What role does disinfection play in poultry processing in the US?

Disinfection plays a critical role across the food and beverage industry. With poultry products, the threat of contamination is high, making effective disinfection and sanitation processes essential for poultry processors. 

Poultry production in the US has moved away from traditional (and controversial) chemicals like chlorine to greener disinfectants with organic status such as Peracetic Acid. Accurate measurement and control of these chemicals are key to success for processing operations.

The US poultry industry

In 2019, the USDA estimated the value of poultry production in the United States to be over $40 billion, with the average person consuming 112.5 pounds of poultry.

Healthier lifestyles are pushing red meat consumers towards leaner turkey and chicken products. As a result, the poultry industry is expected to grow significantly over the next few years.

Regulations for US poultry processing

The American poultry industry is regulated by the US Department of Agriculture – Food Safety Inspection (USDA-FSIS) via two acts:

  • The Federal Meat Inspection Act
  • Poultry Products Inspection Act

A key area that regulations focus on is the cleaning and disinfection of the equipment and poultry products. The USDA-FSIS set out strict guidelines that carcasses exiting the chiller should have no traces of faecal contamination and should be below 40°F.

It is the responsibility of the USDA to inspect all animals that are processed and to regulate the distribution of poultry products. To ensure food safety the USDA-FSIS requires that all poultry plants implement an approved HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) system which includes a written sanitation program.

Contamination of poultry

The drive towards antibiotic free poultry has resulted in an increase of the bacterial load on incoming birds. Pathogenic microorganisms such as E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter and Pseudomonas are known to contaminate poultry products during processing. In recent years, the Centers for Disease Control, have identified Campylobacter as the primary cause of diarrhoea illness in the U.S. with most infections being cause by consuming raw and undercooked poultry.

With new resuscitation based test methods for pathogens like Campylobacter, the need for an effective intervention plan is critical.

What are the steps in poultry processing?

A typical poultry processing facility performs the following activities on the birds:

  • Stunning or Gassing
  • Picking
  • Evisceration
  • Trimming and Rinsing
  • Stunning or Gassing
  • Picking
  • Evisceration
  • Trimming and Rinsing

Poultry processing plants can have over 16 unique chemical application points. Optimising chemical usage is a key part of any poultry processing set up as the cost of these chemicals can exceed seven figure digits per plant, per year.

What chemicals are used for cleaning and disinfection in poultry processing?

Cleaning and disinfection is critical to minimise the risk of infectious diseases caused by viruses, bacteria and other microorganisms. For decades chlorine and its derivates have been a popular choice for disinfection. Over recent years disinfectants such as peracetic acid (PAA) have been growing in popularity.

Chlorine disinfection

Along with general disinfection, chlorine is also used for Pathogen Reduction Treatments (PRTs) or Direct Intervention (DI), where poultry is rinsed with chlorinated water to kill pathogenic surface bacteria.

Chlorine is inexpensive, requires a relatively short contact time with pathogens and is extremely effective in killing Campylobacter and Salmonella. However, using a chlorine-based disinfectant presents several challenges:

  • Chlorine is deactivated by organic matter. In waters heavily contaminated with blood, feathers and fats maintaining a free chlorine residual can be difficult. This requires very high dosing rates.
  • Chlorine reacts with organic material to form a range of harmful disinfection by-products such as HAAs and THMs.
  • Chlorine has been found to be ineffective in spray applications and loses efficacy in dip tanks.
  • At higher concentrations, chlorine has a bleaching effect on poultry which impacts the aesthetics of the final product.
  • Chlorine gas is extremely toxic to humans and animals, if mishandled it can have serious effects on health.
  • In 1977 the EU banned washing chicken with chlorine. Although it is acceptable in the American poultry industry, there is a growing aversion towards using chlorine in poultry processing and it may create a barrier to international trade.

To find out more about chlorine visit our chlorine parameter page.

Peracetic acid

PAA is a versatile ‘green’ antimicrobial that can either be applied at low concentrations over longer exposures or at high concentrations (as high as 2,000 ppm) for a short period of time, with a log reduction efficacy often greater than chlorine.

PAA is a popular sanitiser in the poultry sector due to reduced levels of disinfection by-products (DBP), no lasting residual and a high tolerance for organic load.  Peracetic acid is accepted globally and can be used on products labelled as ‘organic’.

To find out more about disinfection by-products click here.

PAA is primarily used in process water for washing, rinsing, or chilling poultry as well as a range of surface sanitation applications. Due to its water-soluble nature, PAA can completely cover the carcass surface during submersion procedures like chilling. It has been demonstrated that a high concentration of PAA (1000 ppm) used in a finishing chiller or dip tank resulted in more than 2.0 Log10 CFU /ml inactivation in both Campylobacter and Salmonella counts.

Peracetic acid is an expensive disinfectant and is often applied at higher concentrations than traditional disinfectants, therefore dosing levels must be tightly controlled to avoid increasing costs.

To find out more about dip tanks and chillers click here.

Disinfection verification in poultry processing

Regardless of the disinfectant used, it is critical that accurate and regular monitoring is carried out at the poultry processing facility. Inaccurate measurements can lead to underdosing and overdosing, both of which can have severe impacts.

Underdosing will not achieve the required disinfection levels to make the product safe for consumption, whilst overdosing can result in high costs, distort the quality and aesthetic of the end product, and in extreme cases create an unsafe working environment.

For optimal quality control, efficient monitoring needs to be established to ensure the correct amount of sanitiser is being used. Kemio™ has specifically been designed to support effective sanitisation in food and beverage processing – it is the most simple and effective way of testing sanitisers in water.

To find out why Kemio™ performs better than drop count in poultry processing click here.

Kemio technology offers significant advantages compared to alternative techniques. Unlike traditional methods, Kemio™ has minimal user input which reduces potential operator errors and variation in results.

Find out more about how Kemio™ technology can help support you by contacting our team below.

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