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General hygiene principles for meat handling

Current recommendations for handling all meat products are to keep them clean, cold and covered in order to maintain quality and protect against food poisoning and disease. Generally contamination occurs when the product comes into contact with dirty hands, clothing, equipment or facilities. If the product is kept clean there will be little or no contamination by microorganisms whether bacteria, yeasts, moulds, viruses or protozoa or by helminths and poisonous chemicals.


The total viable count of bacteria (TVC) expressed as organisms/cm2 or as organisms/g on fresh meat or a meat product sets a limit to its shelf-life. Meat will “spoil” with TVC at 106/cm2 because of off-odours. Slime and discoloration appear at 108/cm2. The main factors determining the time taken for the TVC to reach these levels are the initial count due to contamination during slaughtering and processing, further contamination during storage, temperature, pH and relative humidity. An example of how the level of contamination affects shelf-life is shown in Table 1.

After cleanliness, keeping meat products cold is the second most important requirement in order to achieve a desirable shelf-life. Microorganisms rapidly proliferate at elevated temperatures and slime development is a definite visual sign of microbial growth. The importance of temperature in the control of microbial growth is shown in Table 2.

Bacteria relevant to meat, meat products and other food are divided into three groups according to the temperature range within which they can grow: mesophiles 10–45°C, psychrophiles 0–28°C and psychrotrophs 10– 45°C, or slow growth at 0–10°C. Mesophiles will not grow below 10°C but psychrotrophs, of which Pseudomonas are the more important, will grow down to 0°C. The nearer to 0°C the storage temperature the slower the growth of the spoilage bacteria and the longer the shelf-life (Fig. 9).

Effect of initial contamination on the storage life of lean beef

Initial bacterial count
Days at 0°C 
before slime development
100 000 8
  10 00010
    1 00013

Relationship between storage temperature and slime development

Storage temperature (°C)Days before slime develops
  1  7
  3  4
  5  3
10  2
16  1

Under ideal conditions bacteria double in number every 20 minutes. A single bacterium multiplies to over one million in less than seven hours:

TimeNumber of bacteria
16.004 096
17.0032 768
18.00262 144
18.401 048 576

Some bacteria cause product spoilage, others cause food poisoning. The former limit product shelf-life but the latter cause illness. Almost all foodpoisoning bacteria are mesophiles so refrigeration below 10°C offers good protection. Many mesophiles cause spoilage, but since meat is refrigerated most spoilage is due to psychrophiles. Storing meat at temperatures close to 0°C will inhibit the growth of pyschrotrophs. Shelf-life will be extended by avoiding contamination through good hygiene practices.

Aerobic bacteria have an absolute requirement for oxygen which limits their growth to the meat surface. Anaerobic bacteria grow within the meat as they need the absence of oxygen. Facultative anaerobes can grow slowly within oxygen but grow better in its presence. Food-poisoning bacteria are anaerobes and facultative anaerobes. The most important spoilage bacteria (Pseudomonas spp.) are aerobic.

9. Different types of bacteria can grow within different temperature ranges

Water is required by micro-organisms so reducing the water available below the optimum level will prolong shelf-life. If meat is stored at a relative humidity (RH) below 95 percent, moisture will be lost from the surface. Since most spoilage bacteria, being aerobic, can grow only on the surface, this surface drying will extend the shelf-life. Moulds (fungi) are able to grow in drier conditions than bacteria so that desiccation has a selective effect on microbial growth.

Meat pH is the level of acidity in meat. Stored sugars are broken down to lactic acid. In living muscle it is near 7.0 (above this is alkaline, below is acid). It falls to 5.4–5.6 within 24 hours. High final-pH values result when animals are exhausted at slaughter, for instance because of fighting in lairage or transport. Spoilage bacteria multiply rapidly on high-pH meat and shorten the shelf-life. Exhausted animals should be rested before slaughter.

A high TVC resulting from severe contamination during slaughter or processing will shorten the shelf-life even in ideal conditions. It also indicates poor hygiene so that contamination with food-poisoning bacteria is likely.


Aerobic spoilage by bacteria and yeasts usually results in slime formation, undesirable odours and flavours (taints). Colour changes, rancidity, tallowy or chalky flavours from the breakdown of lipids may also occur. Colour changes as a result of pigment oxidation may be grey, brown or green discoloration. Aerobic spoilage by moulds results in a sticky surface, musty odours, alcohol flavours and creamy, black or green discoloration.

Anaerobic spoilage which occurs either within the meat or on the surface in sealed containers where oxygen is absent or very limited is marked by a souring due to the production of organic acids and gases.


Food poisoning may be due to infection or intoxication. Infection is caused by the consumption of live bacteria which multiply in the body producing characteristic symptoms. Intoxication is due to toxins in food produced by bacteria before the food was eaten. Toxins are chemical compounds which may linger in food with no microbes growing in it, and are therefore very dangerous.

Salmonellae are facultative anaerobes which cause infectious food poisoning. Ten or 20 cells of Salmonella typhi are sufficient to cause typhoid but 10 000 to 100 000 cells of other species may be necessary to cause an infection. Some are host-specific affecting the animal from which the meat was produced but failing to cause infection when consumed by man. Typical symptoms of salmonellosis include diarrhoea, fever and vomiting. The illness may last one to 14 days after a 12 to 24-hour incubation period. Victims may excrete the bacteria for weeks after the symptoms subside. Poor personal hygiene will cause contamination of meat.

Staphylococcus aureus is a facultative aerobe that causes intoxication. It lives in the nose, throat, hair and skin and on animal hides. Meat is contaminated by handling and by sneezing or coughing. Minute amounts of the toxin will cause illness, which starts within one to eight hours of eating poisoned food. Nausea, vomiting and shock may last for one to two days. On rare occasions it is fatal. This bacterium does not produce off-odours or spoilage so it cannot be easily checked. Refrigeration will control its growth. Cooking may destroy the bacteria but not the toxin as it is heat stable. It is particularly troublesome in cooked cured meats, normally as a result of recontamination after the curing process in subsequent handling, for instance during slicing.

Clostridium botulinum, an anaerobe, produces the toxin botulin, one of the most poisonous substances known. This attacks the central nervous system causing death by respiratory paralysis. Dormant cells occur everywhere in the soil, fish, animals and plants. High-moisture, low-acid, low-salt conditions at above 3°C favour growth and toxin production. Control measures must destroy spores or prevent growth and toxin formation. Botulism is usually due to undercooking processed meats. Pressure-cooking will give commercial sterility. Pasteurization (heating to 70°C) and adding salt (NaCl) and sodium nitrite (NaNO2) is used for canned ham. Refrigeration (0–10°C) is essential for vaccum-packed meats. Frozen storage prevents growth.

Clostridium perfringens, an anaerobic bacterium, is a common cause of food poisoning but is rarely fatal. It grows well in warm meats so is usually found in left-over meats that have not been kept chilled and not been reheated to 70°C to kill the bacteria present. The main symptoms are diarrhoea and weakness which last for 12 to 24 hours after an incubation period of eight to 20 hours.

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