Miguel Villa

USDA FSIS Integrates Salmonella Quantification Testing into Regional Labs

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Miguel Villa

In June, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) announced that it was rethinking its approach to Salmonella in poultry based on a review of data from 2015 to 2020 that showed a higher than anticipated reduction in Salmonella-contaminated chicken parts but no corresponding decrease in Salmonella-related illnesses attributable to poultry products.

Part of the new approach, shared in July, is the integration of Salmonella quantification testing in FSIS regional laboratories. The agency is now using GENE-UP QUANT Salmonella assay from bioMérieux, a non-enrichment quantification diagnostic tool for Salmonella.

We spoke with Miguel Villa, vice president of industrial applications for the Americas at bioMérieux to learn more about the new assay and how quantification methods may better serve public health initiatives.

Food Safety Tech (FST): How did your work with USDA FSIS come about?

Villa: bioMerieux is a French company with many, many years in the field of in vitro diagnostics. The background of the company is in human health care and life sciences. The legacy of this group is in vaccines going back to the time of Louis Pasteur. In fact, the founder of the group was a disciple of Louis Pasteur.

For the past 30 years, we have also been designing and manufacturing diagnostic tools and tests for the pharmaceutical and food industries. And for the past three years we—and other companies—have been in dialogue with the USDA FSIS and the FDA about the use of quantification for food safety and food testing for the benefit of public health.

There was discussion about the fact that, after years and years of better controls, increased testing and an increasing regulatory framework around food safety the level of foodborne illness that we continue to see is not where the regulators or the public want it to be. Based on that, we have had discussions about what are the next steps and how can we take this further to reduce diseases that are coming from food sources. There is a lot of focus on animal protein products, and one of the main contaminants has been Salmonella.

FST: What are some of the concerns or limitations of the current or traditional standards of testing?

Villa: The regulations now are focused on the presence or absence of Salmonella, and the regulators have accepted recently that we need to do more. One of the things that has been discussed quite a bit is quantification—not only do we want to know whether Salmonella is present, we want to know how much is present. This is what the GENE-UP QUANT Salmonella assay measures.

How this works is, whenever the FSIS gets a particular sample that is positive, they will use the assay to check how much Salmonella there is to get a better understanding of what they’re dealing with in terms of risk to public health.

FST: This is a non-enrichment detection method, why is that important?

Villa: True quantification can only come from the original sample. If you do something to that sample to stimulate growth, the organism typically does not grow in a linear fashion or you might be promoting limits of growth in that medium. So, the picture you get after enrichment is not exactly what is in the original sample, which is what you’re trying to understand.

FST: Is the assay quantifying only the density of Salmonella in the sample or is it also looking at serotypes?

Villa: Only the quantity. We are not looking at serotypes at this stage, but we are involved in the development of serotyping tools based on what we see coming down the road.

FST: Is the technology behind the GENE UP QUANT assay a new technology or new to the food safety industry?

Villa: GENE UP is a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, and PCR has been around for more than 20 years, so the tool itself is not new. What is new—or what is recent—are the methods that we are using to develop tests. They are more accurate and precise. And they are able to use mathematical modeling to correlate the things that you see in the sample, quantify them and also assess them accurately from a sample that is not enriched.

In the future, we will use the same techniques to develop rapid, accessible tools to identify specific serotypes.

FST: The USDA FSIS has brought this testing into its regional laboratories, are food manufacturers and processors also using these in their facilities? Should they be thinking about that?

Villa: Now that it is public knowledge that the FSIS is using this testing and performing Salmonella quantification, they are educating the market about why they’re doing this. As a result, we are beginning to receive inquiries from clients of ours about the test. It is not a mandate at this stage, but for their own risk management processes, many companies will likely start incorporating it.

FST:  What is the benefit of quantification? Why is it important to regulators and food safety professionals to know not only if Salmonella is present, but how much?

Villa: The industry has been very interested in moving away from presence/absence testing only for a while, because many people think that not all Salmonella is pathogenic. In addition, we need to find better ways to gauge risk but at the same time not be as costly or as shotgun in our approach.

Quantification was recognized several years ago as a potential way for us to start correlating clinical outcomes—or the lack of them—with certain levels of Salmonella. We think there will come a time where people will start to agree that one of the data points you need as part of your risk assessment to make decisions at an industrial level is how much Salmonella is in the original sample. If it’s below a certain level, it may not be considered as risky.

In the future, by combining quantification and serotyping, we believe that we will be able to give manufacturers very accurate readings with all the information needed to make good decisions and good calls about their products.

 

Vanessa Coffman, Ph.D.

How To Implement a Strong Food Safety Culture

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Vanessa Coffman, Ph.D.

Creating a company culture that embraces food safety is paramount to protecting your business and end users. But, developing a strong food safety culture takes time, effort and a buy-in from leadership.

We spoke with Vanessa Coffman, Ph.D., director of the Alliance to STOP Foodborne Illness, to discuss what it takes to create a company culture committed to food safety and what is holding companies and employees back from speaking up and taking action when safety concerns are identified.

Food Safety Tech (FST): How do companies get started in implementing a strong food safety culture?

Dr. Coffman: I think it’s really important to remember that every company in the food space already has a food safety culture. They may just not know it. So, a good first step is to assess your current food safety culture. What’s going right? What’s going wrong? From there, outline where you would like to go.

FST: How do you assess your current food safety culture?

Dr. Coffman: Talking with your employees and asking questions is a good start. There are some questionnaires available online to help you assess your current culture. It’s hard, though, because a lot of them are not scientifically validated, largely because food safety culture is amorphous and it’s also new.

We have a number of resources available on our website, including a Food Safety Culture Toolkit for businesses.

FST: How do company leaders motivate employees to play an active role in ensuring safe food processing and handling?

Dr. Coffman: That is really, really important. You can incentivize people through a rewards and recognition program, which is what a lot of our Alliance member-companies are doing.

I also think that getting into the heart and not just the mind of the employee is important. We have a lot of video resources and stories from foodborne illness survivors and people who have lost loved ones to foodborne illness. These are good motivators to help your team understand what can happen and how important every single person’s role is in the the production of safe food.

FST: How are companies incentivizing their employees to embrace food safety practices?

Dr. Coffman: It can be as simple as recognizing an employee of the month—a food safety culture employee of the month—and having a parking spot dedicated to that person or putting their name in the company newsletter.

Sometimes those big outward shows of recognition aren’t the best for every employee, and maybe somebody would rather get a little monetary bonus. Some businesses have taken employees or teams that have done really well out to lunch with the executives or someone who is well respected in the company. Getting an hour off from work may be a really great reward.

There are a lot of example of ways you can incentivize folks to do the right thing, but ultimately you want a culture of people wanting to do the right thing. That’s the most important aspect of a good food safety culture. You’re not doing it because you’re going to win a prize, but because it’s the right thing to do.

FST: Who, ultimately, is responsible for spearheading and developing a company’s food safety culture?

Dr. Coffman: That’s a really complicated question. Everybody needs to be a part of it and everybody needs to buy in to building a positive food safety culture at a company. That includes frontline workers, maintenance workers and the top executives.

We have been doing a webinar series in partnership with the FDA, and we have gotten a lot of questions about who should be leading these efforts. While it is the front-line workers that have the ability to stop the line, note a problem or report a safety issue, if you do not have buy in from your executives, there is no motivation for the people on the front line to do the right thing. So, getting the company leaders—the C-suite and the middle management people—involved is critical.

FST: Do you have any tips or recommendations on how to speak to the people in the C-suite to help them understand the importance of food safety?

Dr. Coffman: A lot of times people who are not involved in food safety day-to-day are incentivized by different things or see things a little bit differently. Some of things we have found that people who are in the C-suite respond to or are concerned with include the cost of a recall, the cost of getting sued and the cost of brand damage. Those things are really, really important for business leaders to understand. But, as with other employees, you also need reach their hearts.

Join us at the Food Safety Consortium in Parsippany, NJ, October 19-21 and take part in our panel discussion, “Communicating to the C-Suite.”

Everybody has a family, everybody has friends, everybody has people they love and they would never want to see those people get hurt by something that they fed them or by something that their company created. So, really tapping into the hearts is important in addition to presenting those cold, hard numbers, which you do sometimes need.

FST: What prevents employees from being proactive about food safety or raising safety concerns?

Dr. Coffman: Termination. Getting in trouble. A lot of the companies within the Alliance have said that every single employee in their organization is allowed to stop the line. Their employees know that you will never get in trouble for stopping something if you see a problem. Unfortunately, that is not as commonplace as it should be. People who are whistleblowers get in trouble. People who bring up problems to their bosses get in trouble. And when we’re talking about food safety, if you let things slip you are putting people in danger

FST: What is the biggest misconception about food safety culture?

Dr. Coffman: That this is a linear task. That this is something that you can just do and then it’s fixed and in place. It takes a lot of planning, a lot of energy and a lot of time.

Food safety culture is not something you have to do to meet an auditing requirement. The components are not going to be black and white, yes or no. This might seem frustrating at first to those who are used to following detailed checklists and written procedures, but once a positive, mature food safety culture is established, problem areas on your checklist will likely diminish.

Food factory workers

Key Components of Environmental Control

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Food factory workers

Ready to eat foods (RTE) pose a significant risk of foodborne illness, if proper safety precautions are not followed. Key to keeping contaminants out of your RTEs and keeping regulatory action at bay is developing a strong environmental control program (ECP).

We spoke with Benjamin Miller, vice president of regulatory and scientific affairs at the Acheson Group, about the core components of an ECP and the biggest risk areas for producers of RTE foods.

There are three key components of an ECP:

  • Hygienic design of a facility and equipment
  • People management within a facility or operation
  • Sanitation

“From a facility standpoint, you want a facility that is constructed well,” says Miller. “The floor, walls and ceilings are in good condition. You have adequate water drainage, if you’re going to be using a wet clean as part of your sanitation program and, from the equipment standpoint, you want equipment that is designed to be cleaned and is easy to clean. That is one of the areas where we see some of the biggest issues in terms of risk from environmental contaminants and pathogens.”

There are multiple challenges to keeping equipment clean and santized, notes Miller. And it starts with a lack of standardization. There is little regulation on equipment design for food processing, although there have been efforts among industry, with groups such as the 3-A Consortium in the dairy industry and the European Hygienic Engineering and Design Group (EHEDG). “But a lot of equipment is custom fabricated in the food manufacturing space, and equipment is expensive and has a long serviceable life span,” says Miller. “So, while we do understand the good principles of hygienic design, those are not always baked into equipment design, either because of the cost or the complexity of the design of the equipment itself.”

Equipment Considerations

When investigating new equipment or reviewing your existing equipment, you want to look at the materials used as well as placement of the equipment. “We think about stainless steel as being easy to clean and sanitize, but even with stainless steel there are different finishes that can make it more difficult to clean, so you need to think about the the different finishes that come on the equipment, the seams where the weld points are and how smooth those weld points are,” says Miller.

Flat surfaces can collect dirt, debris and water. “Rotating existing infrastructure or equipment components can make a significant difference in cleanability, drying and run off,” says Miller.

The placement of the equipment in the facility can also affect cleanability. “A good analogy is, if you look under the hood of your car some engines are in there so tight that you have to take everything apart to get in there to fix or replace a specific part,” says Miller. “Other cars, you can practically climb inside and get to every piece of equipment easily.”

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If equipment that needs to be cleaned and maintained on a regular basis is up against a wall, it will be very difficult to get back there to work on the equipment or do a thorough cleaning.

“You need to think about hygienic design, equipment design and placement, materials selection and cleanability. These are all really important. The other thing is flow—facility flow and people movement within a facility,” says Miller.

Facility Traffic Flow

Some pathogens will occur more frequently in areas where raw food is handled. People can also bring contaminants into a facility on their clothes or shoes. Limiting foot and equipment traffic within the facility—and restricting high care (or high risk) areas where RTEs are assembled and packaged—reduces the risk of food contamination.

“Ideally, you want a very clear delineation between where the food is raw up to the point where the kill step is applied and then where the RTE environment is,” says Miller. “You want a linear process and design flow from where you receive your raw materials, where you do your raw material prep and assembly, through to the area where you do your cook or kill step. The people and food should flow through the environment in a way that the risk of contamination from raw product is minimal.”

Developing a captive footwear program where employees in high care areas are provided with dedicated footwear and limiting traffic within those areas is required. “Often when we see people struggling with their environmental control programs, it’s because they don’t have adequate separation of people movement and equipment movement within the facility. Either everyone’s going everywhere or they have a defined program, it is just not enforced,” says Miller.

He relates the challenge to an age-old design adage: “There is a saying that, if you’re designing a campus, wait to put down the sidewalks until you see where people naturally walk,” says Miller. “Because they will choose the most efficient route to get from building A to building B. That’s often what happens in the food manufacturing or processing facility. If you don’t have active enforcement in high care areas, people will naturally take the most efficient route to go from point A to point B, and that creates risk.”

The best approach to reduce that risk is to engineer out the hazards, so people don’t have the option not to comply. “You can close off spaces that are natural cut throughs so that people cannot take the shortcut,” says Miller.

Visual programs, where employees in the high care areas wear white smocks and those in the low care areas wear red, for instance, can help with oversight and compliance. “But you also need to positively reinforce behavior, which gets to the hot topic of food safety culture,” says Miller. “Is it acceptable to cut through, or is somebody going to stop that person and report what is happening because your team understands the risk? And are you addressing that behavior in a nonpunitive way, and instead explaining why this is important? Companies should be rewarding people who call out safety hazards as well. The primary challenge for facilities that are not designed well in terms of either equipment design or traffic flow is that it takes time and effort to enforce and build that culture.”

Drainage and Sanitation

Drains can a source of contamination if not properly designed, used and maintained. Trench drains are harder to clean and maintain than circular drains. “People sometimes use their drains as a garbage disposal, which provides food for bacteria,” says Miller. “Limit the amount of food going down the drain and, ideally, you want to use a circular drain with stainless steel sieve in high care areas.”

In the past, it was not uncommon for facilities to perform high-pressure cleaning of drains, which can then aerolize the bacteria in the drain. “Use low pressure mechanical or steam cleaning of drains,” says Miller. “Again, this comes back to design. You want to start with well-designed drains and follow good sanitation practices.”

Sanitation and cleaning products used in food processing and manufacturing faciities are regulated and safe to use in the food environment, provided all instructions are followed. “Read chemical labels to make sure you are using the correct concentrations and the correct cleaning/rinse cycle,” says Miller. “The label determines how the cleaning agent should be used and whether it can come in contact with food.”

Companies can help maintain a strong ECP by giving their food safety and quality assurance teams a seat at the table, particularly when developing their capital improvement plans. “If you know a particular piece of equipment is really hard to clean and has been a source of contamination over the last couple of years, how can you repair or redesign that equipment so that it is easier to clean or replace it with something that’s going to be easier to clean?” says Miller. “A key piece of managing food safety is understanding where your highest risk points are, and then making sure those areas are part of your capital improvement plan.”

 

 

Darin Detwiler, Northeastern University

ESG and Food Safety

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Darin Detwiler, Northeastern University

Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) is a term that is gaining traction among industry, investors and regulators. We spoke with Darin Detwiler, LP.D., M.A.Ed., assistant teaching professor of food policy and director of the Master of Science in Regulatory Affairs of Food and Food Industries program at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies in Boston, to learn more about ESG and its growing visibility in the food and beverage industry.

Food Safety Tech (FST): There has been an increase in coverage of ESG in a variety of industries. What is ESG, and do you see the food and beverage industry embracing these ideas?

Dr. Detwiler: When you talk about the Responsible Corporate Officer (RCO) Doctrine, that has received more attention within the food industry, especially with some increases in Department of Justice activity. When there are outbreaks or recalls, people are asking, is this case an RCO case?

When you look at Peanut Corporation of America and the Jensen Brothers, so many key landmark court cases within the food industry, there were RCO violations. The next layer of the onion is Corporate Social Responsibility. And we can talk about that a great deal. This involves looking at the economic, legal, ethical and the philanthropic responsibilities of companies.

It is not specific to food; it is companies and executives overall. But, unlike RCO, corporate social responsibility has been more theoretical. ESG is a way of quantifying and measuring these components of corporate activity.

Join Darin Detwiler, LP.D, at the Food Safety Consortium on October 19-21 in Parsippany, New Jersey.

FST: How might measuring ESG enhance food safety?

Dr. Detwiler: When you look at the Peanut Corporation of America, for example, nearly 100 charges were filed against the CEO, his brother, the QA manager and three plant managers. And those charges were not about making people sick or killing people. Those charges were fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

If you look at this case in terms of food safety, it doesn’t look like a big food safety case. It’s more of a corporate social responsibility thing, something that was measured and prosecuted outside of the FDA.

When you look at Chipotle, which made news with a series of outbreaks between 2015 and 2018, they made big news in terms of the $25 million penalty—the largest penalty ever imposed in a food safety case. But Chipotle was also fined $1.3 million for child labor law violations in Massachusetts.

Similarly, when you look at Blue Bell Creameries, which was hit with the second-largest fine at $17.25 million for a listeria outbreak in 2015, the former CEO now is facing charges regarding his conspiracy to cover up this information not only from the stockholders but from consumers as well.

The point I’m making is, one could say that child labor law violations have nothing to do with foodborne illness outbreaks. But do they? When you start looking at the bigger picture of ESG data that can be collected by the companies, I think that one could start to see a pattern. That pattern being, if a company has executives that are making decisions that are illegal in one of their houses, they are also taking shortcuts and making poor decisions in terms of food safety. These bigger picture issues of corporate social responsibility could be measured by adequate data collection and monitoring using ESG.

Will an ESG score prevent an outbreak or a recall? We don’t know. But here is what happens when you have an outbreak or a recall. Over time, our options to resolve an issue decrease and our liabilities increase. More people buy the products, more people eat the products and more people become exposed to others who are sick.

The best way to minimize liability and maximize options to resolve an issue is to try to be proactive and even predictive. If we can say that there is a stronger likelihood of this happening here because of these indicators, we can stop before a product goes into a later stage of production or before it goes to distribution. ESG is one potential way to do this.

FST: Should companies be using ESG to vet their suppliers?

Dr. Detwiler: If you are a company that has a lot of ingredients coming from a lot of different suppliers, you want to minimize the risk of getting ingredients from people that you can’t necessarily trust 100%. One proactive approach, perhaps, is to look at ESG scores and say, “Yes, we could save 7% on costs by working with this company, but this company does not have a good record in terms of the ESG metrics.” This transparency is another way to help companies make as clear a decision as possible regarding suppliers and safety.

There are companies right now that are working to create networks of buyers, sellers and distributors, where members share and have access to data that all members provide relating to not only certifications and inspections, but ESG as well, such that there is a more clear understanding of the people that you are partnering with.

Circling back to the Peanut Corporation of America outbreak, one of the things people don’t talk about is that companies that were buying peanut products from Peanut Corporation of America blindly accepted the inspection and audit reports they were receiving. They did not send their own third-party auditors out there. And one of the lawyers did ask, “Why is there no pressure on these companies to be responsible for checking up on their ingredients?” Which is an interesting question to ask. Did the companies skip their due diligence in making sure the processing lived up to the paperwork?

If I’m a food company and I want to partner with or get ingredients from another company, no one is going to say, “I’m OK partnering with a company that’s paying millions of dollars in penalties because of labor violations and fraud.” If you’re only looking at food safety, you’re only looking at one piece of the information you need. Whereas, if we ask bigger questions, which very much align with what ESG would collect, then a clearer picture of a company emerges. And perhaps that’s what we need to start focusing on more.

FST: Where can companies find the criteria for measuring and tracking ESG in their own organizations?

Dr. Detwiler: That’s a great question, and it really is evolving right now. Back when the Chipotle outbreaks were happening, I was contacted by venture capitalists and investment groups and they were saying, “Chipotle was a no-brainer. All you had to do was look at their growth, look at their profits, look at their stock prices and boom, you knew this was a good company.” And they realized they were asking the wrong questions. So, what questions should we be asking to get a bigger or a more accurate picture of a company? In the food industry, it’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all measure. You have things like organic and kosher, grass-fed and cage-free, but these measures do not pertain to all companies or products. So we have seen some criteria and guidelines, but there are going to be commodity- and company-specific measures to consider as well.

FST: What are the challenges of integrating ESG as part of the regulatory environment and internal company policies?

Dr. Detwiler: There is a sense of, do we really need to burden these companies with collecting this data and having their ESG or corporate social responsibility information exposed to the world? You can look at it like cutting edge technology. It is here. There are plenty of companies that are already using it. And the companies that are currently saying that it’s just too difficult to collect this information, well, on the other side of their operations, when it comes to financials and marketing, it’s amazing how quickly they can adopt the latest technologies to maximize their profitability.

Here’s the deal, I buried my son in 1993 after the Jack in the Box e coli outbreak. We filed charges against Jack In The Box and the parent company and the food maker and the meat supplier. Their lawyers put us through the ringer. They wanted our tax information. They wanted my educational records and they wanted access to my military records. They wanted all kinds of information for their lawyers to determine the value of my son’s life. In that case, the idea of transparency was of value to the industry, but we can’t burden the companies?

Still, the reality is demanding transparency from corporations has been an issue. I was at an event—it was related to blockchain—and one topic that came up among the companies is the risk of being a first adopter. There is a saying, “the first adopter is the first to be crucified.” You put this information out there and something goes wrong and now it’s going to be tied to you. I do understand that concern.

But we have label laws in this country, for example, so demanding or expecting transparency is not new. The challenge is, if we want to promote transparency, do we have any guidelines around it? If it doesn’t have any teeth, then it’s not going to mean anything. Your company may have the same exact score as my company, but what was the authentic collection of data that was used to measure that?

FST: Do you think we will see more requirements for the implementation of ESG from regulators in the near future?

Dr. Detwiler: It is interesting right now with the Officer of the Inspector General evaluating the FDA and whether the FDA did the right thing in terms of what they knew, when they new it and the distance of time between that and when they took action during its inspections and investigation into the Abbott baby formula facility.

People are looking at this stuff more, and the government is starting to evaluate a lot more. They’re not just accepting it as the cost of doing business. I often talk about invisible threats, in terms of things like e coli. We can’t see pathogens, but perhaps something like ESG can make these invisible threats more visible. There are a lot of failures in the farm-to-fork process that can be identified after the fact. ESG many be a tool to provide more clarity before an outbreak or recall occurs.

Dallas Henderson, RizePoint

Five Food Safety Changes That Are Here to Stay

By Dallas Henderson
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Dallas Henderson, RizePoint

While the COVID-19 pandemic caused monumental disruption and chaos for the food industry, the silver lining is that it resulted in five positive (and permanent) changes as we move forward in our “new normal.” A common denominator for all these changes is technology, which is driving more informed decisions, additional transparency, training support, auditing improvements and increased collaboration.

1. Technology Is Making us Safer and Smarter

The pandemic led to increased use of and comfort with technology, and tech tools are game changers when it comes to elevating safety and quality. Food businesses are increasingly using digital tools for critical tasks, such as inspections and line checks, and tech solutions make these efforts faster, easier and more accurate than manual processes. Tech solutions can provide comprehensive views of a business—by location or across an enterprise—helping operators identify and resolve issues quickly and completely.

Many operators are relying on tech tools and software to review and analyze real-time data so they can make more informed business decisions. For instance, they can easily access historical sales patterns to help improve a variety of operational decisions, from staffing decisions to re-order quantities.

Digital solutions allow brands to streamline operations, improve safety and quality management, manage (or cut) costs and improve inventory, scheduling and ordering.

2. A More Effective Approach to Audits

Historically, food businesses relied on annual or semi-annual in-person inspections but, as it turns out, these traditional audits were not an ideal approach. Many food business employees dreaded these inspections, viewing independent auditors with trepidation. Employees worried they would be punished for any violations that the auditor found. The auditors looked for infractions but didn’t help teams correct areas of noncompliance or educate them on how to mitigate risks. There was no collaboration or education associated with the inspections, and the audits felt punitive and demoralizing.

During the pandemic, travel restrictions meant that food businesses had to figure out new ways to inspect their facilities. As a result, employees had to collaborate to identify (and fix) issues and improve compliance through more frequent self-inspections. More organizations used a remote auditing approach, which allowed employees to interact with auditors, ask questions, get immediate feedback and learn more about the process.

When employees were involved in the inspections, they became more invested, engaged and empowered. They started to feel responsible for their organizations’ safety and quality successes, rather than feeling accountable for mistakes. Once they better understood what to look for, they could watch for safety and quality infractions during their daily shifts and correct any issues immediately.

This combination approach (traditional, remote and self-audits) provides significant benefits, including greater oversight and data collection, more frequent inspections and more employee engagement. Moving forward, many brands will use all three auditing methods and enjoy many benefits of doing so.

3. Collaborative Cultures Are the New Norm

The rise of collaborative coaching is a very exciting and positive development that has evolved over the past few years. As mentioned above, food businesses are moving towards a continuous quality model with more frequent self-assessments and collaborative coaching in addition to traditional onsite audits. Additionally, many brands are hiring safety and quality coaches, who work with locations to teach their teams more about proper protocols, empowering them to take more responsibility for these efforts.

These coaches don’t just lecture employees about the safety rules, they explain why the rules are so critical, helping teams understand the importance of compliance. They also make employees feel like part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. This effort helps build strong food safety cultures and environments of continuous learning, while also boosting compliance and reducing risk. The result is safer businesses, products and practices.

4. The Rise of Transparency

Guests and employees want transparency about how brands are keeping them safe and healthy. They want to see businesses taking new COVID-19-related protocols seriously, with regular monitoring of CDC recommendations, constant cleaning and sanitizing, regular handwashing, employee temperature checks, etc. During times of COVID spikes, they want to see employees wearing masks and practicing proper social distancing. Gone are the days of employees being expected to work while ill.

In addition to heightened safety transparency, many organizations are increasing data transparency to improve and streamline operations. Brands that use digital tools and software have better, more accurate and holistic views of data. They can use this information to boost efficiency, cut costs, schedule smarter, maintain accurate inventory and make more informed operational decisions, as opposed to relying on gut instinct.

5. Increased Need for Training and Cross-training

Food safety training was essential before the pandemic hit, and now ongoing training has become a top priority. Every employee should be educated about food safety rules, COVID-19 protocols and how to correctly use tech tools to maximize safety and minimize risks. Employers must make training part of each new employee’s onboarding process—especially as our industry experiences record high turnover—but don’t view it as a “one and done” endeavor. Training should be ongoing.

Food providers are using technology to push out reminders and updates directly to employees’ phones so that resources are available right at their fingertips and everyone gets consistent information. Due to COVID-19 and the ongoing worker shortage, we have also learned the importance of cross-training. Employees should be trained to handle multiple roles and responsibilities, so if someone is out sick (or quits), staff members can be deployed wherever they’re needed.

Employers and employees are moving away from viewing training as a chore and instead viewing it as an opportunity to improve knowledge and behaviors. The key to long-term improvement and compliance is ongoing training and a willingness to take immediate corrective actions if/when employees aren’t following protocols to ensure compliance.

There is no denying that the COVID pandemic has been tremendously disruptive to our industry. However, positive changes have emerged from the chaos. The food industry has shown incredible resiliency, flexibility and tenacity throughout this difficult time, and has adopted new protocols, leveraged innovative technologies, increased transparency and embraced collaboration. These changes will likely be permanent, which is good news for the health and safety of our guests, employees and businesses.

In-line micro-hole detection

Technologies for In-line Monitoring of Micro-Holes in Packaging

By Paolo Tondello
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In-line micro-hole detection

In-line verification for the presence of micro-holes throughout food packaging production is possible by means of an innovative application of IR (Infrared) spectroscopy, or via gas sensors capable of detecting the leakage of target molecules present inside packages.

The areas of application sectors can be modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) packaged products, bakery products preserved with alcohol, food products preserved in nitrogen or air whose release of aromas can be detected.

Today, there are many preservation technologies available on the market for packaged food that lengthen the product’s shelf life while ensuring its organoleptic characteristics and food safety. Replacing air with a gas mixture (MAP) or with nitrogen, or by adding alcohol, are some preservation methods that cover a wide range of products. For all products, it is essential to check:

  • The type of packaging, correctly barrier-coated to prevent the leakage of any preservation substances
  • The gas mixture for MAP packaged products is correct for the type of product
  • The presence of alcohol inside the package for bakery products
  • Via seal test

This last point, checking for the presence of micro-holes in the packaging, is crucial to avoid thwarting all efforts to optimize the packaging’s preservation mixture. Therefore, let’s examine how it is possible to perform a seal test, and the innovations brought about by IR spectroscopy technology that introduce important elements of in-line monitoring of the presence of micro-holes in packaging and the seal’s integrity.

In-line micro-hole detection
Checking for the presence of micro-holes in the packaging, is crucial to avoid thwarting all efforts to optimize the packaging’s preservation mixture. Image courtesy of FT System.

Micro-Holes in Packaging: Consequences of Spot Checks

The presence of a micro-hole in packaging is a particularly critical problem in the food industry, since it can lead to poor food preservation and the loss of its organoleptic characteristics—as well as the possible formation of mold.

Micro-holes may form as a result of defective sealing processes or during the various processing stages of the package, and can lead to negative consequences of the product days later, when the package is already in the shop or on the shelf of a supermarket. Therefore, it is important to make sure the container is intact during the production stage.

The procedures normally in use today to check for micro-holes are spot checks, which detect the loss of pressure or leakage of gas from the package by immersing the product in water, or via an instrument that applies a “dry” vacuum. In the first case, which is called a bubble test, the product is immersed in a container filled with water that is hermetically sealed and to which an external vacuum is applied. This encourages bubbles to come out from any micro-holes, which can, at this point, be checked visually or by means of a camera.

In the second case, a vacuum is created that is carried out by placing the package inside a bell. The molecules leaked from the package (such as CO2 in the case of MAP products) or loss of pressure are indications of the presence of a micro-hole.

The main limitation of these methods is, first and foremost, that of being destructive, since it is no longer possible to reuse the tested package. Over and above this is the fact that they are, of course, merely spot checks—and therefore not comprehensive in their analysis.

Spot-checking does not check the integrity of the entire production, which means that defects are not detected on a regular basis. Moreover, this method is costly in terms of re-processing batches should a micro-hole be detected in the batch being tested.

Modern Applications for Testing In-Line Micro-Holes

The need for in-line identification of micro-holes on 100% of production is pressing, and research for possible solutions has been focused on this need in recent years. Technology is needed that must be:

  • Rapid, in order to be applied to the line’s speed;
  • Reliable in detecting micro-holes;
  • With few false rejects, even at high speed;
  • Characterized by low maintenance costs;
  • Easily manageable for format changes, which are becoming increasingly frequent in production.

This has all been made possible by means of application of IR spectroscopy, or the use of gas sensors for in-line inspection of the presence of holes and micro-holes. These non-destructive technologies make it possible to detect in-line leakages in packaging, package by package, by identifying target escaping molecules.

The air around the package is extracted and taken to an analysis chamber containing an IR beam or gas sensor that can detect the presence of target molecules—and therefore micro-holes. This way, it is possible to automatically inspect every single package, avoiding problems of returns and consumer dissatisfaction caused by poor preservation.

IR Spectroscopy and Gas Sensors

The technologies that enable in-line inspection are based on nondispersive infrared technology, which offer rapid response times and reliable measured values. In the case of very small leakages, measurements with very low concentration differences or measurements by means of containers, the technology is based on the principle of laser spectroscopy.

A monochromatic radiation beam emitted by a laser interacts with the gas molecules being measured. The radiation wavelength coincides with one of the absorption lines of the molecule. Measuring the intensity and absorption profile of the radiation with a photodetector makes it possible to detect the presence of a gas, and determine the concentration of the molecule being measured.

For certain gases, the high sensitivity of measurement can be obtained by using a modulation technique of the absorption measurement known as wavelength modulation spectroscopy (WMS). It involves transmitting sinusoidal modulation to the wavelength variation of the laser radiation, then creating a beat between the signal detected from the photodetector and the modulation frequency.

The distinct advantage of WMS is that it eliminates constant contributions to the absorption, such as that of the container, thereby making it possible to significantly increase the sensitivity of the measurement. The realization of gas sensors for application in the pharmaceutical, bottling and food sectors originated at Italy’s University of Padua, where lasers have been employed to create laboratory prototypes for determining the concentration of gas pressure using absorption spectroscopy techniques.

Industrial application of these technologies has brought IR and laser spectroscopy technology to the market and into production lines, improving the way in which quality control is performed on packaged products. The non-destructive measurement techniques, based on absorption spectroscopy, are today finding new areas of use—not only to monitor package leakages, but also to monitor the internal gases and check their evolution during product shelf life.

Case History: An In-line Control of Micro-holes in the Food Industry

Let’s explore an example of micro-hole inspection via IR spectroscopy and gas sensors, and how certain challenges might be overcome.

For one company, micro-hole inspection technology was initially working by detecting molecules leaking from packages being transferred on conveyor belts. However, during the technology transfer stage, it became evident that the pressure difference between inside and outside of the container was not enough to determine the presence of micro-holes at the line’s speed without touching the package.

To combat this, a system of rollers was implemented to apply the correct pressure to force leakage of target molecules, indicating the presence of micro-holes, without damaging the packaging or the product. The rollers are designed to stress the container and the seals to encourage gas to be released in the event of a leak.

The inspection is applicable on trays as well as bags or flowpacks. Packages are inspected at 360°, both on top and at the bottom (including any longitudinal seals) by inserting air extractors also on the sides and under the package, creating a special opening in the conveyor belts.

The target molecules that can be detected with these technologies are numerous, and vary according to the type of preservation mixture. For example, it is possible to detect CO2 as a target molecule for all MAP-preserved products, or alcohol in the case of bakery products, or specific product aromas for products packaged in air or nitrogen.

Practical applications
Examples of practical applications. Figure courtesy of FT System.

Conclusion

The in-line inspection for micro-holes in packaging through the application of IR spectroscopy, or by means of gas sensors, makes it possible to go from spot checks to in-line inspections on 100% of production. The solution can be applied on trays and bags and does not require the internal gas mixture or the line speed to be changed. It can be easily integrated in existing lines and inspection is reliable, precise and repeatable.

This quality control technology has game-changing potential for products preserved in MAP, alcohol or nitrogen, since it makes it possible to check for micro-holes in the packaging and the integrity of the seal on each individual product. From practical experience in the production line, it is evident that all micro-holes are not detected by spot checks.

In addition, a return or recall, for example for the presence of mold in fresh pasta or in cheese due to a micro-hole, causes significant economic and image damage for the company. Implementing this modern application of IR spectroscopy in the line thereby makes it possible to prevent and intervene in real time on the production process to guarantee the integrity of the package and avoid problems related to safety, quality and preservation.

Food Lab

Four Testing and Detection Trends for 2022

By Wilfredo Dominguez Nunez, Ph.D.
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Food Lab

COVID-19 continues to pose challenges for every industry, influencing how they will need to adapt to the future. The food manufacturing industry specifically is continuing to see problems with plants shutting down due to outbreaks, labor shortages and domino-effect supply chain issues, forcing them to adjust in order to continue meeting the demands of customers and supplying safe food to the public.

With these adjustments in mind, changes in testing and detection in labs have arisen, influencing four main trends within food manufacturing labs expected throughout 2022.

1. Testing levels continue to increase. In 2021, some customers intentionally planned to cut testing and production in plants to balance out the loss of employees due to the pandemic-induced labor shortages within manufacturing roles.

However, following the trends of rising employment in manufacturing, 2022 should see an increase in testing, raising the baseline of production levels in the plants. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing jobs saw an increase of more than 113,000 employees in Q4 of 2021. Although still below employment levels of February 2020, the continued increase is positive news for the food manufacturing industry.

2. Food testing labs turn to automation technology. Even as labs begin to see their numbers in employees rise, the demand for automation technology during 2022 will continue to climb given its proven ability to increase productivity in the lab and meet the demands of customers. With automation technology, lab technicians can multi-task thanks to the ability to step away from tests, increasing the amount of testing that can be done despite the lack of people in labs.

Additionally, utilizing ready-to-use products has cut down on the time it takes to prepare for testing. Rather than spending hours preparing Petri dishes and using an autoclave, ready-to-use Petri films or Petri dishes create easy to follow protocols with significantly less steps for a lab technician to complete.

3. Third-party labs gain popularity. With food manufacturing, tests will either be conducted on-site or at a third-party lab. Taking labor shortages into account, many manufacturers still do not have the staff numbers to maintain a dedicated on-site testing facility. As a result, manufacturers will turn to third-party labs to help increase testing volumes and productivity.

Not only have third-party labs aided manufacturers with testing, but the labs also often have the capabilities to run confirmation tests on products, tests that may not have been possible if conducted on-site. And as third-party labs have seen numerous consolidations in recent years, their capability to move products around for necessary testing is much more simplified and achievable than if testing was conducted on-site.

4. Shifting to locally sourced products. With supply chain issues continuing into 2022, the food manufacturing industry could source more products from local farmers and other local product suppliers in order to better keep up with demand.

Right now, it is much harder to receive and send products across the globe with countries and states enforcing COVID-19 restrictions and dealing with their own labor issues. Not only are labs looking to rely on locally sourced products to assist in getting products to their final destination, but consumers are also increasing their demand for locally sourced products. Specifically, consumers are looking for the reliability of food on the shelves, shorter time spent between farmer and grocery stores, as well as simply fewer people touching product throughout the chain.

Challenges in food testing labs that arose in the past couple of years are still prevalent in 2022, but from adversity comes innovation and change. With more attention on automation technology, more food manufacturing employees returning to work, and adjustments to ongoing supply chain issues, 2022 is looking more hopeful in working to return to the level of productivity food manufacturers were meeting prior to the pandemic.

Hazy IPA

Clearing the Beer Haze with Advanced Turbidity Testing Technologies

By Steve Guay
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Hazy IPA

Beer is one of the world’s oldest beverages, with evidence suggesting production as far back as the Bronze age. While beer is no longer used as renumeration for work as it was in the Mesopotamian Fertile Crescent, it is nevertheless a common pleasure for many people. Craft brewing is a relatively new phenomenon, and quite different from the brewing processes of antiquity. In the United States, immigrants from Germany and Czechia began to experiment with new recipes for craft beer in the 1960s. These recipes, often based on the Bavarian 16th century Reinheitsgebot, or purity laws, ensured that only the purest, highest quality ingredients went in to make beer: Water, barley, hops and yeast.

Since then, there has been a rapid growth in the number of microbreweries that experiment with “new-world” hops and grains to create huge ranges of flavorful beers that go far beyond traditional recipes. This variety in brewing ingredients and approaches has, in part, supported the explosion of a mass market for craft beer. In 2020, the global market value of craft beer was estimated at nearly $165 billion, and is expected to grow to nearly $554 Billion by 2027, with the largest growing markets in countries like China, Japan and the United States. There has also been a shift in which types of beers are consumed, with more premium or specialized craft beers increasing in market share with respect to low-cost mass-production beers.

In such a crowded and dynamic market, beer producers are faced with competitive challenges like never before. Ensuring a consistently high-quality product with a distinctive flavor profile that can be enjoyed time and time again is critical for market success. One of the key challenges standing in the way of achieving this is turbidity, or “haze”, in the end product. Such haze can give an unsightly first impression to consumers, compromise flavor, and negatively impacts shelf stability. In this article we discuss how new, advanced turbidity testing technologies are enabling brewers to quickly and efficiently eliminate haze from their beers, supporting breweries in their goals of delivering great consumer experiences again and again.

Quality over Quantity

With the growing “premiumization” of beers, ever-greater attention and importance is being placed on interesting and consistent flavor profiles. Often, this includes beers made from ingredients far outside the relatively strict Reinheitsgebot recipe, including additions such as coffee, fruit and spices. The emphasis on more complex flavor profiles is pushing beer tasting to be taken as seriously as wine tasting, with perfectly balanced beers often being designed to match certain foods.

However, the addition of these newer ingredients can introduce challenges into the brewing process, especially as they can be sources of turbidity-causing impurities that may affect the quality, flavor and shelf stability of the final product. This is particularly challenging when beer brewing is scaled up to larger manufacturing quotas, where careful control of variables like ingredient choices, recipes and manufacturing methods are critical for ensuring the consistency and quality of the beer from batch to batch.

To meet these needs, modern breweries are increasingly using new and advanced technologies throughout the brewing process to maintain high quality products. Technologies like water purification systems, titrators and portable instruments such as hand-held pH meters and spectrophotometers are all being utilized to improve and refine the manufacturing process. A major focus of this technological drive is in turbidity detection and removal.

What Is Haze, and Where Does It Come From?

Haze is a broad term referring to evenly distributed turbidity—suspended, insoluble material which can appear in the final product. Haze can be divided into several types, most commonly: Chill haze, a temporary haze that disappears when a chilled beer warms to room temperature; and permanent haze, which is present at all temperatures. Haze can also be divided into biological haze (caused by microbiological growth in the beer) and non-biological haze (caused by a wide variety of non-living material, such as peptides, polyphenols and starches).

Hazy IPA
With the rising popularity of craft beer, many companies and customers are embracing intentionally ‘cloudy’ beers, which can make detecting offending turbidity even more challenging. All images courtesy of Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Since turbidity can be the result of unwanted microbes, wild yeast or protein particles, these deposits, although not unsafe to consume, can significantly alter the flavor profile of the beer, adding unpleasant acidity, sourness, or even “off” flavors. Bacteria are one of the major sources of turbidity in beers, particularly lactic acid-producing bacteria (LAB), such as Lactobacillus. While small amounts of lactic acid can add pleasant, desirable sour flavors in sour beers, the over-presence of these bacteria can be a major cause of contamination, so their levels must be closely monitored in the brewing process. Other bacteria like Pectinatus species can also “infect” beers, causing turbidity as well as “off” aromas and flavors due to the creation of hydrogen sulfide and fatty acids.

Importantly, turbidity-causing compounds can collect in the product from all stages of the brewing process:

  1. This starts with the source of water, and how it is filtered and treated. For example, a high presence of calcium in brewing water can cause precipitation of calcium oxalate.
  2. Mashing, the first stage of the brewing process, produces a malt extract from mixing grains and water. The malt extract is a liquid containing sugar extracted during mashes and has high viscosity and high protein content. At this stage fungi (like Penecillium), wild yeasts (Candida) and bacteria can all enter the mix to cause turbidity later on.
  3. From there, the process of lautering separates the wort from the grain. The wort is then boiled with hops, clarified, then fermented with yeast. The fermentation process is a common step when turbidity-causing bacteria like Lactobacillus and Pediococcus can contaminate the mixture.
  4. The fermented beer product is then stored for anything from three weeks to three months in a storage tank where a second fermentation takes place. Then it is filtered and packaged into barrels, bottles, or cans; all of which are also potential sources of turbidity-causing bacteria like Pectinatus.

The filtration and pasteurization processes are key for removing sources of turbidity. However, these processes do not necessarily remove all sources of turbidity, especially if aspects of the brewing process are altered by external factors (e.g., subtle shifts in the mashing temperatures) and cause a buildup of contaminants that is too great to filter out. Therefore, effectively monitoring and minimizing turbidity throughout the brewing process is critical, allowing brewers to make timely corrective adjustments, reducing a buildup of contaminants in the final product.

Advanced Methods for Turbidity Testing

To support effective haze removal and ensure beer consistency, turbidity measurements must be taken throughout the entire brewing process. Measurements should therefore be quick and efficient, and able to measure large quantities of beer in a short space of time, especially in high-production breweries. As such, advanced on-site turbidity testing technologies that are efficient and easy to use are ideal, and can rapidly streamline quality control in the brewing process. For example, with turbidity meters, breweries can swiftly check that their fining or filtration process is yielding a desired end product, and if an issue arises during the clarification process, an onsite turbidity measurement can pick this up right away for speedy corrective action. Such speedy rectification minimizes the chances of ruined batches and resultant profit loss to the brewery.

Handheld Turbidity Meter
Advanced portable turbidity meters enable efficient and reliable measurements on-site to streamline quality control in the brewery.

Modern turbidity meters work by using an infrared LED light source to measure light scattering in a solution. These handy devices allow brewers to perform rapid testing of beer with simple grab samples, meaning samples can be analyzed without having to disturb the brewing process. The LED light sources used in more advanced meters also have several benefits. For example, the LED does not require a warm-up period like older tungsten lamps, meaning it is ready to use at all times. Secondly, infrared LED light sources prevent color interference, which is especially useful for testing darker beers. Finally, the LED will last the life of the meter and give stable signals, meaning that calibration does not drift. Turbidity meters can also test for chill haze, allowing brewers to check for problems that can cause the beer to turn cloudy during prolonged chilling.

Quality Kings

Quality control of the brewing process is crucial for maintaining the quality and consistency of beer products that keep customers returning time and time again to their beers of choice. In a hyper-competitive market, brewers must use all the advantages they can to stay ahead of the game. Hazy beers can be particularly off-putting to customers if they are expecting bright, clear products, and critical qualities like taste and aroma can be very unpleasant if contamination isn’t carefully controlled. Moreover, unwanted turbidity in beers can negatively impact shelf stability, with resultant impact on profitability and brand reputation.

Owing to the complexity of beer making, the sources of turbidity are multiple, meaning that careful testing of turbidity is critical. In helping to overcome these challenges, advanced turbidity meters are enabling brewers to perform efficient and simple measurements on-site throughout the brewing process. This is helping to drive more timely tweaks to the brewing, filtration and storage steps to ensure consistent, high-quality beers with carefully crafted flavor profiles reach the market.

Plant based milk

How Advancements in Analytical Testing Are Supporting the Development of Novel Plant-Based Dairy Alternatives

By David Honigs, Ph.D.
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Plant based milk

Globally, milk and dairy products rank among the top eight allergens that affect consumers across the world. In America in particular, 32 million people suffer from some form of allergy, of which a staggering 4.7 million are allergic to milk. Additionally, it is estimated that around 70% of adults worldwide have expressed some form of lactose intolerance. As such, it is important for key stakeholders in the dairy industry to create novel products that meet the wants and needs of consumers.

Low-lactose products have been available since the 1980s. But in recent years, the demand for plant-based alternatives to dairy products has been on the rise. Some of this demand has come from individuals who cannot digest lactose or those that have an allergy to dairy. However, as all consumers continue to scrutinize their food labels and assess the environmental and ethical impact of their dietary choices, plant-based milk has become an appealing alternative to traditional dairy products.

To adapt to this changing landscape, traditional dairy processors have started to create these alternatives alongside their regular product lines. As such, they need access to instruments that are flexible enough to help them overcome the challenges of testing novel plant-based milk, while maintaining effective analysis and testing of conventional product lines.

 David Honigs, Ph.D. will share his expertise during the complimentary webinar, “Supporting the Plant-Based Boom: Applying Intuitive Analytical Methods to Enhance Plant-based Dairy Product Development” | Friday, December 17 at 12 pm ETLow in Lactose, High in Quality

Some consumers—although not allergic to dairy—lack the lactase enzyme that is responsible for breaking down the disaccharide, lactose, into the more easily digestible glucose and galactose.

Low-lactose products first started to emerge in 1985 when the USDA developed technology that allowed milk processors to produce lactose-free milk, ice cream and yogurt. This meant consumers that previously had to avoid dairy products could still reap their nutritional benefits without any adverse side effects.

Similar to conventional dairy products, routine in-process analysis in lactose-free dairy production is often carried out using infrared spectroscopy, due to its rapid reporting. Additionally, the wavelengths that are used to identify dairy components are well documented, allowing for easier determination of fats, proteins and sugars.

Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) technologies are the most popular of the infrared spectroscopy instruments used in dairy analysis. As cream is still very liquid, even at high solid levels, FTIR can still effectively be used for the determination and analysis of its components. For products with a higher percentage of solids—usually above 20%—near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy can provide much better results. Due to its ability to penetrate pathlengths up to 20 mm, this method is more suitable for the analysis of cheeses and yogurts. For low-lactose products in particular, FTIR technology is integral to production, as it can also be used to monitor the breakdown of lactose.

Finger on the Pulse

For some consumers, dairy products must be avoided altogether. Contrary to intolerances that only affect the digestive system, allergies affect the immune system of the body. This means that allergenic ingredients, such as milk or dairy, are treated as foreign invaders and can result in severe adverse reactions, such as anaphylactic shock, when ingested.

From 2012 to 2017, U.S. sales of plant-based milk steadily rose by 61%. With this increasing demand and the need to provide alternatives for those with allergies, it has never been a more important time to get plant-based milk processing right the first time. Although the quantification of fat, protein and sugar content is still important in these products, they pose different challenges to processors.

In order to mimic traditional dairy products, plant-based milk is often formulated with additional ingredients or as a blend of two plant milks. Sunflower or safflower oil can be added to increase viscosity and cane syrup or salt may be added to enhance flavor. All of these can affect the stability of the milk, so stabilizers or acidity regulators may also be present. Additionally, no plant milk is the same. Coconut milk is very high in fat content but very low in protein and sugar; on the other hand, oat milk is naturally very high in carbohydrates. This not only makes them suitable for different uses, but also means they require different analytical procedures to quantify their components.

Although many FTIR and NIR instruments can be applied to plant-based milk in the same way as dairy milk, the constantly evolving formulation differences pose issues to processors. For example, the way that protein is determined in dairy milk will vary from the way protein is determined in almond milk. Both will follow a method of quantifying the nitrogen content but must be multiplied by a different factor. To help overcome these challenges, many companies have started to develop plant-based milk calibrations that can be used in conjunction with existing infrared instruments. Currently, universal calibrations exist to determine the protein, fat, solids, and sugar content of novel products. With more research and data, it’s likely in the future these will be expanded to generate calibrations that are specific to soy, almond and oat milk.

Even with exciting advancements in analytical testing for plant-based milk, the downtime for analysis is still a lot higher than traditional dairy. This is due to the increased solid content of plant-based milk. Many are often a suspension of solid particles in an aqueous solution, as opposed to dairy milk, which is a suspension of fat globules in aqueous solution. This means processors need to factor in additional centrifuge and cleaning steps to ensure results are as accurate and repeatable as possible.

In addition to the FTIR and NIR instruments used for traditional dairy testing, plant-based milk can also benefit from the implementation of diode array (DA) NIR instruments into existing workflows. With the ability to be placed at- and on-line, DA instruments can provide continual reporting for the constituent elements of plant-based milk as they move through the processing facility. These instruments can also produce results in about six seconds, compared to the 30 seconds of regular IR instruments, so are of great importance for rapid reporting of multiple tests across a day.

Keeping It Simple

Although the consumption of dairy-free products is on the rise, lots of plant-based milk are also made from other allergenic foods, such as soy, almonds and peanuts. Therefore, having low-lactose alternatives on the market is still valuable to provide consumers with a range of suitable options.

To do this, dairy processors and new plant-based milk processors need access to instruments that rapidly and efficiently produce accurate compositional analysis. For dairy processors who have recently started creating low-lactose or dairy-free milk alternatives, it is important that their instrumentation is flexible and used for the analysis of all their product outputs.

Looking towards the future, it’s likely both dairy products and their plant-based counterparts will have a place in consumers’ diets. Although there is some divide on which of these products is better—both for the environment and in terms of health—one thing that will become increasingly more important is the attitude towards the labeling of these products. Clean labels and transparency on where products are coming from, and the relative fat, protein and sugar content of foods, are important to many consumers. Yet another reason why effective testing and analytical solutions need to be available to food processors.

Salmonella Surveillance

Mid-Year Pathogen Surveillance and Inspection Update

By Nathan Libbey
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Salmonella Surveillance

Food Recalls

The first half of 2021 saw almost a 20% increase in recalls vs. the last 6 months of 2020 (117 vs. 96). According to a recent report by Lathrop GPM, LLC, food producers have seen an increase in food safety incidents since the pandemic began, and expect an ongoing increase over the next year.1 A majority of recalls were due to undeclared allergens or potential for allergen cross contamination. Second to allergens were potential for microbiological contaminants, including Salmonella, Listeria, E. coli, and Cyclospora.

FDA Recalls Recalls
Figure 1 and 2. The first half of 2021 saw a 26% increase of facility inspections by the FDA. Despite this jump, inspections in the first half of 2020 were 80% higher than this year’s first six months. Source: FDA Recalls, Market Withdrawals, & Safety Alerts.

Inspection Results

The first half of 2021 saw a 26% increase of facility inspections by the FDA. Despite this jump, inspections in the first half of 2020 were 80% higher than this year’s first six months. Inspections generally lead to three outcomes; No Action Indicated (continue as you were,) Voluntary Action Indicated (voluntary to make some changes), or Official Action Indicated (OAI) (Regulatory Actions will be recommended by the FDA). A majority of inspections (56%) resulted in NAI this year, compared to 59% and 50% in the first and second halves of 2020, respectively.

Facility Inspections
Figure 3. Facility Inspections. Data from FDA.

Salmonella Surveillance

The FSIS provides ongoing surveillance of Salmonella and Campylobacter presence in poultry, both domestic and imported. Salmonella is reported by facility and each is given a category rating of 1–3. One is exceeding the standard (based on a 52-week moving average), two is meeting the standard, and three is below standard. For the 52-week reporting period ending May 30, 2021, 60% achieved category one, compared to 56% the previous 52 weeks.

Salmonella Surveillance Salmonella Surveillance
Figures 4 & 5. Salmonella surveillance data from FDA.

Listeria and Salmonella Surveillance in RTE Meat and Poultry

USDA FSIS conducts periodic sampling of Ready to Eat (RTE) meat and poultry products and reports quarterly results. Sampling is conducted both in a random fashion as well as based on risk-based sampling. In Q2 2021, 4769 samples were tested for Listeria, compared to 4632 in Q1.

Percent positive rates were .36% for Q2 and .43% for Q1. Neither quarter reported any positives for Listeria in imported RTE Meat and Poultry Products.

Salmonella samples for RTE totaled 3676 in Q2 2021, compared with 3566 in Q1. In both quarters, only 1 positive was found in the samples collected.

Routine Beef Sampling for E. coli 0157:H7 and STEC

The FSIS also conducts ongoing routine sampling of beef products for E. coli. E. coli is further classified into 0157:H7 and non-0157:H7 Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC). In Q2 of 2021, 4467 samples were collected and tested for 0157:H7 versus 4268 in Q1. Of these, three were positive, compared to seven positives the preceding quarter. For STEC, a total of 8 positives were found, compared to 1 positive in Q1. No positives were found in imported goods in Q2, although in Q1 2021, 4 positives for STEC were found.

Conclusion

The first half of 2021 showed an increase in activity, which is on par with food industry survey data. Food recalls have increased, with food allergens remaining the most prevalent reason for recall or withdrawal. While inspections also increased, they have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. The impact of the spread of the Delta variant and increased restrictions is yet to be seen, but inspection activity will likely not rebound entirely by the end of the year. Pathogen tests by FSIS increased quarter over quarter for Salmonella, E. coli, and STEC, with mixed results in prevalence.

Reference

1. Lathrop GPM, LLC. (2021). Food Processing Trends, Outlook and Guidance Report. Retrieved from https://www.lathropgpm.com/report-agribusiness.html