Prosciutto, lardo, bresaola, capicola, guanciale and soppressata. The opposite of fast food, and literally slow to make, these meats are examples of charcuterie, or what are most commonly known as cured meats.
As the local, do-it-yourself food culture grows across the country, more chefs are getting into the meat curing business to cater to patrons who demand more sustainable and old-world preparation methods. The practice is still at the trendy stage for most Americans, but it is steeped in tradition around the world. People have been preserving meats with salt for thousands of years in order to make it safe in an unstable, non-refrigerated and uninspected environment.
Meanwhile, modern American food regulations – both federal guidelines and state and county health codes – can have very little application to these traditional methods. Many states have regulations that strictly require meat to be cooked and stored at specific temperatures, while some states allow for restaurants to apply for a variance to serve products – like cured meats – that fall outside the jurisdiction of standard rules.
Christopher Lee has been in the restaurant business for 30 years and making salumi for more than 20 years in Berkeley, Calif., first as a chef at Chez Panisse, then at his own restaurant Eccolo. Recently, Lee served as a restaurant consultant, most notably creating the safety plan for Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria in Manhattan.
Lee says his work as a consultant made him consider the food safety aspect of curing meat more than he had in the past.
“Now that I have seen people making it in their back room in their restaurant, I have become a lot more wary,” Lee said in an interview with Food Safety News. “[Chefs] need to find out local regulations. And that’s new to a lot of people. I think people are often scared to ask official agencies what they need to do because they think it will be elaborate and cost them a lot of money and a lot of headache. Where, in fact, it makes a lot more sense to do it from the beginning.”
A big hurdle for many restaurants is finding the proper space for their curing operations, an area where the proper temperature can be maintained and meats can be kept somewhat separate from other foods in the kitchen.
No matter a restaurant’s size, however, a chef has the same responsibility as a large-scale meat curing facility, says Dana Hanson, a meat extension specialist in the Food Science Department at North Carolina State University.
“The challenge is the same regardless of size,” Hanson told Food Safety News in an interview. “You still have to understand what issues there are and know what you have to do. Like any meat product that is intended to be consumed ready to eat, you are looking to control all pathogens.”
The main food safety considerations to take into account when curing meat are pH levels, water activity level and cross contamination, says Lee.
In its 2005 Meat and Poultry Hazards Control Guide, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) suggests that “meat pH should decline to 5.3 within an acceptable time temperature combination (temperature in degrees, time in hours).”
Water activity should remain low at all times during curing, and meat should be kept separate from other foods while curing so that it doesn’t come into contact with other raw product that may carry pathogens.
Without the proper training and equipment, a chef may not realize he or she is putting out an unsafe product.
“If you’re not going to spend $2,000 to buy the water activity meter, pay $100 to send [the meat] to a lab, find out what it is,” Lee said. “Do that a few times so you at least know what it looks and feels like at the right water activity level, and then go from there.”
The process of salt curing works against bacteria due to the lack of water left in the meat after the salt is absorbed into it.
This process isn’t failsafe, though, as many pathogens are salt tolerant, and cured meats may not reach salt levels high enough to prevent bacteria growth.
According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, dried hams are particularly at risk for Trichinella, Staphylococcus and mold. Staphylococcus is salt tolerant, so proper food handling is vital to prevent these bacteria from growing.
Between 2002 and 2007, 66 cases of trichinellosis were reported to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). All cases were linked to consumption of meat, and uncooked meat was the source of 5 of the 30 cases for which information was available.
Listeria monocytogenes, a foodborne bacterium that can cause severe illness in pregnant women and those with weak immune systems, has been found in fermented raw meat sausages. Listeria can grow in refrigerated foods, can be resistant to drying and is salt tolerant.
A 2006 study found Listeria in 22.7 percent of 1,020 salami samples tested for the bacterium.
In June of last year, 5,700 pounds of imported dry-cured ham were recalled because Listeria was found in a sample of the product.
Cured meats are also susceptible to Clostridium botulinum contamination. Botulism, the disease caused by infection with C. botulinum toxins, was originally named “sausage poisoning,” or “Wurstvergiftung,” when discovered in Germany, because the bacteria grow in oxygen-deprived environments such as sausage casings. Now the use of nitrates in the curing process is used to combat bacteria such as C. botulinum.
E. coli poses another potential threat to dry meat safety. Last year, Lebanon bologna, a cured, smoked, fermented semi-dry sausage, was linked to 14 cases of E. coli O157:H7 across the eastern part of the United States.
In 1999, an E. coli outbreak in British Columbia, Canada that sickened at least 143 people was linked to dry, fermented salami.
Avoiding Potentially Contaminated Charcuterie
Lee says there are some signs diners can look for to tell whether cured meats were prepared in a safe manner.
“There are certain things that I am not going to eat,” he says. “If something looks good and smells good and is made in a reasonable environment, I’m going to eat it. But if I have someone bring me something that is soft and moist and sticky on the outside and they’ve been drying it for seven months, and it’s the temperature of liverwurst, I’m not going to eat that, because I know what can go on in it.”
Large-scale meat facilities that produce cured meat are inspected and regulated by the USDA, and have a full-time inspector on-site, while restaurants are regulated by county health departments and inspected once a year.
Some may argue that the regulations don’t make sense for meat curers, but Hanson said this is the only way for the system to operate with restaurants given current inspection capacity.
“With thousands of restaurants across the country, the regulation has to be all-encompassing to a point, and it has to be easy to enforce,” Hanson said.
Without more frequent inspection of restaurants, the rules likely have to stay the way they are.
“Is there a risk involved with [cured meats]? Yes,” Hanson said. “Whether you can document what is going on with these products, by having careful oversight more than just one time a year, I don’t think it is a risk worth taking. There is too much variation in a lot of these operations to be able to give restaurants carte blanche to say ‘start making salami.”
In other words, the long process of making charcuterie is something that requires more regular surveillance, which is impossible under the current regulatory system. If a restaurant owner applies for a variance in his or her county to be able to cure meats in-house, health departments cannot make an adequately informed decision without overseeing each particular chef’s techniques and facilities.
Lee, the expert in the kitchen, agrees, but adds that inspectors have more to learn as well.
“We’re in a problem area in some respects,” Lee said. “We have reasonable comprehensible regulations that are pretty clear, but the people who are enforcing them don’t always know what they are looking at when they come in my facility and say, ‘What is prosciutto?'”© Food Safety News