Injections into meat can prevent bacteria growth

By Jonathan Wroble

In the same year that E. coli complications occurred in fresh spinach, one University study reports that a potential cause of E. coli can also kill the disease.

“There is a combination of ingredients that are normally used as flavor or shelf life enhancers that will stop the growth of E. coli,” said Susan Brewer, professor of food science at the University.

Along with a group of graduate students, Brewer has spent three years studying meat injections and has found that a certain combination of enhancement injections can help prevent E. coli. These needle injections, normally used to maintain flavor and shelf life over long periods of time, have traditionally been linked to the spread of E. coli.

“The problem (with injection) is that as soon as you poke holes into the meat, whatever was on the outside now is on the inside,” she said. “(This can) include pathogens.”

Commercially, these needle injections have been used for years to enhance poultry, pork and beef products. Brewer explained that the consumer demand for leaner cuts of meat continues to eliminate fat – a natural conserver of flavor and juiciness.

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“If we want the lean stuff (and) the high quality stuff, we need injections,” she said. “Most consumers don’t understand what’s going on and think someone is deceiving them.”

At the same time, consumers have been the victims of many E. coli outbreaks. In 1993, contaminated hamburger meat from the fast food chain Jack in the Box killed four people and infected over 600 more. Since 1995, 20 E. coli outbreaks have come from leafy greens, including this year’s spinach problem that sickened almost 200 people.

Brewer, who has been looking at shelf life enhancers for about a decade, said that this particular study was triggered by such tragic problems with food borne illnesses.

“Anything you can do to maintain the safe quality (of food) is going to benefit everybody,” she said.

The experiment was done in three parts in order to examine the meat injection process from all angles. First, Brewer and her team inoculated the surface of steaks and injected them with two shelf life enhancers. Second, she put pathogens in the actual injection solution and ran the same process. Finally, she imitated the recycling process by which meat companies reuse the liquid that runs off or runs through infiltrated meats.

“If you inject something, some fluid stays in, some drips out,” she said. “Commercially, big trays catch and recycle (the fluid) that drops out.”

In all three cases, Brewer found that a combination of the two shelf life enhancers was effective in suppressing the growth of pathogens.

The combination could reduce E. coli bacteria to undetectable amounts in meat.

Since this discovery, Brewer has received national attention.

Three papers written by her and her graduate students have been published in scientific journals.

Next year, two more articles will follow in the Journal of Muscle Foods. Brewer hopes that her work will convince food companies to use this E. coli-preventing solution to enhance the flavor and shelf life of their meats.

“Safety’s the first thing,” she said. “Shelf life’s the next thing.”