Robert Jensen, President
Jensen Meat Co.
San Diego, CA USA
The following article was originally presented at the International Bison Conference in Edmonton, Alberta in August 2000. The conference covered a wide array of bison topics including production, marketing, genetics, history and much more. This article has been reprinted with the permission of the IBC2000 Chairman.
History of Jensen Meat Co.
Reggie Jensen founded Jensen Meat Co. in 1958. A family owned business; we started as a small HRI purveyor (hotels, restaurants and institutions) which sold a full line of beef, lamb, pork and veal cuts. Beginning in 1985 through 1987 we began to specialize in ground beef products. About this same time we set up the meat division for Price Club which is now Costco. We sold them fresh hamburger.
As Price Club expanded they decided to use IQF (individually quick-frozen) patties from one of our competitors and we began to lose our patty business with them. Price Club said they would restore our business if we went to an IQF tunnel system. I did research for a year looking at different systems of the IQF tunnel and spent $500,000 renovating our facility to accommodate a small Frigoscandia Tunnel.
As it turned out we did not get the business from Price Club. We now owned an expensive IQF system but had no market. Forced to develop a market, we got out of direct street sales and moved into selling to distributors. We were successful for two years but began to lose some of our key accounts because our plant was old, antiquated and small. We decided that to compete and take on some of the large national chains we would have to make a sizable investment and build a new facility. In 1990 we built it.
Numerous expansions since then have seen us grow from 60,000 lb. per week production to our current production of 1,000,000 lbs. of hamburger per week. We employed 25 people 10 years ago and now have 130. We have cut a niche, it is our specialty and we are good at what we do. In ten years we have learned much.
Today I will discuss food safety and how important it is to the bison industry. Learn from what the beef industry has done in the last ten years and profit from it. You do not have to make the same mistakes.
The beef industry has learned that they are able to produce a clean and wholesome product through a zero tolerance policy and the use of many advances in beef carcass decontamination technologies. Through pre-harvest research, representatives from the USDA and the Agriculture Research Service have found that 80% of cattle had been exposed to 015787 (e-coli). Our own microbial testing of bison carcasses show them to be extremely clean at this point but this high percentage of exposure in cattle is important to the bison industry because of possible cross contamination in facilities that slaughter both beef and bison. Contamination with 015787 has been a threat to the hamburger business. With the outbreak of 015787 resulting from undercooked beef patties it set in motion a revolution in beef food safety advances and issues.
A lot of pathogens, including 015787, are not introduced at the processing level but rather at the slaughter level. What can we do to prevent this from happening? Today, there are in place many technological advances in the beef industry and there are more new ones yet to be approved that I believe can rid us of most pathogens. In 1993, the only critical control point in the farm to table system was the cooking process. If that process failed, there was no safety net to protect the consumer from food borne pathogens. A lot has changed since then.
Some of the advances at the carcass level are:
wzero tolerance for physical defects on beef carcasses. In years past the practice was to knife trim fecal material or dirt from the carcass. This was not sanitary, as it tended to spread the pathogens. Today there is steam vacuuming, steam pasteurization, hot water pasteurization and organic acid treatments to clean the carcass. We require at least two of these intervention procedures from our suppliers.
wmandatory implementation of HACCP (Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Points) This system has been implemented by USDA to teach everyone from the farm producer to the person preparing the food, how to handle his or her products properly. The majority of all contamination in food borne products happens in the home, not in restaurants. This is usually because of unsanitary practices such as not washing utensils and hands after handling poultry or fish. The fact that much of the contamination happens after the consumer receives the product does not matter, as the blame will come back to the producers and the industry whether it is the beef industry or the bison industry. Through education we can help teach people how to handle the product safely.
wverification of process control through the micro-biological and USDA monitoring of beef carcasses for salmonella, along with verification and anamicrobial intervention through 015787 testing.
Through the application of these technologies the beef carcasses are visually cleaner and they are micro-biologically safer than at any time in the history of the beef industry. A standard plate count of less than 500,000 parts per million was considered a clean product as little as 5 years ago. This standard was used by large food chains such as Macdonald's and Wendy's restaurants. Today we have a plate count of 6-10,000 parts per million. This shows that these intervention procedures work. We have a much cleaner and more wholesome product. There are even more advanced procedures we can do that have not been government approved as yet. Hopefully they will be soon.
These technologies allow for the pre and post harvest separation of the slaughter process. The pathogens such as e-coli (015787) are more prevalent at the slaughter level than the processing level. Bison are introduced to the plant clean and wholesome. The potential for contamination comes at the slaughter point when the hide is pulled and the animal eviscerated. It is extremely important to apply the same intervention procedures, as the beef industry so that the pre and post harvest processes can be separate. This separation makes possible state of the art sanitation procedures for beef cutting and packaging operations. In the past there were no walls between the pre and post harvesting of the animals and contamination could occur from live animals touching harvested ones and by air borne pathogens. Now there are walls between the slaughter floor and the sanitation area where the carcass is given a steam-vac, a steam pasteurization and sometimes an acidic wash. The net effect is a dramatic decrease in the bio burden associated with raw beef patties.
In bison processing it is important to be proactive. Do a true risk assessment following the same intervention techniques as used for beef - whether the bison are slaughtered in a plant that does both beef and bison or in a custom plant only for bison. It does not matter if only a few animals or many are being processed. It only takes one contaminated patty to seriously jeopardize your business. We all want to supply a clean and wholesome product, but you have to take that responsibility a step further and ensure all your suppliers and processors are doing the right things too.
Procedures at the Plant
At Jensen meat we use a bar code system to track all products so that if there is a problem we can trace it. In our receiving area, where product comes in, we do temperature checks and a visual inspection. We then take samples of all incoming raw material to make certain they meet the standards we have set up for our suppliers. Each supplier has a letter of guarantee and most of them are ISO 9000 or better certified.
In our raw materials cooler we monitor temperature and all product is processed in a first in first out sequence according to the bar code system. Temperature is monitored throughout the plant. There are probes in our cooler, our production room, our warehouse and all the freezer tunnels where the temperature is checked every fifteen minutes. This information is down loaded into the computer in the Quality Assurance (QA) lab. This is entered into the history file on the bar code so that when the finished product comes out, we are able to trace everything that has happened to that product through the facility.
When scanned, the bar code will display: when that product came in, what raw material was used, the temperature, the day it was produced, which line it was produced on, what the net weight of the product was before it went into the tunnel, what the net weight of the product and box is at the end, the number of patties in the box, and verify the fact that the metal detectors were working during the whole process.
All our frozen raw materials, including bison trim, is run through a microwave. This controls the defrost and reduces the microbial count. We used to allow meat to defrost at room temperature or put it in a warmer cooler with fans. It would take from 3-5 days for the product to temper sufficiently to grind. With this method the microbial count would escalate and some of the natural moisture and protein would be lost due to blood loss as it thawed.
Blending and Forming
In the production room there are blenders for both lean and fat trim that then combine the fat with the lean for 3-4 minutes. A sample is then taken, emulsified and sent to the QA lab for analysis with an instant readout of protein, fat and moisture content. This information is then down loaded into the computer on the grinding platform. The operator will then enter the fat percentage to be achieved. That information is loaded into the final grinder to maintain the proper blend and fat percentage. A hose attached to the grinder head is a bone collector that picks up any excessive bone or tissue in the product. Hard particles are pushed out onto a track around the backside of the grinder through centrifugal force. The patty machines have weight controls and are checked every fifteen minutes prior to the patties going into the freeze tunnel.
Our computerized Frigoscandia spiral freeze tunnel is a mechanical unit not a cryogenic system. Mechanical freezing is cheaper per lb. than cryogenic that uses either nitrogen or CO2. Mechanical freezing cost per lb. is 3-4 cents whereas cryogenic freezing may be from 4-8 cents per lb.
In the spiral tunnel there is a self-stacking belt about 800-900 feet long. The patty goes in at the bottom and works its way up to the top. It is subjected to a -50oF (-45oC) coil during this freezing process. The patties go into the spiral at 30-31oF (1oC) and take about 12-15 minutes to reach 0 to -10oF (-17 to -23oC) depending on the thickness.
A critical point here is the length of time it takes to freeze that product. Time is the reason you want to do it on an IQF basis. It takes much longer to freeze if an individual patty is put on a stack and then put it in a freezer to form a frozen stack pack. If it takes more than 25-30 minutes to freeze a product it affects the quality by increasing the number and size of ice crystals in the fibres and tissues of the meat. When a stack pack is thawed you will lose more moisture, protein and tenderness than an IQF product. In a frozen IQF product, the colour is paler than a stacked packed frozen product. The redder appearance of the stacked pack, although attractive, is caused by light reflecting off of the ice crystals in the tissues of the meat.
The conveyor with product is in a completely sealed tunnel. The product comes out at the top of the conveyor where it passes through the metal detectors that are monitored by the computers every hour. It is then packaged.
All of our packaging material and boxes are covered to make certain there is no chance for contaminants to enter them prior to packaging the product. All of our lined boxes are assembled outside of the production area to minimize contamination.
We also make and package fresh patties that go to our institutional distributors. It goes through a hermetically sealed machine where it forms the package automatically. It takes the product through it and pulls all the air out of it. It is crucial that the package be strong and durable enough to withstand the handling during the distribution processes right up to the point of consumer handling in the retail meat cases. The fresh product, like the IQF line, is then weighed and this information goes back to the bar code data as well.
Quality assurance is the one of the most important things we can offer our customers. We have two in-house staff microbiologists that do all our testing. Microbial and environmental swabs are done daily on all equipment to ensure sanitation. Every 15-30 minutes we pull product off the production line to make sure it meets all specifications of our customers. We mimic our customers cooking operations whether it is flat top grill or char-broiler or eco-broiler to make certain that the cooked patty will reach a certain temperature within a specific time thereby minimizing microbial counts.
Here are my recommendations for the bison industry.
- do a risk assessment
- set up standards and guidelines for everyone that slaughters bison
- use the intervention procedures that have been developed in the beef industry
- establish a working HACCP program for both slaughterers and processors
- microbial testing for raw and finished product
- bar coding for effective tracing of any potential problems
- make food safety your number one concern