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Are Plant-Based Meats Safer? Scientists Find Mixed Data.

Plant-based meats are seeing a rise in popularity lately. But are they any safer? Scientists found mixed data.

A German study researched plant-based meat consumption in Europe and examined the microbiological status of vegan ground meat products available for sale in Germany.

Plant-Based Meats Are Becoming Increasingly Popular

As a decrease in meat consumption has become more mainstream, plant-based meats have become increasingly popular. In fact, these meat alternatives have shown a 62.2% increase in German consumptions during the evaluation period (2019 to 2021).

People choose to consume plant-based meats as an alternative to meat options for a variety of reason. Some opt for plant-based meats for health reasons. Others have ethical and/or ecological motivations.

The demand for these products has greatly increased the taste and consistency of these products, making them more palatable and accessible to the general public.

Offerings sure have come a long way from the basic black bean burgers of the 2000’s. Nearly every animal-based food has a plant-based analogue.

Want plant-based chicken nuggets?

They exist.

How about plant-based bologna?

That too!

Plant-based dairy, condiments, and so much more are available at most supermarkets.

But are plant-based meats a perfect substitute?

Are Plant-Based Meats a Perfect Substitute?

Traditional meat, like beef and poultry, have very specific cooking requirements due to the risk of harmful microorganism cross-contamination during the processing of the animal. Since plant-based meats do not have this type of cross-contamination risk (intestinal or fecal presence), they should have a lower risk of foodborne illness. Right?

Not necessarily.

While the risk of foodborne illness from cross-contamination is different. It is still a concern.

Here’s what the scientists say.

The Study

In a recent publication of Journal of Consumer Protection and Food Safety, an article called Microbiological status of vegan ground meat products from German retail examined the microbiological status of 10 raw plant-based ground meat products to check for potential contamination.

These sample were from products made from different companies and contained ingredients like oats, pea, soy, and/or wheat. Products were obtained from Kiel (stores in northern Germany) in 2021.

This data was acquired near the end of the product’s “best before date” to get a better grasp on what the consumer may have in their fridges and freezers.

Plant-Based Meat Showed Lower Microbial Load, But Not Sterile

When it comes to foodborne pathogens considered harmful to humans, microbial load was very low in product samples.

Median counts of harmful pathogens were nearly undetectable with maximum counts in the study topping out at 3.0 log 10 colony forming units per gram.

No Listeria monocytogenes was identified in plant-based meat samples; however, another strain of Listeria species was found. Small amounts of Staphylococcus aureus and Bacillus cereus were also found in low quantities. Low levels of enterobacteria and enterococci bacteria were found as well. These were, however, in levels so low they are not generally considered harmful to humans. Particularly because these products are not meant to be consumed raw.

These products are not without some bacteria. It is not sterile.

Bacteria associated with spoilage, on the other hand, were more common.

Spoilage Bacteria Were Identified in Plant-Based Meat Samples

Of the spoilage bacteria discovered in plant-based meat samples, Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) appears to be the major spoilage bacteria identified.

LAB is responsible for souring, gas production in packages, and ropey slime.

Key characteristics of plant-based meats make it vulnerable to spoilage bacteria. High water activity, high amounts of nutrients, and a weakly acidic pH lends to perfect conditions for spoilage bacteria like LAB to grow and thrive.

To prevent these spoilage bacteria from growing in large numbers, keeping the plant-based meat product refrigerated or frozen is imperative.

Spore Forming Bacteria, In Any Quantity Poses a Recontamination Risk

While nearly negligible amounts of certain harmful bacteria have been observed in study samples, even small amounts of spore forming bacteria can cause re-contamination.

These spores likely originate from the raw materials used to make the plant-based meats. Soy, wheat, and pea ingredients may be heat treated through thermoplastic extrusion. This heat step likely kills most potential pathogens present from the raw ingredients; however spores can remain in the product.

These spores remain dormant through the production and extrusion processes used to make these plant-based meats. When the spores find themselves in ideal conditions, they reactivate and can become potentially infectious.

Potential Human Error

Cooked plant-based meats often do not offer the same consumer cues as convention meats. It isn’t easy to judge whether or not the product has been sufficiently heated. Unlike most meats, the color of the product does not usually change.

Even when cooking conventional meats, an instant-read food thermometer is necessary to ensure that internal temperatures reach a safe level. The United States Department of Agriculture recommends reheating leftovers to an internal temperature of 165 °F. In fact, most previously cooked food is indicated at this suggested internal temperature.

There is no clear guidance on this type of product, so the consumer must rely on product details listed on the packaging to reheat the food safely.

Plant-Based Meats Need More Attention

Are plant-based meats potentially safer than their conventional meat counterparts? Specifically with respect to microbiological contamination?

The data leans toward a fuzzy ‘yes.’ However, it isn’t foolproof or a perfect system.

Plant-based meats need more attention.

Despite the rise is consumption, potential regulations on plant-based meats are lacking attention. Regulations for actual meat do not apply to plant-based meat, however certain risks merit at least some oversight.

“In general, plant-based meats have been less investigated with regard to food safety aspects.”

For now, these products fall into the broad category of human consumption foods.

Should they have their own category? Is it necessary?

Stay in Touch with Make Food Safe!

If you’d like to know more about food safety topics in the news, like Are Plant-Based Meats Safer? Scientists Find Mixed Data, check out the Make Food Safe Blog. We regularly update trending topics, foodborne infections in the news, recalls, and more! Stay tuned for quality information to help keep your family safe, while The Lange Law Firm, PLLC strives to Make Food Safe!

By: Heather Van Tassell (contributing writer, non-lawyer)

Heather Van Tassell

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