Food safety concerns are coming under increasing scrutiny among both regulators and the general public. To protect consumers as well as their business’ reputations, restaurants must do all they can to address potential risks. Fortunately, there are several new technologies that can help retail food establishments improve and monitor their food safety protocols. Following are five of the most effective and easiest to implement advances.
1. Monitoring Ingredient Quality
One of the key technology-based advances in food safety are Internet of Things (IoT)-based sensors that can track temperature changes in refrigerators, warm storage or other areas in real time to ensure food stays out of danger zones. If temperatures fluctuate too much, these sensors can warn employees so they can respond swiftly to prevent spoilage and microbial growth.
The same technology can help ensure ingredient quality in transit, too. IoT solutions can track temperature and spoilage-indicating nanoparticles in shipping, giving drivers and other stakeholders real-time updates to inform any necessary changes, such as delivering to a closer store before goods spoil.
2. Tracking Safety Procedure Compliance
Restaurants can also use technology to ensure employees meet food safety regulations. Many issues arise from unsanitary work practices, and conventional compliance-monitoring measures are inefficient and leave room for error. Digital technologies offer a solution.
Digital checklists make it easier to record compliance with daily food safety protocols. Their ease of use encourages participation, and employees who use these lists are less likely to overlook parts of the routine. Moving to digital instead of paper records also improves traceability, reduces the danger of missing documents and documents who was in charge if something wasn’t completed.
Restaurants with particularly critical safety concerns can go a step further by placing hand-scanning devices near sinks and workstations. These devices can detect potential pathogens on employees’ hands, indicating if they need to wash more thoroughly. Similar systems can also monitor body heat to suggest if an employee is ill.
3. Verifying Cleanliness
Other technologies that can help verify the efficacy of a restaurant’s food safety protocols include adenosine triphosphate (ATP) tests. These testing devices detect ATP, the energy unit found in all living cells, to reveal microbial contamination. Restaurants that regularly use these tests on surfaces throughout the kitchen and dining room can discover problem areas where cleaning practices are insufficient, or confirm that their current cleaning and sanitizing methods are working.
4. Minimizing Touchpoints
Cross-contamination is one of the most common risks in restaurants, and the presence of many high-touch surfaces exacerbates these concerns. Using touch-free alternatives to high-touch devices helps minimize the risk of cross-contamination.
Touch-free faucets and paper towel dispensers are perhaps the most recognizable examples of these technologies. However, restaurants don’t have to stop there. Automatic soap dispensers, touchless payment systems, hands-free condiment dispensers and automatic lights are available today and help reduce the number of high-touch surfaces.
Touch-free technology doesn’t negate the need for regular hand-washing and glove-changing, but it mitigates risks if employees fail to comply with standards. These systems are also typically more efficient than manual alternatives, so they can boost productivity.
5. Improving Traceability
Surveys suggest that just 6% of all firms have full visibility into their supply chains, making it difficult for restaurants to know exactly where things come from and how they get there. This makes tracing foodborne illnesses challenging, but new technologies can help.
IoT tracking and blockchain platforms provide more visibility, including real-time insights into shipment locations and quality. These digital records make it easier to go back after a safety incident to see where the problem originated. Restaurants can then accurately determine what to change to prevent similar issues in the future.
Restaurants that want to succeed must embrace food safety. Doing that effectively means capitalizing on new technologies to simplify processes, improve visibility and minimize risks.
As the food and beverage industry manages the continual impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, safety remains a major topic of discussion. While many are aware of how handling practices can impact safety, less attention is sometimes paid to how packaging and materials can also play a significant role.
Good packaging practices and innovative technology—like antimicrobial surface coatings and plastic alternatives—are helping to make food and beverage products safer for consumers.
The Role of Packaging in Food Safety
The packaging process can have a significant impact on the safety of food products. Hygiene and other practices present significant cross-contamination risks. Packaging material choice can also affect safety.
While outbreaks of foodborne disease are somewhat rarer than they were 20 years ago, they remain a serious threat to consumers. In 2018, there were 1,052 foodborne outbreaks in the United States, an increase from the previous year and only a slight decrease from the 1,317 outbreaks in 1998, according to data from the CDC’s National Outbreak Reporting System (NORS) dashboard.
Food and beverage manufacturers are investigating innovative practices and materials to help make their products safer. In response to the pandemic, in December DS Smith announced a partnership with Touchguard to develop antimicrobial coatings for cardboard packaging. One coating created by the two companies has a “proven kill rate of 99.5% in under 15 minutes on bacteria types … and eliminates the risk of person-to-person transfer of infections, such as MRSA and E. coli.”
The cardboard is just one of several examples of antimicrobial materials that may help limit the spread of viruses that cause foodborne diseases, like E. coli.
Other businesses are aiming to tackle spoilage during shipping and storage. Innovative experiments could have a major impact on food waste. EU-funded project RefuCoat intends to “develop fully recyclable food packaging with enhanced gas barrier properties.” These materials will keep foods sealed from air and water while also offering recyclability.
New design strategies and technologies can also preserve the freshness of food once customers bring items home from the grocery store.
Portion packaging allows customers to open only the amount they need, leaving the rest sealed for future use. This helps customers avoid relying on home storage strategies, which may not be as effective as factory packaging in keeping food fresh and preventing spoilage.
These strategies also can support existing food safe packaging techniques. For example, portion control can be combined with tamper-evident packaging to make it more obvious when an item at the store has been accidentally opened. This will help ensure that customers only bring home and use food items that they know are safe and as fresh as possible.
Choice of mold release agents used in manufacturing processes that require packaging molds can also have a significant impact on food safety. These chemical compounds help resins and other materials detach from molds once cured, without being damaged. This helps to ensure that the finished product is as close to the mold shape as possible, and isn’t compromised when released from the mold. Certain kinds, like silicon, can produce cleaner finished products and extend the lifespan of packaging, which reduces waste and potentially improves package safety.
These strategies can help protect food from contamination during the packaging process and ensure it remains fresh and safe for as long as possible after leaving the facility.
As customers experiment with new brands and foods, businesses may find they are more willing to try items that use novel packaging strategies.
Safety Risk and Potential in Food Packaging Materials
Like food items themselves, all packaging materials are subject to approval by regulatory agencies, like the FDA or the European Food Safety Authority. However, some substances approved by the FDA can still have health impacts.
For example, bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used to make certain industrial plastics and resins, is not banned by the FDA. However, its use has become controversial in the food packaging industry due to potential reported adverse health effects.
Some major manufacturing companies, like Campbell Soup Company, have fully transitioned away from the use of BPA. Others, like the Coca-Cola Co., continue to use the chemical in linings for aluminum cans.
One paper, The FoodPrint of Food Packaging, details how materials used may present health risks—and how alternatives already in use can help the industry create safer packaging.
For example, styrofoam use is declining due to the material’s environmental impact. However, polystyrene is still frequently used in rigid and foam food packaging. Plastic particles made from materials like polystyrene may harm health.
The report also lays out steps that food and beverage manufacturers can take to reduce the use of potentially unsafe chemicals in their packaging. Reusable containers can significantly reduce the amount of plastic waste generated by the food industry while also lowering the health risks packaging presents.
In an article for Packaging Digest, senior editor Rick Lingle briefly summarized the report’s findings and discussed them with Jershua Klemperer, director of FoodPrint. When asked about alternatives to plastics, Klemperer suggested using sustainable packaging materials—like metal, cardboard and fiber—but only if manufacturers can ensure they are not used in combination with unsustainable or potentially harmful materials like PFAS.
Strategies for Improving Food Safe Packaging
Food safety will remain a top priority for the food and beverage industry. Innovative strategies like antimicrobial coatings, portion packaging and plastic alternatives can help manufacturers make safer options. These strategies may become more common over the next few years as consumers become increasingly invested in food safety practices.
Recent food scandals around the world have generated strong public concerns about the safety of the foods being consumed. Severe threats to food safety exist at all stages of the supply chain in the form of physical, chemical and biological contaminants. The current pandemic has escalated the public’s concern about cross contamination between people and food products and packaging. To eliminate food risks, manufacturers need robust technologies that allow for reliable monitoring of key contaminants, while also facilitating compliance with the ISO 17025 standard to prove the technical competence of food testing laboratories.
Without effective data and process management, manufacturers risk erroneous information, compromised product quality and regulatory noncompliance. In this article, we discuss how implementing a LIMS platform enables food manufacturers to meet regulatory requirements and ensure consumer confidence in their products.
Safeguarding Food Quality to Meet Industry Standards
Food testing laboratories are continually updated about foodborne illnesses making headlines. In addition to bacterial contamination in perishable foods and ingredient adulteration for economic gains, chemical contamination is also on the rise due to increased pesticide use. Whether it is Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter or undeclared horsemeat inside beef, each food-related scandal is a strong reminder of the importance of safeguarding food quality.
Food safety requires both preventive activities as well as food quality testing against set quality standards. Establishing standardized systems that address both food safety and quality makes it easier for manufacturers to comply with regulatory requirements, ultimately ensuring the food is safe for public consumption.
In response to food safety concerns, governing bodies have strengthened regulations. Food manufacturers are now required to ensure bacteria, drug residues and contaminant levels fall within published acceptable limits. In 2017, the ISO 17025 standard was updated to provide a risk-based approach, with an increased focus on information technology, such as the use of software systems and maintaining electronic records.
The FDA issued a notice that by February 2022, food testing, in certain circumstances, must be conducted in compliance with the ISO 17025 standard. This means that laboratories performing food safety testing will need to implement processes and systems to achieve and maintain compliance with the standard, confirming the competence, impartiality and consistent operation of the laboratory.
To meet the ISO 17025 standard, food testing laboratories will need a powerful LIMS platform that integrates into existing workflows and is built to drive and demonstrate compliance.
From Hazard Analysis to Record-Keeping: A Data-Led Approach
Incorporating LIMS into the entire workflow at a food manufacturing facility enables the standardization of processes across its laboratories. Laboratories can seamlessly integrate analytical and quality control workflows. Modern LIMS platforms provide out-of-the-box compliance options to set up food safety and quality control requirements as a preconfigured workflow.
The requirements set by the ISO 17025 standard build upon the critical points for food safety outlined in the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) methodology. HACCP, a risk-based safety management procedure, requires food manufacturers to identify, evaluate and address all risks associated with food safety.
The systematic HACCP approach involves seven core principles to control food safety hazards. Each of the following seven principles can be directly addressed using LIMS:
Principle 1. Conduct a hazard analysis: Using current and previous data, food safety risks are thoroughly assessed.
Principle 2. Determine the critical control points (CCPs): Each CCP can be entered into LIMS with contamination grades assigned.
Principle 3. Establish critical limits: Based on each CCP specification, analytical critical limits can be set in LIMS.
Principle 4. Establish monitoring procedures: By defining sampling schedules in LIMS and setting other parameters, such as frequency and data visualization, procedures can be closely monitored.
Principle 5. Establish corrective actions: LIMS identifies and reports incidents to drive corrective action. It also enables traceability of contamination and maintains audit trails to review the process.
Principle 6. Establish verification procedures: LIMS verifies procedures and preventive measures at the defined CCPs.
Principle 7. Establish record-keeping and documentation procedures: All data, processes, instrument reports and user details remain secured in LIMS. This information can never be lost or misplaced.
As food manufacturers enforce the safety standards set by HACCP, the process can generate thousands of data points per day. The collected data is only as useful as the system that manages it. Having LIMS manage the laboratory data automates the flow of quality data and simplifies product release.
How LIMS Enable Clear Compliance and Optimal Control
Modern LIMS platforms are built to comply with ISO 17025. Preconfigured processes include instrument and equipment calibration and maintenance management, traceability, record-keeping, validation and reporting, and enable laboratories to achieve compliance, standardize workflows and streamline data management.
The workflow-based functionality in LIMS allows researchers to map laboratory processes, automate decisions and actions based on set criteria, and reduce user intervention. LIMS validate protocols and maintain traceable data records with a clear audit history to remain compliant. Data workflows in LIMS preserve data integrity and provide records, according to the ALCOA+ principles. This framework ensures the data is Attributable, Legible, Contemporaneous, Original and Accurate (ALCOA) as well as complete, consistent and enduring. While the FDA created ALCOA+ for pharmaceutical drug manufacturers, these same principles can be applied to food manufacturers.
Environmental monitoring and quality control (QC) samples can be managed using LIMS and associated with the final product. To plan environmental monitoring, CCPs can be set up in the LIMS for specific locations, such as plants, rooms and laboratories, and the related samples can then be added to the test schedule. Each sample entering the LIMS is associated with the CCP test limits defined in the specification.
Near real-time data visualization and reporting tools can simplify hazard analysis. Managers can display information in different formats to monitor critical points in a process, flag unexpected or out-of-trend numbers, and immediately take corrective action to mitigate the error, meeting the requirements of Principles 4 and 5 of HACCP. LIMS dashboards can be optimized by product and facility to provide visibility into the complete process.
Rules that control sampling procedures are preconfigured in the LIMS along with specific testing rules based on the supplier. If a process is trending out of control, the system will notify laboratory personnel before the product fails specification. If required, incidents can be raised in the LIMS software to track the investigation of the issue while key performance indicators are used to track the overall laboratory performance.
Tasks that were once performed manually, such as maintaining staff training records or equipment calibration schedules, can now be managed directly in LIMS. Using LIMS, analysts can manage instrument maintenance down to its individual component parts. System alerts also ensure timely recalibration and regular servicing to maintain compliance without system downtime or unplanned interruptions. The system can prevent users from executing tests without the proper training records or if the instrument is due for calibration or maintenance work. Operators can approve and sign documents electronically, maintaining a permanent record, according to Principle 7 of HACCP.
LIMS allow seamless collaboration between teams spread across different locations. For instance, users from any facility or even internationally can securely use system dashboards and generate reports. When final testing is complete, Certificates of Analysis (CoAs) can be autogenerated with final results and showing that the product met specifications. All activities in the system are tracked and stored in the audit trail.
With features designed to address the HACCP principles and meet the ISO 17025 compliance requirements, modern LIMS enable manufacturers to optimize workflows and maintain traceability from individual batches of raw materials all the way through to the finished product.
To maintain the highest food quality and safeguard consumer health, laboratories need reliable data management systems. By complying with the ISO 17025 standard before the upcoming mandate by the FDA, food testing laboratories can ensure data integrity and effective process management. LIMS platforms provide laboratories with integrated workflows, automated procedures and electronic record-keeping, making the whole process more efficient and productive.
With even the slightest oversight, food manufacturers not only risk product recalls and lost revenue, but also losing the consumers’ trust. By upholding data integrity, LIMS play an important role in ensuring food safety and quality.
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.
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.
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.
Foodborne pathogens, such as bacteria and parasites in consumable goods, can result in illnesses and deaths, wreaking havoc on residents of states and countries. The companies at fault often face severe damage to their reputation as people fear that continuing to do business with a brand is not safe. Moreover, if the affected enterprises do not take decisive steps to prevent the problem from happening again, they may receive substantial fines or closure orders.
Statistics from the U.S. federal government indicate that there are approximately 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses in the American food supply each year. Fortunately, there are proven steps that production plant managers can take to minimize the risk of foodborne pathogens. Being familiar with the preventative measures, and taking steps to implement them prevents catastrophes.
Engage with Suppliers about Their Efforts to Kill or Reduce Foodborne Pathogens
Foodborne pathogens can enter a production plant on items like fresh produce received from farm suppliers. Agricultural professionals commonly use chlorine to decontaminate goods before shipping them. However, researchers used a chlorine solution on spinach leaves to assess its effectiveness in killing common types of bacteria. The team discovered that, even after chlorine exposure, some bacteria remained viable but undetectable by industrial methods.
Foodborne pathogens can originate at farms for other reasons, too. Failing to take the proper precautions during animal slaughter can introduce contaminants into meats that end up in food production facilities. Water impurities can also pose dangers.
All production plants should regularly communicate with suppliers about the actions they take against foodborne pathogens. Food safety is a collective effort. Practicing it means following all current guidance, plus updating methods if new research justifies doing so. If suppliers resist doing what’s in their power to stop foodborne pathogens, they must realize they’re at risk for severing profitable relationships with production plants that need raw goods.
Consider Using Sensors to Maintain Safe Conditions
The Internet of Things (IoT) encompasses a massive assortment of connected products that benefit industries and consumers alike. One practical solution to enhance food safety in a production plant involves installing smart sensors that detect characteristics that humans may miss.
For example, the USDA published a temperature safety chart that explains what to do with food after a power outage. Most items that people typically keep in refrigerators become dangerous to eat if kept above 40o F for more than two hours.
Food production plants typically have resources like backup power to assist if outages occur. But, imagine a cooler that appears to work as expected but has an internal malfunction that keeps the contents at incorrect temperatures. IoT sensors can help production plant staff members become immediately aware of such issues. Without that kind of information, they risk sending spoiled food into the marketplace and getting people sick.
Researchers also developed a sensor-equipped device that detects the effectiveness of hand washing efforts. In a pilot program involving 20 locations, contamination rates decreased by 60% over a month. Most restrooms at food preparation facilities remind people to wash their hands before returning to work. What if a person takes that action, but not thoroughly enough? Specialty sensors could reduce that chance.
Install Germicidal Ultraviolet Lights
With much of the world on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people want to know if germicidal ultraviolet lights could kill the novel coronavirus. Researchers lack enough information to answer that question definitively. They do know, however, that germicidal ultraviolet lights kill up to 99.99% of bacteria and pathogens.
Plus, these lights are particularly useful in food production because they get the job done without harsh chemicals that could make products unsafe. Ultraviolet lights can damage the skin and eyes, so you must only run them when there are no humans in the room. However, it’s immediately safe to enter the environment after switching the lights off.
These specialized light sources do not eliminate the need for other food safety measures. Think about implementing them as another safeguard against adverse consequences.
Teach Workers about Safe Practices
Food contamination risks exist at numerous points along the supply chain. Mishandling is a major culprit that could make several parties partially responsible for a foodborne pathogen problem. For example, if a person does not wear the proper gear when handling food or stores items intended for raw consumption in places where meat juices touch them, either of those things and many others could cause issues with foodborne pathogens.
As you inform employees about which procedures to take to manage the risks, emphasize that everyone has an essential role to play in keeping products free from contaminants. If workers make ready-to-eat foods, such as packaged sandwiches, ensure they understand how to avoid the cross-contamination that happens when reusing cutting boards or utensils without washing them first.
The FDA requires domestic and foreign food facilities to analyze and mitigate risks. Employee training is not the sole aspect of staying in compliance, but it’s a major component. If a person makes a mistake due to improper or nonexistent training, that blunder could have significant financial ramifications for a food production facility.
Widely cited statistics indicate that food recall costs average more than $10 million, which is a staggering figure in itself. It doesn’t include litigation costs incurred when affected individuals and their loved ones sue companies, or the expenses associated with efforts to rejuvenate a brand and restore consumer confidence after people decide to take their business elsewhere.
Ensuring that workers receive the necessary training may be especially tricky if a human resources professional hires a large batch of temporary employees to assist with rising seasonal demands. If a higher-up tells them that time is of the essence and the new workers must be ready to assume their roles on the factory floor as soon as possible, training may get overlooked. When that happens, the outcomes could be devastating. Efficiency should never get prioritized over safety.
Stay Abreast of Emerging Risks
Besides doing your part to curb well-known threats that could introduce foodborne pathogens, spend time learning about new problems that you may not have dealt with before.
For example, scientists have not confirmed the origin of COVID-19. However, since early evidence suggested live animal sales and consumption may have played key roles, Chinese officials cracked down on the wildlife trade and imposed new restrictions on what was largely an unregulated sector cloaked in secrecy.
Much remains unknown about COVID-19, and it’s but one virus for food producers to stay aware of and track as developments occur. The ongoing pandemic is a sobering reminder not to blame specific groups or ethnicities, and to avoid jumping to hasty conclusions. It’s good practice to dedicate yourself to learning about any production risks that could introduce foodborne pathogens. Read reputable sources, and don’t make unfounded assumptions.
A Collective and Constant Effort
There is no single way to combat all sources of foodborne pathogens. Instead, anyone involved in food production or supply must work diligently together and know that their obligation to prevent issues never ceases.
As the popularity of home delivery services for food (i.e., online grocery shopping, prepared meals from restaurants, meal kits) continues to gain traction, the industry has been grappling with clear-cut guidance on how to ensure food safety during what is known as the “last mile” of delivery to the consumer. For example, how do third-party delivery services address concerns such as maintaining the right temperature of food during transit? How are allergen risks controlled? Do the people who deliver the food undergo any food safety training?
“It’s kind of a wild west out there,” said Donald Schaffner, Ph.D., professor at Rutgers University during a panel discussion on the topic of home food delivery at the IAFP annual meeting last week in Louisville, Kentucky.
In April, Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, M.D. and Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas acknowledged that there are food safety challenges presented by “evolving business models” such as e-commerce, and stated that the agency will be looking at ways to work with federal, state and local stakeholders to address the issues. During the IAFP panel, food safety professionals from Amazon, Uber Eats, The Kroger Company and FSIS shed some light on how their respective organizations are handling the food safety risks associated with home delivery.
Training the People Who Deliver Your Food
The overarching consensus among panelists was that there is not a one-size-fits all approach to training the people who deliver food to the consumer, because there are so many different business models out there. The key to developing successful training will be to first understand the risks associated with each of those different models.
“Everyone needs training, but we don’t want to over-engineering it—not everyone needs ServeSafe training,” said Schaffner. For example, training the person who is simply putting food in the car and delivering it to an address should be different from the training necessary for an employee selecting food in the grocery store versus the warehouse employee packing food. “Figuring out the right-size training and what kind is currently available is one of the things that we’re trying to figure out on the [Conference for Food Protection] committee.” (Note, the Conference for Food Protection committee is developing guidance that addresses home food delivery.) Schaffner indicated that training surrounding time and temperature, allergens and product tampering are important considerations.
Howard Popoola, vice president, corporate food technology and regulatory compliance at The Kroger Company provided the retailer perspective. “Our challenge is multiple in nature,” he said, emphasizing that stores try to keep labor at a minimum. Designing training for workers who are getting a $.25-per-hour raise presents a different hurdle. “What we’re doing in the store today is something we’ve never done before, and [we’re] asking individuals to do things they’ve never done before,” said Popoola. “The training we’ve done before is slowly becoming obsolete.” He said that The Kroger Company is evaluating its current basic food safety training and is looking at building on the segments of its stores that are involved in picking, packing and preparing food—especially the fresh items that are more susceptible to potential microbial contamination.
The Allergen Risk
A question was raised about whether delivery services use the same bags over and over, introducing the potential for cross-contamination. As part of its restaurant community guidelines, UberEats encourages restaurants to put food in tamper-resistant packaging. According to Joseph Navin, senior manager of global safety at the company, in order to reduce the possibility of cross contamination, all food should be placed in a bag before it is put in the insulated bag for transport. UberEats also has guidelines for how those bags should be cleaned. Further addressing the allergen risk: “How do we optimize the way that consumers can disclose that they have a food allergy? We don’t want to have food allergies going in the same free form text [box] that says ‘send extra napkins’,” said Navin. He added that UberEats is developing ways in which dealing with allergens is more conspicuous for restaurants when their employees are preparing food.
Allison Jennings, director food safety and compliance North America at Amazon, said the company has experimented with multiple types of packaging, but there isn’t one perfect set of variables and inputs. Amazon currently uses single-use bags for delivery to mitigate risks with re-cleaning, she said.
As a best practice, integrating relevant information from consumer complaints should become part of a company’s food safety program, said Schaffner. An important role of technology will be its ability to collect feedback that allows companies to generate actionable insights related to food safety, identify any gaps, strengthen controls and be able to develop ways to mitigate risks, said Navin. Amazon currently monitors customer feedback using automatic detection for keywords related to food safety and quality that arrives via the phone, online chats with customer service and social media outlets. When necessary, the method can prompt an investigation, look for trends or help engage in continuous improvement processes. “We are constantly looking for any potential blind spots with our processes,” said Jennings. “We also mystery shop ourselves and make sure we’re meeting our requirements.”
The most common consumer complaints reported among the panelists were not related to food safety, but rather food quality—the product was crushed, didn’t look appealing, etc. “Since we rely on third party partners, we’ve walked through with them on those processes…[and are] challenging our third party partners on who they hire to deliver food, training, etc. and taking caution on delivering food,” said Popoola.
Schaffner said common complaints noted during a study conducted by Rutgers University and Tennessee State University were the following: The product was received out of temperature control; there was evidence of packages leaking (meat, poultry, and fish); a lack of cooking directions; and no mechanism to provide feedback to the company if you have a complaint.
According to Navin, among the top complaints that UberEats receives is missing food or a replacement for items that might be out of stock.
In general, recalls in the home delivery segment would apply to products that are received via online grocery shopping services. Since consumers must sign up for these services by providing either an email or phone number, companies can contact customers in the event of a recall. For example, Amazon requires an email account, so it directly emails customers when there is recall or known safety risk associated with a product purchased. Similarly, when a customer uses a loyalty card at a grocery store such as Kroger, the retailer can use its robocall system to notify customers if they purchased an item that is subject to a recall or is associated with an outbreak.
Safety is a priority when handling food. Don’t think of it as a chore to appease the health inspector. Food storage and safe handling can prevent your customers from getting sick. Whether you’re a veteran of the industry or just starting out, reviewing these tips can improve your restaurant’s operations and keep your guests safe.
FIFO, first in first out, should become your mantra when using stock. This rule governs stock rotation and use. When you receive a delivery, place the new stock behind the existing stock. Doing so reduces waste as you won’t have goods stored past their expiration dates. Use the stock at the front to always make use of the oldest products first.
Train your employees to track the expiration dates on all the goods in storage. A sheet listing the expiration of new and existing products easily shows this information. Stress the importance of using goods before their best by date for optimal safety and quality.
Keep Storage Dry and Dark
Dark, dry storage areas maximize the storage time of foods. Whether it’s dry goods in pantry storage or cold products in a refrigerator or freezer, the ideal conditions are out of direct sunlight. This helps control the temperature and prevent the food from degrading. Products with vitamins A, D, K and E, which are fat-soluble, can also break down in sunlight.
The humidity levels should stay lower than 15% to help preserve product quality. Moisture-proof packaging and air conditioning can maintain the appropriate levels. Keep a hygrometer in your storage areas to verify the humidity levels remain consistent. To protect food from contaminants and vermin, place shelves so food is at least six inches from the floor and walls, and one foot from the ceiling.
Storage Temperatures Are Key
Depending on what you store, temperatures may range from freezing to 140° F. Maintain dry storage temperatures between 50° and 70° F. Freezers must keep food frozen solid with an internal temperature of 0° F at most. Keep temperatures between 32° and 40° F in refrigeration units to prevent bacterial growth. Hot storage must keep food at a minimum of 140° F.
These temperature ranges are critical to prevent food poisoning. Track temperatures and discard any food stored at the wrong temperature. Consider installing alarms tied to the thermometers in your storage units to alert your employees of critical temperature changes that could affect food safety and quality.
Store Based on Cooking Temperature
Did you know the temperature you must cook foods will determine which shelf you store them on in the refrigerator? The lower the finished temperature of cooked food, the higher a shelf you store it on. Ready-to-eat and cooked foods need to stay on the top shelf, wrapped tightly to prevent cross-contamination. Any ready-to-eat meats and cheeses go on the shelf below. Again, keep them tightly covered or wrapped.
Raw foods go on the bottom three shelves. The third shelf from the top should hold foods cooked to 145° F. including raw fish and shellfish. Below that shelf, keep raw pork, beef and veal. These include cuts and steaks but not ground meat. These have a cooked temperature of 155° F. The bottom shelf holds ground meat and whole eggs. These must cook to an internal temperature of 165° F.
Foods that need cooking thoroughly must stay in enclosed pans or on non-absorbent shelving. Use airtight containers where possible to store food. This protects the food from drying out, preserving its quality. Additionally, the food will stay free of contamination from other foods in the storage unit. This is especially important for refrigerated foods, which may still harbor liquids that can get onto other foods.
Label and Check Foods in Storage
While you should label unopened foods, it’s even more important to label opened foods. Use all foods before the type expires. For instance, summer sausage stays fresh for only three weeks after opening in the refrigerator, but it stays good up to three months unopened. If in doubt, throw the food out. It’s better to stay safe than sorry.
Prevent Cross Contamination During Cooking
During cooking, you can prevent contamination of fresh foods by raw foods through regular hygiene practices. All employees should thoroughly wash their hands with 110°-F water and soap. Despite hand washing, gloves must be worn at all times to protect consumers further.
When cooking, never use the same cutting boards for raw meats and ready-to-eat foods. Juice from undercooked meat could contaminate salad ingredients, sickening those who eat the salad. Also, use a cooking thermometer and always cook foods to the appropriate internal temperature based on the type of food. Reheat previously cooked dishes to an internal temperature of 165° F to stop bacteria growth.
When storing foods, place them in airtight containers that you can easily identify. This prevents things such as milk and cream from accidentally getting replaced with each other. It also ensures every item gets stored correctly. Correct labels on containers also help with preventing mix-ups.
Food Safety Starts With You
Food safety is critical to your restaurant’s operations. Improper storage can shut down your business from a food poisoning outbreak or a bad inspection from the local health inspector. Don’t let these happen to you. Follow these guidelines to ensure the food you store and serve remains safe and high-quality.
Allergenic foods are a serious safety risk. While harmless to most of the consumer population, they are harmful and even life threatening to some, causing serious medical reactions, such as anaphylactic shock, when foods with the allergenic protein are consumed. Scientific research and legislation have helped us understand a great deal about managing these food allergens in manufacturing. Yet so much more needs to be done in making these risks safer for the growing allergic population. In 2013, the CDC reported that food allergies among children increased by half from 1997 to 2011. As these numbers continue to rise for children and adults alike, what are the best practices for food manufacturers to include in managing food allergens? Here’s what you need to know.
Evan Rosen is participating as a panelist in the session “Rubber Meets the Road: Practical Compliance with FSMA and Preventive Controls” at the 2016 Food Safety Consortium. The session will be moderated by Rajan Gupta and Dana Johnson Downing of TraceGains | LEARN MOREResearch and Development for Allergen Programs
Thorough development and foresight are essential for any food manufacturer to succeed when implementing an allergen program in its processing. It is wise for food manufacturers to select the individuals in their company who are a good fit to lead the allergen program. When developing your program, create an “allergen map” to understand where allergenic ingredients are located in your plant and how they travel while products are processed.
The R&D stage is the optimal time to plan every step of the allergen management process—from supplier sourcing to cross contact in processing, to labeling and every step in between—before the risks are actually encountered. This is in line with the new preventive controls approach to be taken with FSMA’s Food Safety Plan model.
Purchasing, Labeling and Storing Ingredients
When purchasing ingredients from suppliers, your supply sources should be just as stringent about allergen management as you are in order to reduce liability. Require your suppliers to have an allergen map of their own and lettered documentation declaring that the items you are purchasing are free from contact with food allergens. The FDA food label law currently recognizes the top eight food allergens as:
Peanuts,Tree nuts—including almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts, among others
Milk (not to be confused with lactose intolerance)
Also, be mindful of allergens that apply to the country of export, such as Sesame Seeds, Sulfites and Mustard Seed in Canada.
When receiving and storing supplier ingredients, check the labeled contents for any updates and tag the units that contain allergens so they can be easily identified and stored separately. A pictorial system is very effective. Ensure that each unit is tightly sealed, as even slight amounts of leaked allergens can pose recalls and elevated risks to your consumers.
Processing and Cleaning Cross-Contamination
Human error is only one factor that predisposes risk of cross-contact; production timing, processing lines, facility traffic, protein structure (e.g. powder, liquid, paste) and even the type of equipment used can be a game changer when it comes to the proper handling of allergens. In order to prevent allergen cross contact, scheduling long lines of products with common allergens is recommended to minimize changeovers. Dedicate unique tools, utensils and equipment that will handle the allergen if possible, as every piece contacting an allergen must be washed before handling allergen-free processing.
Assign plant employees to specific locations to avoid risk of cross-contact travel—color coding uniforms helps a great deal in managing this concept. Manufacturing equipment that is designed for easy cleaning is also ideal. For cleaning procedure of cross-contact removal, wet cleaning methods are most effective followed by dry methods. These procedures should be validated using a recognized protein-specific test method such as lateral flow or ELISA. When flushing, be sure to keep the flushed material isolated from all allergen-free areas. Careful separation and mindfulness is key to a successful allergen program.
Staff Training and Education
In order for any allergen program to be effective, all plant, production staff, contractors and visitors must be aware of the importance of it and understand the impact it has on consumers. Incorporating different learning methods helps to communicate this to them. Occasional testing and validation of applying this knowledge ensures the integrity of your allergy-free claims and establishes trust. Passion and commitment also play a vital role in achieving success in your program as a whole.
From purchasing ingredients to staff education and cross-contact prevention, one can see that plenty of work and forethought goes into having an allergen management program. With these best practices in place, food manufacturers can be well prepared for the increasing demand of allergen safe products for consumers across national and international markets.
The company has announced that its comprehensive line of food allergen tests includes quantitative and screening test kits that can quickly and accurately detect peanut and almond allergens in cumin and spice blends.
In response to recent recalls of products containing cumin found to be contaminated with peanuts and almonds, Neogen has announced that its comprehensive line of food allergen tests includes quantitative and screening test kits that can quickly and accurately detect peanut and almond allergens in cumin and spice blends.
Neogen’s AOAC-approved Veratox® for Peanut Allergen has been validated to detect and fully quantify peanut residues in cumin in about 30 minutes, with minimal training and equipment. Neogen also offers its Alert® for Peanut Allergen, which screens samples at 5 parts per million (ppm), and is based on the same technology of its Veratox test. The company offers the same options to test samples for the presence of almonds. In addition, the Reveal® for Peanut Allergen test kit is an effective screening tool for the presence of peanut residues in these sample types.
For companies that prefer not to do their own on-site testing, Neogen also offers a rapid laboratory testing service at its locations in Lansing, Mich., and Ayr, Scotland.
“Both food allergic consumers and food producers rely on the accurate labeling of food products to protect themselves from the consequences of the accidental ingestion of food allergens,” said Tony Lupo, Neogen’s Director of Technical Services. “Testing that we have done with numerous raw ingredient and finished product samples containing cumin have detected the presence of peanuts, in high levels in some cases. Tests can protect businesses in the food value chain — and their consumers.”
Neogen’s tests detect both the nut and residual protein remaining in shell components of peanuts and almonds.
Neogen has created a special website where processors, producers and test labs can go for further information, including a new white paper on contaminated cumin. The address is www.neogen.com/CuminResponse. On the site you will find information on contacting Neogen to speak to a specialist, and be able to download our new white paper, our allergen supplier checklist, and our Food Allergen Control Handbook.
Neogen’s food allergen testing products have been developed in close cooperation with the University of Nebraska’s Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP). FARRP is a food industry and university partnership that was formed to provide research and resource tools to the food industry. It is the leader in training and educating the industry on allergen awareness.
Neogen Corporation develops and markets products dedicated to food and animal safety. The company’s Food Safety Division markets dehydrated culture media, and diagnostic test kits to detect foodborne bacteria, natural toxins, food allergens, drug residues, plant diseases and sanitation concerns. Neogen’s Animal Safety Division is a leader in the development of animal genomics along with the manufacturing and distribution of a variety of animal healthcare products, including diagnostics, pharmaceuticals, veterinary instruments, wound care and disinfectants.
It can be frustrating to consumers to discover some rotten fruits or not-so-fresh vegetables in their grocery packs in spite of due diligence at the stores. It also leaves a bad taste in the mouth while in your favorite restaurant, you’re served cold food, observe that the taste is just not right, the color of your favorite menu is not the same again or become suspicious that the food texture has been compromised and it doesn’t feel crispy or crunchy any more.
These are the tell-tale signs of food spoilage that customers are confronted with on a daily basis. In foodservice and retail environments, food spoilage constitutes a major food safety and food quality hazard with far reaching regulatory implications as well as being an economic burden with considerable food loss and profit loss. Food manufacturers and processors have achieved a high level of food preservation through several advanced technologies including heat treatment, temperature and water control, pasteurization and canning, specialized packaging like reduced oxygen packaging, fermentation and antimicrobial preservatives. However, food spoilage remains a major challenge in retail and food service. This is mostly as a result of the many food processing and preparation activities, food storage practices, repackaging and food portioning that are required in retail.
In addition, the modern consumers’ preference for fresh foods and the backlash on the use of unnatural preservatives leave foods more vulnerable to spoilage resulting in substantial food loss. Here, we discuss some of the challenges of food spoilage and how to minimize its impact on food safety, quality assurance and profitability in retail food operations.
The most important proactive measure against food spoilage is a tight managerial control on Supplier Food Safety and Quality Assurance. The condition of the food items upon delivery to the retail units will impact the overall shelf life, taste, texture, structural integrity and pathogen level during storage and food preparation activities. Food transportation best practices, cold chain requirements, temperature monitoring system, freeze-thaw detection, appropriate packaging, adulteration prevention and food tracking should be addressed at the supplier level to ensure that deliveries are wholesome safe quality foods. Integrated pest management at suppliers’ facilities and delivery trucks are also essential. Random testing of food products for pathogen content and quality control will assist in compliance with FDA/USDA regulations and internal corporate standards.Thus, a comprehensive evaluation and verification of the supplier food safety and quality assurance programs will help to ensure compliance with all relevant federal/State/local regulations (see previous blog on Supplier Qualification and Compliance using GFSI Benchmarking).
After suppliers deliver safe quality foods, in-store food safety and quality assurance control measures must be activated immediately to maintain safe quality food status until food is served to the customer.
At the retail units, appropriate food handling and storage practices to eliminate cross-contamination is key.
The use of rapid cleanliness monitoring test swabs to validate clean and sanitary food contact surfaces will enable timely corrective actions that would eliminate potentially hazardous food cross-contamination.
Proper hand hygiene by all foodservice employees should be mandatory.
Keeping cold food cold and warm food warm is a food safety mantra that ensures foods don’t get to the temperature danger zone. Temperature monitoring systems for freezers and refrigerators using wireless technologies will ensure a better food storage control even during non-business hours.
Emergency preparedness training for natural disasters and power outages should be in place to avoid surprises.
Compliance with FDA regulations for safe refrigerated storage, hot holding, cooling and reheating of food within the time and temperature criteria will help eliminate spoilage organisms and preserve the taste, texture and overall quality of food throughout its shelf life, especially for meat and poultry products.
Proper management of products’ shelf life, expiration dates and observing the principle of first in first out (FIFO) should be encouraged. In fact, the food code requires a system for identifying the date or day by which food must be consumed, sold or discarded. Product date marking enables compliance with this food code requirement to date mark all prepared food products, and to demonstrate a procedure that ensures proper discarding of food products on or before the date of expiration. Local health inspectors reference these product date marking labels and enforce them, in addition to food prep activities that may lead to cross-contamination, adulteration or spoilage. Inventory control, forecasting and Lean Six Sigma are important tools for managing food supplies, storage, preparation, stock replenishing and elimination of excess food items that may get past their shelf life.
Raw proteins (meat, sea food and poultry) are arguably the largest cross-contamination sources for pathogens in foodservice. Any novel pathogen reduction or elimination process like the potential production of pathogen-free chicken would be a welcome relief, and will not only save money and labor; it would protect the public health as well.
Produce (fruits and vegetables) remains the largest source of foodborne illness outbreaks in United States, because it’s a ready-to-eat food that doesn’t get the benefit of cooking at high sterilizing temperatures. An effective pathogen kill step for produce using consumer-friendly natural washes like electrolyzed water may serve as a gate keeper in case the safety system fails at the plant level. Ice-cold electrolyzed water is also known to refresh produce and may extend their shelf life as well.
GMO-food products could be engineered to resist pests and spoilage organisms with improved shelf life, but its general acceptability and the FDA labeling disclosure requirements are still contentious issues.
While industry is racing to develop several promising anti-spoilage technologies, active managerial control of the various components of an effective food safety and quality assurance system remains the best practice against food spoilage and associated food losses in retail food operations.
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