Water activity and shelf-stable meat products

Water activity and shelf-stable meat products

Water activity. You have to measure it. But you can also profit from it, and this guide will show you how.

Water activity for inspectors

USDA inspectors expect to see water activity as a critical control point (CCP) in HACCP plans, typically during drying and packaging. A water activity below 0.85 is an FSIS regulatory requirement for shelf stability HACCP model. Other moisture measurements, including MPR and moisture content, are “not safety considerations” and aren’t included in HACCP plans. The USDA explains, “Product water activity is best correlated to inhibition of each pathogen’s growth.”

But why?

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Why does lowering water activity inhibit the growth of pathogens?

As the Marianskis so vividly put it in The Art of Making Fermented Sausages, controlling water activity “is like stealing food from the bacteria.” Lowering water activity “locks up” water, ultimately making it impossible for bacteria to reproduce. Let’s look at this in more detail.

Listeria, E. Coli, Staph, and Salmonella are tiny organisms, and like any organism they need water to grow and reproduce. They get that water by sucking it in through the cell membrane that surrounds them. This suction power comes from energy differences between the water outside and the water inside the cell.

It’s easy to see that water moves from high to low energy: picture a pot of boiling water.
Water molecules move (as steam) from the high energy boiling water into the lower energy atmosphere.

Energy differences between a cracker and a piece of cheese are less extreme, but as the cheese sits on the cracker, water molecules will move from the cheese, in which the water has a higher energy, to the cracker, in which the energy is lower.

This principle holds true at the molecular level too, and pathogenic bacteria use it to pull water from the higher water energy environment outside the cell to a lower water energy environment within the cell.

If, however, you lower the water energy outside the cell enough, it causes “osmotic stress”: the cell can’t take up water and becomes dormant. Osmotic stress doesn’t kill pathogenic bacteria, it just makes them unable to reproduce.

Water activity is simply a measure of the energy status of water in a material. You can use it to see if the water in a piece of jerky has enough energy to support a particular strain of bacteria. Different pathogens cope with osmotic stress in different ways. That’s why Staph is able to survive at lower water activities than Listeria.

Lowering water activity doesn’t kill bacteria, but after a kill step like heat treatment, water activity will control bacterial growth, and that’s why it’s the FSIS’s moisture measurement of choice. It can be much more, however. Water activity has significance beyond FSIS, the USDA, and HACCP. It’s a powerful way to measure and understand water in your product.

METER Food | Food Quality Assurance of the Future| METER
Water activity is the most powerful way to measure and understand water in shelf-stable meat products.

Process control with water activity

When you’re drying, water activity is the best way to control your process.

That’s because it directly gets at the three questions you have to answer:

  • Is my product safe?
  • Will consumers like it?
  • Can I make money producing it?

Customer satisfaction: Guaranteeing consistency batch to batch

To satisfy customers, you need to figure out how to consistently deliver the product your customers want.
When you’re drying your product, you have to hit the same drying target time after time. If you’re measuring moisture content, MPR, or some other attribute, you’ll end up chasing your tail.

As you adjust time or temperature, the water activity values respond. And when you taste test your product, you’ll discover that the water activity measurements are highly correlated with jerky texture.

Unlike other moisture measurements, water activity is standards based. Meaning that the measurement you make today can be compared to the one you made last year, or to the one a different operator made. You can compare values from batch to batch, between different lines, and between processing locations. And you can use real-time water activity data to adjust your oven temperature or your baking time.

It also lets you verify ingredient quality coming from suppliers and prove the consistency of your product quality to buyers.

Profitability: Prevent losses from over-drying

In product testing, we found that over-drying jerky is easy to do if you don’t monitor water activity. Even small variations have an effect on quality and profits.

In fact, we found that a small difference in water activity spec was like tossing a quarter into each bag of jerky before shipping. Using water activity to determine when your product is dried correctly can prevent hundreds of thousands of dollars in waste.

By measuring water activity, you can hit the sweet spot-–the point at which your jerky’s water activity is low enough to be safe and high enough to satisfy your customers. Then you can hit that spec every day to guarantee profitability.

Process control with real time data

There are two keys to using water activity as a process control. First, the water activity measurement has to be fast. And second, the data need to be delivered in real or near-real time.

Quick, easy, at the line

Traditional AOAC-approved moisture content measurements are nearly impossible to make during the drying process. And rapid loss on drying isn’t accurate enough. In contrast, chilled mirror dew point and tunable diode laser water activity measurements can both be made at the line in 5 minutes or less.

And if you can microwave a burrito, you can use these instruments to measure water activity to 0.003 aw. No science degree required.

Real time data

Automated data collection is essential for using any measurement as a process control. New technology makes it possible to collect data directly and automatically from water activity meters and other existing instruments. Learn how one manufacturing facility overcame the “nightmare” of manual data collection so they can get the near real-time data they need to monitor and control their oven temperature.

No one right answer

We tested a wide variety of shelf-stable meat products in our lab. These products were controlling water activity using a number of different humectants, including salt, soy sauce, and sugar. Only one contained glycerine. As these products show, there are many strategies you can use to get to a safe water activity.

BrandType% Moisture ContentWater Activity
Hormel (Refrigerated)Italian Sausage Crumbles51.180.9714
Old Wisconsin (refrigerated)Turkey Sausage Snack Slices55.020.9404
Jack Link'sBeef Steak Tender Bites - Teriyaki37.450.8664
Dissmore's Grocery StoreBeef Jerky40.660.8655
Great ValueBeef Steak - Sweet Bourbon BBQ36.070.8524
Jack Link'sChicken Nuggets - Flamin' Buffalo40.510.8344
BridgfordPepperoni (slices)25.890.8344
Great ValueBeef Jerky - original32.370.8336
Primal Spirit Foods, INCPrimal Strips -Hot and Spicy26.040.8309
Jerky DirectNatural Buffalo Jerky - Original24.90.8286
Jack's LinksTurkey Jerky - Original28.520.8221
Oh Boy! ObertoOriginal Beef Jerky27.70.8198
Oh Boy! ObertoBBQ Pork Jerky23.550.8151
Slim JimSlim Jim Twin Pack - Original17.230.7903
Jerky DirectOrganic Beef Jerky - Teriyaki25.590.7899
Sweet baby Ray'sBeef Jerky - Original25.050.7836
Jack Link'sBeef Jerky - Original28.40.7768
MatadorBeef Jerky - Original27.190.7764
Oh Boy! ObertoBacon Jerky18.580.7542
Jack Link'sJerky Chew - Original29.460.733
Tillamook Country SmokerPepperoni Stick - Original11.060.7094
Snack MastersNatural Salmon Jerky - original16.430.7094
Tillamoock Country SmokerBeef Jerky - Old Fashioned20.130.6701
Snack MastersNatural Ahi Tuna Jerky - Original14.740.6069
Tillamook Country SmokerBeef Jerky Slab13.950.5798
Table 1. Water activities of a variety of commercially available shelf-stable meat products

More sophisticated formulation

This article has principally explained the basics of water activity and shelf-stable meats. If you’re interested, you can go much deeper in understanding and controlling moisture in your product. For example, you can:

Learn more about water activity and beef jerky

Dr. Brady Carter discusses how water activity influences the quality and shelf life of beef jerky.

Watch Unlocking the Secrets of Beef Jerky with Water Activity—>

Market snapshot: rating the top jerky brands

We bought jerky from local stores, big chains, and online retailers. We tested old storied brands alongside up-and-comers. We tested brands that produce everything in house and brands that are co-packed at different facilities.

The result? A market snapshot of twelve jerky brands. In this quick 15 minute webinar, Scott Campbell reviews the findings. Learn:

  • which brands achieved a consistent product across the samples we tested.
  • which brands came dangerously close to the safety limits, and why.
  • which brands over-pack—and which ones don’t quite meet the minimum.
  • the projected costs of inconsistency in packaging and drying.

Get the complete picture

Learn everything about how water activity can increase your profit and improve product quality and safety—all in one place.

Download The Food Manufacturer’s Complete Guide to Water Activity—>

Learn how to predict shelf-life using water activity.

Download The Food Manufacturer’s Complete Guide to Shelf Life—>


Marianski, Stanley, and Adam Mariański. The art of making fermented sausages. Bookmagic LLC, 2009.

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The most accurate way to test water activity

This primary method of measuring water activity gives you the best speed and accuracy

Water activity is a powerful formulation tool

Find the best packaging, determine shelf life, model what happens when you vary drying time and temperature

Predict shelf life scientifically–no degree required

Water activity simplifies accelerated shelf life testing. Find out how you can do these tests in-house.

Step by step guide to adding humectants

You can control water activity by adding salt, sugar, soy sauce, and other humectants.