When your company’s reputation for all-natural, premium-quality products is 100 years old and the nation’s top chefs comprise your major market, each day’s production has a rather high bar to meet. Mike Satzow, the third-generation owner of North Country Smokehouse, Claremont, N.H., knows not only where that bar is set, but the factors that could hobble his operation’s success. “We’re not smart enough to compete on price,” he jokes, “so we have to maintain consistently high quality and uncompromising food safety standards.” Of course, most food processors talk about product quality, but each uses its own set of parameters to define “quality.” In the case of North Country Smokehouse—which produces six types of smoked ham, seven kinds of bacon, and 17 varieties of sausage, as well as beef brisket, a range of smoked turkey, chicken, and duck products, and a line of cheeses—traditional and contemporary New England values provide the foundation for quality. As the company’s website explains, “From the earliest days of our business, each choice we’ve made has been fueled by what we truly believe is the right thing to do.” So how is that perspective manifested in raw material sourcing and processing? North Country sources all of its pork from a family farm in Montreal, which raises “a specialty breed of pigs with similar genetics to the Duroc, an American domestic breed known for its leanness and flavor,” the website states. Further, because Satzow believes that well cared-for pigs yield premium-quality meat, North Country participates in the Certified Humane program which validates proper care and handling of livestock and allows North Country to use a “Certified Humane” mark on a number of its products. When the pork comes in, North Country butchers hand-trim the meat and cure it in locally sourced maple syrup and spices for several days. Meat bound for sausage is blended with all-natural ingredients such as apples, aged cheddar, wine, or herbs and stuffed into natural casings; North Country does not use fillers, monosodium glutamate, artificial flavors, liquid smoke, or dyes in any of its meat products. The finishing touch is applied in the smokehouse, where German-made smokers transform chunks of Applewood and other high-quality hardwood into “an intense, humid smoke” that permeates the meat for up to 10 hours. North Country’s motto is “food that’s rooted in passion tastes better.” Among the justifications for that assertion, Satzow notes that in February, his company’s Andouille sausage won the North American Meat Association’s (NAMA) 2013 “Hold the Mustard” award at MEATXPO’13, the group’s annual suppliers’ exposition and convention. The award is one heck of a compliment, as it means that a significant percentage of the meat industry professionals attending the Expo’s Gourmet Sausagefest—that is, Satzow’s peers—thought his product was the best of a dozen or so they had tasted that evening. Befitting their position as one of the gold standards of New England’s finest meat processors, North Country Smokehouse is the house purveyor for the James Beard Institute in New York City. Upscale hotels, restaurants, institutions, and cruise lines are the company’s primary clientele, and the public can purchase North Country products through the company’s e-commerce site. “We also have a secondary retail presence through specialty shops throughout New England and the greater Northeast,” Satzow added. “We sell almost exclusively under our own brand [rather than private label]. Retailers who offer our product say it creates velocity for their stores.” A New Value Proposition While many specialty food purveyors might envy North Country’s stellar reputation and elite clientele, Satzow offers one caveat: “We’re only as good as the last batch of product we’ve delivered.” He explained that his firm does not advertise, but builds and maintains its customer base through intensive relationship marketing. “We work directly with chefs, and the key to those relationships is that once you gain a chef’s trust, you gain an extremely loyal customer,” Satzow said. “By the same token, however, if we were to lose that trust because of a quality or safety issue, it is likely we would never get it back.” As particular as he is about the raw materials, ingredients, and processing techniques used in creating North Country products, Satzow has established an aggressive food safety program to protect his legendary brand name. It is noteworthy that the same New England values that have led Satzow to use old-fashioned, higher-cost ingredients and processing methods have also compelled him to pursue leading-edge, money-saving food safety technologies. An Ounce of Prevention Having grown up in the meat industry, Mike Satzow knows that cleaning and sanitizing processing equipment and the overall plant environment only partially solves the food safety equation. Thus, in 2011 he and his staff began researching and evaluating antimicrobial treatments designed for direct contact with food products. The search was challenging, because they needed a treatment that was highly effective at killing pathogens but would not alter their products’ flavor or texture. One treatment that Satzow considered promising was Listex®, a culture of bacteriophages that are effective against Listeria monocytogenes, developed by Micreos Food Safety, Wageningen, The Netherlands. Bacteriophages (or phages for short) are microorganisms that kill only bacteria. Phages are specific to their target bacterial species, and will not affect desirable bacteria in foods (starter cultures, for example), beneficial bacteria in the human gastrointestinal tract, or other useful, non-pathogenic bacteria in the environment. North Country reviewed the supplier’s efficacy data and did some in-plant testing of its own. Satzow also spoke with colleagues at a Canadian food company that was using Listex and had a good experience with it. Listex was approved by Health Canada before the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) green-lighted it for use in U.S. in May, 2011. Per the Code of Federal Regulations (21 CFR 172.785) and Directive 7120.1 from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), “Safe and Suitable Ingredients used in the Production of Meat, Poultry, and Egg Products,” Listex may be applied to the surface of ready-to-eat (RTE) meat and poultry products “to achieve a level of 1 x 107 to 1 x 109 plaque forming units (pfu) per gram of product.” In addition, Listex is GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe), natural, and organic, so it is listed by the Organic Material Review Institute for use in processing of natural and organic foods. “When the USDA approved Listex as a processing aid, we jumped on it,” Satzow remarks. “We felt it was an innovative treatment, and we liked the fact that it is applied topically. It allowed us to improve our food safety standards without compromising key attributes of our product, such as flavor and texture.” Dirk de Meester, Micreos’ business development director, explains that phages do not alter the organoleptic properties of the finished product such as taste, texture and color. Some microbial treatments may be effective against Listeria but usually have undesirable effects on the meat product. Although Listex is an inexpensive processing aid, cost was the least of Satzow’s concerns. “We don’t put a price on food safety,” he said. “We set the highest bar possible for the safety and quality of our products.” Listeria is considered one of the most dangerous food safety threats, due to its high mortality rate—more than 20 percent overall and higher still among the elderly—and its risk to pregnant women, de Meester explained. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of listeriosis cases occur during pregnancy, and newborn babies suffer the most serious effects of infection. Given that any ready-to-eat food product is susceptible to Listeria, the human and financial costs of a potential listeriosis outbreak are unacceptable, especially to a small company such as North Country. Although Listex does not have to appear on product labels because it is classified as a processing aid, Satzow says he does make an effort to educate his customers regarding his company’s no-holds-barred approach to food safety. “Our industry is not known for its transparency, and too many [members of the public] don’t believe the meat industry is doing everything it can to provide the safest possible product,” he said. “We in the industry are partially responsible for that because we don’t explain the complex issues behind ensuring the safety of our products and we don’t educate the consumer as to why we use the chemical or biological interventions that we use.” On the other hand, Satzow admits that his company has experienced pushback from a few customers, “because we did explain that we are using phages and the idea of using them to kill bacteria seemed like science fiction to them.” In fact, he notes, using phages is simply good science. Phages are time-honored products that go back to the days before penicillin was discovered. He says, “Now we use the language, ‘a natural product that changes the DNA of Listeria’.” De Meester further explains that while the history of using phages is well documented, today the field is being revolutionized. “With today’s technology we can actually look on the molecular level and see how phages work against bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes.” ___ The Food Safety News series on processing aids is sponsored by Micreos. Heidi Parsons is a writer, editor, and content manager for print and online media. During her 15+ years in business-to-business publishing, she has covered food processing, institutional foodservice, packaging, pharmaceuticals, and police canine handling.