It is relatively easy for a consumer to know when a cut of meat is in excellent condition for consumption. The color, the texture, and, of course, the smell are the essential indicators to know the state of the piece. If in some parts of the processing, transport, and maintenance at the point of sale, there are not adequate refrigeration conditions, the meat loses its properties and decomposes quickly. So eating it in this case is harmful to health. Hence, maintaining the cold chain in meat and poultry products is much more than essential.

Why is it essential to maintain the cold chain in meat products?

As is evident, meat is a perishable product whose useful life is very short. Consequently, their sales times are short. To maintain the safety and quality of the cuts, it is essential to properly manage the cold chain throughout the supply process. That is, from the slaughterhouse, processing, and transportation, to the sale to the final consumer.

Raw meats are media that tend to favor the growth of microorganisms and bacteria that deteriorate them. The most effective way to slow the reproduction of these pathogens is to keep meat at proper refrigeration temperatures. The cold chain in meat products must never be interrupted during its distribution chain.

It should be noted that maintaining the cold chain is one of the main requirements established in Regulation No. 853/2004 of the European Union (EU) on the hygiene of food of animal origin. In this sense, raw materials, ingredients, intermediate products, and finished products derived from meat that may favor the growth of pathogens and/or bacteria that accelerate its decomposition must be kept at temperatures that avoid health risks.

Certainly, there are various packaging solutions that make it possible to extend the shelf life of fresh chilled meat. For example, vacuum and modified atmosphere packaging. Even so, proper temperatures have a determining influence on keeping refrigerated meat in ideal freshness conditions.

Challenges of the cold chain in meat products

Naturally, the decomposition of meat begins once the animal is slaughtered. Regardless of the fact that this operation is carried out with healthy animals after a period of fasting and appropriate rest and in hygienic conditions. To this, we must add the cross-contamination that occurs on the surface of the product during the slaughter, evisceration, and slaughter procedures. It occurs through contact with hands, clothing, equipment, tools, and various objects.

As we said, meat is a propitious medium for the reproduction of microorganisms. This is due to its chemical composition: proteins, lipids, and water. For example, lipids are particularly sensitive to oxidation -a product of oxygen contact with fatty acids- and then to the production of peroxides. Precisely, the decomposition of the peroxides generates the unpleasant smell and taste perceptible when the meat is in bad condition.

From this perspective, those responsible for the cold chain in meat products must assume various challenges. Among them, are the cooling of the cuts in the storage stage and the abuse of temperature during transport. It is also a challenge to maintain refrigeration conditions during the transfer of meat from the slaughterhouse to the processor or retail. In the latter case, the waiting times implicit in consolidation and deconsolidation in retail must be considered.

On the other hand, the quality of meat products during their distribution and at the end of their useful life can vary significantly due to temperature abuse. This condition can accelerate the deterioration of the meat before its expiration date. Which results in both food waste and large economic losses.

How to maintain the cold chain in meat products?

Annex II, Chapter VII (Storage and transport) of Regulation (EU) No. 853/2004, establishes that, after post-mortem inspection, the animals must be immediately taken to a refrigerated environment in the slaughterhouse. This medium must guarantee an internal temperature of all the meat that does not exceed 3°C, in the case of offal, and ≤ 7°C for the rest of the meat. This temperature will be ≤ 4ºC for poultry.

For this purpose, a cooling curve must be followed that guarantees an uninterrupted drop in temperature. In this environment, the meat may be cut and boned. In fact, it is in the slaughterhouse where the cold chain for meat products begins.

Cold chain in the slaughterhouse

Generally, the cold chain in slaughterhouses occurs in two stages:

Primary cooling

This consists of rapid cooling after slaughter and post-mortem inspection. During this, the hottest point of the carcass (usually the center of the hind leg) should reach the temperatures indicated above. In this way, it is possible to stop the proliferation of microbes and extend the shelf life of meat.

Thanks to current refrigeration technologies, it is feasible to achieve these temperatures from 16 to 24 hours in small carcasses, such as lamb. While in the large ones (cattle and pigs) the time to reach it is less than 48 hours. On the other hand, in poultry carcasses, such a temperature is achievable in less than two hours.

Of course, at the surface and in the middle layers, the temperatures are even lower. The outer layer can reach 0°C in just four hours, which is essential to stop the reproduction of pathogens.

Secondary cooling

The purpose of this step is to keep the temperature below 7°C (red meat) and < 4°C (poultry) during all processes within the slaughterhouse. Specifically, throughout cold storage, cutting, deboning, and mincing, prior to transport. Based on this, the most used technologies to consolidate the cold chain in meat products before transport are:

  • Air cooling, in chambers that provide a temperature between 0°C and -1°C
  • By immersion in pre-chilled water or with ice crystals.
  • By spraying, combining a current of cold air on the surface of the carcass and intermittent spraying with cold water. It is more used in poultry.
  • Vacuum refrigeration, through the evaporation of moisture under vacuum.

Cold chain in meat products during distribution

Also, during transport to wholesale distributors or retail stores, the cold chain in meat products must be maintained. In this sense, those responsible for refrigerated truck fleets must constantly review the power of the compressors, the ventilation, and the insulation of their chambers. Likewise, constant monitoring of the refrigeration level during journeys is a priority.

Cold chain maintenance in retail

Undoubtedly, in the final stage of the process (exhibition and sale to the final consumer) the cold chain in meat products must continue without alterations. For this, the retailer must provide a sufficient size and capacity for its cold rooms in the establishment. Obviously, it must have refrigeration systems that provide the temperature of the meat during the cutting and mincing procedures. It is also essential that the daily transfer of the sections from the cold room to the display case is as quick as possible. So that the meat can maintain its internal temperature at < 7°C.

Intersam helps maintain the cold chain for meat distribution

Since 1995, at Intersam we design and develop customized industrial and commercial refrigeration systems. Our experience and ability to meet the needs of the food sector are widely proven.

We supply air-water, water-air, and air-cooling products and systems that have the most advanced technology and offer maximum efficiency. For this reason, we can cover the requirements of the cold chain in meat products during all the stages of the distribution process explained here. Do not hesitate to contact us! We serve your project anywhere in Spain or the world where you are.