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Jerky Food Safety (US)

Jerky Food Safety (US)

Don’t be a jerk when it comes to food safety

Jerky, a nutrient dense, high protein, low carb dried meat, is any type of meat that’s been cured in a salt solution, reducing its moisture content to less than 50%. With archaeological evidence showing its been around since the time of the Egyptians, the word jerky is derived from the term ch’arki (or charqui) meaning ‘to burn meat’. An indigenous South American tribe, the Quechua, first began using the sun, wind and smoke from fires to preserve the meat of alpaca and llama sometime around 1550.

Jerky has long been a favorite snack in the US but with public scrutiny into food safety at an all-time high, we’ve seen an increase in demand for not only our high quality commercial dehydrators but the relevant food safety information as well. People are concerned with food safety surrounding the sourcing, production and storage of jerky.

With this in mind, the first thing a potential commercial producer should do is become familiar with the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) guidelines. Although healthy and delicious to eat, jerky production is overseen by some pretty strict laws. And rightly so. Turning fresh meat into a preserved meat product is serious business right from the start. 

Sourcing meat 

Traditionally, jerky is made from lean strips of meat, such as pork, beef, lamb and poultry (although some feel raw poultry isn’t the best option due to the texture and flavor of the final product). Lean cuts of meat are best as fat can become rancid during production or storage resulting in unpleasant flavors, or even a ruined product.

You can use ground meat to make jerky, but disease-causing microorganisms are harder to eliminate in ground meat than in whole meat strips. When using ground meat, choose meat with less than 10% fat content.

It goes without saying, when using quality, grass fed, American beef, you’ll benefit from enhanced flavors.

The United States is the largest beef producer in the world. But it doesn’t just happen. According to the USDA website: 

‘The food landscape in this country is ever changing. And USDA is involved in managing those changes as related to many areas of food processing and food distribution. From the inspection of domestic product, imports, and exports; conducting risk assessments; and educating the public about the importance of food safety, USDA is there.’

Storing meat safely takes a bit of preparation

You’re responsible for ensuring raw meat has been stored correctly, even before it lands on your loading dock. When the meat is received, it should be checked for temperature and should be no more than 40°F (4°C) or below.

The USDA website states:

‘USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) ensures that our nation's meat, poultry and processed egg supply is wholesome, safe and properly labeled. Through prevention-based policies and practices USDA is meeting the foodborne challenges of the 21st century head on and using science to craft the best ways forward.’

Food safety is highly regulated to prevent as many as 25,000 foodborne illnesses annually thanks to tougher standards. 

The two most common bacteria growths in incorrectly processed jerky, Salmonella and E. Coli, can prove deadly, making food safety vital.

If you’re a food business, you must adhere to state regulated US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) codes. While they vary from state to state, as a general rule of thumb, when receiving raw meat:

  • Move it as quickly as possible to a storage space that’s clean, dry and pest free
  • stored at 40°F (4°C) or colder – check it with a thermometer
  • stored separately from or below ready-to-eat foods to avoid contamination 
  • not stored in warm or humid areas, or in direct sunlight - this could spoil the food or make it unsafe
  • stored in containers and packaging, off the ground and away from chemicals like cleaners and insect sprays

What the HACCP

Originally developed by NASA and a group of food safety specialists in the ‘60s, Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) is an internationally recognised food safety and risk assessment plan. The plan outlines seven key principles in food safety:

  • Hazard Analysis
  • Critical Control Points
  • Critical Limits
  • Critical Control Monitoring
  • Corrective Action
  • Procedures
  • Record Keeping.

While not mandatory in the US, providers to the food industry can have their products endorsed as food safe under HACCP guidelines.

Marinades and spices

The thickness of the meat strips, and the desired end result, will determine the choice of marinades and spices used to flavor the meat. Will your jerky be soft and moist or hard and dry?

Wet marinades have different consistencies and help foster a consistent flavor and distribution of salt and spices. The recipes may include oil, salt and spices, with acidic ingredients such as vinegar, lemon juice, teriyaki, soy sauce or wine. The use of vinegar (brown, white or apple cider) increases acidity, helping to hinder bacterial growth.

Traditionally, salt and smoke was used to preserve and flavor meat. While there wasn’t much variety, it did the job of preserving meat when it was plentiful for times when meat was scarce. Over the years, many cultures have added spices to improve the taste. 

Today, the sky’s the limit when it comes to the sheer variety of jerky marinades, spices and flavors but good ole salt endures as the most common type of jerky seasoning. Salt is also key to lowering the water activity level, inhibiting the growth of some pathogens and spoilage bacteria.

With marinating times of anywhere between 6 and 24 hours, this should be done in refrigeration set at between 32°F to 40°F (0 to 4°C). To ensure continued food safety, commercial refrigeration units should be stabilized prior to the start of any marinating period. 

Nitrate

Some commercial producers may use a ‘cure’ consisting of sodium nitrite to extend the life of their jerky. Some benefits of using nitrite as part of the curing process are:

  • prevents spores of C. botulinum from germinating
  • fixes the color
  • enhances flavor, and;
  • it’s an antioxidant, which prevents spoilage during storage.

Lethality reduction and humidity

It’s essential to remove any pathogens, like salmonella, from the product. As well as monitoring the products internal temperature and water activity level, the relative humidity in the dehydrator oven is also critical. FSIS recommends that humidity be added during the lethality treatment stage. A 90 percent relative humidity is recommended until the product is heated to an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C). This should be done before the drying stage.

Without humidity, the product surface can dry too quickly, and bacteria may become heat resistant. Some bacteria can become more heat resistant as their moisture level decreases, so maintaining humidity allows the product to reach a higher surface temperature and a greater reduction in microorganisms.

  1. Humidity can be increased by sealing the dehydrator to create a closed system and placing shallow trays of water in the oven to increase moisture, or injecting steam or a fine mist into the dehydrator. Using a humidity sensor to check levels throughout the lethality treatment is strongly advised.

Drying the meat

Once all steps have been taken to minimise pathogens, the drying stage can begin. Drying the meat is the final stage in the process from raw meat to jerky. The FSIS recommends that, as the meat for jerky is salted under refrigeration, it can be dried at a temperature of between 130 to 140 °F (55 to 60°C). 

The key is to achieve drying wherever there are bacteria which could spoil or make the product unsafe. For jerky, these bacteria may be on the surface or internally.

The FSIS doesn’t have a standard of identity for jerky, the FSIS Compliance Guideline for Meat and Poultry Jerky Produced by Small and Very Small Establishments nonetheless recommend that dried meats such as jerky, must be dried to a water activity level of less than 0.75 aw to prevent microbial growth. Weight loss of the meat is a good indicator of water activity.

The rate and amount of drying depends on factors such as:

  • the rate of air flow over the marinated meat
  • the difference between the relative humidity of the air humidity of the food. The relative humidity of the food is usually described as water activity
  • moisture diffusion within the product - be aware of drying too quickly causing the surface to dry before the center and case hardening (dry edge) can occur
  • thickness and diameter
  • time
  • temperature.

The best way to guarantee a stable temperature and a safe final product is with a dehydrator. This way, temperature and humidity can be controlled.

Jerky strips should be laid out carefully on a tray in a single layer. Strips should not be overlapping or touching allowing plenty of air to circulate over and around each strip. 

Some jerky is softer and easy to chew. This style of jerky has a higher water content and can be eaten much faster. 

Hard jerky is more the traditional food and chews longer. This jerky stays on the drying racks longer, therefore losing more water content. There’s often less preservatives used in hard jerky as the extra drying time, resulting in more water removal, stops bacteria from growing.

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Water activity

Water activity (aw) is a measure of available water in food. That’s not as simple as how much water is in the food though, as some water is bound to other ingredients – like sugar or salt – and isn’t available. In the context of dehydration, this is important as it is the available water that microorganisms will use to facilitate growth.

When too much water is available, microorganisms can grow. Pure water has aw = 1.00 and raw meat has aw = 0.99. Jerky commercially produced in the US, is legally required to be dried to a water activity level of less than 0.75. It’s a good idea to aim a bit lower for jerky.

The safest and most accurate way to monitor water activity is by using a water activity meter. It is also possible to measure weight loss to determine moisture loss, but this is not recommended for commercial applications. By the end of drying, jerky should have a water activity level below 0.75 and a moisture content of about 20%. It should feel dry.

Packaging and labelling

Packaging for jerky must be anaerobic, essentially meaning all the oxygen has been sucked out. Removing the oxygen is thought to be one of the most effective ways to store beef jerky to retain its freshness. This type of packaging also prevents the growth of mould.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration requires the following data to be clearly stated on a packaged food label:

  • Name of the product
  • The manufacturer’s or distributor’s name and address
  • The weight of the product
  • Ingredients (listed according to amount, from highest to lowest)
  • Number of servings per product, and serving size
  • Calories
  • Total fat, cholesterol, sodium, protein, carbohydrates)
  • Vitamins and minerals (vitamin D, potassium, iron and calcium)
  • Any artificial flavor or preservative added
  • “Best before” date indication

Your label also needs to include a barcode.

Storage and shelf life

Jerky has a shelf life of around one year when safely stored in a vacuum-sealed package in a cool, dark spot. If the package shows any condensation or other signs of moisture, if it looks unusual or smells funny, it’s likely to have spoiled. And if it’s mouldy, throw it away.

Once jerky has been opened, store it in the fridge. Once the seal is broken, jerky needs to stay cold to maintain its flavor, texture and freshness. Jerky can keep for as long as a week by placing it in a zip lock bag and squeezing out all the air before popping it back in the fridge.

Cleaning

There’s a few basic principles to adhere to in any environment where meat and food products are being prepared. These include:

  • Having a safe water supply
  • Maintaining food contact surfaces in clean condition
  • Preventing cross-contamination
  • Hand washing, hand sanitising and toilet facilities
  • Protecting food, food packaging materials and food contact surfaces from things like lubricants, fuel, pesticides, cleaning compounds, sanitising agents, and other chemical, physical and biological contaminants
  • Labelling, storing and using toxic compounds safely
  • Controlling employee health
  • Excluding pests
  • Confining and removing wastes

The highest hygiene standards should be maintained every step of the way.

Cleaning your dehydrator is also essential

Best practice is to clean it between every batch. The trays in our dehydrators are dishwasher safe and the insides of the dehydrator should be cleaned using a cloth and warm soapy water (being careful not to splash water onto the electrical parts). We recommend using a food-safe sanitizer spray to eliminate microbial growth. 

Any cleaning chemicals should be appropriately stored. Staff should be trained how to use cleaning chemicals safely, so as not to cause accidents or contaminate foods.

It’s also important to ensure equipment is thoroughly dried after cleaning to prevent Listeria contamination.

As well as daily cleaning, including throughout the day, regular cleaning and sanitising should be scheduled for things like cool rooms and drains. It’s also a good idea to regularly clean shelving in chillers, door handles, door seals, switches.

Calibrating equipment

All equipment used for monitoring should be regularly checked and calibrated to ensure accuracy. This includes:

  • Thermometers: check weekly
  • Cool room gauges: check monthly
  • Dehydrator temperature gauges: check monthly
  • Water activity meters: according to manufacturer’s instructions
  • Scales: according to manufacturer, by an approved agency

Got questions about how to use your commercial dehydrator safely?

If you’ve any questions about cleaning your commercial dehydrator, recommended settings, or other aspects to ensure a safe final product, let us know. We’re here to help guide you to producing jerky and other dehydrated foods that are delicious and healthy.


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Kate Joncheff

Kate spends her days doing life as a mother of two young boys, tending to chickens, ducks, working on her organic vegi garden and developing organic recipes that she shares with her friends via instagram. Researching and documenting comes naturally to Kate as she has a flare for design and photography.