Tag Archives: cleaning

Recall

More than 500 Reported Ill, Red Onions Named in Salmonella Outbreak Investigation

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Recall

A multistate outbreak of Salmonella Newport has been traced back to red onions from Thomson International, Inc. a company based in Bakersfield, CA. As of July 31, 396 illnesses were reported in the United States, with 59 hospitalized across 34 states. In Canada, 120 cases have been confirmed, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

As a result, Thomson International is recalling all varieties of its onions (red, white, yellow and sweet) that “could have come in contact with potentially contaminated red onions”, according to an FDA alert.

The FDA, CDC, state and local agencies, as well as the Public Health Agency of Canada are investigating the outbreak. FDA recommends that consumers, restaurants and retailers refrain from eating, selling or serving any onions from Thomson International. The agency also states that any surfaces, containers or storage areas that may have come into contact with these products be cleaned and sanitized.

Dave Premo, Birko Corp.
FST Soapbox

How to Maintain Food Safety and Protect Your Brand During Construction

By Dave Premo
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Dave Premo, Birko Corp.

If your food processing facility needs an expansion or update, construction can be a disruptive event. Throughout the process, a variety of food safety hazards can be present, potentially putting your products at risk. While the contractors you work with are skilled at their trade, protecting your brand is ultimately your responsibility.

Construction, food safety
Developing a thorough plan can keep products, the facility and your employees safe during construction. Images courtesy of Birko.

Extra precautions are needed to minimize the food safety risks during construction, but by developing a thorough plan and following it diligently, you can keep your products, facility and employees safe.

Preparation: The Important First Steps for Safety

Having an established environmental plan before construction starts will make the construction process go smoothly and help maintain safety. If the plan your staff is following needs changes or improvements, make updates in advance of construction and be sure that your staff is up to speed before the project begins.

First, remove any equipment that can be moved from the construction zone and cover all electrical panels, open conduit and electrical outlets to minimize areas that might harbor dust or bacteria during construction.

Next, taking steps to separate the construction and production areas is crucial. Installing heavy gauge plastic sheeting or even temporary walls to isolate the construction area will help prevent cross-contamination. Any doors or wall openings on the temporary barriers should be sealed on both sides, and the gaps between the base of the barriers and the floor should be adequately sealed to keep the surrounding production areas safe. Do whatever is necessary to minimize organisms from traveling by air outside of the construction zone.

The HVAC and air handling system in the construction area should also be evaluated for cross-contamination potential. Be sure to close off or divert the airflow to prevent air movement from the construction zone to any production areas. In addition, make sure the system will be able to accommodate additional areas or space after construction is complete and make any upgrades if necessary. Thoroughly clean the HVAC system and filters before the construction process starts.

Similarly, evaluate any drains that are present in the construction zone for cross-contamination potential and take precautions to keep pathogens from passing from the construction area to the food production areas.

Make Contractors Part of Your Plan

While contractors might have years of experience in their trade, they don’t know your food safety plan. Schedule a formal food safety training session with the contractor and all members of the construction staff. Don’t allow anyone to work in the facility before completing the training. Determine which protective clothing contractors and their team will need, such as frocks, boot covers or hairnets, and provide a separate bag or place to store them during the construction process.

Designating a single entrance for contractors and construction staff will minimize confusion and avoid mistaken entries into prohibited areas. Educate them on the appropriate traffic flow as they arrive, enter the facility, and conduct their work. Their entrance should be separate from those used by office and food production employees. Have quat or alcohol hand and tool sanitizers stationed at the designated contractor entrance, and require them to sanitize any tools, materials or equipment before entering the facility. Emphasize that no mud or other debris should be tracked into the facility. Provide the necessary guidance and monitor the entrance area to prevent that from happening.

Shoe coverings, food safety, construction
Effectively communicate safety plan with all contractors involved.

Construction staff and in-house food production staff should be separated at all times. To prevent cross-contamination, there shouldn’t be any direct paths from the construction area to the production area. No material from the construction area should ever be brought into the food production area. Contractors and construction staff should also be prohibited from using the break rooms or restrooms that are used by the facility employees. Because they won’t have access to other areas, temporary hand wash sinks may be needed for construction employees to follow frequent hand washing and sanitizing procedures.

Best Practices for Sanitation During Construction

Before demolishing and removing any walls during the construction process, apply a foam disinfectant at 800–1000 ppm without rinsing. If any equipment needs to be moved, or if there will be new equipment brought into the area, clean and disinfect it with quat at 800–1000 ppm without rinsing.

Quat should also be applied heavily on the floors around the designated construction team entrances. Foam or spray contractors’ walkways and the construction area floor every four hours at 800–1000 ppm. Allow contractors, forklifts, dollies or other wheeled carts to regularly travel through the disinfectant to keep their feet and wheels sanitized as they move throughout the construction area.

If your construction project involves new equipment installation, discuss the sanitation requirements and restrictions with a sanitation chemical provider before purchasing this equipment to ensure you have the right chemistry on hand. Any new equipment should be cleaned and sanitized, as well as the area where it will be installed, before bringing the equipment into the area. Make sure all the surfaces of the new equipment are compatible with your current cleaning chemistry and that the installation follows proper food safety guidelines. If necessary, upgrade your food safety process to accommodate the new equipment.

Transitioning from Construction to Safe Food Production
Once the construction project is complete, remove all construction materials, tools, debris, plastic sheeting and temporary walls. Seal any holes that might have occurred in the floors, walls and ceilings where equipment was moved, and repair or replace epoxy or other floor coverings. Inspect any forklifts or man lifts used during the construction, and clean and sanitize them.

Clean the HVAC and air handling system and return it to either its pre-construction settings or an updated configuration based on what the new area requires.

Continue cleaning everything in the construction area, from ceiling to floor, including lights, walls, drains, refrigeration units and all equipment following SSOPs. Note that different cleaning products containing solvents may be needed for the initial cleaning to remove cutting oil, welding flux residues, greases, and other elements from the construction process. Be sure to have those cleaning products on hand before you get to this step to avoid delays of a thorough sanitation process. Where necessary, passivate any stainless steel equipment.

Finally, test the environment. Collect a special set of swabs and monitor the results. Apply post-rinse sanitizer and then begin food production. Implement an enhanced environmental monitoring program in all areas disrupted by the construction until the data shows a return to the baseline levels. Revise your facility SSOPs in light of any changes based on the new construction.

Achieving Seamless Productivity

Expansion can mean new capabilities for your business, but lax food safety processes during construction can jeopardize the new opportunities your expansion brings. By having a strong plan in place, following it diligently, educating contractors on your plan, monitoring activity, and using effective sanitizing chemistry, you will be able to expand while protecting your brand and avoiding food safety issues.

Frank Meek, Orkin, Rollins
Bug Bytes

How to Keep Pathogen-Spreading Pests Out of Your Business

By Frank Meek
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Frank Meek, Orkin, Rollins

As food processors and retailers work tirelessly to feed the public during the current global health pandemic, pests continue to work overtime to keep their food supply on track. Filth flies, cockroaches and rodents, in particular, pose a threat to the food supply chain, especially with concerns of the transmission of pathogens at an all-time high. The last thing your business needs is an avoidable food safety incident that threatens your reputation and bottom line.

When it comes to food safety, pathogen-spreading pests have no place in your facility and pose a major public health risk. Not only can these filthy pests become a nuisance within your facility, they can also contaminate your products and spread foodborne bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria, which can cause illnesses.

Knowing what attracts these pests to your facility and the dangers they pose is important for effective removal. Let’s dive into the signs of cockroaches, filth flies and rodents, and the specific concerns they can cause.

Frank Meek shares his expertise in the complimentary on-demand webinar “Covert Operations: Places Pests Slide into Your Facility UnnoticedCockroaches

Cockroaches seek four things that food processing facilities provide in abundance—food, shelter, proper temperatures and water. With the ability to squeeze through tiny gaps and cracks, these dirty pests enjoy crawling under equipment, in cabinets and through drains to find their next meal. Cockroaches can be found in and around almost any place within your facility. They’re capable of carrying harmful bacteria that they can spread from one location to another. Look out for droppings, cast skins or egg cases, which might signal a cockroach problem.

Filth Flies

You may think these types of flies have no desire to be inside, but they are in fact happy to go wherever the conditions are right. The most common filth fly is the housefly. These winged pests can carry and spread more than 100 disease-causing pathogens including bacteria, fungi and viruses. These can cause illnesses such as cholera, dysentery and infantile diarrhea. Filth flies in your facility can lead to a major public health issue if your food becomes contaminated.

Rodents

One of the filthiest pests around, rodents can contaminate your food supply, destroy or consume products and cause structural damage to your facility. Like cockroaches, mice and rats can fit through relatively small spaces to find food and water. With sightings on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ll want to keep an eye out for rodents near your food products. These mighty chewers pose a public health threat as they can transmit diseases such as hantavirus and lymphocytic choriomeningitis (LCM) via their urine and droppings.

The presence of these vermin in your facility threatens public health. Additionally, an infestation can slow down the supply chain by causing businesses to recall contaminated foods.

A rigorous sanitation routine is one of the most effective ways to proactively manage pests like cockroaches, rodents and filth flies. Regularly sanitizing and disinfecting your facility can help eliminate any pathogens left behind on hard surfaces and remove the attractants for which they search. While cleaning removes dirt and buildup, sanitization and disinfection kill bacteria and pathogens, reducing the risk of a food safety issue.

Including the following tips in your cleaning routine can help keep your products and reputation safe from harm.

  • Clean out drains routinely with an enzymatic cleaning solution that can break down the organic grime.
  • Disinfect high-touch hard surfaces with a proper and low-toxicity disinfectant to kill bacteria and pathogens that can cause food illnesses.
  • Move dumpsters away from your building to reduce flies being attracted to and then gaining easy entry into your facility.
  • Wipe spills as soon as they occur to prevent them from becoming a sticky paradise for flies and cockroaches.
  • Practice good hygiene in your work environment and ensure employees are washing their hands regularly and keeping break rooms free of trash and leftovers.

Implementing exclusion practices such as sealing cracks, gaps and holes in walls with a proper sealant can also help you keep pests out. Budget allowing, consider investing in insect light traps and mechanical traps to help reduce flying insects inside.

Communication with your suppliers and distributors is also important to ensure food safety. If your partners implement similar measures, you’re more likely to protect the public from harmful diseases. Furthermore, customers will continue to trust your business.

While following these tips can help reduce the chances of a pest infestation, it’s not always possible to keep pests and the pathogens they spread out of your food processing facility. Work with a trained pest control specialist to develop a customized prevention program for your business as each type of pest requires specific treatment. They can also help you schedule inspections to identify conditions in and around your facility that may attract flies, cockroaches and rodents, among other pests.

FDA

FDA on How to Return Refrigerated Transport Vehicles and Storage Units to Food Use After Holding Human Remains

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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FDA

The increase in deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed funeral homes and morgues beyond capacity, and other measures have been taken to store the bodies of victims. As a result, refrigerated food transport vehicles and food storage units have been temporarily used for this purpose. Now, FDA has released the guidance document, “Returning Refrigerated Transport Vehicles and Refrigerated Storage Units to Food Uses After Using Them to Preserve Human Remains During the COVID-19 Pandemic” because when those additional storage units are no longer needed to store bodies, “industry may wish to return the trailers and storage units to use for food transport and storage”.

Returning these vehicles and storage units to use for food is possible—but only with thorough cleaning and disinfection. The agency recommends the use of EPA-registered disinfectants that are suitable for the material being disinfected. It also recommends these disinfectants be effective against SARS-CoV-2 and foodborne pathogens. When disinfecting, it is important to adhere to the instructions for use for guidance on how many times application is required, the contact time needed, and effectiveness at refrigeration temperatures. For instances in which the interior surfaces have been in direct contact with blood or bodily fluids, the FDA guidance provides the scenarios in which the vehicles and storage units should not be returned to use for transporting or storing food for humans or animals.

OSHA has also stated that compressed air or water sprays should not be used to clean contaminated surfaces due to the risk of aerosolizing infectious material.

Due to the public health emergency, the guidance has been issued without the agency’s usual 60-day comment period.

Raj Rajagopal, 3M Food Safety
In the Food Lab

Pathogen Detection Guidance in 2020

By Raj Rajagopal
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Raj Rajagopal, 3M Food Safety

Food production managers have a critical role in ensuring that the products they make are safe and uncontaminated with dangerous pathogens. Health and wellness are in sharp focus for consumers in every aspect of their lives right now, and food safety is no exception. As food safety becomes a continually greater focus for consumers and regulators, the technologies used to monitor for and detect pathogens in a production plant have become more advanced.

It’s no secret that pathogen testing is performed for numerous reasons: To confirm the adequacy of processing control and to ensure foods and beverages have been properly stored or cooked, to name some. Accomplishing these objectives can be very different, and depending on their situations, processors rely on different tools to provide varying degrees of testing simplicity, speed, cost, efficiency and accuracy. It’s common today to leverage multiple pathogen diagnostics, ranging from traditional culture-based methods to molecular technologies.

And unfortunately, pathogen detection is more than just subjecting finished products to examination. It’s become increasingly clear to the industry that the environment in which food is processed can cross-contaminate products, requiring food manufacturers to be ever-vigilant in cleaning, sanitizing, sampling and testing their sites.

For these reasons and others, it’s important to have an understanding and appreciation for the newer tests and techniques used in the fight against deadly pathogens, and where and how they might be fit for purpose throughout the operation. This article sheds light on the key features of one fast-growing DNA-based technology that detects pathogens and explains how culture methods for index and indicator organisms continue to play crucial roles in executing broad-based pathogen management programs.

LAMP’s Emergence in Molecular Pathogen Detection

Molecular pathogen detection has been a staple technology for food producers since the adoption of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests decades ago. However, the USDA FSIS revised its Microbiology Laboratory Guidebook, the official guide to the preferred methods the agency uses when testing samples collected from audits and inspections, last year to include new technologies that utilize loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) methods for Salmonella and Listeria detection.

LAMP methods differ from traditional PCR-based testing methods in four noteworthy ways.

First, LAMP eliminates the need for thermal cycling. Fundamentally, PCR tests require thermocyclers with the ability to alter the temperature of a sample to facilitate the PCR. The thermocyclers used for real-time PCR tests that allow detection in closed tubes can be expensive and include multiple moving parts that require regular maintenance and calibration. For every food, beverage or environmental surface sample tested, PCR systems will undergo multiple cycles of heating up to 95oC to break open DNA strands and cooling down to 60oC to extend the new DNA chain in every cycle. All of these temperature variations generally require more run time and the enzyme, Taq polymerase, used in PCR can be subjected to interferences from other inhibiting substances that are native to a sample and co-extracted with the DNA.

LAMP amplifies DNA isothermally at a steady and stable temperature range—right around 60oC. The Bst polymerase allows continuous amplification and better tolerates the sample matrix inhibitors known to trip up PCR. The detection schemes used for LAMP detection frees LAMP’s instrumentation from the constraints of numerous moving pieces.

Secondly, it doubles the number of DNA primers. Traditional PCR tests recognize two separate regions of the target genetic material. They rely on two primers to anneal to the subject’s separated DNA strands and copy and amplify that target DNA.

By contrast, LAMP technology uses four to six primers, which can recognize six to eight distinct regions from the sample’s DNA. These primers and polymerase used not only cause the DNA strand to displace, they actually loop the end of the strands together before initiating amplification cycling. This unique looped structure both accelerates the reaction and increases test result sensitivity by allowing for an exponential accumulation of target DNA.

Third of all, it removes steps from the workflow. Before any genetic amplification can happen, technicians must enrich their samples to deliberately grow microorganisms to detectable levels. Technicians using PCR tests have to pre-dispense lysis buffers or reagent mixes and take other careful actions to extract and purify their DNA samples.

Commercialized LAMP assay kits, on the other hand, offer more of a ready-to-use approach as they offer ready to use lysis buffer and simplified workflow to prepare DNA samples. By only requiring two transfer steps, it can significantly reduces the risk of false negatives caused by erroneous laboratory preparation.

Finally, it simplifies multiple test protocols into one. Food safety lab professionals using PCR technology have historically been required to perform different test protocols for each individual pathogen, whether that be Salmonella, Listeria, E. coli O157:H7 or other. Not surprisingly, this can increase the chances of error. Oftentimes, labs are resource-challenged and pressure-packed environments. Having to keep multiple testing steps straight all of the time has proven to be a recipe for trouble.

LAMP brings the benefit of a single assay protocol for testing all pathogens, enabling technicians to use the same protocol for all pathogen tests. This streamlined workflow involving minimal steps simplifies the process and reduces risk of human-caused error.

Index and Indicator Testing

LAMP technology has streamlined and advanced pathogen detection, but it’s impractical and unfeasible for producers to molecularly test every single product they produce and every nook and cranny in their production environments. Here is where an increasing number of companies are utilizing index and indicator tests as part of more comprehensive pathogen environmental programs. Rather than testing for specific pathogenic organisms, these tools give a microbiological warning sign that conditions may be breeding undesirable food safety or quality outcomes.

Index tests are culture-based tests that detect microorganisms whose presence (or detection above a threshold) suggest an increased risk for the presence of an ecologically similar pathogen. Listeria spp. Is the best-known index organism, as its presence can also mark the presence of deadly pathogen Listeria monocytogenes. However, there is considerable skepticism among many in the research community if there are any organisms outside of Listeria spp. that can be given this classification.

Indicator tests, on the other hand, detect the presence of organisms reflecting the general microbiological condition of a food or the environment. The presence of indicator organisms can not provide any information on the potential presence or absence of a specific pathogen or an assessment of potential public health risk, but their levels above acceptable limits can indicate insufficient cleaning and sanitation or operating conditions.

Should indicator test results exceed the established control limits, facilities are expected to take appropriate corrective action and to document the actions taken and results obtained. Utilizing cost-effective, fast indicator tests as benchmark to catch and identify problem areas can suggest that more precise, molecular methods need to be used to verify that the products are uncontaminated.

Process Matters

As discussed, technology plays a large role in pathogen detection, and advances like LAMP molecular detection methods combined with strategic use of index and indicator tests can provide food producers with powerful tools to safeguard their consumers from foodborne illnesses. However, whether a producer is testing environmental samples, ingredients or finished product, a test is only as useful as the comprehensive pathogen management plan around it.

The entire food industry is striving to meet the highest safety standards and the best course of action is to adopt a solution that combines the best technologies available with best practices in terms of processes as well –from sample collection and preparation to monitoring and detection.

Maria Fontanazza, Food Safety Tech
From the Editor’s Desk

COVID-19 in the Food Industry: So Many Questions

By Maria Fontanazza
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Maria Fontanazza, Food Safety Tech

Industries across the global are reeling from the COVID-19 crisis. Although we are clearly not in a state of “business as usual”, the food industry is essential. And as this entire industry must continue to move forward in its duty to provide safe, quality food products, so many questions remain. These questions include: Should I test my employees for fever before allowing them into the manufacturing facility? What do we do if an employee tests positive for COVID-19? How can the company continue safe production? Should we sanitize between shifts on the production line? Should employees on the production floor wear face masks and shields? At what temperature can the virus be killed? The list truly goes on. We saw it ourselves during the first Food Safety Tech webinar last week, “COVID-19 in the Food Industry: Protecting Your Employees and Consumers” (you can register and listen to the recording here). Amidst their incredibly busy schedules, we were lucky to be graced with the presence and expertise of Shawn Stevens (food safety lawyer, Food Industry Counsel, LLC), April Bishop (senior director of food safety, TreeHouse Foods, Inc. and Jennifer McEntire, Ph.D. (vice president of food safety, United Fresh Produce Association) for this virtual event.

From a manufacturing point of view, we learned about the important ways companies can protect their employees—via thorough cleaning of high-touch areas, vigilance with CDC-recommended sanitizers, conducting risk assessments related to social distancing and employees in the production environment—along with the “what if’s” related to employees who test positive for COVID-19. Although FDA has made it clear that there is currently no indication of human transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus through food or food packaging, some folks are concerned about this issue as well.

“The U.S. food supply remains safe for both people and animals. There is no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging being associated with transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19,” said Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response in the agency’s blog last week. “Unlike foodborne gastrointestinal viruses like norovirus and hepatitis A that make people ill through contaminated food, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is a virus that causes respiratory illness. This virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person. Foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission.”

As the industry continues to adjust to this new and uncertain environment, we at Food Safety Tech are working to keep you in touch with experts who can share best practices and answer your questions. I encourage you to join us on Thursday, April 2 for our second webinar in this series that I referenced earlier, COVID-19 in the Food Industry: Enterprise Risk Management and the Supply Chain. We will be joined by Melanie Neumann, executive vice president & general counsel for Matrix Sciences International, Inc. and Martin Wiedmann, Ph.D., Gellert Family Professor in Food Safety at Cornell University, and the event promises to reveal more important information about how we can work through this crisis together.

We hear it often in our industry: “Food safety is not a competitive advantage.” This phrase has never been more true.

Stay safe, stay well, and thank you for all that you do.

Steven Sklare, Food Safety Academy
Retail Food Safety Forum

Ring, Ring, Ring: COVID-19? Beware Your Filthy Cell Phone

By Steven Sklare
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Steven Sklare, Food Safety Academy

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the rest of the world has embraced one of the well-known mantras of the food safety profession: Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands. It is equally urgent that we expand that call to arms (or hands) a bit to include: Sanitize your cell phone, sanitize your cell phone, sanitize your cell phone.

A typical cell phone has approximately 25,000 germs per square inch compared to a toilet seat, which has approximately 1200 germs per square inch, a pet bowl with approximately 2100 germs per square inch, a doorknob with 8600 germs per square inch and a check-out screen with approximately 4500 germs per square inch.

Back in the day, when restaurants were still open for a sit-down, dining room meal, during a visit to an upscale Chicago restaurant I had the need to use the restroom. As I left the restroom, an employee, in kitchen whites, walked into the restroom with his cell phone in his hand. It hit me like a bolt of gastrointestinal pain. Even if the employee properly washed his hands, that cell phone with its 25,000 germs per square (and some new fecal material added for good measure) would soon be back in the kitchen. Today, we can add COVID-19 to the long list of potentially dangerous microbes on that cell phone, if the owner of the phone is COVID-19 positive. We also know that the virus can be transferred through the air if someone is COVID-19 positive or has come in close proximity to the surface of a cell phone. As we know, many kitchens are still operating, if only to provide carryout or delivery service. Even though we are not treating COVID-19 as a foodborne illness, great concern remains regarding the transfer of pathogens to the face of the cell phone user, whether it is the owner of the cell phone or someone else who is using it. Just as there are individuals that are asymptomatic carriers of foodborne illness (i.e., Typhoid Mary), we know that there are COVID-19 positive individuals that are either asymptomatic or presenting as a cold or mild flu. These individuals are still highly contagious and the people that may pick-up the virus from them may have a more severe response to the illness.

A recent study from the UK found that 92% of mobile phones had bacterial contamination and one in six had fecal matter. This study was conducted, of course, before the current COVID-19 pandemic. However, consider that the primary form of transfer of the COVID-19 pathogen is from sneezing or coughing. This makes the placement of the virus on the cell phone easier to accomplish than the fecal-oral route because even if the individual recently washed their hands, if they sneeze or cough on their phone, their clean hands are irrelevant.

I also know there is no widely established protocol, for the foodservice industry, food manufacturing industry, sanitizing/cleaning industry, housekeeping, etc., for cleaning and sanitizing a cell phone while on the job. For example, if you examine a dozen foodservice industry standard lists of “when you should wash your hands” you will always see included in the list, “after using the phone”. However, that is usually referring to a wall mounted or desktop land line phone. What about the mobile phone that goes into the food handler’s pocket, loaded with potentially disease-causing germs? I have certainly witnessed a food handler set a cell phone down on a counter, then carefully wash his/her hands at a hand sink, dry their hands and then pick-up their filthy cell phone and either put it in their pocket, make a call or send a text message. What applies to the “food handler” also applies to those individuals on the job cleaning and sanitizing food contact surfaces, and other surfaces that many people will come in direct contact with such as handrails, doorknobs sink handles, and so on.

How can the pathogen count for a cell phone be so high compared to other items you would assume would be loaded with germs? The high number cited for a cell phone is accumulative. How often do you clean your cell phone (or for that matter your keyboard or touch screen)? I’ll bet not very often, if ever. In addition, a frequently used cell phone remains warm and with just a small amount of food debris (even if not visible to the naked eye) creates an ideal breeding environment for bacteria. Unlike bacteria, we know that viruses do not reproduce outside of a cell. The cell phone still presents an excellent staging area for the COVID-19 virus while it waits to be transferred to someone’s face or nose.

While there have been some studies conducted on mobile phone contamination and the food industry, most of the statistics we have come from studies conducted in the healthcare industry involving healthcare workers. If anything, we would hope the hygiene practices in the healthcare environment to be better (or at least as good) as the foodservice industry. It is not a pretty picture. In reviewing various studies, I consistently saw results of the following: 100% contamination of mobile phone surfaces; 94.5% of phones demonstrated evidence of bacterial contamination with different types of bacteria; 82% and so on.

Let’s state the obvious: A mobile phone, contaminated with 1000’s of potentially disease causing germs, acts as a reservoir of pathogens available to be transferred from the surface of the phone to a food contact surface or directly to food and must be considered a viable source of foodborne illness. As we stated earlier, we are not treating COVID-19 as a foodborne illness, but we cannot ignore the role that a cell phone could play in transferring and keeping in play this dangerous pathogen.

What do we do about it? Fortunately we can look to the healthcare industry for some guidance and adapt to the foodservice industry, some of the recommendations that have come from healthcare industry studies.

Some steps would include the following:

  1. Education and training to increase awareness about the potential risks associated with mobile phones contaminated with pathogens.
  2. Establish clear protocols that specifically apply to the use of and presence of mobile phones in the foodservice operation.
  3. Establish that items, inclusive of mobile phones, that cannot be properly cleaned and sanitized should not be used or present where the contamination of food can occur or …
  4. If an item, inclusive of a mobile phone, cannot be properly cleaned and sanitized, it must be encased in a “cover” that can be cleaned and sanitized.
  5. The “user” of the mobile phone must be held accountable for the proper cleaning and sanitizing of the device (or its acceptable cover).

It’s safe to assume the mobile phone is not going to go away. We must make sure that it remains a tool to help us better manage our lives and communication, and does not become a vehicle for the transfer of foodborne illness causing pathogens or COVID-19.

Doug White, PSSI
FST Soapbox

The Real-Time Value of Technology in Food Safety

By Doug White
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Doug White, PSSI

We live in a world where information on any subject is at our fingertips and can be accessed instantly. These real-time notifications keep us up to date on whatever topics we choose. This information helps guide our daily decisions and communicate more effectively with each other.

The same is true in business. We can be more efficient and make more informed decisions based on the information we have at various points throughout our day. However, for many companies and industries, the key is figuring out what information is needed and how it can be transmitted in real-time to increase the efficiency or effectiveness of the work.

In an industry not known for being on the leading edge of new technology, it is still not uncommon to have data captured using the good old pad and pencil method. This, unfortunately, limits visibility and the timely application of that information. This is especially critical when it comes to sanitation and food safety data. It is a complex, high-risk industry with tight timelines and lots of moving parts (figuratively and literally), and various teams working together 24/7.

The 2019 Food Safety Consortium Conference & Expo features a dedicated track on Cleaning & Sanitation | Attend the event October 1–3 | Schaumburg, ILAdditionally, new rules and regulations around FSMA require processors to have more detailed documentation of a food safety plan and produce data proving adherence to that plan during plant inspections. Processors must show that best practices are being followed and address any instances where concerns may arise with immediate corrective actions, or face potential fines or temporary shutdown of production.

The bottom line is, technology is no longer a “nice to have”, it is a must have. Data is our friend and, if used appropriately, can significantly help mitigate risk and improve food safety.

Innovation in Sanitation

Specifically in the sanitization process, there is a distinct science-based, data-driven approach that can be used to document and report on the consistency and effectiveness of each cleaning process. However, without the right experience or specific microbiological training, it is hard for a processor to know what to document, how to document it and why it matters.

For instance, as part of standard operating procedures, our team always monitors and documents four key factors that can influence a successful cleaning process: Time, temperature, concentration of cleaning agents and mechanical force (i.e., water pressure). If any one variable as part of the sanitization process is off, it can impact the overall effectiveness of the cleaning.

This is the type of risk-based data that can be applied as part of FSMA reporting and compliance.

However, the real opportunity for improving food safety is about the visibility of that data and how it can be used to adjust the sanitization processes in real-time.

I was fortunate to be part of a team that developed and implemented a new real-time performance metrics platform over the last year. It is a digital system that helps sanitation teams proactively track and respond to critical data that can impact the effectiveness of the sanitation process.

Replacing the pen-and-paper method is a system in which data is logged digitally into an application on a tablet or mobile device in real-time during the sanitation process.

Site managers closely monitor data, which can be shared or accessed by other stakeholders to perform analytics and make real-time adjustments to the sanitation process. The system sends alerts and notifications regarding changes or updates that must be made as well.

From internal communications to coordination with USDA and FDA inspectors, it supports a much more seamless communication structure as well. Employees feel more confident and empowered to manage the sanitation process and partners feel armed with the right information and data to focus on managing the needs of their business.

As an industry, I believe we have a great opportunity ahead of us to continue advancing food safety. The technology and tools are there to support us. It is a matter of taking small steps to innovate and improve efficiencies in our own businesses every day that will have a drastic impact on the industry as a whole.

Emily Kaufman, Emport, Allergens
Allergen Alley

Skip Validation, You’re Asking for Problems

By Emily Kaufman
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Emily Kaufman, Emport, Allergens

Running an unvalidated program or product is like betting your life’s savings on a horse because you overheard a “surefire tip” outside the racetrack, or driving around without any mirrors.

To put it less dramatically: Skipping validation is asking for problems. But what does validation mean, how much is necessary, and what’s the best way to include it in your plans?

In order to start understanding validation, we must first break it down into two main categories: Product validation and process validation. From there, it’s important to look at whether something has been broadly validated for general use, and whether it has been narrowly validated for use in your specific situation. That last question is where people often struggle: How can we ensure this product or process is validated for use in the way that we plan to use it?

Validating an on-site allergen test kit requires a few different layers of research and testing. Taking the time to carefully design and vet a validation process may seem tedious, and it may require some additional up-front costs—but in the long run, it’s the only way to ensure you are spending your money on a test kit that works. And if you’re using an allergen test kit that doesn’t actually detect allergens in your facility—best-case scenario, you’re wasting money and time. Worst-case scenario, you’re headed straight for a recall and you won’t see it coming until your customers get sick.

If you are buying a test to determine the absence or presence of allergens in your facility (specific or general), you’ll likely ask the kit manufacturer if the test kit has been validated. This validation can come in many forms, most commonly:

  • Third party validation (eg., AOAC)
  • Internally produced validation documents or whitepapers
  • Published studies

A product with more validation (third-party certifications, studies, whitepapers) isn’t necessarily better than a product with less. It may have simply been on the market longer or be produced by a company that allocates its funding differently. However, validation documents can be very comforting when reviewing a product, as they provide a starting point for your own research. When you are reviewing validation data, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Does this data cover products like mine?
    • Are the ingredients similar (raw meat, ice cream, spices, etc.)?
    • Are the preparation processes similar (heat, fermentation, etc.)?
  • Does this data cover an environment like mine?
    • Will the tests be run the same way in my facility as in the data?
    • Is the contamination being introduced in a way and amount that feels realistic to the risk factors I know about in my facility?
  • Does the data mention any complicating factors (and do I need to care about them)?
    • Are there ingredients known to cross-react or cause false negatives?
    • Are there processes known to change the LOD or cause false negatives?
  • If I am aware of limitations with other similar test kits, are those limitations addressed in the data for this test kit as well?

To give an example, let’s imagine you make premium ice cream and are reviewing allergen test kits that look for peanuts and almonds in product, in rinsewater and on surfaces. You’ll want to ask questions like:

  • How does the kit perform in a high-fat environment?
  • Does the validation data cover product, rinsewater and surfaces?
  • Are there ingredients in our facility that are called out as cross-reactive (or otherwise troublesome)?
  • Do our ingredients get exposed to temperatures, pH levels, or other processes that impact the LOD?

You might learn, for example, that one of the matrices tested in validation was ice cream. If so: Wonderful! That’s a vote of confidence and a great starting point. Or maybe you learn that the kit in question isn’t recommended for matrices that include an ingredient in your formulation. If so: That’s equally wonderful! Now you know you need a different solution. Or maybe the instructions on your current peanut test kit indicate that heavily roasted peanuts have a higher detection limit than raw peanuts, but this new test kit only has data for raw peanuts. If so: OK! You have more research to do, and that’s fine too.

In short: Pre-existing product validation data is a helpful starting point for determining whether or not an allergen test kit MIGHT work well in your facility—but it doesn’t eliminate the need for you to run your own internal validation study.

Once you’ve identified an allergen test kit that you want to use in your facility, you’ll want to prove that it can work to identify contamination in your specific environment. This is where a more narrowly tailored validation comes into play. Your test kit provider may have resources available to help you design an internal validation. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! A reputable test kit provider should care not just about making the sale, but also about making your food safer.

Before you even order a new test kit, you should have a good idea of how your validation process is going to work. It’s important to have both the study design and study outcome on file. Here are some possible additions for your internal validation study:

Validating that an allergen test kit can reliably prove your surfaces are clean of said allergen:

  • Test the surface prior to cleaning, after the allergen in question has been run. Do you see positive results? If not, then a negative result after cleaning is essentially meaningless.
  • Test the surface after cleaning. Do you see negative results? If not, it could mean a problem with your cleaning process—or a strange interference. Both require further research.
  • If your products encounter multiple surfaces (eg., stainless steel and also ceramic), test them all with before and after testing.

Validating that an allergen test kit can reliably prove your rinsewater is free of said allergen:

  • Test water from the beginning of the cleaning cycle as well as the end. Do you see a change in results, from positive to negative?
  • If you don’t ever see the allergen present in your rinsewater, you may want to “spike” a sample by adding a small amount of the product that contains the allergen into the rinsewater you’ve collected. Could it be that something in your cleaning protocol or some aspect of your matrix is affecting the detection limit?

Validating that an allergen test kit can reliably prove your ingredients or finished products are free of said allergen:

  • Test a product that you know contains the allergen but is otherwise similar. Keep in mind that some allergen test kits can be overloaded and can show false negatives if too much allergen is present in the sample—if you aren’t sure whether the test kit you are trialing has this limitation, ask your supplier. Do you see a positive?
  • Have you encountered batches of your product with accidental cross-contamination from the allergen in question? If so, and you have some of that batch archived, run a test on it. Would this kit have identified the problem?
  • Do you have a batch or lot of product that has been analyzed by a third-party lab? If so, do your results in-house match the lab’s results?
  • Run—or ask a lab to run—a spiked recovery. This is especially important if there is no pre-existing data on how the test kit works against your specific matrices.
    • Some test kit manufacturers can provide this service for you—you would simply need to send them the product, and they can add various amounts of allergen into the product and confirm that the test kit shows positive results.
    • Some kit manufacturers or other suppliers can send you standards that have known quantities of allergen in them. You can mix these into your product and run tests, and confirm that you get positive results when expected.
    • You may want to simply do this on your own, by adding small quantities of the allergen into the sample and running tests. However, take care to be especially careful with your documentation in case questions arise down the line.
  • No matter how the spiked recovery is being run, consider these two factors:
    • Be sure you’re including what could be a realistic amount of contamination—if you’re concerned about catching 25ppm of allergen, loading up your sample with 2000ppm won’t necessarily help you prove anything.
    • The matrix of your allergen-containing foods is just as important as the matrix of your allergen-free foods. If your allergen has been fermented, roasted, pressurized, etc. —your spike needs to be processed in the same way. If you aren’t sure how to think about your matrices, this previous Allergen Alley post is a good starting place.

Once you’ve proven that the test kit in question can in fact show positive results when traces of allergen are present, you can confidently and comfortably incorporate it into your larger allergen control plan. If your matrices change, you’ll want to re-validate whatever’s new.

While it can be tempting to rely on a kit’s general validation, taking the extra step to validate your unique matrices is an essential part of a truly robust food safety plan. If you’re stumped for how to begin, contact your kit provider—after all, you share the same goals: Safe, allergen-free food for consumers who rely on you to keep themselves and their families healthy and well fed.

Sponges, environmental sampling

Mitigate the Risk: Importance of Environmental Sampling in an Environmental Monitoring Program

By Gabriela Martinez, Ph.D.
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Sponges, environmental sampling

There are several ways in which pathogens can enter a food processing facility. Once inside, pathogens are either temporary visitors that are removed using cleaning and disinfection methods, or they can persist in sites such the floor or drains and require a more intense remediation process. As food processors take on the responsibility to prevent product adulteration in facilities, setting up and maintaining an environmental monitoring program (EMP) is critical.  An effective EMP helps a company manage and potentially reduce operational, regulatory and branding reputation risks.

Establishing an EMP begins with identifying and documenting potential pathogen sources in all physical areas (including raw materials, storage and shipping areas) and cross-contamination vectors (employees, equipment, pests, etc.). These areas and vectors should be surveyed, controlled and when possible, eliminated. Implementing effective controls, including microbiological sampling of high-risk areas, should be part of the program. Sampling for pathogens or indicator microorganisms  in food contact areas during production is also important. Additionally, the EMP elevates the awareness of what is happening in the plant environment and helps companies measure the efficiency of their pathogen-prevention program—for example, it is not only critical to test for pathogens, but also for the overall effectiveness of cleaning and sanitizing procedures. Both procedures are necessary and must be properly executed to reduce microorganisms to safe levels. The goal of a cleaning process is to remove completely food and other types of soil from a surface. Since soils vary widely in composition, no single detergent is capable of removing all types. In general, acid cleaners dissolve alkaline soils (minerals) and alkaline cleaners dissolve acid soils and food wastes. It is for this reason that the employees involved must understand the nature of the soil to be removed before selecting a detergent or a cleaning regime. The cleaner must also match with the water properties and be compatible (i.e., not corrosive) with the surface characteristics on which it will be applied. However, not only the correct choice of agent is necessary for an optimal result; it should be coupled with a mechanical action, an appropriated contact time and correct operating temperature. As the combination of these parameters is characteristic to each process, it becomes essential to verify effectiveness through sampling. Finally, cleaning is closely related to sanitation, because it can’t be sanitized what hasn’t been previously cleaned.

“Not Your Grandfather’s Environmental Monitoring Program Anymore”: Learn more about this important topic at the 2016 Food Safety Consortium | EVENT WEBSITE

The Association of Official Analytical Chemists defines sanitizing for food product contact surfaces as a process that reduces the contamination level by 99.999% (5 logs). Sanitation may be achieved using either heat (thermal treatment) or chemicals. Hot water sanitizing is commonly used where immersing the contact surfaces is practical (e.g., small parts, utensils). Hot water sanitizing is effective only when appropriate temperatures can be maintained for the appropriate period of time. For example, depending on the application, sanitation may be achieved by immersing parts or utensils in water at 770 C to 850 C for 45 seconds to five minutes. The advantages of this method include easy application, availability, effective for a broad range of microorganisms, non-corrosive, and it penetrates cracks and crevices. However, the process is relatively slow, can contribute to high energy costs, may contribute to the formation of biofilms and may shorten the life of certain equipment parts (e.g., seals and gaskets). Furthermore, fungal spores can survive this treatment.

Regarding chemicals, there is no perfect chemical sanitizer. Performance depends on sanitizer concentration (too low or too high is ineffective), contact exposure time, temperature of the sanitizing solution (generally, 210 C to 380 C is considered optimal), pH of the water solution (each sanitizer has an optimal pH), water hardness, and surface cleanliness. Some chemical sanitizers, such as chlorine, react with food and soil, becoming less effective on surfaces that have not been properly cleaned.

The effectiveness of a plant’s sanitation practices must be verified to ensure that the production equipment and environment are sanitary. Operators employ several methods of verification, including physical and visual inspection, as part of ongoing environmental hygiene monitoring programs. Portable ATP bioluminescence systems are widely used to obtain immediate results about the sanitary or unsanitary condition of food plant surfaces. ATP results should be followed up with more in-depth confirmation testing, such as indirect indicator tests and pathogen-specific tests. Indirect indicator tests are based on non-pathogenic microorganisms (i.e., coliform, fecal coliforms or total counts) that may be naturally present in food or in the same environment as a pathogen. These indicator organisms are used to assess the overall sanitation or environmental condition that may indicate the presence of pathogens. The principal advantages of using indicator organisms in an EMP include:

  • Detection techniques are less expensive compared to those used for pathogens
  • Indicator microorganisms are present in high numbers and a baseline can be easily established
  • Indicator microorganisms are a valid representative of pathogens of concern since they survive under similar physical, chemical and nutrient conditions as the pathogen

However, indicator organisms are not a substitute for pathogen testing. A positive result indicates possible contamination and a risk of foodborne disease. It is recommended that samples be taken immediately before production starts, just after cleaning and sanitation have been completed when information regarding cleaning and sanitation are required. However, when sampling is conducted on surfaces previously exposed to chemical germicide treatment, appropriate neutralizers must be incorporated into the medium to preserve viability of the microbial cells.

Neutralizers recommended for food plant monitoring include Dey-Engley neutralizing broth (DE), neutralizing buffer (NE), Buffered peptone water (BPW) and Letheen broth (LT) (see Table I). Most of these are incorporated into a support such as a sponge, swab or chiffon to neutralize the residues of cleaning agents and sanitizers that may be picked up during swabbing. The product should be selected based on the surface, the type of cleaning agents and the type of testing (qualitative or quantitative).

Neutralizing agents, Environmental sampling
Table I. Neutralizing agents

It is critical to verify that the chosen neutralizer has an efficient action against the used sanitizers. Table I show the most effective equivalence among the cleaning agents and the most common neutralizers.

For instance, if a quantitative method is to be used, it is very important to consider a neutralizing agent, such as the neutralizing buffer, that doesn’t support the bacterial growth.

Finally the sponge is a very popular choice due to its versatility. Sponges are used for sampling equipment surfaces, floors, walls, work benches and even carcasses. They enable the sampling of large surfaces and the detection of lower levels of contamination at a lower cost of operation.

Sani sponge
The versatility of sponges make them a popular choice for environmental sampling. Image courtesy of Labplas.

To summarize, environmental sampling is an important tool to verify sources of contamination and adequacy of sanitation process, helping to refine the frequency and intensity of cleaning and sanitation, identify hot spots, validate food safety programs, and provide an early warning of issues that may require corrective action. Over all, it provides the assurance that products being manufactured are made under sanitary conditions.