial food contaminant that causes the disease listeriosis, which is particularly harmful to pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.

Luncheon meats usually are cured in loafs, which is relatively sanitary -- until the loafs are cut into individual slices. "When they go to slice the meat at the factory, there's no process to eliminate any contamination prior to packaging," Haley says.

Listeria has been found in processed foods that become contaminated after processing, like soft cheeses and cold cut meats, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

About 2,500 Americans become seriously ill from Listeria infection each year, and of those 500 die, the CDC says.

The process developed by Haley's team kills as many as 1 million Listeria germs on a piece of bologna, a rate Haley calls "overkill."

"I wouldn't expect to see more than 10 to 100 organisms on a contaminated piece of bologna," Haley says.

Similar pasteurization techniques, also known as flash pasteurization, are already being used in a number of areas, says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. For example, fruit juices and raw shellfish are being treated with similar processes to make them safer.

But DeWaal also says Haley's process may not prove practical for industry, given that it involves treating individual slices of meat one at a time.

"The challenge is to get it to be feasible to the food industry, given how we currently package and consume ready-to-eat meat," she says.

Haley says the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funded his research, specifically wanted his team to come up with a process that could be adopted quickly by industry to address concerns about food safety. "They didn't want to wait five or 10 years," he says.

As some segments of the food industry are beginning to individually wrap servings -- for example, individually wrapped hot dogs -- Haley says he hopes his process will be adopted by the major luncheon meat companies.

"The idea behind packaging one slice or two slices is you could open what you need and the rest would be fairly well protected," he says.

Listeria and other such bacteria are a major worry for the meat processing industry, according to Josee Daoust, the public affairs manager for the American Meat Institute, a trade group.

"Any weapon we have to combat that is something we're interested in," Daoust says, although he adds that he is not familiar with the Purdue research.


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