Keeping Us Safe

It’s hard to believe now, but when the Food Research Institute (FRI) was established in 1946—two years prior to the founding of the World Health Organization—botulism and salmonellosis were poorly understood, and staphylococcal food poisoning was just beginning to be elucidated. Many otherwise well-known diseases were only alleged to be food-borne, and the causes of many known foodborne illnesses had yet to be established.

Now the oldest U.S. academic program focused on food safety, FRI moved from the University of Chicago to the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1966 under the leadership of bacteriology professor Edwin “Mike” Foster.

And ever since, FRI has served as a portal to UW–Madison’s food safety expertise for food companies in Wisconsin, in the U.S. and around the world. Housed within CALS, the institute is an interdepartmental entity with faculty from bacteriology, animal sciences, food science, plant pathology, medical microbiology and immunology, and pathobiological sciences, drawing not only from CALS but also from the School of Medicine and Public Health and the School of Veterinary Medicine.

FRI offers a wealth of educational opportunities to both undergraduate and graduate students. Since 2011, FRI has coordinated its Undergraduate Research Program in Food Safety, which provides students with hands-on experience in basic science and applied investigations of food safety issues. FRI faculty and staff have trained hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students, post-docs, visiting scientists and research specialists throughout the years, and FRI alumni have gone on to hold positions in industry, government and academia across the country and abroad.

In keeping with the Wisconsin Idea, FRI’s reach extends well beyond campus boundaries through industry partnerships, especially with its 40 sponsor companies. The Applied Food Safety Lab and laboratories of FRI faculty collaborate with food processors to identify safe food formulations and processing techniques. The institute also provides outreach and training to both food companies and the greater scientific community through meetings, short courses, conferences and symposia.

“FRI is an outstanding example of how a public-private partnership can benefit the academic mission of UW–Madison and the needs of the Wisconsin food industry,” says FRI director Charles Czuprynski.

During the past 70 years, FRI has made many insights into the causes and transmission of foodborne diseases. Early on, FRI research established methods to identify and detect staphylococcal enterotoxins. Work conducted by FRI scientists pioneered understanding of the molecular mechanisms of botulinum toxin production and led to the harness of the toxin for biomedical uses. FRI faculty are leaders in mycotoxin research and have made important contributions to understanding the shedding of E. coli O157 by cattle, survival of Salmonella in stressful conditions and the role of Listeria in foodborne disease. FRI research also identified the health benefits of conjugated linoleic acid in foods of animal origin and conditions that might result in formation of undesirable components in processed foods.

Looking to the future, FRI research is investigating novel mechanisms to prevent food-borne pathogen growth in meat and dairy products, interaction of plant pathogens and pests with human food-borne pathogens, food-animal antibiotic alternatives, and the role of the microbiome in health and disease.

FRI will celebrate its 70th anniversary at its 2016 Spring Meeting May 18–19 at the Fluno Center on the UW–Madison campus. There’s also a reception on May 17 at Dejope Hall, near the grounds of the original FRI building. For more information about FRI and anniversary events, visit fri.wisc.edu.

Meat, With a Touch of Fruit

When Jeff Sindelar talks about the ingredients he’s working with, you’d think he was making juice. Not quite. He’s adding things like cranberry concentrate, cherry powder, lemon extract and celery powder to meat.

But Sindelar, a CALS professor of animal sciences and a UW–Extension meat specialist, is not adding them for flavor. He’s looking at ways to ensure that meat products labeled “organic” and “natural” are safe to eat.

Sales of organic and natural foods are booming, with double-digit percentage gains almost every year. As more and more food processors scramble to meet that demand, they’re encountering a special challenge. Because they must process these meats according to organic and natural label requirements, they are unable to use the vast majority of antimicrobial agents employed in standard meat processing.

“Most ingredients and technologies that serve as antimicrobials—ingredients that can improve safety by either suppressing, inhibiting or destroying any pathogenic bacteria—are not able to be used in products labeled ‘natural’ and ‘organic,’” Sindelar says.

The trick is to find alternative materials and processes that deliver safety—and also offer the look and flavor that consumers value.

Sindelar has identified some options. “A number of different natural-based organic acids offer a significant improvement to food safety,” says Sindelar, who is working in partnership with Kathy Glass, associate director of the CALS-based Food Research Institute. “We have tested a number of different ingredients such as cranberry concentrate, grape seed oil and tea tree extract.”

Some compounds from natural sources work as well as such standard preservatives as sodium nitrite, sodium lactate or sodium diacetate, to name a few. But it can take heavy doses of some natural ingredients to provide equivalent results—causing some undesirable side effects.

“Cranberry concentrate is a very effective natural antimicrobial,” says Sindelar. “But if you use the amount needed to significantly control the growth of bacteria, the meat turns cranberry red.”

Part of the researchers’ work involves “challenge testing”—adding pathogenic microbes to the meat to make sure that a given ingredient prevents the growth of bacteria throughout processing and storage. If substantial numbers of microbes grow, that ingredient is ruled out as being an effective natural antimicrobial.

Successful tests have already led to new products. Cherry powder combined with celery powder, for example, “is already being adopted by processors because of how effective these ingredients are in improving meat safety and quality,” notes Sindelar. And the search for other natural additives continues.

Both researchers are certain they’ll find success—particularly as they continue working in partnership with producers in the field.

“Collaborative research between the university and industry is essential to understand the synergistic effects of these ingredients—and to ensure the safety and quality of natural and organic meats,” says Glass.

Yummier Burgers

Who appreciates burgers more than a college student—particularly if the student is interested in meat science? It made sense that Gilly’s Frozen Custard would turn to enthusiastic young people—led by CALS/UW-Extension meat expert Jeff Sindelar, CALS food science lecturer Monica Theis and UW executive chef Jeff Orr—in a quest to create a better burger for their restaurants. Eighteen students and one staffer split into teams and created their own blends of ground beef, combining such types as flank, brisket, sirloin or chuck within a certain price point. They presented their formulations to members of the Gilly’s leadership team, who judged them for overall beef flavor, bite/texture and juiciness. The winner was  “Burger E” by Seth Schulz, an outreach specialist in CALS’ Meat Science and Muscle Biology Laboratory; food science undergrad Abbey Thiel; and food science graduate student Cherry Lam Wing Yu. Their creation is already being sold at two Gilly’s locations.

Meats Made in Wisconsin

Geiss Meat Service in Merrill, Wisconsin, has been butchering livestock for farmers in Lincoln County and surrounding areas since 1956, cutting about 6,000 pounds of beef a day—that’s an average of eight to 10 beef cattle—into fresh steaks, chops, loins and roasts. But when third-generation owner Andrew Geiss took over the company in 2005, he was ready to try something new.

“I wanted to figure out a way to build up a retail business by expanding our sausage line,” he says. “I thought there was more money to be made by diversifying our products.” He added a smokehouse and started taking basic meat science classes at CALS—and soon discovered a satisfaction in crafting his own specialty meats that meat cutting alone couldn’t provide.

“There’s a lot of pride and art that goes into it. For instance, getting that perfectly round shape and uniformity in color when making a ham,” says Geiss. “You can’t imagine how much one thing in the smokehouse—for example, the humidity levels—changes everything, and how much work is involved.”

But the business side wasn’t going as well as he had hoped. “Honestly, I was at a point where we needed to make some serious changes with the consistency of our products in order to please customers and expand sales,” he says.

He found exactly the help he needed in 2010, when he was accepted into the inaugural class of the Master Meat Crafter training program at CALS. He and his classmates—16 men and one woman from small meat operations all around the state—traveled to Madison regularly over the course of two years for rigorous, hands-on instruction in meat science and processing, covering such areas as fresh meats, fermented and cured meats, cooked and emulsified sausage and meat microbiology and food safety.

That training earned Geiss the right to use the formal designation of Master Meat Crafter. But even more than the title, the program gave him the skills he needed to improve the quality, yields and markup on his products. “Now we’re doing a ton of different kinds of sausages, and everything is turning out just perfectly,” he reports. “And I don’t have to second-guess anything. I know that everything is exactly the way that I want it to be, and it turns out the same every time.”

The industry already has taken note of his improvements. Last summer Geiss Meat Service entered products for the first time in the American Cured Meat Championships and won awards in four categories, including first place in cooked ring bologna.

But even seasoned meat crafters see the value of the master course. The debut class included Louis E. Muench, a third-generation sausage maker who was inducted into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame in 2009. Since 1970, Louie’s Finer Meats in Cumberland has been crafting ham, bacon, bologna, breakfast links, salami, summer sausage and dozens of other products—and winning more than 300 state, national and international awards for their quality. Its creative staff also designs an extraordinary assortment of bratwurst, including applewurst, bacon cheeseburger, blueberry, pumpkin pie and wild rice and mushroom.

Why would someone with that level of expertise be interested in going back to school? “There’s so much technology that changes every day,” Muench says. As examples he cites new antimicrobials developed to combat foodborne pathogens and new government food safety, labeling and operations-related regulations, including changes that will for the first time allow Wisconsin’s state-inspected small processors to sell across state borders. “For our business to succeed in the long run, we need to keep current on everything and try to pass on as much knowledge as we can to keep the quality and the food safety up,” says Muench.

Within a year of completing the program, Muench had encouraged his son Louis and his brother William to sign up with the next group of students.

That’s the kind of success that the Master Meat Crafter program’s key partners—CALS, UW-Extension, the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors (WAMP)—envisioned when they determined that state-of-the-art training was needed to take the state’s specialty meat production to an even higher level.

Program director Jeff Sindelar, a CALS professor of animal sciences and UW-Extension meat specialist, designed it to be like an academic postgraduate program that would benefit even the most skilled and experienced artisans. In both structure and intent, the new program mirrors the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program run by the Center for Dairy Research at CALS, which was a key player in turning Wisconsin’s specialty cheese business into a globally acclaimed leader that today accounts for more than 20 percent of Wisconsin’s total cheese production, up from a mere 4 percent in the 1990s.

The Master Meat Crafter program’s success will be measured over the long haul, says Sindelar: “It’s which of these plants will grow, add on, which plants are going to pass along the business, whether to family members or to other people who can continue the name. It’s really about longevity and viability of the industry.