Due to health benefits, grape seed extract has become more and more popular. Cheaper plant extracts, for example peanut skin extract, show very similar results with chromatographic methods, and therefore adulteration of grape seed extract may remain undetected. The American Botanical Council’s Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program released a laboratory guidance document that reviews analytical methods for detecting adulteration of grape seed extract with proanthocyanidin-rich extracts from other botanical sources.
This month I had the pleasure of interviewing Neshat Soofi, president of JIT Experts Hive, for the Women in Food Safety Column. She shared some of her inspirational experiences working with multicultural teams and companies, and how she eventually became an entrepreneur, launching her own business. “As food safety experts, our primary job is to minimize the risk of contamination in food and protect consumer health and safety. Of course, there are other aspects of our job such as contributing to the profitable growth of companies we work for. Sometimes we get caught in conflict situations with a lot of pressure on us. Most of the time it comes down to assessing risk in uncertain situations and with limited information. Even food safety situations are not black and white. To make the right decision we need to assess the risk-taking multiple factors into consideration. One thing that always helped me was to remember why I was hired and that my reason for being in a company was to minimize risk to the consumers,” says Soofi. “Being a food safety professional also helped me understand business holistically, since as a food safety lead you have to work with many functions in a company, from sourcing to customer service, marketing and sales. As part of my career path, I even worked in different functions that provided me with different perspectives of business. This knowledge helped me be a better product safety and quality leader, and later helped me set up my own business, which provides consultation and expert knowledge in many areas of business.”
Join Women in Food Safety for a special episode on November 5 about career development and mentorship during the 2020 Food Safety Virtual Conference SeriesSoofi was born and raised in Iran and has lived in Canada and the United States for the past 30 years. She has more than 25 years of experience in product safety, quality and development working for small to large companies like Target, Cargill and Multifoods (Pillsbury). After working with some of the largest corporations, she decided to join start-up company “Brandless” to build their product safety, quality and integrity programs from scratch. After three years working in a fast-paced, autonomous environment, she started her own business called JIT Experts Hive. She leveraged her broad and diverse background to fill a gap in the market, connecting like-minded and purpose-driven hands-on experts to companies in need of those expertise in a just in time fashion. Connecting knowledge to innovation. The mission of JIT Experts Hive is to help accelerate the growth of CPG companies in food, supplement, CBD, cosmetic/beauty and household industries by providing just-in-time expertise.
Working in consumer-packaged goods (CPG) industries including food for more than 25 years, Soofi felt fortunate with what she has learned over the years. “I learned that in order to grow and succeed, I needed to step outside my comfort zone. Every job I took was very different from the previous one. Even going so far as stepping completely out of food safety and working in other areas of business like leading data governance and business intelligence, or getting into new product categories such as personal care, cosmetics and even household cleaners. What I found was that these learnings and experiences made me a better product safety and quality expert and leader. Product safety jobs are quite unique; one is responsible for results of work of many functions with no direct control over them. The ability to understand other functions, their priorities and pressures and look at situations through different lenses helps one assess the risks better and come up with better solutions. One can also articulate the risks and benefits in a way that would be more compelling and effective,” Soofi explained.
With a unique multicultural background and experience working in large corporations leading teams in different countries, Soofi advises that when working with multicultural teams one should: Learn about each country’s work ethics, how to address someone (i.e., first name or with titles), what is the appropriate way of greeting and interacting during and after work hours, and the level and importance of hierarchy.
Tactical details are also important: Be cognizant of time zone differences and schedule meetings on a rotating time zone basis; in virtual meetings/calls and in the absence of getting the non-verbal cues and body language, pay more attention to pauses, silence and the importance of clear communication so things are not lost in translation or misinterpreted.
Last but not least, remember: Never assume, and never stereotype. Each person is unique and may be very different from the stereotype in their countries, so don’t go with assumptions. And if in doubt, ask, because it not only helps you understand their preference, but also helps break the ice.
As a female leader, Soofi has also learned a lot from her multicultural female team members. “As Cheryl Sandberg has mentioned in her book ‘Lean In’, women generally have a harder time taking a seat at the table! In some cultures this feeling is even stronger due to cultural factors. What I found for myself and many great talents in my teams was that gradually pushing ourselves out of comfort zones by taking challenging assignments, leading projects and teams and being the voice and face of the team was a great way to build confidence in yourself and take your rightful seat at the table. Don’t be afraid of failure and do not internalize it if it happens. Having a mentor to help you in this journey by providing advice but also constructive criticism and course correction when needed is key to success,” Soofi says.
Another aspect is that as a woman, building strong negotiation skills is a must. “Whether negotiating for a new position, salary, etc., do your homework, know where the bottom line and the absolute non-negotiable variable are for you, but also understand where you can compromise. At the same time, do not be afraid of hearing “no” and do not take things personally.”
Laura Gutierrez Becerra: What would be your number one piece of advice to young women professionals who are planning to be leaders in food safety?
Neshat Soofi: Don’t be shy! Reach out to experienced professionals in the industry; there are plenty of higher-level peers who will be willing to help you. A good mentor is priceless. I have a personal story to share: About four years ago, I got a message through LinkedIn from someone who has just moved to the US. I had not met her before, and she asked me if we could meet and talk about the food industry and jobs in the US. We met and I happily shared my experience and advice in seeking jobs, helped her with a mock interview and resume, and anything else I could. Four years later, she is a quality assurance manager in one of the largest food companies here in the United States. We have stayed great friends, and I am so proud of her resilience and success.
Gutierrez Becerra: Is there an unforgettable story during your career journey that still has an impact?
Soofi: When I was working in Canada in food manufacturing, I was called to the processing line one day regarding a potential foreign object issue. I stopped the line to find out the root cause. At the same time there was a lot of pressure to resume production since this was an order for a major account. Under pressure, I agreed to start the line with adding inspection and controls that I knew in my guts were not sufficient. The products were shipped, and we started to get a series of complaints about foreign objects in the product. Thank god there was no injury, but as you can imagine, that major account was not happy with the situation and we lost the business with them. It was a major loss and my boss from the head office came for a visit to our plant. I tried to explain why I had allowed the production to resume and release the product because we couldn’t have a late shipment. In response he asked me one question, “What’s your job title?” I responded, “I am the food safety and quality assurance manager.” His comment was, “I am glad you remember. Your first priority is minimizing risk to consumers and company reputation. I am sure you took that into consideration when you okayed the release, [but] if not, please remember in future”. I expected him to be angry and was even prepared to be fired, but his quiet answer was more impactful. This is a lesson I remember to this day—there are rarely black and white situations in life, even in food safety. The key is to assess the risk and not let outside pressures impact your assessment and decisions.
Gutierrez Becerra: What do you hope to see in the next three to five years in terms of development and mentoring women in the industry?
Soofi: I see a need for networks like yours to connect new industry professionals regardless of gender to the more veteran experts on an as-needed basis—almost like a hotline, where food safety professionals can ask for advice and mentoring in a confidential and safe environment. This is becoming easier in a post-COVID era where virtual connections are becoming more of a norm than exception, and people from all over the world are learning to connect in ways that were not easy and personally comfortable in the past.
I also want to see a better appreciation of the importance of food safety programs in organizations, especially at leadership levels. We need to better articulate what additional values (efficiencies, better cultures, productivity, etc.) a great food safety program brings to the organization. I want food safety functions to be at the leadership tables and part of developing company strategies and directions. We can’t be only remembered when bad things happen and in the middle of a crisis. Food safety and quality leaders should be at the forefront of organizational leadership, all the way to the C-suite.
Turkish delight, baklava, halva, biscotti, mortadella, ice cream and many more delicious foods from around the world contain pistachios, which are pricey and therefore a popular target for food fraud. A recent article describes a method to detect spinach and green peas that often are used as a pistachio replacement due to their color and low price. The technique combines NIR (near infrared) spectroscopy and chemometric analysis and provides a method that is precise, fast and non-destructive.
During the production process, physical hazards can contaminate food products, making them unfit for human consumption. According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the leading cause of food recalls is foreign material contamination. This includes 20 of the top 50, and three of the top five, largest food recalls issued in 2019.
As methods for detecting foreign materials in food have improved over time, you might think that associated recalls should be declining. To the contrary, USDA FSIS and FDA recalls due to foreign material seem to be increasing. During the entire calendar year of 2018, 28 of the 382 food recalls (7.3%) in the USDA’s recall case archive were for foreign material contamination. Through 2019, this figure increased to approximately 50 of the 337 food recalls (14.8%). Each of these recalls may have had a significant negative impact on those brands and their customers, which makes foreign material detection a crucial component of any food safety system.
The FDA notes, “hard or sharp foreign materials found in food may cause traumatic injury, including laceration and perforation of tissues of the mouth, tongue, throat, stomach and intestine, as well as damage to the teeth and gums”. Metal, plastic and glass are by far the most common types of foreign materials. There are many ways foreign materials can be introduced into a product, including raw materials, employee error, maintenance and cleaning procedures, and equipment malfunction or breakage during the manufacturing and packaging processes.
The increasing use of automation and machinery to perform tasks that were once done by hand are likely driving increases in foreign matter contamination. In addition, improved manufacturer capabilities to detect particles in food could be triggering these recalls, as most of the recalls have been voluntary by the manufacturer.
To prevent foreign material recalls, it is key to first prevent foreign materials in food production facilities. A proper food safety/ HACCP plan should be introduced to prevent these contaminants from ending up in the finished food product through prevention, detection and investigation.
Food manufacturers also have a variety of options when it comes to the detection of foreign objects from entering food on production lines. In addition to metal detectors, x-ray systems, optical sorting and camera-based systems, novel methods such as infrared multi-wavelength imaging and nuclear magnetic resonance are in development to resolve the problem of detection of similar foreign materials in a complex background. Such systems are commonly identified as CCPs (Critical Control Points)/preventive controls within our food safety plans.
But what factors should you focus on when deciding between different inspection systems? Product type, flow characteristics, particle size, density and blended components are important factors in foreign material detection. Typically, food manufacturers use metal and/or x-ray inspection for foreign material detection in food production as their CCP/preventive control. While both technologies are commonly used, there are reasons why x-ray inspection is becoming more popular. Foreign objects can vary in size and material, so a detection method like an x-ray that is based on density often provides the best performance.
Regardless of which detection system you choose, keep in mind that FSMA gives FDA the power to scientifically evaluate food safety programs and preventive controls implemented in a food production facility, so validation and verification are crucial elements of any detection system.
It is also important to remember that a key element of any validation system is the equipment validation process. This process ensures that your equipment operates properly and is appropriate for its intended use. This process consists of three steps: Installation qualification, operational qualification and performance qualification.
Installation qualification is the first step of the equipment validation process, designed to ensure that the instrument is properly installed, in a suitable environment free from interference. This process takes into consideration the necessary electrical requirements such as voltage and frequency ratings, as well as other factors related with the environment, such as temperature and humidity. These requirements are generally established by the manufacturer and can be found within the installation manual.
The second step is operational qualification. This ensures that the equipment will operate according to its technical specification. In order to achieve this, the general functions of the equipment must be tested within the specified range limits. Therefore, this step focuses on the overall functionality of the instrument.
The third and last step is the performance qualification, which is focused on providing documented evidence through specific tests that the instrument will performs according to the routine specifications. These requirements could be established by internal and industry standards.
Following these three steps will allow you to provide documented evidence that the equipment will perform adequately within the work environment and for the intended process. After completion of the equipment validation process, monitoring and verification procedures must be established to guarantee the correct operation of the instrument, as well procedures to address deviations and recordkeeping. This will help you effectively control the hazards identified within our operation.
There can be massive consequences if products contaminated with foreign material are purchased and consumed by the public. That’s why the development and implementation of a strong food safety/ HACCP plan, coupled with the selection and validation of your detection equipment, are so important. These steps are each key elements in protecting your customers and your brand.
Even unprocessed fruit can be a target for food fraudsters. Fraudulent fruit does not only damage a company’s brand, but it also may have pesticide and other residue levels above the permitted limit. Counterfeit branding and packaging was used in exports of 2 tons of lemons from China. It is not the first time that such fraud happened and the affected company won a lawsuit earlier this year. To prevent such mislabeling in the future, the company finally registered its brand with Chinese authorities.
Botanical ingredients are important to the food and beverage industries as well as the dietary supplements industry. Botanicals are plants or specific plant parts (leaves, roots, bark, berries, etc.) that are used for particular properties. These properties can be therapeutic or related to color, flavor or other attributes. Botanicals include extracts such as Ginkgo biloba, saw palmetto, and elderberry as well as herbs and spices used in cooking, essential oils, pomegranate juice and extracts, and olive oil. There is a substantial overlap between botanical products used in the herb and supplement industries and those used in foods and beverages. Many “conventional” foods and beverages include botanical extracts or other ingredients to advertise a therapeutic effect.
In 2014, FDA issued a final guidance for industry related to labeling of liquid dietary supplements (vs. beverages). FDA noted, in their rationale for the guidance, two trends:
“First, we have seen an increase in the marketing of beverages as dietary supplements, in spite of the fact that the packaging and labeling of many liquid products represent the products as conventional foods. Products that are represented as conventional foods do not meet the statutory definition of a dietary supplement…and must meet the regulatory requirements that apply to conventional foods.
Second, FDA has seen a growth in the marketplace of beverages and other conventional foods that contain novel ingredients, such as added botanical ingredients or their extracts. Some of these ingredients have not previously been used in conventional foods and may be unapproved food additives. In addition, ingredients that have been present in the food supply for many years are now being added to beverages and other conventional foods at levels in excess of their traditional use levels or in new beverages or other conventional foods. This trend raises questions regarding whether these ingredients are unapproved food additives when used at higher levels or under other new conditions of use. Some foods with novel ingredients also bear claims that misbrand the product or otherwise violate the FFDCA.”
The American Botanical Council (ABC) has been publishing information on the safe, responsible and effective use of botanicals since 1988, including the quarterly journal HerbalGram and a book of herb monographs The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs. In order to help combat the increasing problem of adulteration in the industry, the Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP) was launched in 2010 by ABC along with the American Herbal Pharmacopeia and the University of Mississippi National Center for Natural Products Research. The goal of BAPP is to educate members of the herbal and dietary supplement industry about ingredient and product adulteration through the publication of documents such as adulteration bulletins and laboratory guidance documents. The information in these documents helps ensure the identity, authenticity and safety of botanicals along the supply chain.
Karen Everstine will be discussing food fraud during the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series | An example of the Botanical Adulterants Prevention Bulletin for cranberry is seen in Figure 1. It includes a description of the species that can be labeled as cranberry in the United States, a brief description of the marketplace, information on potential adulterants in cranberry fruit extract and other cranberry products, and guidance on analytical methods to test cranberry products for adulteration.
Decernis has been working with the Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP) to integrate links to their expert content into the Food Fraud Database (FFD). This will ensure our users can better develop ingredient specifications, manage risk, and protect their consumers by leveraging this content for food fraud and herbal ingredient fraud prevention. We are currently incorporating three types of BAPP documents into FFD:
Adulterants Bulletins. Information and links to these documents will be entered as Inference records in FFD. We are extracting ingredient and adulterant names (including Latin names as synonyms) from the document, assigning “Reasons for Adulteration,” and providing a link to the full document on the BAPP website.
Adulteration Reports. Information and links to these documents will also be entered as Inference records in FFD. We are extracting ingredient and adulterant names from the document, assigning “Reasons for Adulteration,” and providing a link to the full document on the BAPP website.
Laboratory Guidance documents. Information and links to these documents will be entered as both method record and inference records in FFD. We are extracting ingredient and adulterant names from the document, assigning “Reasons for Adulteration,” and providing a link to the full document on the BAPP website.
Decernis analysts are currently integrating this content into FFD, which will be uploaded to the system between now and early September.
Who would have even thought to put the topic of a pandemic in your business continuity plan? I know, I sure never thought of it, even as a senior auditor. I think that most of us are familiar with the typical subjects of tornados, floods, power outages and disgruntled employees, to name a few. We now need to focus on adding a pandemic to the to-do list of your plan, as this global issue has become a reality since early 2020.
It is quite likely that your plant has been affected by COVID-19 in some way, therefore your site has put into place actions to mitigate the risks posed by the pandemic. What may not be likely, is that any of these actions have been documented. I have currently seen plants evolve actions based on the severity of the pandemic in their locations. Travel restrictions, reduced work force, changing employee personal protective equipment, additional employee monitoring, and remote work environments are some of the examples directly affecting sites that I have witnessed during the first half of this year. As plants learn and experience more issues, they tend to adapt to how they are mitigating the risks in their facilities.
Capturing what actions went smoothly and what has gone astray will aid in strengthening your business continuity plan. Pandemics as well as other extraordinary events are handled by a multi-step approach that needs organization and good communication. That is why it is imperative to build and document actions, then verify how those steps are to be used. Involving key personnel–not just the quality manager–at the site is a best practice in getting a full grasp on what needs to happen during an emergency. In several instances, I have witnessed that key personnel are not informed about where a site’s business continuity plan is located; or the plan was updated right before an audit and after goes back on the shelf for the next 12 months, collecting dust. Employees should be trained on the contents of the plan, their responsibilities (if they are part of the business continuity team), current contacts, updates, and ways to initiate proper channels, if or when a time comes to do so. Hopefully, it never does, but it sure does not hurt to be prepared.
The business continuity plan is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach for plants. An important consideration, when defining what actions to take, if your area has been plagued by a pandemic includes determining what risks are brought by employees, visitors (i.e., contractors), location, and type of product being produced. Plant A making a high-risk open product may implement additional hand washing and sanitation, whereas Plant B making a low-risk closed product may implement additional health screening (i.e., temperature checks) for employees. You should ensure that it makes sense, and it is beneficial for your site and your interested parties, such as customers, consumers and stakeholders.
Your business continuity plan should be built to be a great resource to you in the time of need. And in return, you will have to put some elbow grease into shaping the document in a way that fits the ever-changing food environment. Keeping your plant current will assist your business to quickly respond to a negative event. In consequence, not having a plan that works for your site, or any at all, could lead to closed doors.
Counterfeit alcoholic beverages keep claiming lives, like in this latest case in the state of Punjab in India. To curb the consumption of alcohol, the Indian government has imposed high taxes on alcoholic beverages, with the effect of increased illegal alcohol production. Often, the alcohol is from a variety of sources like nuts and sugar cane and of poor quality, posing a health hazard. Officials raided numerous operations and arrested multiple suspects, including police officers and customs officials.
To say that COVID-19 has been disruptive would be putting it mildly. The pandemic’s sudden and seismic impact has brought major upheaval across industries—the food industry and its supply chain included.
There was the initial panic buying that drove upticks in consumer demand for which few manufacturers and grocers were prepared, resulting in widespread product shortages. With restaurants closed, distributors and suppliers were left with considerable excess inventory—most of which ended up as waste and losses. Inside production sites and plants, many had to try and maintain their output with a reduced workforce, even as demand continued to climb. Meanwhile, some plants unfortunately have had to shut down operations on account of employees testing positive for COVID-19.
In the time since the outbreak, the food supply chain has stabilized to an extent. Store shelves are continuously being replenished with products. Restaurants have started reopening with new health and safety measures. Yet even as the industry takes gradual steps toward recovery, the underlying problem that led to the magnitude of COVID-19’s impact persists: Lack of visibility. There was lack of visibility into supply and demand and what was happening upstream and downstream across the supply chain, which prevented timely, proactive action to optimize operations in face of disruption.
Looking ahead, participants across the food supply chain will need enhanced end-to-end visibility so that they can work together to get ahead of the curve. As part of gaining this visibility, they will need the transparent exchange of information and cohesive collaboration to adapt especially as the food industry continues to see shifts in consumer behavior and the marketplace in the wake of COVID-19—particularly in the following three key areas.
While food producers have been working tirelessly to keep grocery store shelves and restaurant kitchens well stocked, there continues to be fluctuating availability on certain products, such as eggs, dairy, poultry and meat. This has led distributors and suppliers to increase their prices when selling these goods to stores and restaurants, who have had to then pass the additional costs on to consumers through their own price increases and surcharges, respectively. One report from CoBank, a cooperative bank part of the Farm Credit System, notes there could be as much as a 20% increase in the price of pork and beef this year due to supply issues.1 Many grocers have also implemented purchase limitations on consumers to combat shortages.
These downstream implications stem largely to uncertainty in the supply chain, with stores and restaurants unsure about available supply upstream and when they can expect to receive shipments. But if there was clearer visibility and transparency between production, distribution, transportation, food service and retail, then all parties could better anticipate and plan for supply shortages or delays. For instance, if a meat processing plant has to temporarily close due to cases of COVID-19, they can immediately communicate to the rest of the supply chain so that parties downstream can readily find alternative sources and minimize any necessary price inflations or other implications to consumers.
Even with the reopening of restaurants, people will likely choose to cook more of their meals at home. It was a trend that began with restaurant closures and will continue for the foreseeable future as consumers remain cautious of dining out. While this may bring tough times ahead for the food service industry, the grocery sector is seeing a huge lift in business. Research from restaurant management platform Crunchtime shows that, towards the end of June, restaurants were only seeing 64.5% of their pre-COVID-19 sales levels.2 At the same time, a study by Brick Meets Click and Mercatus reveals U.S. online grocery sales reached a record $7.2 billion in June, up nearly 10% over May.3
For food companies and brands, growth in the grocery sector has presented a challenge in the way of demand planning and forecasting. I’ve personally spoken with several company executives who have seen significant upticks in orders from their grocery channel partners—an increase for which they didn’t forecast—and are now struggling to adjust production levels accordingly to avoid the risk of excess production that would lead to unnecessary costs, wastes and losses. In such instances, real-time visibility into transactional activity and stock levels at the retail level would help production planners improve the accuracy of their forecasts and enable them to think steps ahead before orders come in and thereby optimally balance supply with demand. Stores would remain well stocked and the supply chain could flow in a more efficient and profitable way for all participants.
Without question, public health is the number one priority right now. Participants at each point in the food supply chain today need to communicate with each other, as well as to consumers, that they’re following best practices for social distancing, disinfecting and other precautions. It’s not to prevent the possible transfer of the virus via actual products, as the FDA notes there is currently no evidence of transmission through food or packaging. But rather, it’s to build greater confidence in the food supply chain—that everyone is doing their part to support individual and collective health and safety, which in turn prevents possible facility closures or other case-related bottlenecks that would inhibit consistent supply to the market.
There also has to be confidence that, amid these countermeasures for COVID-19, companies are still upholding their commitments to food safety, integrity and proper handling. What can support that confidence is data—shared data from every point in a product’s journey from source to shelf. The data should be transparent and available to all supply chain participants as well as immutable so that it is tamperproof and fully traceable should there be any problem, such as mislabeling or a foodborne illness. The data ultimately holds everyone accountable for their role in ensuring a safe food supply chain.
To achieve the level of visibility outlined above, the food industry will have to break away from legacy processes involving the siloed management of operational systems and databases. Instead, the disruption seen during COVID-19 and ongoing shifts in the marketplace should encourage companies to consider digital transformation and technologies that can enable a more cohesive and nimble food supply chain. These are technologies like blockchain, which provides a decentralized, distributed ledger to publish and share data in real time. Moreover, artificial intelligence that can leverage incoming real-time data to guide next-best actions, even when the unexpected occurs. Personally, I always return to the notion that the supply chain is a team sport. You need visibility to know what each team member is doing on the field and how to align everyone on a gameplay. The digital solutions available today offer that visibility and insight, as well as the agility to pivot as needed to obstacles along the journey from source to shelf.
Sulfites and sulfur dioxide can make meats look fresher than they truly are, and therefore are banned by the FDA The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code also prohibits the addition of sulfites to raw meat. Not only is there a risk of meat past its prime getting into the food supply, sulfites may also pose a danger to allergy and asthma sufferers. More than 23 tons of ground beef were freshened up illegally with sulfites and sold in New Zealand to consumers. The manufacturer was recently sentenced to a fine in this two-year old case.
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