What Do We Know About the Food Safety Measures of Plant Based Proteins? by Barry Parsons - Paster Training

What Do We Know About the Food Safety Measures of Plant Based Proteins? by Barry Parsons

Mark Barnes, one of Paster Training's retail food safety instructors and an experienced chef, wrote a post regarding plant-based products. These products have been around for many years, but have recently exploded into food service due to the improved texture, eye appeal, and appreciable improvement in taste. One company, in particular, worked on gaining approval of a protein color additive from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The company found that heme is what makes meat taste like meat and draw people to the flavor of the meat.

Soy leghemoglobin was created from part of the soybean plant to recreate the flavor and appearance of heme. The company submitted studies to the FDA. On August 1, 2019, the FDA published its final rule that placed soy leghemoglobin on the safe list (GRAS) of color additives. You can find it here

There were also questions if the new color additive was considered an allergen. Based off of the research article the FDA stated that:

The allergenicity of soy leghemoglobin protein and residual yeast proteins was addressed in safety studies that included digestibility assays in simulated gastric fluid, bioinformatic analyses, and animal feeding studies. The totality of evidence presented in the color additive petition indicated that there is a reasonable certainty that soy leghemoglobin protein and P. pastoris yeast proteins do not pose any unique allergenicity risks when consumed [emphasis added]

The FDA also stated that:

Furthermore, under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA), which added section 403(w) to the FD&C Act (21 U.S.C. 343(w)), the label of a food that contains an ingredient that is or contains protein from a “major food allergen” must declare the presence of the allergen in the manner described by the law. As stated in the findings of FALCPA in section 202(2)(A), the major food allergens identified in the FD&C Act account for over 90 percent of all documented food allergies in the United States and represent foods that are likely to result in life-threatening reactions. Because soybeans are identified as a major food allergen, foods that contain soy leghemoglobin must be labeled accordingly. Yeast protein has not been identified as a major food allergen.

When looking at several plant-based meatless products, such as a chicken style breast, the manufacturer states that the product should be heated to 165°F. A meatless beef style crumble is to be heated to 165°F and Beyond meat, beef crumbles says to have a pan on medium heat and add frozen crumbles then stir for 3 minutes. The packaging does not provide a temperature. The Beyond burger recommends cooking the plant-based product about 4 minutes on each side but always cook to an internal temperature of 165°F. Finally, the impossible burger states to cook their 1/4 lb. patty 5-6 minutes on each side and it is fully cooked at 160°F.

I went onto the Impossible website and the tips and tricks first say to have your cooking surface well-oiled and heat to medium-high. The site states that the Impossible burger cooks like ground beef so when cooking a burger, only cook it for 2-3 minutes on each side and there is no internal temperature provided.

For Retail

The other area I wanted to look into was the proper cooking temperature of this product in the retail foodservice arena. According to the FDA Model Food Code of 2017 in 3-401.13, plant food that is cooked and held is to be heated to 135°F. A burger could be held, but is suggested on various web sites to serve it soon after cooking. According to the code, we cook meat hamburgers to 155°F for 17 seconds to achieve regulatory compliance. We understand that both meat and non-meat burgers need Time & Temperature to Control for Safety (TCS) and the plant-based burgers are a TCS food due to their water activity (aw) being slightly less than beef but with the acidity (pH) being just below natural [1]. The recent research paper suggests that due to the lower pH of 5.48 of the beef burger versus the 6.6 of the plant burger increases the growth potential of the pathogens studied[2]. Finally, the paper states that further research is needed on the behavior of the pathogens in plant burgers. There is a great deal of information with the study and it is obvious there needs to be more information gathered before putting this topic to bed.

As stated earlier, current regulations state to cook plant food to 135°F when holding. The research study appears to suggest that higher temperatures are potentially needed. I called the Department of Agriculture in my area and was told they are also questioned about plant-based food and do not have an answer. They reached out to the Retail Food Specialist at FDA. The response was “until changes are made to the food code or other guidance becomes available, commercially processed food would be heated to 135°F for hot holding or since veggie burgers are vegetable/plant foods they would be heated to 135°F for hot holding. If vegetable/plant food is cooked to order and served immediately, it could be heated to any temperature”.

I am sure there will be a lot more discussion on this topic and it appears there needs to be additional time and temperature cooking studies performed on the plant-based foods of today. Until then, one can follow the manufacturers cooking instructions for the consumer on the manufacturer's packaging or the FDA’s minimum internal cooking temperature prescribed in the current Model Food Code. 

This blog is not intended to be a substitute for the user's judgement and common sense. Any errors are unintentional.

[1] Luchansky, J. B., Shoyer, B. A., Jung, Y., Shane, L. E., Osoria, M., & Porto-Fett, A. C. (2020, February 13). Viability of Shiga TOxin-Producting Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Listeria monocytogenes within Plant verses Beef Burgers during Cold Storage and following Pan Frying. Journal of Food Protection, 83(3,20), 434-442. doi:https://doi.org/10.4315/0362-028X.JFP-19-449

[2] Ibid

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