Tag Archives: Focus Article

Baby Bottle

FDA Investigating Another Infant Death Potentially Related to Abbott Baby Formula

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Baby Bottle

On Wednesday, June 22, the FDA announced that it was investigating the death of an infant that occurred in January 2022 and is potentially related to Abbott baby formula. In a statement, the FDA said that it was notified of the death through a consumer complaint received on June 10, 2022. “The agency has initiated an investigation, given that the complaint referenced that the infant had consumed an Abbott product. However, the investigation of this most recent consumer complaint is in its preliminary stages and the agency will provide an update as it learns more,” the statement read.

The FDA has previously reported its review of complaints related to nine infant deaths. Two were found to be associated with the Abbott Nutrition Sturgis plant investigation. However, the FDA notes that, despite extensive investigation, the evidence does not rule in or rule out a definitive link between these infant deaths and the product produced at Abbott Nutrition’s Sturgis, Michigan-based plant.

 

Food prep gloves

Mitigating Listeria Monocytogenes Risks in the Retail Food Environment

Food prep gloves

Listeria monocytogenes is a ubiquitous pathogen with a high mortality rate that can become persistent in the retail food environment, says Janet Buffer, MPH, of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, Ohio State University. During her presentation “Listeria monocytogenes and sanitation in the retail environment,” at the “Food Safety Hazards Series” virtual event, she discussed areas in retail food service environments most likely to harbor the pathogen as well as the best-proven methods to reduce the prevalence of listeria in your facility.

View the full “Food Safety Tech Hazards Series: Listeria” virtual conference on demand.

Areas that are more likely to harbor listeria monocytogenes in the retail food environment include:

  • Cracks and crevices in the floor
  • The floor/wall juncture, especially under sinks
  • On touchpoints of cooler handles and deli slicers
  • In front of deep fryers
  • In front of deli slicers and on slicer blades
  • Drains
  • Sink interiors
  • Areas where raw chicken is stored or transported

Listeria monocytogenes is hardy. It tolerates salt, grows in cold environments and is moderately resistant to acids,” said Buffer. “It is also ubiquitous. We find it in soil, water, silage, manure and sewage. We bring it in on our shoes. We can carry it on our clothes, and it can become a persistent pathogen in our retail spaces.”

A recent study by Briana C. Britton, et al, published in Food Control Journal, identified the most effective sanitation and customer service strategies correlated with lower listeria prevalence in retail delicatessens. These include:

  • When the deli is cleaned two-to-three hours/day
  • Changing gloves after touching nonfood surfaces
  • Keeping sanitation records
  • Using foam to clean and sanitize

“All chemicals work and all work very well,” said Buffer. “But, they must be used at the correct concentrations and they will require some elbow grease.”

Darin Detwiler, Northeastern University

ESG and Food Safety

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Darin Detwiler, Northeastern University

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

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

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

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

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

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

FST: How might measuring ESG enhance food safety?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dallas Henderson, RizePoint

Five Food Safety Changes That Are Here to Stay

By Dallas Henderson
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Dallas Henderson, RizePoint

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

1. Technology Is Making us Safer and Smarter

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

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

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

2. A More Effective Approach to Audits

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

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

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

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

3. Collaborative Cultures Are the New Norm

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

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

4. The Rise of Transparency

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

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

5. Increased Need for Training and Cross-training

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

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

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

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

ASI Food Safety
FST Soapbox

Top Five Questions When Building a Comprehensive Food Safety Plan

By Matt Regusci
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ASI Food Safety

Over the last 20 years, I have helped thousands of companies prepare for food safety audits. You can only imagine the plethora of questions that my team and I are asked by the food companies as they build their food safety programs. Many revolve around the basics of building an initial food safety plan. Here are the top five food safety plan questions I am asked regularly that I will address within this article:

  • What are the foundations of a good food safety plan?
  • Who should be involved in the process of building the food safety plan?
  • Can I convert my HACCP Plan into a food safety plan?
  • Are there resources and tools available to help build my food safety plan?
  • Should I add food safety culture to my food safety plan?

What Are the Foundations of a Good Food Safety Plan?

FDA dictates that a food safety plan is a set of written documents that are based on food safety principles and incorporates:

  • Hazard analysis
  • Preventive controls
  • Supply-chain programs
  • Recall plan
  • Written procedures to be followed for:
    • Monitoring
    • Corrective actions
    • Verification and validation

A food safety plan is developed for every individual facility based on the unique issues at each facility. For example, if a company has multiple processing plants processing the exact same product in multiple areas throughout the country, each facility will need their own unique plan. The reason for that is each facility may have different risks based on process flow layout, equipment used, suppliers and even employee and management cultures.

Each facility will have a separate HACCP plan detailing each chemical, biological and physical risk for the layout of the operation and equipment used. Recall plans will need to be created for each facility’s unique customers. Supplier monitoring will need to be developed for each facility’s unique suppliers.

Who Should be Involved in the Process of Building the Food Safety Plan?

Creating the team to build your food safety plan is one of the most important steps in the process and probably the most overlooked. Most teams I have seen include the QA and/or food safety person, the operations manager and the maintenance manager. This is too limited and often leads to risks being missed and processes that are either too simple or over complicated. A food safety team should have a member from each of the following departments:

  • Food Safety/QA
  • Operations
  • Maintenance
  • Crew or shift lead
  • Executive management (preferably the CEO)
  • Sanitation
  • A line worker or two

Why the CEO, a shift supervisor and line worker(s)? The CEO creates the company culture and should be funneling information down from the top. If the CEO is part of the team, the whole organization will see the importance of the food safety plan.

Line workers and crew leads are on the floor working the processes day in and out. They will be key to implementation of the plan. As processes are created, the line workers and crew chiefs can provide amazing insight on the processes and reporting tools that will be most effective on the floor. Having this information before implementation will save hours of time and minimize the risk of having to alter processes that don’t work in reality.

Can I Convert my HACCP Plan into a Food Safety Plan?

Many companies have a basic HACCP plan for their facilities. Often the question is, “Isn’t my HACCP plan a food safety plan?” The answer is yes and no. Basically, you can have an HACCP plan and not have a food safety plan, but you cannot have a food safety plan without an HACCP plan.

A food safety plan is more encompassing than an HACCP Plan. Looking at your facility floor plan and analyzing chemical, biological and physical risks is a key part of a food safety plan. The food safety plan adds another layer of monitoring for all risks and provides added processes for preventative controls, recalls and supplier monitoring.

Also, companies that have only an HACCP plan often have not been keeping that plan up to date with an all encompassing team described above. Once the new, more robust teams are created and they start building the food safety plan, many find they need to significantly alter their HACCP plans.

Are There Resources and Tools Available To Help Build My Food Safety Plan?

Luckily, we live in a technical world full of inexpensive or free tools. There are many very smart people that have services available to assist in creating a food safety plan as well. Here is a list of some free and low cost solutions:

Free Solutions:

  • The FDA created a free solution, the “FDA Food Safety Plan Builder.” This solution walks you through the process of creating a food safety plan step-by-step.
  • If you need a food safety plan for a specific GFSI Standard, walking through the individual check lists provided by the standards you choose will lead you to the creation of a food safety plan, albeit a very robust one.
  • If you do not need full certification, building a food safety plan based on GFSI Global Markets is a great stepping stone and they have a free toolkit.

Paid Solutions:

  • There are many software tools that you can purchase. The pricing and features will vary based on the company. Google “Food Safety Plan Software” and you will see the many options available.
  • Working with a consultant is a great option if you don’t have the time to learn the process of creating, building and implementing a food safety plan. There are many great and not so great consultants in the industry. If you decide to go this route make sure you interview at least three consultants and ask the following questions:
    • “Are you going to coach us on how to own and maintain our food safety program or do you do everything on your own?” Many consultants think they “own” the programs they develop, as if they are proprietary systems. Some will charge you year after year to use their program. Avoid these consultants.
    • “How long have you been consulting?”
    • “May I talk with a couple of your past clients?” If they are unwilling to provide testimonials that may be a red flag.

Should I Add Food Safety Culture to My Food Safety Plan?

Recently, I wrote an article for FoodSafetyTech.com titled “The Costs Of Food Safety: Correction vs. Prevention,” and the opening sentence is “Every company that grows, produces, packs, processes, distributes and serves food has a food safety culture. In the food industry, when looking at food safety culture there are essentially two groups: The correction and the prevention groups.”

By starting the process of creating a food safety plan, you are already crossing the chasm into the “prevention group.” Adding elements of food safety employee training, recognition and food safety behavior management into your food safety plan and implementing those elements will alter your organization in some of the most positive ways.

Every food company has a food safety culture, some are toxic and others are refreshingly positive. If you have read this article to the end I assume you either have a positive food safety culture or would like to create one. Incorporating key teams members in your planning and taking advantage of the resources available will place you on the path to developing an effective food safety plan and a company culture that embraces food safety.

Supply chain

Next Week: Virtual Event Targets Hazards in the Food Supply Chain

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Supply chain

Next week Food Safety Tech is hosting a virtual event that brings together subject matter experts with decades of experience at food companies who will help attendees recognize when and how to pivot in the face of global supply chain issues, how to be nimble during these challenges, and how to establish the adaptable mindset required to navigate these ever-changing circumstances.

Food Safety Tech Hazards Series: Supply Chain takes place on Wednesday, May 18 at 12 pm ET.

Presentations are as follows:

  • Pivoting on a Dime: How and When to Adjust Your Supply Chain Program, with Elise Forward, President & Principal Consultant, Forward Food Solutions
  • Remaining Agile During Supply Chain Disruptions: A Manufacturer’s Point of View, with April Bishop, Sr. Director Food Safety, TreeHouse Foods
  • Be a Game Changer to Manage Supply Chain Risk, with Liliana Casal-Wardle, Ph.D., Sr. Director Food Safety, the Acheson Group

The presentations will be followed by a panel discussion with the speakers.

This event is sponsored by SGS. Register now for Food Safety Tech Hazards Series: Supply Chain.

Recall

Wayne Farms Recalls More Than 585,000 Pounds of RTE Chicken

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Recall

Wayne Farms, LLC is recalling about 585,030 pounds of a ready-to-eat (RTE) chicken breast fillet product over concern that it may be undercooked. The issue was uncovered when the company received a customer complaint that the RTE chicken product was undercooked.

The recall was expanded from an initial recall of 30,285 pounds of chicken breast fillets, which affected products produced between February 9 and April 30,2022. The expanded action affects products with use by dates ranging from 5-10-22 through 4-29-23.

A full description of the chicken breast fillet products subject to the recall is available in an FSIS announcement on the USDA’s website.

Kroger Ground Beef

FSIS Issues Public Health Alert About Possible E. Coli O26 Contamination in Ground Beef Products

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Kroger Ground Beef

USDA’s FSIS has issued a public health alert regarding ground beef products that may be adulterated with E. coli O26. Since the products were produced on December 16 and 17, 2021, the products are no longer available for purchase—and thus the agency is not requesting a recall. However, since people frequently freeze ground beef, FSIS is concerned that these products could still in consumers’ freezers. The agency is urging consumers to check their ground beef products and not consumer the products listed in the public health alert.

The products were distributed to warehouses in Oregon and Washington and sold at retail locations, including Kroger. FSIS has provided images of the labels of the affected products.

The issue was uncovered after a consumer submitted one of the affected ground beef products to a third-party laboratory for microbiological analysis. Results confirmed the sample was positive for E. coli O26.

Across the country in New Jersey, Lakeside Refrigerated Services recently recalled more than 120,000 pounds of ground beef products due to concerns of E. coli O103 contamination.

Recall

E. Coli Found in Ground Beef, More than 120,000 Pounds Recalled

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Recall

New Jersey-based Lakeside Refrigerated Services is recalling about 120,872 pounds of ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O103. The issue was uncovered during routine FSIS testing of imported products.

The recall affects ground beef products that were produced between February 1, 2022 and April 8, 2022, and have the establishment number EST. 46841” inside the USDA mark of inspection (FSIS has provided a full list of products and product codes as well as product labels). The products were distributed to retail locations nationwide.

Thus far there are no confirmed reports of illness or adverse reactions related to products affected by this recall. “Many clinical laboratories do not test for non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) such as O103 because it is harder to identify than STEC O157:H7. People can become ill from STECs 2–8 days (average of 3–4 days) after consuming the organism,” FSIS stated in an announcement. The agency has advised that consumers throw out or return the recalled products to the place of purchase.

Steven Sklare, Food Safety Academy
FST Soapbox

What Is Your Company’s Level of Digital Risk Maturity?

By Steven Sklare
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Steven Sklare, Food Safety Academy

The digital transformation of food safety management programs is a common topic of discussion today, across the full range of media including print, blogs, websites and conferences. It has also been generally acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly accelerated the adoption of various digital technologies. However, let’s be clear, COVID-19 may have accelerated the process, but the process was under way as the only way for food companies to efficiently cope with the increase of required compliance documentation for regulatory bodies, such as FDA, USDA, etc., non-regulatory organizations such as GFSI, and customer specific requirements. COVID-19 has added a sense of urgency, as the fragility of both domestic and international supply chains has been exposed with long-term sources of ingredients or equipment being cut off overnight. We must also overlay the need to manage food safety risk and food fraud vulnerability in real time (or even predict the future, which will be discussed further in a future article). The food industry has also had to adjust to dealing with many aspects of work and production without typical face-to-face interaction—a norm of operating within the environment of a global pandemic over the past two years.

What is not clear, however, is the meaning of “digital transformation” or the “digitization” of a food safety management program. What is not clear is what these terms mean to individual organizations. The frenzy of buzzwords, “urgent” presentations, blogs and webinars help to create an improved level of awareness but rarely result in concrete actions that lead to improved results. I admit to being guilty of this very hyperbole—in a previous article discussing “Chocolate and Big Data”, I said, “If a food organization is going to effectively protect the public’s health, protect their brand and comply with various governmental regulations and non-governmental standards such as GFSI, horizon scanning, along with the use of food safety intelligent digital tools, needs to be incorporated into food company’s core FSQA program.” Sounds great, but it presupposes a high level of awareness of those “digital tools”. What is not clear to many organizations is how to get started and how to create a road map that leads to improved results, more efficient operations and importantly, to ongoing improvement in the production of safe food.

Addressing a new concept can be intimidating and paralyzing. Think back to the beginning days of HACCP, then TACCP, then VACCP, and post FSMA, preventive controls! So, where do we start?

Nikos Manouselis, CEO of Agroknow, a food safety data and intelligence company with a cloud-based risk intelligence platform, Foodakai, believes the place to start is for food companies to perform an honest, self-assessment of their digital risk maturity. Think of it as a digital risk maturity gap analysis. While there are certainly different approaches to performing this self-assessment, Agroknow has developed a simple, straightforward series of questions that focus on three critical areas: Risk monitoring practices and tools; risk assessment practices and tools; and risk prevention practices and tools. The questions within each of these areas lead to a ranking of 1–5 with 1 being a low level of maturity and 5 being a high level of maturity. One of the goals of the self-assessment is to determine where your company stands, right now, compared to where you want to be or should be.

While this is not a complete nor exhaustive process, it helps to break the inertia that could be holding a company back from starting the process of digitizing their food protection and quality systems, which will allow them to take advantage of the benefits available from continuous monitoring of food safety risks and food fraud vulnerabilities, artificial intelligence and predictive analytics.