Tag Archives: Focus Article

How Automated Inventory Tracking Systems Contribute to Food Safety

By Ryan Hardy
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When a business decides to invest in technology, the primary driver is usually to save money over the long term. As with most automated systems, inventory management tools can reduce costs by saving time and resources used to manage inventory.

But the benefits that automated inventory tracking can provide through traceability (of lots, batches, and even individual items) go beyond the financial. These systems can also be used in every aspect of your food safety program from helping with compliance, to improving your quality controls.

Exchange knowledge about managing your supply chain at the Best Practices in Food Safety Supply Chain conference | June 5–6, 2017 | LEARN MORE

In a nutshell, having an automated system that allows full visibility into the supply chain—that is, one that identifies in real time where items are being used and where they are sent, while retaining a historical record of that flow through the chain—makes it much simpler and faster to implement procedures to ensure the safety of the food you produce.

All about Accuracy and Speed

Speed and accuracy make a huge difference when it comes to dealing with potentially contaminated food. Being faster and more accurate than a manual inventory method is the most immediate benefit that an automated system brings to your food safety program.

The most compelling reason for having accurate and readily accessible track-and-trace data is to handle food recalls and to comply with requests for documentation from government agencies such as the FDA. In cases where consumer health is at risk, that information needs to be delivered quickly to prevent further harm, and it must be accurate to enable investigators to move in the right direction. Responding to requests for detailed documentation within a 24-hour timeframe can be nearly impossible if you are not using an automated system.

Even when the situation doesn’t involve a federal investigation, once a situation in which possible contamination or mislabeling arises, the faster you have accurate and detailed data, the faster your internal processes can move forward.

If the issue is identified through your quality control process, you will be more likely to be able to prevent contaminated product from reaching the retail outlet and thus getting into the hands of the consumer. Having traceability built into your inventory management systems provides immediate knowledge about whether a product using ingredients from the same batch have entered the distribution chain, and if so, where they are going. This greatly improves the likelihood of limiting the cost and scope of a recall.

Depending on the specific technology you employ, an automated system can provide immediate access to the track and trace information for specific ingredients at least one step backward and one step forward, as required by the Bioterrorism Act of 2002. A supply chain that integrates the most sophisticated technology, such as DNA tracking, can trace an item all the way from the farm or border to the individual consumer or restaurant kitchen.

This traceability means that if an ingredient was already contaminated before it entered your production line, the inventory tracking system can identify all products using that ingredient from the contaminated lot and thus will help you define the scope of the problem. This automation can go a step further by identifying where the ingredient lot originated, and thus help trace the ingredient at least one step backward to the vendor. If the vendor (whether a distribution company or a direct supplier) has traceability in an automated system, or if you are using a system hosted by a distribution partner, tracing the source farther back than one step is possible.

Such information can help you respond more quickly to FDA requests for product information and support the agency’s efforts in product traceability.

Protect Your Reputation

Just as using tracing technology can help identify potential contamination sources quickly, it can also be used to eliminate sources more quickly and accurately, thereby speeding up investigations into food contamination incidents. The faster a company can be eliminated from an investigation, the less time is taken away from normal production. In addition, quick exclusion can protect a company’s reputation from harm.

Additional Benefits

Through their ability to store specific data that can be used to identify potential risks, automated track and trace systems contribute to many preventive food safety measures as well as to the following corrective responses:

  • For perishable products, automated traceability can identify how long specific perishables have been in supply chain. This allows you to avoid using ingredients close to spoilage and to remove overdue products from the distribution chain.
  • During mock recalls, automated tracking systems reduce the time spent away from regular production and allow you consistent information throughout the organization, eliminating wasted effort due to miscommunications.
  • Automated systems reduce the time needed for notifications both internally and externally in the case of an incident affecting food quality or safety. This leads to faster line clearance and faster isolation of the possibly contaminated product.
  • With more effective accounting for possibly affected batches, you can better identify where to apply cleanup measures in the production chain.

In short, automated tracking can improve implementation of preventive controls to stop the contaminated product from reaching the marketplace, and in cases in which corrective actions are required, the automated system can help you respond more quickly and can reduce the scope of risk.

Not just Foodstuffs

Although raw ingredients and food products obviously require traceability, they aren’t the only traceable inventory that can impact food safety. Automated lot tracking can enhance food safety efforts related to all inventory items used in food processing/manufacturing:

  • Packaging. A sub-standard packaging lot can allow incursion of harmful substances or the growth of harmful bacteria. Leakers can contaminate an entire batch of meat or poultry product. Automated lot tracking can help you rapidly isolate the bad lot and know which production lines have already used the sub-standard materials.
  • Labeling. If an inferior adhesive has been applied to a batch of labels, you can identify which product lots to pull from the distribution chain. You can do the same if your quality controls find a batch of inaccurate labels.
  • Protective equipment and clothing. Gloves, masks and other protective gear must function properly to ensure the safety of your workers and also to prevent contamination from being introduced on the production line. An inferior batch of protective gloves that tear during use, for example, could violate your food safety practices. Identifying the bad batch quickly and removing it from the operations area immediately can save potential contamination.
  • Cleaning solutions. Even a batch of cleaning solution can be sub-par. If tests show that cleaning has not eliminated the targeted bacteria, for example, you can more quickly take measures to determine whether the root cause of the problem was a procedural issue or a quality issue with the batch of cleaner.

Beyond the Production Line

The benefits of automated tracking systems to your food safety program extend beyond the production line. They can also enhance decision-making, vendor management and communications functions.

When it comes to potential contamination, decision making needs to be both timely and based on the best information available. Automated systems can provide you with accurate information quickly to help you answer these and other key questions, so that the decision on what actions to take can be based on good information:

  • How widespread is the potential contamination?
  • Where is the product in the production and distribution chains?
  • Have we already exposed consumers?

These systems can put the answers to these questions in front of the appropriate decision makers early in the process. The technology can be configured to allow access to the data via a browser, so if those who make the final decisions are located elsewhere, they can see in real time the same information that you are seeing in the plant. This makes communication about potential contamination more effective and clear, since everyone can see the same thing at the same time, and it can eliminate the potential for miscommunication up the chain of command.

By identifying where bad lots entered your supply chain, automated track-and-trace can enhance supplier accountability. You can accurately see if you have vendors with recurring issues in the quality of the supplies they are providing.

Automated Inventory Tracking Technologies

An automated inventory tracking system depends on three components:

  • A physical component, such as a label or tag, which contains detailed information identifying the specific lot or item.
  • A database, where each discrete data item is stored.
  • A reporting interface that allows people to access and use the identification information. This is the programming code that performs searches, retrieves the data, and formats the information in a formatted report, which is then presented on the screen, saved to a file, or sent to a printer.

The most common physical components used by automated inventory tracking systems rely on barcode or RFID technology, or a combination of both. The choice of which technology to use to integrate into the inventory management database layer of the system depends on a number of factors, but both have been proven extremely accurate (some sources say up to 99%). What is more important than the choice of tracking tools is the quality of the data encoded in them.

The latest in tracking technology uses an engineered DNA marker, in the form of an edible spray. When applied to produce, this DNA marker can track the individual item (i.e., an apple, head of lettuce or onion), along the entire food supply chain, identifying where it was farmed, the date it was picked, and where it was processed.

Whatever form of technology you employ, ensuring that your data is complete and accurate and can be integrated into both your supply and distribution chain is critical to realizing the benefits of that system in supporting your food safety efforts.

The WDS Food Safety Team also contributed to this article.

Vice President, Science Operations, Grocery Manufacturers Association
FST Soapbox

GFSI and FDA’s Preventive Controls: Complementary or Redundant?

By Jennifer McEntire, Ph.D.
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Vice President, Science Operations, Grocery Manufacturers Association

Accreditation, certification, certificates…the structure that supports the third-party audit system can be very confusing! Further, an audit company offers a menu of audits: An audit to their own private standard, audits to several GFSI benchmarked schemes, and perhaps in the future, an “FDA accredited” audit. How do you know which one you need? How do you know which best prepares you for FSMA?

Jennifer McEntire spoke during the session, “Staying Ahead of New USDA and FDA Mandates for Controlling Pathogens in Food Processing” at the Food Safety Consortium conference.  LEARN MOREUntil the compliance dates for the Preventive Controls rules pass, food manufacturers really only need to be compliant with good manufacturing practices (GMPs), from a regulatory standpoint. There are some specific audits that evaluate adherence to GMPs, but many companies wanted to take their food safety programs to the next level by demonstrating that they were implementing effective food safety management systems. Certification to a GFSI-benchmarked audit scheme (BRC, SQF, FSSC22000, IFS, etc.) was a primary means to show a commitment to food safety and the demonstration of exemplary programs. With the finalization of the Preventive Controls Rules, FDA is catching up. So how do the FDA requirements compare with the main elements of the GFSI Guidance Document?

Let’s evaluate the extent to which the scope of GFSI aligns with FSMA. In September, the Preventive Controls for Human Food rule was finalized, and the areas addressed within that rule constitute the bulk (although not all) of the topics covered by GFSI (GFSI covers additional areas for which FDA has not yet finalized rules, such as food defense and traceability). The question on everyone’s mind is, “If I’m certified to a GFSI-benchmarked audit scheme, am I compliant with the rule?” The answer is, “You’re probably in way better shape than someone who is not certified.” The reason is, regardless of which GFSI benchmarked audit scheme you choose, your facility will need to demonstrate, through fairly exhaustive documentation, the nature and validity of the programs that are in place, and the proof that those programs are followed day in and day out. FDA is looking for the same thing.

The Preventive Controls rules go beyond strict HACCP in that they require facilities to consider what has historically been termed the HACCP system. This includes programs that may not be critical control points (CCP) per se, but are critical to the safety of the food product. FDA identifies elements of sanitation and allergen control, as well as a supplier program, in this category. If you’re familiar with FSSC 22000, you might call these “operational prerequisite programs”.  FDA will want to see how each and every hazard is evaluated to determine if it needs a preventive control, whether that is a traditional CCP or another control. For the most part, this is aligned with the GFSI benchmarked schemes, although some of the language may differ.

When it comes to the implementation of a supplier program, facilities should be aware that FDA’s requirements of such a program are much more explicit than most of the GFSI-benchmarked schemes. Even if the result is the same at the end of the day, FDA inspectors may be looking for companies to follow a fairly structured approach compared to a GFSI auditor.

To further complicate matters, FDA will be finalizing a program for the accreditation of third-party auditors. If an effective private third-party audit system exists, why is FDA adding another layer with its own form of audits (separate from inspections)? The answer lies with Congress, not FDA, as it identified two specific circumstances in which a special regulatory audit would be necessary. One situation is when a facility (or their customer) wishes to participate in the forthcoming Voluntary Qualified Importer Program. The second is if FDA has determined that the food poses food safety risks such that a facility wishing to export that food needs a certification issued by an auditor under this program. In neither case will domestic facilities be audited under this program; this program only applies to foreign facilities and only in very limited instances.

Since the rule and accompanying guidance documents related to accreditation of third-party auditors hasn’t been issued by FDA, it is premature to comment on how these audits will compare to those in use by private industry today.

So with the implementation of new rules from FDA, is there still a market for audits? Absolutely. From a very practical standpoint, FDA won’t be inspecting most facilities on an annual basis, and many private audits are conducted on an annual schedule. Plus, industry typically pushes itself further than regulations, which lag behind. Regulations can be viewed as the floor for expectations, but not the ceiling. Moving forward, we expect audit standards and private audits to become even more stringent and aggressive in terms of promoting the very best food safety practices. But beware, as history has shown us, a certificate is not a guarantee or indication of the ongoing quality of a plant’s food safety system. This is why FDA will not blindly accept that a facility has a favorable audit; regardless of the audit certifications you hold, FDA will still inspect you. That said, depending on the audit, it can serve as a credible certification of a food safety system in a plant and demonstrate to your customers your level of food safety commitment.  And poor performance during an audit can find its way to FDA too, since in some instances the agency will have access to the conclusions of the audit and corrective actions taken in response to significant deficiencies identified during the audit. FDA initially proposed that serious issues uncovered during consultative audits conducted as part of the third-party accreditation of auditor program would be shared with FDA, and when audits are used as part of supplier programs, FDA will see how serious deficiencies in audits have been addressed. Be clear on why you are pursuing a particular audit, and take the program seriously. Audits should reflect your food safety culture, not serve as your motivation.

Food Safety and Social Media Crisis Communications

What Does a Social Media Crisis Communications Plan Have to Do with Food Safety?

By Ryan Hardy
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Food Safety and Social Media Crisis Communications

No one can contest the power of social media these days. As of August 2015, there were 2.2. billion users of social networks globally, with Facebook still by far the largest social network platform, at nearly 1.5 billion active users. Even if you aren’t on Twitter or Instagram, you have most likely heard or read about topics on them through other media. The influence of social networks to reach so many people makes them perhaps the most powerful communications tool available.

When it comes to a food safety crisis—whether a product recall or a report that a consumer has found a foreign object in prepared food product—you have to assume that messages about it will show up on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even YouTube. From there, it is likely to end up on TV through newscasts as well. If your company maintains silence on social media, the public is likely to assume that you have something to hide, that your company is out of touch with public concerns, or that you just don’t care.

For these reasons, it is important that your food safety program be integrated with a social media crisis communications plan. That does not mean that your food safety team has to create the plan or manage the communications. These responsibilities should fall to your designated communications and public relations personnel. But it does mean that when a food safety issue with potentially harmful effects on public health arises, your food safety team should be aware of the plan and coordinate with the public relations team in the overall response.

The Positive Side of Social Media in a Crisis

The most obvious benefits of using social networks for crisis communications are speed and the large number of people you can reach. In a situation with potential to impact a large number of people, getting accurate information out to the public quickly is important to lower the risk to public health.

Other benefits may not be as obvious. By presenting a consistent and accurate message to a broad audience, your communications can help prevent or counter misinformation. A well-crafted social media post should be clear and concise, and thus is less likely to be misunderstood. That clarity and concision may help to avoid your message being reported as a “sound bite” out of context. And your message is more likely to be transmitted and repeated accurately, as social media users can share it in full.

Studies have shown that frequent communications from a firm can increase consumers’ intentions to comply with a recall effort and, when well handled, actually enhance consumer perception of a company. Thus, a social media crisis communications plan can contribute to action on the part of consumers and to maintain your company’s reputation.

The Downside of Social Media in a Crisis

As with any communications platform, social network communications do have a downside. The social nature of the platforms means that anyone with an account can post a response, and the potential for inaccuracies and outright hostility is very real. How to respond appropriately, and when not to respond at all, takes training and experience. That is the reason that crisis communications need to be handled carefully by the communications experts in your organization.

However, even if you are not the one posting the communications, having an understanding of the plan will help you as you carry out your responsibilities as part of the coordinated response to a food safety incident.

The Basics of a Social Media Crisis Plan
Although each social media crisis communications plan should be tailored for the individual company, the following some common elements of a good plan:

  • Clear assignment of roles and responsibilities. Who should post/comment/tweet on behalf of the company? All others should avoid commenting about the situation, even if using their own accounts, to prevent confusion and promote consistency.
  • Identification of the primary social media channel to use during the crisis (and of secondary channels). For example, will you post all relevant information to the corporate website, on Twitter, or on the corporate Facebook page? Picking one channel helps control the messages and makes it possible to funnel users of other social networks to one central source.
  • Message templates. One template should be for an initial message, indicating that your company is aware of the situation and will be issuing an official statement shortly. Twitter is a good channel to use for this message, but it is also appropriate for your corporate Facebook page. It is also a good idea to include the platform you will be using as your primary channel for communications. For example, the initial message for a company intending to use Facebook as the primary social media communications channel could be “@Company is aware of the [brief description of the situation] and will be issuing an official response soon. For continuing updates, please visit our Facebook page [url].”
  • Internal contact information (including for after-hours). You should know whom to alert and how to contact them regardless of the time, and under what circumstances you should contact them. This is key information to include in your food safety plan.
  • Clear procedures and responsibility for cancelling scheduled social media posts. During a crisis, the company needs to prove that situation is their top priority. Pre-scheduled messages about products can send the wrong message.
  • Guidelines on the frequency and content of messages. For example, measures the company is undertaking and actions consumers can take to avoid the contaminated item(s) should be posted. However, prematurely stating that preliminary measures will completely address the problem should be avoided; otherwise, if you have to increase the scope of corrective measures, your company could lose consumer trust.
  • Message approval procedures. Identify any specific type of message that requires approval by senior management. However, be mindful that a lengthy approval process for all messages will defeat the purpose for communicating through social media. (That’s one reason why templates are an important part of the plan, as they can be vetted and approved ahead of time).
  • Message review procedures. On the other hand, all messages should be reviewed before being posted to verify technical accuracy and to ensure clarity and appropriateness. During a crisis situation, you must adhere to the highest standards of professionalism.
  • Procedures for coordination with regulatory agencies. In the case of a recall, the FDA, CDC and USDA post information on their consumer food safety site at FoodSafety.gov. It is critical that the information provided to these agencies is consistent with messages posted on your social network channel(s).

Coordinating Response and Communications

So what should a food safety professional do regarding a social media crisis plan? Here are some first steps to help with a coordinated response:

  1. Review your food safety procedures to see if procedures for crisis communications are included.
  2. If not, check with your corporate office to find out if there is already a social media crisis plan. Ask to see it, and then update your food safety procedures to include relevant steps to keep the designated contact information updated. If yes, be sure the information in your response plan is current.
  3. Make sure everyone is familiar with the plan and of specific roles and responsibilities. Ensure that employees are trained on what they should expect, and what they should and should not do, regarding social regarding social media during a crisis. Employees should understand that if they post information related to the crisis using their own social media accounts, it can lead to confusion and undermine efforts to protect the public health, as well as affect the company’s credibility.
  4. During a crisis, provide timely and accurate updates to the communications team as appropriate. Be sure to check the designated channels to remain aware of what the company is communicating publicly.

Can Social Listening Lead to Better Crisis Response?

Several major companies in the food industry have found that social listening—the monitoring of social networks for mention of their company and its products—can help them identify a potential problem early. If a consumer post describes finding a foreign object in a can of soda, for example, the manufacturer can quickly reach out to that person through social media to request that the individual contact the customer service department to provide details. That way, an investigation can get underway to determine the accuracy and extent of the potential issue, and the customer can have their situation addressed more quickly and appropriately.

Monitoring the company Facebook page, Twitter ID and hashtags for product names can be a component of proactive measures for averting a larger problem. Better that you find out that someone posted that they found a rat tail in their soup than for you to be blind-sided by a report about it in traditional media.

Public health agencies in New York City and Chicago are also studying the use of social media to identify potential outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in their jurisdictions. They are working to determine if searching restaurant reviews posted on Yelp can help them identify foodborne health issues that have a common source. Results suggest that online restaurant reviews might help to identify unreported outbreaks of foodborne illness and restaurants with deficiencies in food handling.

Don’t Wait Until a Crisis

It is better not to have to learn about the power of social media once a crisis has arisen. Having an understanding of social media’s role in communications and of how your company can use it effectively can help improve your crisis communications efforts.

If you want the public to trust what you say on social media during a food safety crisis, one of the best strategies is to build a reputation as a trustworthy source of food safety information before a crisis occurs. Consider a social campaign around food safety topics, such as how to prepare food products safely, the difference between a sell-by date, a best by date, and an expiration date, and other topics that tell the consumers that you are attuned to their concerns around food safety. If you are considered a trustworthy source of food safety information, your communications during a food safety crisis are more likely to be believed. As a result, you are more likely to be able to protect both public health and your reputation should a crisis arise.

In a future article, we will discuss specific ways to integrate a social media crisis communications plan into your food safety incident response plan.

The WDS Food Safety Team also contributed to this article.

Holly Mockus, Product Manager, Alchemy Systems
FST Soapbox

Inspiration for Frontline Employees and Supervisors

By Holly Mockus
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Holly Mockus, Product Manager, Alchemy Systems

No experience in our lives prepares us for working in a food manufacturing plant. It’s noisy, cold, hot, dry, wet, dark, or extra bright. It has a variety of aromas that are beyond description. And it has more rules about how to dress, personal hygiene and traffic patterns than can be committed to memory. Every day, frontline food workers make individual decisions that impact food safety, workplace safety, product quality, and operations. So inspiring employees to learn, apply and retain knowledge requires multiple touch points.

At this month’s Food Safety Consortium conference, Holly Mockus will moderate the session, “Gathering Data to Gather Data: Don’t Learn the Hard Way!” LEARN MOREAt most plants, employee onboarding is usually done through formal classroom training. Group training is a great way to learn in a focused setting and interact with an instructor and co-workers. But ensuring that the training is clear and easy to understand can be a challenge. A recent survey of frontline food workers by the Center for Research and Public Policy, Mind of the Food Worker, reveals that 39% of employees say that training is sometimes too complicated or difficult to understand. Learning must be contextually accurate to resonate with the learner, and alignment with the diversity of today’s frontline worker requires new approaches.

Ensuring employees learn, apply and retain knowledge requires multiple touch points because attention spans are getting shorter. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the average attention span is now just 8.3 seconds. Training content has to be presented through different channels in order to stick in the employee’s mind and drive the required behavior.

Companies are increasingly using digital signage to show relevant and eye-catching visuals to reinforce the formal training. The content is more impactful when played at strategic times throughout the production day—continuous or too infrequent may cause the retention level to wane. The content also needs to be changed periodically. Truly effective digital content display will be managed effectively to get the biggest bang for the effort.

Mind of the Food Worker survey
The Mind of the Food Worker survey found that just 43.2% of food workers rarely or never receive coaching from manager/supervisor. Figure courtesy of Alchemy Systems

Leveraging the supervisor and employee interaction through shift change meetings is another important delivery channel for training reinforcement. According to the Mind of the Food Worker survey, only 56.8% of workers said they receive coaching from supervisors. By providing supervisors with scripted huddle guides, they can effectively and consistently reinforce key messages. In addition, supervisors and managers who observe and provide reinforcement or correction individually to employees have found a winning combination that will strengthen and drive culture so that everyone will know the right thing to do every day.

Supervisors are the hub of the wheel that keeps manufacturing on the road and pushes the industry forward every day. Anything that can make life easier for the frontline supervisor will have a high potential for return on investment. Tablets are increasingly being used by supervisors to complete tasks in real time, as it eliminates the need to spend hours deciphering and following up on notes after a shift ends. This in turn gives the supervisor more time to spend on the floor coaching and reinforcing employees. The bond between supervisor and employee is the absolute core of the culture of each manufacturing plant.

The survey, Mind of the Food Worker, was sponsored by Alchemy Systems.

Timothy Ahn, LRQA
FST Soapbox

The Real Cost of Not Having an Effective Food Safety Management System

By Timothy Ahn
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Timothy Ahn, LRQA

If you watch the evening news or read the local newspaper, the chances are pretty good that you will read or see something about a food safety concern or incident.

Consumers and Foodborne Illness
An estimated 1 in 6 Americans fall victim to a foodborne illness annually.

While the American food supply is among the safest in the world, the Federal government estimates that there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illness annually—the equivalent of sickening 1 in 6 Americans each year, according to Foodsafety.gov. And each year these illnesses result in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Five types of organisms—Salmonella, Toxoplasma, Listeria, norovirus, and Campylobacter—account for 88% of the deaths for which the cause is known.

We watched from the sidelines when major retailers faced public scrutiny over their practices on safeguarding consumer credit card information when their websites were hacked. Today, consumer and regulatory interest in food safety are the new focus areas for the news media, especially in light of the Blue Bell Creameries Listeria and the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) Salmonella outbreaks. Unlike consumer credit information, serious missteps in our industry can kill people, and in the case of PCA, can put you permanently out of business.

In 2008, peanut butter paste manufactured by PCA killed nine people and sickened 714 others, some critically, across 46 states and was one of the largest food recalls in American history, according to the CDC. Although still under appeal, PCA CEO Stewart Parnell was convicted and sentenced to a 28-year prison term for his role in knowingly shipping out salmonella-contaminated peanut butter. Parnell received one of the toughest punishments in U.S. history in a foodborne illness case.

In the Blue Bell case, a total of 10 people with Listeriosis related to this outbreak were reported from four states, with three deaths reported from Kansas, according to the CDC. Blue Bell pulled their products from store shelves on April 20, 2015. On May 7, the FDA released findings from inspections at the Blue Bell production facilities in Brenham, Texas, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma and Sylacauga, Alabama. The FDA reports highlighted serious problems across multiple sites.

Both cases shine a spotlight on what can happen if you don’t have an effective food safety management system (FSMS). So what makes up a good FSMS, and is it enough to keep you out of trouble? An effective FSMS is built on three elements: Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) and a management system. Food safety issues are avoidable, and good processes and a strong culture within an organization make them more unlikely to occur.

Does your leadership  recognize the importance of your FSMS?
Does your leadership recognize the importance of your FSMS? An effective FSMS should be established before a product incident or recall occurs.

Implementing a FSMS does not happen in a few months; it may take up to two years to establish one. No doubt, foundational activities need to be in place for factory operations. In addition to focusing on foundational elements such as making sure equipment is cleaned properly and procedures for allergens are implemented, the leadership team needs to make it clear that it is never acceptable under any circumstances to take shortcuts that could jeopardize food safety. This policy needs to be indoctrinated throughout the organization and thus does not happen overnight.

Underlying an effective FSMS are strong HACCP and GMPs, but food safety should always be the top priority for management and its employees, not share price, earnings or profit margin. Although financial performance is important, food safety must take precedence in the organization, and leadership at all levels needs to send that message loud and clear to all employees. In today’s environment, HACCP is pretty much mandatory from a regulatory standpoint and is an essential part of a FSMS. But the missing piece in many organizations is the support from the top—this is where culture becomes embedded in the organization.

The FSMS culture is the collective behavior from the organization around shared values and beliefs. The organization will follow the actions of leaders, not necessarily what they say—we all know actions speak louder than words. A good food safety culture is one where best practices are openly discussed, defined and rewarded. Food safety culture has become a buzz word and there needs to be a focus on making it come to life through a structured FSMS.

At this year’s Food Safety Consortium conference, Tim Ahn will discuss advancing food safety training and harmonization (November 19). LEARN MOREFood safety training is important not only for first line supervisors and operators, but also for senior managers and leadership, because they define the objectives and policies of the FSMS. What does it mean to conduct an effective management review? What does it mean to do an internal audit? What’s a good corrective action process? Training often misses the mark, because organizations fail to embed it correctly.

For FSMS to thrive, management must commit to the FSMS being a required way of doing things throughout the entire organization. A FSMS is most effective when it benchmarked against a proven standard and verified by an independent third party. Certification against a proven standard will reduce risk within your business.

Select your independent third-party verifier carefully. Do they have the resources and time, and do they know what they are doing? Do they add value to your organization? This is important since once you get certified, your journey starts and it doesn’t end. The value comes in two areas: Identifying risks and developing the appropriate control measures, and ensuring that the process drive continuous improvement in your organization. FSMS is focused on how continuous improvement applies to the management of risk and business operations.

The most effective way to establish an FSMS is to have leadership that recognizes its importance. The worst way is to have a recall or an incident, which draws attention to the fact that there is a problem and something needs to happen. In the case of Blue Bell, they probably understood the importance of food safety and thought they were taking the right actions. However, their management system led them to problems. FSMS must be independently verified against world-class standards to ensure effective performance.

Auditing and FSMS
A thorough auditor won’t look the other way and will find the problems. Call it as you see it–don’t be too soft when getting an assessment.

Companies can develop blind spots where they cannot see their own bad practices, and they become institutionalized over time. Fortunately, experienced independent third-party assessors can shine a spotlight on those bad practices. That is the true value in bringing in outsiders to look at your operations and culture to uncover those blind spots.

At PCA, their poor culture and actions to the problem sealed their fate. In some ways, this criminal case presented a wake-up call to boardrooms across America and highlights how badly leadership mismanaged matters. This case came to light in the context of the public complaining to the regulators that they were not doing enough following several highly visible food poisoning cases. A FSMS would have prevented these problems because the structure would not allow such bad decisions to be made and would have been verified by an independent third party that would test and check everything. A reputable third-party verifier would not miss poor GMP/ HACCP processes.

A good assessor can help a company understand what is really important and what is not so important when it comes to findings (i.e., context). We don’t waste a client’s time with insignificant issues and that is where the experience and judgment of the auditor becomes critical. Last year I met with a client and said, “you need to be checking for Salmonella in your environment—how do you know it is not there?” I pushed them into checking because I understood the changing regulatory environment. I came back a year later, and they had confirmed that regulators were interested in their Salmonella monitoring program during a recent inspection. As an auditor, you have to be confident enough to provide advice and context to the client in a way that is understood and accepted, and that helps to build trust.

With FSMA, the government can now take specific actions against companies. If I am plant manager or CEO, how do I know for sure that I am in compliance with the requirements? How do I know that I don’t have any of these potential issues? The only way to know for sure is to have the FSMS assessed. Just like a bank or publicly traded company hires financial auditors to assure everything is done correctly, companies need to audit their FSMS to ensure compliance. Get a process audit and ensure they drill down deep into the organization—that is where we find issues and gaps. A thorough auditor will find your problems instead of looking the other way. It is important to call it the way you see it and not be too “soft” when getting an assessment.

If I am the CEO, I want to know where those problems exist. Independent third party assurance is the best way to find out how compliant you are with regulations. No CEO wants to deal with the inevitable lawsuits and lost business impacts. At least with an effective FSMS, you can show a level of due diligence when the regulators show up at your doorstep and the culture is such that you want to address any problems.

We have entered an important time for the food industry with FSMA implementation and other food safety regulatory requirements in the United States. These new rules place an emphasis on management accountability, risk assessment and control of supply chains. The bar for due diligence has been raised and it up to all us to show that we have done everything possible, and the best way is with an effective FSMS.

Laboratory Information Management System

How LIMS Facilitates ISO 17025 Certification in Food Testing Labs

By Dr. Christine Paszko
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Laboratory Information Management System

In order to ensure that a food testing laboratory maintains a quality management system that effectively manages all aspects of laboratory operations that affect quality, there are numerous records, reports and data that must be recorded, documented and managed.

Gathering, organizing and controlling all the data that is generated, managed and stored by food testing laboratories can be challenging to say the least. As the ISO Standards and regulatory requirements for food testing laboratories evolve, so does the need for improved quality data management systems. Historical systems that were very efficient and effective 10 years ago, may no longer meet the demanding requirements for ISO 17025 certification. One way to meet the challenge is to turn to automated solutions that eliminate many of the mundane tasks that utilize valuable resources.

There are many reasons for laboratories to seek this certification, including to enhance reputation, gain a competitive advantage, reduce operational costs, and meet regulatory compliance goals. A major advantage for food testing laboratories to obtain ISO 17025 Certification is that is tells prospective clients that the laboratory has a strong commitment to quality, and they hold the certification to prove it. This certification not only boosts a laboratory’s reputation, but it also demonstrates an organization’s commitment to quality, operational efficiency and management practices. Proof of ISO 17025 Certification eliminates the need for independent supplier audits, because the quality, capability and expertise of the laboratory have been verified by external auditors. Many ISO Certified laboratories will only buy products (raw materials, supplies and software) and services from other ISO-certified firms so that they do not need to do additional work in qualifying the vendor or the products.

There are many areas in which a LIMS supports and promotes ISO 17025 compliance. Laboratories are required to manage and maintain SOPs (standard operating procedures) that accurately reflect all phases of current laboratory activities such as assessing data integrity, taking corrective actions, handling customer complaints, managing all test methods, and managing all documents pertaining to quality. In addition, all contact with clients and their testing instructions should be recorded and kept with the job/project documentation for access by the staff performing the tests/calibrations. With a computerized LIMS, laboratory staff can scan in all paper forms that arrive with the samples (special instructions, chain of custody (CoC), or any other documentation). This can be linked to the work order and is easy assessable by anyone who has  the appropriate permissions. The LIMS provides extensive options for tracking and maintaining all correspondence, the ability to attach electronic files, scanned documents, create locked PDFs of final reports, COAs (Certificate of Analysis), and CoCs.

Sample Handling and Acceptance

Laboratories are required to have a procedure that defines all processes that a sample is subjected to while in the possession of the laboratory. Some of these procedures will relate to sample preservation, holding time requirements, and the type of container in which the sample is collected or stored. Other information that must be tracked includes sample identification and receipt procedures, along with acceptance or rejection criteria at log-in. Sample log-in begins and defines the entire analysis and disposal process, therefore it is important that all sample storage, tracking and shipping receipts as well as sample transmittal forms (CoC) are stored, managed and maintained throughout the sample’s analysis to final disposal. To summarize, the laboratory should have written procedures around the following related to sample preservation:

  • Preservation
  • Sample identification
  • Sample acceptance conditions
  • Holding timesShipping informationStorage
  • Results and Reporting
  • Disposal

The LIMS must allow capture and tracking of data throughout the sample’s active lifetime. In addition, laboratories are also required to document, manage and maintain essential information associated with the analytical analysis, such as incubator and refrigerator temperature charts, and instrument run files/logs. Also important is capturing data from any log books, which would include the unique sample identifier, and the date and time of the analysis, along with if the holding time is 72 hours or less or when time critical steps are included in the analysis, such as sample preparations, extractions, or incubations. Capturing the temperature data can be automated such that the data can be directly imported into the LIMS. If there is an issue with the temperature falling outside of a range, an email can automatically be spawned or a message sent to a cell phone to alert the responsible party. Automation saves time and money, and can prevent many potential problems via the LIMS ability to import and act on real-time data.

If any instrumentation is used in the analysis, the following information must also be recorded in the instrument identification (to ensure that it is in calibration, and all maintenance and calibration records are current), operating conditions/parameters, analysis type, any calculations, and analyst identification. In addition to analyst identification, laboratories must also keep track of analyst training as it relates to their laboratory functions. For example, if an analyst has not been trained on a particular method or if their certification has expired, the LIMS will not allow them to enter any result into the LIMS for the method(s) that they have not been trained/certified to perform. The LIMS can also send automated alerts when the training is about to expire. Figure 1 shows a screen in the LIMS that manages training completed, scheduled, tests scores, and expiration dates of the training, along with the ability to attach any training certificates, exams, or any other relevant documentation. Laboratory managers can also leverage the LIMS to pull reports that compare analyst work quality via an audit report. If they determine that one analyst has a significant amount of samples that require auditing, they can then investigate if there is a possible training issue. Having immediate access to data allows managers to more rapidly identify and mitigate potential problems.

Laboratory Information Management System
LIMS manages a variety of aspects in training, including when it has been completed, scheduled, tests scores, and expiration dates. (Click to enlarge)

Another major area that a LIMS can provide significant benefit is around data integrity. There are four main elements of data integrity:

  1. Documentation in the quality management system that defines the data integrity procedure, which is approved (signed/dated) by senior management.
  2. Data integrity training for the entire laboratory. Ensures that the database is secure and locked and operates under referential integrity.
  3. Detailed, regular monitoring of data integrity. Includes reviewing the audit trail reports and analyzing logs for any suspicious behavior on the system.
  4. Signed data integrity documentation for all laboratory employees indicating that they have read and understand the processes and procedures that have been defined.

The LIMS will enhance the ability to track and manage data integrity training (along with all training). The LIMS will provide a definition of the training, the date, time, and topic (description); instructor(s); timeframe in which the training is relevant, reminders on when it needs to be repeated; along with  certifications, quiz scores, copies of quizzes, and more. With many tasks, the LIMS can provide managers with automated reports that are sent out at regular time intervals, schedule training for specific staff, provide them with automatic notification, schedule data integrity audits, and to facilitate FDA’s CFR 21 part 11 compliance (electronic signatures). The LIMS can also be configured to automatically have reports signed and delivered via fax or email, or to a web server. The LIMS manages permissions and privileges to all staff members that require access to specific data and have the ability to access that data, along with providing a secure document control mechanism.

Laboratories are also required to maintain SOPs that accurately reflect all phases of current laboratory operations such as assessing data integrity test methods, corrective actions and handling customer complaints. Most commercial LIMS provide the ability to link SOPs to the analytical methods such that analysts can pull down the SOP as they are doing the procedure to help ensure that no steps are omitted. Having the SOPs online ensures that everyone is using the same version of the locked SOPs, which are readily available and secure.

Administrative Records, Demonstration of Capability

Laboratories are required to manage and maintain the following information on an analyst working in the laboratory: Personal qualifications and experience and training records (degree certificates, CV’s), along with records of demonstration of capability for each analyst and a list of names (along with initials and signatures) for all staff that hold the responsibility to sign or initial any laboratory record. Most commercial LIMS will easily and securely track and manage all the required personnel records. Individuals responsible for signing off on laboratory records can be configured in the LIMS to not only document the assignment of responsibility but also to enforce it.

Reference Standards and Materials

Because the references and standards that laboratories use in their analytical measurements affect the correctness of the result, laboratories must have a system and procedures to manage and track the calibration of their reference standards. Documentation that calibration standards were calibrated by a body that can prove traceability must be provided. Although most standards are purchased from companies that specialize in the creation of reference standards, there are some standards that laboratories create internally that can also be traced and tracked in the LIMS. Most commercial LIMS will also allow for the creation, receipt, tracking, and management of all supplies in an inventory module, such that they document the reference material identification, lot numbers, expiration date, supplier, and vendor, and link the standard to all tests to which it was linked.

The ISO 17025 Standard identifies the high technical competence and management system requirements that guarantee your test results and calibrations are consistently accurate. The LIMS securely manages and maintains all the data that supports the Quality Management System.

Key advantages of food testing laboratories that have achieved ISO 17025 Certification with a computerized LIMS that securely and accurately stores all the pertinent data and information:

  • Proof of ISO 17025 Certification eliminates the need for supplier audits, because the quality, capability and expertise of the laboratory have been demonstrated by the certification.
  • Knowledge that there has been an evaluation of the staff, methods, instrumentation and equipment, calibration records and reporting to ensure test results are valid.
  • Verification of operational efficiency by external auditors that have validated the quality, capability and expertise of the laboratory.
  • Defines robust quality controls for the selection and authentication of methods, analyzing statistics, controlling and securing data.
  • Clearly defines each employee’s roles, responsibilities and accountability.
  • Confidence that the regulatory and safety requirements are effectively managed and met in a cost efficient-manner.
Jim Hammel, vice president, customer success at Sample6
In the Food Lab

Using Software for Environmental Tracking and Data Visibility

By Jim Hammel
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Jim Hammel, vice president, customer success at Sample6

There is growing evidence that a strong environmental program is critical to identifying potential issues before they threaten product. This data must be captured regularly based on a robust environmental sampling plan and then analyzed in order to take advantage of the results. However, without the proper tools, this is challenging, time consuming and ineffective.

How Software Strengthens a Sampling Program

The most critical component of an environmental sampling plan is zone coverage. Many sampling plans exclude zone 1, direct food contact, because this implicates the finished product and may lead to a test-and-hold situation. However, at minimum, zones 2-4 should be covered in a sampling plan. In addition, it is important to randomize test points and schedules. Sanitation crews are held to rigorous standards, but it is human nature to complete repetitive tasks in the same manner. By randomizing which test points are tested—by day, time and operator—quality teams are more likely to identify potential areas of concern. Randomization is a challenging task to complete manually but a routine task for software.

Using Software for Environmental Tracking and Data Visibility
Using software enables environmental tracking and provides and data visibility. Image courtesy of Dietz & Watson

In addition, ensuring test-point coverage is a key component to sampling plans. An interval for test-point coverage is typically included in environmental sampling plans. It is up to quality teams to ensure that their sampling programs are consistent with these business rules. When this is tracked in an Excel spreadsheet, randomization is typically sacrificed to ensure test-point coverage. This is tracked in a large table with dates on one axis and test points on the other. The challenges to this approach include randomization, analysis and management of more than one test-point coverage interval. Business rules of this nature can be easily managed through software algorithms. In fact, the task of creating a schedule according to a series of business rules is not unlike a macro.

Lastly, robust sampling programs include detailed remediation and response plans in the event of a positive or presumed positive test result. The details on these plans are reviewed internally to ensure that the issues have been adequately addressed. Documentation that each step has been completed in a timely manner is absolutely essential in today’s regulated food production environment. Remediation records may be requested in a government or supplier food safety audit. Emails, meeting notes, pictures and cleaning records can certainly be kept in file drawers, but the more accessible this information is, the more likely it will be used. Approval processes and business workflows have been automated in a variety of software tools. Everything from sales to expense reports has sought support from software to ensure that their workflows are executed consistently and with traceability. Software can support food safety efforts in this way as well.

Dos and Don’ts of Data Analysis

The next challenge in environmental monitoring is the volume of data generated and the tools required for effective analysis. A robust environmental sampling program for Listeria can range from 10 to 15 samples per week per line—often much more. Each test result includes metadata such as sample location, day and time, sample collector and result. In a plant with 10 lines, there are 150 test results per week, or 7,800 test results per year. When compiling results for the past three years, the numbers reach nearly a quarter of million just for pathogen testing. Routine testing such as yeast, mold and Enterobacteriaceae should also be considered in the analysis. The sheer volume of the data can be challenging in a spreadsheet but routine in a database.

Don’t rely on unmanageable spreadsheets. Analysis should look for trends in the data as well as compliance to the program. Completing this task in spreadsheets requires that the data be properly formatted. Further, the database-like structure that would enable analysis is often inconsistent with the table format used for sample schedule generation. In addition, this task is time consuming, manual and error prone; therefore, the frequency of analysis may be reduced.

Don’t take an analog approach to floor plans and risk it being outdated. Particularly for environmental data, it is important to understand the proximity of test points and their results. This allows managers to look for patterns or workflow trends that may be impacting results. This task typically requires mapping the test points and their results to a floor plan. Many plants keep a copy of the floor plan and recent findings posted on the wall.

Do use the tools available. In today’s data-rich food production environment, successful data analysis must be automated.

Answering the Call for Communication

Lastly, for an environmental monitoring program to be effective, communication is critical. The members of the quality team need to know what specific tasks are expected of each of them and when. Sanitation workers need to know what areas require their timely response. Executives need visibility into the results and actions underway so that they can support their teams and make critical food safety decisions. While these tasks can be completed manually, it is ripe for automation and new tools are streamlining the communication process.

Food safety managers and quality teams are working diligently with their sanitation teams to keep their plants and product safe.  However, they need to leverage the available tools needed to do their jobs efficiently and effectively. New software tools designed for the food safety industry are changing the way the industry handles safety initiatives. In particular, sampling program, data analysis and communication tools are ripe for automation. Take advantage of technologies and tools already in use in business today so you are prepared to manage the food safety challenges of tomorrow.

Robin Stombler, Auburn Health Strategies
In the Food Lab

Five Questions Food Facilities Should Ask About Testing

By Robin Stombler
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Robin Stombler, Auburn Health Strategies

The FDA issued the first of several final regulations aimed at modernizing the food safety system through the use of hazard analysis and risk-based preventive controls. Inherent in this system are a number of requirements that eligible food facilities must follow, such as developing a written food safety plan, monitoring, corrective actions and verification. Laboratory testing is an essential component as well.

Robin Stombler presented “Laboratory Oversight and FSMA: Why and When” at the Food Labs Conference in Atlanta, GA | March 7–8, 2016So, what should food facilities know about laboratory testing within the context of the preventive controls for human food final rule?  First and foremost, the final rule states, “facilities have a responsibility to choose testing laboratories that will produce reliable and accurate test results.”  While a future regulation is expected to address the need for accredited laboratories and model laboratory standards, the preventive controls rule adopts other requirements pertaining to testing. Here are five questions that food facilities should ask about testing and the preventive controls rule.

1. What is the difference between pathogens and microorganisms?

The final rule defines “pathogen” to mean a microorganism that is of public health significance. A microorganism is defined as “yeasts, molds, bacteria, viruses, protozoa and microscopic parasites, and includes species that are pathogens.” Microorganisms that are of public health significance and subject food to decomposition or indicate that the food is adulterated or is contaminated with filth are considered “undesirable.”

2. How must food facilities account for pathogens?

Food facilities must prepare and implement a written food safety plan. One component of the food safety plan must include a written hazard analysis. This analysis must identify known or reasonably foreseeable hazards. These hazards may be biological, which includes parasites, environmental pathogens and other pathogens.

In another example, the food safety plan must include written verification procedures. This is to demonstrate that the facility is verifying that its preventive controls are implemented consistently and are significantly minimizing or preventing the hazards. These verification procedures are intended to be appropriate to the particular food facility, the food in question, and the nature of the preventive control and its role within the facility’s food safety system. With this in mind, facilities must conduct activities such as product testing for a pathogen or an appropriate indicator organism or other hazard, and environmental monitoring.

3. Are there written procedures specific to product testing?

Yes. Procedures for product testing must be scientifically valid and must identify the test microorganisms or other analytes. The procedures for identifying samples, including their relationship to specific lots of products, must be written and implemented. The procedures for sampling, including the number of samples and the sampling frequency, must be outlined. The facility must recognize the laboratory conducting the testing as well as describe the tests that are performed and the analytical methods used. Corrective action steps must also be included.

4. What are the procedures for environmental monitoring?

Similar to product testing, these procedures must be scientifically valid, identify the test microorganisms, and be put in writing. For routine environmental monitoring, the location from which the samples are collected and the number of sites that are tested must be stated. The final rule indicates that the “number and location of sampling sites must be adequate to determine whether preventive controls are effective.”  Written procedures must also identify the timing and frequency for collecting and testing samples. Again, similar to product testing, the laboratory conducting the testing and the tests and analytical methods used must be divulged. Corrective action procedures must also be included.

5. How does the supply-chain program incorporate testing?

A receiving facility is required to document a written supply chain program in its records. A component of that program includes documentation of sampling and testing performed as a supplier verification activity. The documentation must include identification of the raw material or other ingredient (including, if appropriate, lot number) and the number of samples tested. It also means that the tests conducted and the analytical methods used must be identified. The date the test is conducted as well as the date of the test report must be provided, and the identity of the laboratory performing the testing must be revealed. Any corrective actions that were taken in response to a hazard detection must also be reported.

This Q&A provides a glimpse into how the preventive controls final rule for human food incorporates laboratory testing. For more details, access the final rule.

FST Soapbox

Risk in Our Supply Chain: Where Do We Start?

By Traci Slowinski
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FSMA has arrived with the launch of the first two preventive control rules – Current Good Manufacturing Practice and Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Human and Animal Food (or cGMP and HARPC, for short). With these new FSMA rules, the food and beverage industry will now be held accountable for being more proactive versus reactive, and will be responsible for identifying and managing risk throughout their supply chain. Of course, this emphasis on risk can also be seen in other sectors of the industry (i.e., GFSI and ISO), and risk has become the focal point for a number of compliance initiatives.

Supply chain challenges in food safety
Supply chain challenges in food safety (Click to enlarge)

These days a number of supply chain challenges are driving risk. Continued global expansion of the industry is resulting in more import and export activities. We are seeing consumer food trends shift toward riskier food/preparation options. Regulatory agencies continue to work on improving their food safety requirements. And the growing population is putting more demands on our current resources. All of these factors equates to great risk within all stages of the supply chain.

Therefore, it will be important that you understand what risk management entails and have the right tools to identify, assess and control the risks that you find throughout your supply chain.

So where do we start looking for risk? Here are a few examples of where your risk assessments should be performed:

External Partners. You need to build strategic relationships with your external partners (suppliers, contract manufacturers/co-packers, service providers, carriers, etc.) across the supply chain. Building trust through good communication and collaboration is essential to ensure that you can rely on your partners to do the right thing for both parties.

RiskAssessmentSupplyChainRaw Materials. Many hazards can be introduced into a facility through raw materials—whether we are talking about raw ingredients, packaging materials, chemicals, or other components used to produce your product. Some hazards to assess include pathogens, allergens, chemical residues, pests and foreign material.

Storage and Handling. When looking at risk during storage and handling, it is important to address several hazards including allergen control, temperature control, foreign material control, proper segregation and product flow.

Processing. A number of areas in processing can introduce hazards and therefore should be included in your risk assessment. These include improper sanitation, cross contamination/contact potential, foreign material contamination, critical control point deviations, pre-requisite program failures and mislabeling.

Shipping and Transport. Lastly, you must safeguard your shipping and transportation procedures in order to account for any potential risk once the product has left your facility. Areas to consider during your risk assessment include temperature control, condition and sanitation of truck and storage units, loading/unloading practices, security/tampering potential, accident/emergency recovery, and traceability.

For more information on risk management within the food and beverage supply chain, register to attend the free webinar “Supply Chain Management: Does What I Eat Put Me at Risk” on October 28, 2015. Speakers will discuss risk throughout the supply chain, focusing on supplier management and some of the new FSMA requirements. They will provide an overview of risk management and some of the tools that can be used to identify and assess risk. In addition, they will discuss how technology can help companies meet FSMA requirements.
AJ McCardell, Food safety technology
In the Food Lab

New Food Safety Technology Addresses FSMA Rules

By AJ McCardell
1 Comment
AJ McCardell, Food safety technology

In ongoing efforts to eliminate foodborne illness, the FDA recently issued the next step in rules designed for the enforcement of FSMA. The rules are aimed at modernizing food manufacturing processes after a wave of deadly outbreaks in the past decade stemming from contaminated cantaloupes, apples, spinach, lettuce, peanut butter, ice cream, cucumbers and other products. The rules require companies to draw up and implement written plans for keeping food safe. An important part of any food safety plan is the implementation of methods to verify that the controls put in place are working.

The food industry faces many challenges in meeting these new regulations. Two significant technical challenges for control verification are that the testing process takes too long and the sampling plans are often inadequate.

The pathogen testing process for all commercially available diagnostic tests requires an upfront culture or growth step to allow any pathogens present to multiply to a level that they can be detected by the test in use. This growth step, referred to by microbiologists as enrichment, is especially challenging in heavily processed foods and environmental samples, because the bacteria present in the sample have been stressed and are not in a rapid growth phase at the time of sampling. Advances in diagnostic sensitivity and robustness have reduced the amount of time required for enrichment from three or more days with traditional methods to about 24 hours on average with rapid methods. Even with rapidly growing and low-stress organisms such as E. coli O157:H7, enrichments take more than eight hours before implementing the diagnostic. The time required for this growth step creates a bottleneck in the production and distribution process. Although diagnostic companies are continuously improving the sensitivity of their methods and new methods are constantly being developed, there are practical limitations that have thus far prevented the elimination of the upfront culture step prior to testing. Historically, improvements in the sensitivity of rapid food pathogen diagnostics have been traded for time. In other words, having a more sensitive test means that fewer bacteria are needed for detection and therefore, less time is needed for bacteria to divide during the enrichment step.  Some commercially available assays require as few as 1,000 to 10,000 target cells in the sample for detection. Since the purpose of the enrichment step is to increase the number of target pathogens in the sample to a detectable limit and bacteria reproduce by cell division, further diagnostic sensitivity improvements would need to be greater than ten-fold to have a significant impact on further reducing enrichment times.

Unreliable sampling methods are an even bigger issue for industry. An example demonstrating current practice is a field of 40,000 heads of lettuce with four (.01% of the total) heads of lettuce contaminated by a pathogen. The current best practice is to go into the field and collect 60 (.15% of the total) leaves from the heads of lettuce, mash them together and test them for contamination. The probability of this sampling method finding the four contaminated heads of lettuce in the sample is much less than 1%. When the undiscovered four heads of lettuce are washed with the other 39,996 heads of lettuce, cross contamination occurs and people get sick.

Technology advances that reduce or eliminate the requirement for enrichment and make the sampling process more reliable could have a big impact on improving control verification testing. But, those advances need to be delivered in a practical and affordable manner. I recently learned about a technology that has great potential to make improvements on both of these fronts, especially for the produce industry and any process that is able to use a wash step as a control point. The recently patented OmniFresh sampling system (developed by OmniFresh, LLC) concentrates a sample from the food processing wash water, allowing immediate testing representative of the food being processed. The concentration process is performed during the entire washing cycle for a lot and is consequently representative of the entire lot.

Concentration technology has been used for many years by academic researchers and scientists to collect samples for biological testing.  Ultrafiltration methods for concentrating samples have typically used smaller sample sizes in the 1-10 liter range.  The OmniFresh system allows for very large samples to be concentrated, typical volumes of 400 liters are concentrated to 50 ml.

The concentration process takes about one hour to complete after the first wash cycle.  During processing, a side stream of water from the first wash tank is diverted to the concentrator unit. Tens to hundreds of gallons of wash water, depending on the size of the wash tank and the type and amount of produce being washed, flows into the concentrator. Throughout the sample collection period, large particulates are removed through a course filtration. Using ultra-filtration, bacteria and other small particles are isolated from the large volume of wash water into a much smaller, concentrated final sample. This concentrated sample can then be tested directly by a diagnostic test, eliminating the need for enrichment.1

OmniFresh System with diagnostic platform
The OmniFresh System with diagnostic platform installed at a processing facility. (Click to enlarge)

The wash water in the tank comes into contact with all of the produce being washed, the majority of bacteria is removed from the produce, and it then enters the wash water.2-4 This process, combined with the continuous sampling of wash water, means that low levels of intermittent contamination can be detected without testing high numbers of samples. Field testing of the OmniFresh System has returned promising results. The ability to rapidly screen produce for contamination could also provide a practical lot definition instead of cumbersome field-based definitions that can impact multiple processors.

Improvements in sample preparation and sampling technologies have much to offer the industry. Improved sampling methods which are representative of entire lots identify contaminated food earlier and with high confidence.  Additionally, the negative test result is of much higher quality and will result in an increase in the overall confidence of the food supply.

The OmniFresh technology is one example of the type of improvements that are needed. More research that focuses on these most challenging aspects of control verification testing is needed.

References

  1. Dyer, M.A. (2009). “New biosensors for food safety screening solutions.”  SPIE.
  2. Beuchat, L. R., and Ryu, J.-H. (1997). “Produce Processing Practices,” Emerg. Infect. Dis 3 (4), 459-465.
  3. Sapers, G. M, (2001). “Efficacy of washing and sanitizing methods for disinfection of fresh fruit and vegetable products,” Food Technol. Biotechnol. 39 (4), 305-311.
  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (1998). “Water: Control of Potential Hazards: Wash Water.” Chap. II.B.2.3 in Guide to minimize microbial food safety hazards for fresh fruits and vegetables, by US FDA.