Meat Preservation: Formulating For Success With Acetate-Based Solutions

Thursday, May 5th, 2022

Acetates are coming to the fore in meat preservation. Behind the shift: clear cost savings; efficacy at much lower doses with a dry product; a push to reduce salt consumption; and continuous disruptions in lactic acid supply and pricing.

By Pornpun Theinsathid, Ph.D., Business Development Manager, Food Protection & Preservation, Meat, Kerry Asia Pacific, Middle East &Africa (APMEA)

Meat preservation is always top of mind — and rightly so, as contaminated meat carries the possibility of such health threats as Listeria, Salmonella and E. coli. These well-known pathogenic bacteria, which can proliferate in unprotected meats, can lead to a range of costly and deadly medical conditions and expensive recalls. For global consumers, the ongoing fear of meat contamination as a threat to human health keeps meat products at the top of the list whenever the subject of food safety arises.

Meat products provide the perfect environment for microbial growth due to their high moisture content and almost neutral pH. Kerry’s 2021 Sustainability Research shows that in APMEA, 52% of consumers are concerned about food waste in meat, while a significant 84% are interested in claims pertaining to food waste. Meat preservation however has primarily focused on delaying spoilage by inhibiting the growth of microorganisms.

While there might be regional market differences when it comes to the type of meat consumed, more than ever shelf life is high on the agenda of every industrial meat processor. Fortunately, the risk can be eliminated with proper care and attention paid to preservation techniques and products. Formulating solutions for meat food safety requires trained microbiologists, challenge study data and application studies that will maintain the quality, sensory and appeal characteristics of products. This takes time and expertise. Solutions based on the salts of organic acids, e.g., lactic or acetic acid, are time-tested solutions.

Of these, lactates — based on lactic acid — lead the marketplace today. Lactates have a robust market share following their rise decades ago as a preferred solution for inhibiting microbial growth in meat. Lactic acid has a strong history in carcass decontamination used in hot water solutions. In its sodium neutralised form, besides protecting meat, sodium lactate adds a light, tasty, now familiar salty flavour, and the process works very well. The downside — hiding in plain sight right there in the name — is that these applications are sodium-based and thus serve to raise the volume of sodium in any end product that employs them. This has made sodium lactates a key target of the salt-reduction movement.

Image courtesy of Kerry

In response, some manufacturers have developed lactate-based preservatives that replace sodium with potassium. This is a workable solution in some cases, but with one major issue: In dosages over 1%, potassium-based lactates deliver an “off” (sometimes described as “metallic”) taste. By contrast, acetates are highly effective at lower doses, meaning that less acetate-based product is needed to provide protection. Accordingly, the issue of metallic taste from potassium acetates becomes moot.

With all this in mind, acetate-based meat preservatives — derived from acetic acid — are an option now receiving serious consideration. Acetates offer several important competitive advantages over lactates: lower cost in use; low or zero sodium contribution; excellent antimicrobial properties against pathogens; no unwanted taste impacts; and reliability of supply. The latter item is especially noteworthy because it’s in stark contrast to the supply-chain disruptions and rising price volatility lactic acid seems destined to face for the foreseeable future.

Cost-in-use benefits: Acetates effective at up to five times lower dose than lactates

The cost-in-use (CIU) equation is always an extremely important consideration for ingredient and processing aid suppliers. But how can meat be preserved more cost-effectively? Acetates are a remarkable five to seven times more efficient at controlling bacterial threats than lactates at the same pH level.

This is due to a higher undissociated acid content, and results in several key benefits: less preservation product needed; competitive cost; efficacy at low dosages; and a confirmed ability to meet vital food safety standards. Buffer systems of acetic acid and its salt can stabilize the pH and inhibit the activity of spoilage bacteria. Achieving equal protection using lactates requires a much larger dose, and that’s where many of the issues start.

Image courtesy of Kerry

Regulators souring on salt: Sodium now in the crosshairs

The overconsumption of salt is being targeted by food regulators worldwide, beginning with the World Health Organization (WHO), which recommends salt intake be limited to 5g per day. However, the global average daily salt intake is estimated to be double that, with countries like Thailand (13g), Japan (12g), Vietnam (12g), and the Philippines (11g) ranking among the highest in salt consumption.

Meat products often use a number of formulation components that contain sodium. Fortunately, producers can target these components individually to reduce the cumulative sodium level in the end product. Substituting sodium lactate — dosed up to 4% content — with a low- or no-sodium alternative is an excellent start to substantially reducing the overall sodium load. This has a rising number of food companies eager to comply with the current WHO guidance, and many are looking ahead to potential future regional regulatory actions.

Reformulation for sodium reduction is already starting

With many of the preservative solutions currently on the market (both conventional and those offering a clean label) having a sodium base that contributes more sodium to the final product, the need for solutions has led to a slow but steady shift in preservation protocols. Meat applications are notoriously challenging in terms of meeting sodium targets, so sodium-based preservatives are ground zero for reformulators.

It’s also worth noting here that reducing sodium can create challenges when formulating for shelf life, and these must not be ignored. For the meat industry, the race has begun to uncover solutions that will replace sodium’s role in the protection, preservation and flavour of meat products without negatively impacting the lifespan of products. However, managing application developments and challenge tests for improving preservatives takes time, making it vital for meat processors to initiate the process without delay. There’s no doubt that acetates can greatly assist in the effort.

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