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Chocolate

Chocolate and Big Data: The Recipe for Food Safety Is Changing

By Steven Sklare
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Chocolate

Almost everybody loves chocolate, an ancient, basic, almost universal and primal source of pleasure. “The story of chocolate beings with cocoa trees that grew wild in the tropical rainforests of the Amazon basin and other areas in Central and South America for thousands of years… Christopher Columbus is said to have brought the first cocoa beans back to Europe from his fourth visit to the New World” between 1502 and 1504.1

Unfortunately, the production of chocolate and chocolate products today is as complex as any other global food product with supply chains that reach from one end of the world to the other. The complexity of the supply chain and production, along with the universal demand for the finished product, exposes chocolate to increasing pressure from numerous hazards, both unintentional and intentional. For example, we know that more than 70% of cocoa production takes place in West African countries, particularly the Ivory Coast and Ghana. These regions are politically unstable, and production is frequently disrupted by fighting. While production has started to expand into more stable regions, it has not yet become diversified enough to normalize the supply. About 17% of production takes place in the Americas (primarily South America) and 9% from Asia and Oceania.2

In today’s world of global commerce these pressures are not unique to chocolate. Food quality and safety experts should be armed with tools and innovations that can help them examine specific hazards and fraud pertaining to chocolate and chocolate products. In fact, the global nature of the chocolate market, requires fast reflexes that protect brand integrity and dynamic quality processes supported by informed decisions. Digital tools have become a necessity when a fast interpretation of dynamic data is needed. If a food organization is going to effectively protect the public’s health, protect their brand and comply with various governmental regulations and non-governmental standards such as GFSI, horizon scanning, along with the use of food safety intelligent digital tools, needs to be incorporated into food company’s core FSQA program.

This article pulls information from a recent industry report about chocolate products that presents an examination of the specific hazards and fraud pertaining to chocolate and chocolate products along with ways to utilize this information.

Cocoa and chocolate products rely on high quality ingredients and raw materials, strict supplier partnership schemes and conformity to clearly defined quality and safety standards. During the past 10 years there have been a significant number of food safety incidents associated with chocolate products. The presence of Salmonella enterica, Listeria monocytogenes, allergens and foreign materials in cocoa/chocolate products have been reported on a global scale. Today, information on food safety incidents and potential risks is quickly and widely available by way of the internet. However, because the pertinent data is frequently siloed, food safety professionals are unable to take full advantage of it.

Top Emerging Hazards: Chocolate Products (2013-2018)

Publicly available data, from sources such as European Union RASFF, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, UK Food Standards Agency, FDA, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), shows a significant increase in identified food safety incidents for cocoa/chocolate products from 2013 to 2018. For this same time period, the top emerging hazards that were identified for chocolate products were the following:

  • Allergens: 51.60%
  • Biological: 16.49%
  • Foreign bodies: 13.83%
  • Chemical: 7.45%
  • Fraud: 6.38%
  • Food additives & flavorings: 4.26%
  • Other hazards: 2.66%

By using such information to identify critical food safety protection trends, which we define to include food safety (unintentional adulteration) and food fraud (intentional adulteration, inclusive of authenticity/intentional misrepresentation) we can better construct our food protection systems to focus on the areas that present the greatest threats to public health, brand protection and compliance.

A Data Driven Approach

Monitoring Incoming Raw Materials
Assessment and identification of potential food protection issues, including food safety and fraud, at the stage of incoming raw materials is of vital importance for food manufacturers. Knowledge of the associated risks and vulnerabilities allows for timely actions and appropriate measures that may ultimately prevent an incident from occurring.

Specifically, the efficient utilization of global food safety and fraud information should allow for:

  • Identification of prevalent, increasing and/or emerging risks and vulnerabilities associated with raw materials
  • Comparative evaluation of the risk profile for different raw materials’ origins
  • Critical evaluation and risk-based selection of raw materials’ suppliers

A comprehensive risk assessment must start with the consideration of the identified food safety incidents of the raw material, which include the inherent characteristics of the raw material. Next, the origin-related risks must be taken into account and then the supplier-related risks must be examined. The full risk assessment is driven by the appropriate food safety data, its analysis and application of risk assessment scientific models on top of the data.

Using food safety intelligent digital tools to analyze almost 400 unique, chocolate product related food safety incidents around the globe provides us with important, useful insights about cocoa as a raw material, as a raw material from a specific origin and as a raw material being provided by specific suppliers. The graph below represents the results of the analysis illustrating the trend of incidents reported between 2002 and 2018. It can be observed that after a significant rise between 2009 and 2010, the number of incidents approximately doubled and remained at that level for the rest of the evaluated period (i.e., from 2010 to 2018), compared to the period from 2002 to 2005.

Cocoa incidents, FOODAKAI
Graph from Case Study: Chocolate Products: lessons learned from global food safety and fraud data and the guidance it can provide to the food industry,
an industry report from FOODAKAI. Used with permission.

By further analyzing the data stemming from the 400 food safety incidents and breaking them down into more defined hazards, for incoming raw materials, we can clearly see that chemical hazards represent the major hazard category for cocoa.

  • Chemical: 73.46%
  • Biological: 16.49%
  • Organoleptic aspects: 5.93%
  • Other Hazards: 4.38%
  • Fraud: 2.32%
  • Foreign bodies: 2.06%
  • Food additives and flavorings: .77%
  • Allergens: .52%
  • Food contact materials: .52%

Using the appropriate analytical tools, someone can drill down into the data and identify the specific incidents within the different hazard categories. For example, within the “chemical hazard” category specific hazards such as organophosphates, neonicotinoids, pyrethroids and organochlorines were identified.

Comparative Evaluation of Risk Profiles for Different Origins of Raw Materials
The main regions of origin for cocoa globally are Africa, Asia and South America. After collecting and analyzing all relevant data from recalls and border rejections and the frequency of pertinent incidents, we can accurately identify the top hazards for cocoa by region.

The top five specific hazards for the regions under discussion are listed in Table I.

Africa South America Asia
1 Organophosphate 2,4-dinitrophenol (DNP) 2,4-dinitrophenol (DNP)
2 Molds Pyrethroid Poor or insufficient controls
3 Neonicotinoid Aflatoxin Aflatoxin
4 Pyrethroid Cadmium Spoilage
5 Organochlorine Anilinopyrimidine Salmonella
Table I.  Top Five Hazards By Region

After the first level of analysis, a further interpretation of the data using the appropriate data intelligence tools can help to reach to very specific information on the nature of the incidents. This provides additional detail that is helpful in understanding how the regional risk profiles compare. For example, the prevalence of chemical contamination, as either industrial contaminants or pesticides, has been a commonly observed pattern for all three of the regions in Table I. However, beyond the general hazard category level, there are also different trends with regard to specific hazards for the three different regions. One such example is the increased presence of mold in cocoa beans coming from Africa.

The primary hazard categories for cocoa, as a raw ingredient were identified and a comparison among the primary hazards for cocoa by region (origin-specific) should take place. The next step in a data-powered supplier assessment workflow would be to incorporate our use of global food safety data in evaluating the suppliers of the raw materials.

The Role of Global Food Safety Data

This article has been focused on chocolate products but has only touched the surface in terms of the information available in the complete report, which also includes specific information about key raw materials. Let’s also be clear, that the techniques and tools used to generate this information are applicable to all food products and ingredients. As we strive to produce food safely in the 21st Century and beyond, we must adapt our methods or be left behind.

The regulatory environment the food industry must operate in has never been more intense. The threats to an organization’s brand have never been greater. This is not going to change. What must change is the way in which food companies confront these challenges.

Global food safety data can contribute to the establishment of an adaptive food safety/QA process that will provide time savings and improve a quality team’s efficiency and performance.

Based on the continuous analysis of food recalls and rejections by key national and international food authorities, a food safety / quality assurance manager could establish an adaptive supplier verification process and risk assessment process by utilizing the knowledge provided by such data. In that way, QA, procurement, food safety and quality departments can be empowered with critical supplier data that will inform the internal procedures for incoming materials and ingredients (e.g., raw materials, packaging materials) and allow for adaptive laboratory testing routines and compliance protocols. Moreover, food safety systems can become adaptive, enabling quality assurance and safety professionals to quickly update points of critical control when needed, and intervene in important stages of the chocolate manufacturing process.

References

  1. Discovering Chocolate. The Great Chocolate Discovery. Cadbury website. Retrieved from https://www.cadbury.com.au/About-Chocolate/Discovering-Chocolate.aspx.
  2. Chocolate Industry Analysis 2020 – Cost & Trends. Retrieved from https://www.franchisehelp.com/industry-reports/chocolate-industry-analysis-2020-cost-trends/.
Michele Pfannenstiel, Dirigo Food Safety
FST Soapbox

Quality Assurance and Food Safety in Cannabis-Infused Products

By Michele Pfannenstiel, DVM
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Michele Pfannenstiel, Dirigo Food Safety

The legal cannabis-infused products industry is growing with impressive and predictable rapidity. But because the rollout of new regulations occurs in an awkward and piecemeal fashion, with stark differences from one state to another, and sometimes even one county to another, uncertainty reigns.1 Many entrepreneurs are diving headlong into the nascent industry, hoping to take advantage of an uncertain regulatory environment where government audits and inspections are rare. These business owners will see quality assurance and product safety as burdens—costs to be avoided to the greatest extent possible.

I have seen this time and time again, even in the comparatively well-regulated food industry, and it is always a mistake.

If you find yourself thinking about quality assurance or food safety as a prohibitive cost, annoyance or distraction, I encourage you to change your thinking on this issue. The most successful businesses realize that product safety and quality assurance are inextricably linked with profitability. They are best thought of not as distractions, but as critical elements of an efficient and optimized process. Proper QA and safety are not costs, they are value.

Food safety and quality assurance should be seen as important elements of the process that you undertake to enforce the high standards and consistency that will win you repeat customers. The fact that they guard against costly recalls or satisfy meddlesome auditors is only a bonus. Realizing this will make your business smarter, faster and more profitable.

Learn more about the science, technology, regulatory compliance and quality management issues surrounding cannabis at the Food Labs / Cannabis Labs Conference | June 2–4, 2020If today you cannot clearly communicate your product standards to your employees and to your customers, then you have some work to do. That’s because quality assurance always begins with precise product specifications. (A good definition of “quality” is “conformance to specifications.”) How can you assess quality if you don’t have a definitive standard with which to evaluate it? My consulting firm works with food businesses both small and large, and this is where we begin every relationship. You might be surprised how often even a well-established business has a difficult time naming and describing every one of its products, let alone articulating objective standards for them.

This may be doubly difficult for fledgling businesses in the cannabis world. Because the market is so new, there are fewer agreed-upon standards to fall back on.

When we help businesses create specifications, we always look at the relevant regulations while keeping in mind customer expectations. In cannabis, the regulations just aren’t as comprehensive as they are for conventional food and agriculture. Laws and guidelines are still in flux, and different third-party standards are still competing for market dominance. Different states have entirely different standards, and don’t even agree, for example, whether cannabis edibles should be considered pharmaceuticals or food. To some extent, it’s the wild west of regulation, and as long as the federal government remains reluctant to impose national guidelines, it’s likely to remain so.

The wild west may be a good place for the unscrupulous, but it’s not good for business owners that care about the health of their customers and the long-term health of their brand. Don’t take advantage of confusing quality and safety standards by doing the least possible to get by. At some point there will be a scandal in this country when a novel cannabis product makes dozens of customers sick, or worse. You don’t want it to be yours.

With cannabis-infused products, there is a unique additional factor at play: The strength of THC and other psychoactive compounds. Again, there are few agreed-upon standards for potency testing, and relatively little oversight of the laboratories themselves. This allows labs to get sloppy, and even creates an incentive for them to return inflated THC counts; at the very least, results may hugely differ from one lab to another even for identical products.2 Some labs are ISO 17025 accredited, and some are not. Using an unaccredited laboratory may prevent your efforts to create consistent and homogeneous products.

Even in comparatively well-regulated states, such as Colorado, it is ultimately your responsibility to create products that are safe and consistent. And in the states where the politicians haven’t even figured out which department is regulating cannabis products, your standards should be tougher than whatever is officially required.

And so we look to the more established world of conventional food and agriculture as a guide for the best practices in the cannabis industry.

Hazards

The most constructive way to look at food safety, and the way your (eventual) auditors and regulators will view it, is to look at your product and process from the perspective of the potential hazards.

Some day, when regulation finally gets sorted out, you are likely to be asked to implement a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) safety system. HACCP framework recognizes three broad categories of hazards:

  • Physical hazards: Foreign material that is large enough to cause harm, such as glass or metal fragments.
  • Chemical hazards: Pesticides and herbicides, heavy metals, solvents and cleaning solutions.
  • Biological hazards: The pathogens that cause foodborne illness in your customers, such as E. coli, and other biological hazards, such as mycotoxins from molds.

All of these hazards are highly relevant to cannabis-infused product businesses.

The HACCP framework asks us to consider what steps in our process offer us the chance to definitively and objectively eliminate the risk of relevant hazards. In a cannabis cookie, for example, this might be a cooking step, a baking process that kills the Salmonella that could be lurking in your flour, eggs, chocolate or (just as likely!) the cannabis extracts themselves.

A good HACCP system is merely the capstone resting atop a larger foundational system of safety programs, including standard operating procedures, good manufacturing practices, and good agricultural practices. It’s important to use these agreed-upon practices and procedures in your own facility and to ensure that your suppliers and shippers are doing the same. Does your cultivator have a culture of safety and professionalism? Do they understand their own risks of hazards?

HACCP offers a rigorous perspective with which to look at a process, and to examine all of the places where it can go wrong. The safety system ultimately holds everything together because of its emphasis on scrupulous documentation. Every important step is written down, every time, and is always double-checked by a supervisor. It sounds like a lot of paperwork, but it is better viewed as an opportunity to enforce consistency and precision.

When you thoroughly document your process you’ll create a safer product, run a more efficient business, and make more money.

References

  1. Rough, L. (2016, March 4). Leafly’s State-by-State Guide to Cannabis Regulations. Retrieved from https://www.leafly.com/news/industry/leaflys-state-by-state-guide-to-cannabis-testing-regulations
  2. Jikomes, N. & Zoorob, M. (2018, March 14). The Cannabinoid Content of Legal Cannabis in Washington State Varies Systematically Across Testing Facilities and Popular Consumer Products. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-22755-2