Methods of processing and preservation of meat

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Meat was originally processed to preserve it, but since the various procedures cause so many changes in texture and flavour it is also a means of adding variety to the diet. Processing also provides scope to mix the less desirable parts of the carcass with lean meat and in addition is a means of extending meat supplies by including other foodstuffs such as cereal in the product.

Meat is a highly perishable products and soon becomes unfit to eat and possibly dangerous to health through microbial growth, chemical change and breakdown by endogenous enzymes.

These processes can be curtailed by reducing the temperature sufficiently to slow down or inhibit the growth of micro-organisms, by heating to destroy organisms and enzymes (cooking, canning), or by removal of water by drying or osmotic control (binding the water with salt or other substances so that it becomes unavailable to the organisms). It is also possible to use chemicals to inhibit growth and, very recently, ionising radiation (however, the last is not allowed in some countries).

Traditional methods that have been used for thousands of years involve drying in wind and sun, salting and smoking. Canning dates from early in the 19th century and allows food to be stored for many years since it is sterilised and protected from recontamination.

Chilling and Freezing

While mechanical refrigeration is a modern process it is known that the ancient Romans kept food cool with ice. "Chilled" meat is usually stored at temperatures around 1C to +4C when it keeps well for several days. Provided that the meat is kept very cool(1C to 0C) and that slaughter and meat cutting are carried out under strict hygienic conditions, modern packaging techniques including storage under carbon dioxide or nitrogen or in vacuum can extend this period to about 10 weeks.

Chilling at temperatures very close to the freezing point of meat, -15C, diminishes the dangers of most pathogens and slows the growth of spoilage organisms; growth of some organisms, moulds, virtually ceases at -10C.

Most pathogens (Salmonella, Staphylococcus species and Clostridium perfringens) are inhibited by cooling but Listeria monocytogenes can grow at + 2C, some Salmonella species at +5C and Campylobaner at +7C.

Non-pathogens include Pseudomonas species which predominate on the exposed surface of chilled meat and Laaobacilli on vacuum-packed meat.

Freezing - commercially at -29C and domestically at -18C - is now a standard method of preserving for periods of 1-2 years but there is some deterioration of eating quality compared with fresh or chilled meat.

However, there are problems in chilling and freezing meat. If it is cooled too rapidly below 10C before the pH of the muscle has fallen below a value of about 6, the muscle fibres contract (cold shortening) and the meat is tough when cooked. This problem applies more to small animals, such as lamb, which cool down rapidly. The modern procedure is to cool the carcass to 10-15C ("conditioning") and to hold that temperature for a few hours until the pH has fallen to 6. Beef carcasses can be suspended in such a way as to exert a pull on certain muscles to prevent contraction. Another method is to apply electrical stimulation to the carcass after slaughter (low volt) or after evisceration (high volt) for 2-4 minutes to bring down the pH rapidly.

Another problem can arise during thawing of pre-rigor frozen meat when the muscle contracts and exudes a substantial part of its weight as tissue fluids (thaw rigor) (Lawrie 1991). Clearly, freezing of meat is not a straightforward procedure and calls for certain expertise. Only post-rigor meat should be frozen.

Nutritional Changes by Freezing

Meat is frozen without any prior treatment, unlike vegetables which have to undergo a preliminary blanching process to destroy enzymes involving considerable loss of water-soluble nutrients. So there is little or no loss of nutrients during the freezing procedure, nor, so far as there is reliable evidence, during frozen storage - apart from vitamin E.

Proteins are unchanged during frozen storage but fats are susceptible to rancidity. Pork and poultry meat are more susceptible since they are richer in unsaturated fatty acids than other meats, and comminuted meat is also very susceptible to rancidity because of the large surface area which is accessible to oxygen.

The vitamin E is damaged because the first products of fat rancidity, hydroperoxides, are stable at the low temperature and oxidise the vitamin. At room temperature they break down to harmless peroxides, aldehydes and ketones, so that vitamin E is more stable at room temperature than during frozen storage.

The losses incurred in frozen meat mostly take place when the meat is thawed, and juices are exuded containing soluble proteins, vitamins and minerals. This is termed "dripthaw" and the amount depends on the length of time of ageing (time between slaughter and freezing), whether frozen as carcass or meat cuts, conditions of freezing and speed of thawing; it varies between 1% and 10% of the weight of the meat and is usually about 5%.

There is some loss of nutrients when the meat is cooked after thawing; results published in the scientific literature tend to measure the combined losses from the original fresh meat to the final cooked product. Unfortunately the results vary so much that it is not possible to draw conclusions.

It must be emphasised that the variations are largely due to difficulties in analysis of the B vitamins, and to differences in conditions and methodology - even results from the same laboratories are inconsistent. This is illustrated very clearly by results published from one group of investigators who examined pork loin after freezing and storage at -12C and 24C and subsequent cooking at regular intervals over one year for changes in thiamin, riboflavin and pyridoxine (Mikkelsen, Rasmussen and Zinck 1984). Despite constant experimental conditions analyses at two monthly intervals showed wide fluctuations, especially for thiamin, which were attributed by the authors to difficulties in analytical methods.

It was tentatively concluded after storage at -12C and cooking that about 90% of the thiamin was retained but no firm conclusions could be drawn about other vitamins. No conclusions could be drawn about storage at the lower temperature!

For riboflavin about 90% was retained at -12C and 100% after storage at -24C and cooking, although these results were also variable.

For pyridoxine 80% was retained when stored at -12C and cooked but the results were erratic.

In the same report ground beef was examined only after 1 year storage and showed 80% retention of thiamine, 85% of riboflavin and 100% of pyridoxine at both temperatures.

A summary of earlier work (Fennema 1975) suggested that losses during freezing and storage of meat and poultry for 6 - 12 months at -18C but excluding subsequent cooking, ranged between zero and 30% for thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and pyridoxine. A survey of frozen meals analysed after freezing, storage and cooking reported losses of up to 85% of thiamin, 55% of vitamin A, 33% vitamin E, 25% niacin and pyridoxine (De Ritter et al 1974).

Little research in this area has been reported in recent years and this limited number of reports illustrates the difficulty of making even generalisations about the stability of vitamins in frozen meat products.

Processing - General Aspects

Processed meats are products in which the properties of fresh meat have been modified by the use of procedures such as mincing, grinding or chopping, salting and curing, addition of seasonings and other food materials, and, in many instances heat treatment. Most of these processes extend the shelf life of meat. Their manufacture, in most instances, depends on the ability of the mixture to retain water since they are emulsions of protein, fat and water.

Meat Content of Processed Meats

Where there is a demand for consumer protection it is often necessary to legislate to control the meat content of products that include other food ingredients.

Even if no additives are included meat products can contain variable amounts of lean muscle tissue, fat and connective tissue. A method of assessing the apparent meat content of a raw product is by determination of the total nitrogen content on a fat-free basis and multiplying by an average conversion factor, corrections being applied for the contributions from cereals or other nitrogen-containing ingredients e.g. 3.45 for pork products, 3.55 for beef, 3.7 for chicken (3.9 for breast of chicken and 3.6 for dark meat), 3.45 for ox liver, 3.65 for pig liver (3.55 for liver of unknown origin), 2.7 for kidney, 3.2 for blood and 3.0 for tongue. There are no agreed factors for conversion of nitrogen for cooked, cured or processed meat and the apparent meat content of such products is expressed approximately in terms of "raw meat equivalents" (Egan, Kirk and Sawyer 1981).

Other methods used for legal control purposes refer the composition of meat products directly to the nitrogen or protein content of the dry, fat-free product or to the water: nitrogen ratio. Lean meat can be determined directly by measurement of 3-methyl histidine which is characteristic of meat protein but if large amounts of fillers and binders are present the method is unreliable.

The proximate composition of some processed meat products is given in Tables 216, United Kingdom products, and 2-18, United States products; in both instances the composition is regulated so these data are not universally applicable and serve only as examples.


Curing was originally a term applied to preservation in general but is now restricted to preservation with salt (sodium chloride) and sodium or potassium nitrite or nitrate or a mixture of these two salts. The nitrate serves as a reservoir for nitrite - the active compound - since bacteria in the curing solution form it from the nitrate.

The use of salt is one of the oldest methods of preserving meat since at concentrations greater than 4% in the aqueous phase it inhibits the growth of most spoilage organisms. To function as a complete preservative the salt concentration would need to be around 17%, at which levels the product would be unpalatable. In most cured meat products the salt concentration is between 2.5 and 5% and the nitrite inhibits the growth of other organisms. Nitrite also reacts with proteins when heated to form compounds (called Perigotype factors) that inhibit the development of spores of Clostridium botulinum, the cause of botulism, the most serious type of food poisoning.

Additionally, nitrite is broken down to nitric oxide, which reacts with the red colouring matter in muscle, myoglobin to form deep-red nitrosomyoglobin. As the protein is denatured, this is converted, rapidly when heated and more slowly otherwise, into a pink compound which is responsible for the typical colour of cooked ham, canned luncheon meat, franfurters and raw ham, dry sausage, etc.

The early curing procedures were lengthy and recent developments have led to a reduction in the time required. For example instead of simply immersing the meat in brine it is first injected with the curing solution and the process can be completed in 1 - 2 weeks. Thin slices of meat such as bacon can be cured in a few hours, and the processing time can be reduced to a few minutes if heated and if the cure is completed in the final package.

Animal experiments have shown potential risk from nitrosamines formed from nitrite but, as discussed in Chapter 3, the amounts present do not appear to be harmful to human beings.

The addition of sodium ascorbate to the pickling brine accelerates the curing process because of its reducing capacity and allows smaller amounts of nitrite to be used, so there is less residual nitrite in the meat which reduces the possibilities of the formation of nitrosamines. Residual ascorbic acid has an antioxidant effect in stabilising the colour and preventing rancidity.

Tumbling and Massaging

A new technique was developed in the 1960's to accelerate the penetration of salt. Pieces of meat are injected with the curing salt solution or chopped meat immersed in it and then mechanically shaken - "tumbled". Solutions of 2-8% salt are used, sometimes with the addition of polyphosphate, when there is some extraction of water-soluble protein, mainly myosin. The effect is to improve the water-holding capacity of the meat by reaction between the salt and the structural proteins, aided by the polyphosphate. The extracted proteins set to a strong gel on heating and so bind together the pieces of meat, which can then be shaped or sliced.

The term "massaging" is applied to a relatively gentle mechanical treatment while "tumbling" is a more vigorous action.


Meat has been treated with smoke from the earliest days - traditionally over a wood fire and more recently by producing smoke from wood sawdust in a generator and conducting the smoke over the meat.

The substances deposited on the meat contribute to the flavour and appearance but with ordinary, light smoking the preservative effect is limited and the product has to be stored refrigerated.

Intensive smoking does prolong shelf life both by heavier deposition of preservatives and by the drying effect of the hot air but it has a detrimental effect on flavour. Consequently preservation by smoking is regarded as an emergency measure when other methods cannot be used.

A modern development making use of the flavouring effect is to use an aqueous solution of the constituents of smoke which reduces the amount of strongly flavoured and other unwanted substances.

Processed meat products

Common Cured Meat Products

The commonest cured products are sausages, bacon, pork shoulder, ham, luncheon meat; any type of meat can be cured either as whole cuts or after comminution.

Bacon is cured pork, in various countries traditionally made from specified parts of the pig but it can be made from any part. There are modifications of the process including so called sweet cure with added sugar (0.25%) and mild cure with less salt.

Bacon can vary greatly in the amount of fat and there are considerable differences between the various published figures; those shown in Table 2-16 are from the same source and so are comparable with one another.

Ham is the cured product of the upper leg and buttock of the pig and differs from gammon only in that the latter is cut from the side of bacon after it has been cured. It is stable when raw after a certain period of maturation but is often cooked to pasteurisation temperature, 70C, or it may be canned at pasteurising temperature. It may be smoked as an additional means of preservation and flavouring.

Typical analysis of canned ham per 100 g: 65-72 g water, 18 g protein, 5-12 g fat, 0.5-0.8 MJ, 1100-1250 mg sodium, 1.2-2.7 mg iron, 0.2 mg copper, 2 mg zinc, 0.5 mg thiamin, 0.2-0.25 mg riboflavin, 4 mg niacin, 0.2 mg vitamin B6, and may have residual ascorbic acid 10-60 ma.


There are some 800 types of sausage made of comminuted or chopped meat of various kinds, seasoned with salt and spices, often mixed with cereal and packed into natural casings (consisting of the connective and muscle tissue of animal intestines) or made of cellulose, collagen or synthetic materials. There are six main types of sausage - fresh, smoked, cooked, smoked and cooked, semi-dry and dry.

Frankfurters, Bologna, Polish and Berliner sausages are generally made from beef, pork and pork fat comminuted with the addition of curing salts and are smoked and cooked. Thuringer, soft salami, mortadella, and soft cervelat are cooked and semi-dry; pepperoni, chorizos, dry salami and dry cervelat are slowly dried to a hard texture without cooking. The nutrient content of a number of products is given in Table 2-18. There are several variants of each type of sausage; for example, a US table of food composition (Watt and Merrill 1975) includes six types of Frankfurters, namely all meat, with non-fat dried milk with cereal and with both these additions, also raw and canned.

Table 2-18 includes two figures from Great Britain which differ considerably from the US figures. These differences can be attributed to variations in composition and method of analysis, and serve to illustrate the approximate nature of any tables of nutrient contents of processed meat products. A major reason for the difference in thiamin content in some comminuted meat products between US and UK tables, is the use of a preservative in UK, namely sulphur dioxide, which destroys most of the thiamin.

Liver sausage contains 10-20% liver and in many cases other edible offals. Blood sausage contains 10-20% whole blood with nitrite salt (not precooked). Other components are precooked meat, edible offals, fatty tissue (cooked sufficiently to separate fat with a low melting point) and pigskin. This type of sausage has a firm consistency due to swollen connective tissue and gelatinized collagen.

Fermented sausages are dry sausages including salami, dry pork and beef sausages and summer sausages, that have been subjected to bacterial fermentation. Meat from a variety of animals may be used, including camel, donkey and horse but rarely mutton, goat or venison. Only well-chilled or frozen meat is used and a temperature of -2 to +5C maintained during chopping to facilitate comminuting of lean and fatty tissues to the particle size desired and to avoid deposition of fat drops in the batter. Added salt prevents the growth of unwanted micro-organisms and extracts salt-soluble proteins to form a protein gel which binds the pieces of meat together. The bacteria originate from the natural flora of the meat and the environment although starter cultures of Micrococcus, Pediococcus cerevisiae, etc., are sometimes used.

During the slow, prolonged fermentation the pH falls to between 4.8 and 5.4 then the product is dried and may be smoked. Fermented sausage is not cooked and preservation depends on the high acidity and high salt content toegther with the low water content.


Comminuted products such as sausages and luncheon meats are based on lean meat, which, technologically, provides water-holding and meat-binding capacity, with the addition of fatty meats and, sometimes, organ meats. The amount of these is limited otherwise the products have an unattractive soft texture and high shrinkage on cooking.

The ingredients include cereals and potato starch, termed fillers, which also serve to bulk out the supply of meat products ("meat extenders"). Other ingredients include a number of substances which have considerable water-holding and binding capacity ("binders"). These include egg or egg yolk blood plasma, skim milk powder, caseinates, soya isolates, wheat gluten, whey protein and dehydrated products derived from various vegetable proteins (soybean, safflower, corn, peanut and pea protein) and their binding properties depend on their ability to form irreversible gels on mild heating which serve to hold together the small pieces of meat.

It is not posssible to generalise about the nutritional value of products of such variable composition.

Other Comminuted Products

These are made from chopped (minced, ground) meat and fat and usually include meat from various parts of the animal including trimmings. In specific products organ meats are also used (Table 2 - 17). Some tissues can be included only in restricted amounts because their texture can adversely affect the product.

Other ingredients are included for the purposes of ekeing out meat supplies or for their capacity to bind the minced pieces (See Additives later) and seasoning.

Seasoning is a comprehensive term for ingredients intended to improve flavour such as salt, pepper, spices, herbs and vegetables. Spices commonly used include cinnamon, cassia, clove, ginger, mace, nutmeg, paprika, cardamom, coriander and mustard; herbs include sage, savory, bay leaves, thyme and rosemary; onions and garlic are also used.

Liver and blood have a pronounced colour and flavour and can be included in comminuted meat products only in limited amounts (15-50% of the total) depending on the local acceptability or may be used in specific liver or blood sausages.

Pates can be included with comminuted products since they are made from coarsely or finely chopped meats, precooked and seasoned, and some are cured with salt, nitrite and phosphate.

Luncheon Meat

This is the name given to several products made from finely chopped meat and fat with the addition of cereal and water, preserved by the addition of salt and nitrite and by heating.

Although the nutrient content is very variable a typical analysis of a canned product of this type, per 100 g is:- 5 g water, 13 g protein, 27 g fat (10 g saturated, 12g monounsturated, 3 g polyunsaturated, 70 g cholesterol), 1.3 MJ, 1000 mg sodium, 1 mg iron, 0.3 mg copper, 2 mg zinc, 0.07 mg B1, 1.8 mg nicotinic acid, 1 mg B12.

Corned Beef

This was originally a by-product from the manufacture of meat extract when it was the only meat product that could be shipped from South America before the introduction of refrigerated transport. The latter is made by hot water extraction of the low quality meat from animals that have taken several years on relatively poor pasture to reach suitable size so is relatively rich in connective tissue (as well as in muscle extractives). The meat is coarsely chopped and immersed in hot water to extract the solubles; the exhausted meat is cured by the addition of coarse grains of salt ("corns") and nitrite and canned, often with the addition of fat. It has an extremely long shelf- life and used to play a major role in military rations and in expeditions.

Other meats such as mutton can be treated similarly and some modern processes use unextracted beef.

In the United States the term "corned beef" is applied to what is elsewhere termed "salt beef" i.e. cured whole beef.

Since corned beef is made from extracted meat it is low in water-soluble vitamins, containing per 100 g only a trace of thiamin, 2.5 mg nicotinic acid, 0.2 mg riboflavin, 2 mg B12, 3 mg iron, 0.25 mg copper, 6 mg zinc, together with 950 mg sodium and 60 g water, 26 g protein, 12 g fat and supplying 0.9 Ml (220 kcal).


Patties made from minced meat have become popular world-wide through the agency of international fast-food outlets. These were originally hamburgers made from beef with the name derived from the Hamburger sausage but may be made from any meat and "muttonburgers" are marketed in regions where beef is not eaten.

The meat content varies from 100% including about 20% fat, to 80% or less with various additions of cereals, onion and water. Since the pattie is raw it is stored frozen.

Typical composition per 100 g raw hamburgers made from 90% meat is;- 56 g water, 15 g protein, 20 g fat (10 g saturated, 9 g monounsaturated, 1 g polyunsaturated, 100 mg cholesterol), 1.1 Ml, 600 mg sodium, 2.5 mg iron, 0.25 mg copper, 3 mg zinc, 0.04 mg B1, 0.2 mg B2, 4 mg nicotinic acid, 0.2 mg B6, 1 ug B12, 1 mg folate, 0.4 mg pantothenate.

Frying causes a small loss of water, about 5%, and a greater loss of fat depending on the method used - whether under a grill, on a heated surface or over a direct flame. Other nutrients, including protein, are proportionately increased.

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