Tag Archives: food processing

The Importance Of Cleanrooms in the Food Industry

By Steve Gonzalez
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The health and well being of millions depends on manufacturers’ and packagers’ ability to maintain a safe and sterile environment during production. This is why professionals in this sector are held to much stricter standards than other industries. With such high expectations from consumers and regulatory bodies, a growing number of food companies are opting the use cleanrooms.

Cleanrooms are sealed off from the rest of a laboratory or production facility. Through stringent ventilation and filtering systems, they protect against contaminants that might be found in an unrestricted environment. Mold, mildew, dust and bacteria are sifted from the air before they can enter the space.

Personnel who work in a cleanroom are required to adhere to rigorous precautions, including clean suits and masks. These rooms also closely monitor temperature and humidity to ensure the optimal climate.

Cleanrooms can be found in numerous applications throughout the food industry. Specifically, they are used in meat and dairy facilities, as well as in the processing of foods that need to be gluten and lactose free. By creating the cleanest possible environment for production, companies can offer their customers peace of mind. Not only can they keep their products free from contamination, but they can extend shelf life and increase efficiency.

If you want to learn more about cleanrooms and their classifications, take a look at the accompanying infographic. It details the essential requirements and standards for facilities in the food industry and beyond.

Cleanroom requirements, food safety
Infographic courtesy of Technical Safety Services
Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

Four Ways To Improve Your Food Safety Management System

By Megan Ray Nichols
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Megan Nichols

Foodborne illnesses cost billions of dollars each year in the United States. A lack of standards can lead to severe consequences, including loss of customers, negative impact on brand reputation and employees missing work due to illness. As a result, safety is vital for any brand that is committed to high-quality food and maintaining a positive brand image.

Food safety management systems—the processes and procedures that companies set up to prevent contamination—are essential in reducing the risk of foodborne illness and ensuring the safest products possible.

By FDA regulation, most food processors must have HACCP as well as corrective actions/preventive action (CAPAs) plans in place. Even with the right safety guidelines, however, contamination or exposure to food hazards can still occur. The following are four ways to improve the quality of your food safety management system.

1. Conduct Regular Audits

Even if your business’s HACCP is highly effective in theory, it won’t prevent contamination unless actual practice lines up with documentation. Regular audits can ensure employee practice complies.

HACCPs are structured around identifying both potential food hazards and critical control points (CCPs) where your system has the opportunity to prevent, mitigate or eliminate a potential issue. Usually, this means storing food items or performing some biological, physical or chemical action to a target limit— like a specific temperature—to prevent or mitigate contamination.

For example, in the manufacturing of chicken products, cooking and hot-holding are critical control points at which the product needs to be heated to a certain temperature to eliminate or prevent potential hazards. Here, an audit would be a chance to ensure employees cooked and hot-held foods at the proper temperatures. If they aren’t, the food safety management team can make policy changes that ensure practice lines up with planning.

The audit process should be consistent and occur regularly. It should also cover every aspect of your HACCP strategy and place a particular focus on potential hazards and CCPs. These audits can be a way to uncover the strengths and weaknesses of your current HACCP strategy. Companies can use this information to build upon existing practices or demonstrate how procedures could be more effective.

Stainless steel
Stainless steel is popular in food handling due to impermeable surface and resistance to corrosion, two characteristics that help reduce the risk of food contamination. (free image from Splash)

2. Consider a CCP Monitoring System

You can use automated or digital systems to ensure that CCPs aren’t deviating from control limits. With the right sensors, it’s possible to ensure that food remains between target limits at each CCP. For example, automated sensors can quickly alert plant staff if the temperature of food in cold storage rises above a certain threshold, or if there is a deviation from a given CCP.

These alerts can help staff quickly respond to deviations, ensuring compliance, and reducing the risk of contamination by food hazards.

3. Review and Maintain Equipment

An thorough equipment program can be highly effective in reducing the risk of food contamination. To minimize risk, your plan should look at the equipment needed in your plant, as well as how it’s constructed and maintained. For example, choosing industry-standard or food-safe materials can help prevent contamination. Investing in the right kind of stainless steel can both improve operating costs and help reduce the risk of food exposed to hazards.

Preventive maintenance plans for food safety equipment can also reduce the risk of contamination by ensuring the proper functioning of site equipment.

4. Provide Employee Support and Encourage Buy-In

Training programs are an essential component of any HACCP. If your employees don’t know how to handle food properly or aren’t aware of HACCP documentation or the CCPs in the food processing pipeline, they won’t be able to execute the plan and prevent contamination.

While training programs are crucial, they don’t necessarily guarantee compliance. Common pitfalls exist that can discourage employees from following the plan. To encourage employee buy-in, training should begin by discussing the importance of food safety and the potential risks of contamination.

The training should also be robust enough that employees feel confident when executing the HACCP. Training staff should be sure to provide visual demonstrations and opportunities for employees to practice before they become responsible for food safety. Tests or evaluations both during and after training can be useful tools in determining how well your employees understand your business’s HACCP strategy. Regular follow-ups on training can also ensure compliance and reduce the risk of contamination.

Improving Food Safety Management Systems

For any business that works with food, safety programs are essential in ensuring the safest and highest quality product possible. Existing food safety management systems can often improve with the right methods. For example, automated monitoring systems can reduce the risk of deviating from CCP limits. Employee training and regular audits can also ensure that a plant’s food safety practices line up with the documented plan.

Craig Reeds
FST Soapbox

Cybersecurity for Food and Beverage Operational Technology (OT) Environments

By Craig Reeds
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Craig Reeds

Much of the attention that cybersecurity gets is on the IT or office network side of things, but recently people have begun paying more attention to operational technology (OT) systems that make up the country’s critical infrastructure. When people think of critical infrastructure, they automatically think of oil and gas, power generation, and water. Many people don’t realize that there are actually 16 critical infrastructure industries:

  • Energy
  • Financial
  • Dams
  • Defense
  • Critical Manufacturing
  • Water and Wastewater
  • Food and Agriculture
  • Healthcare
  • Government Facilities
  • Commercial Facilities
  • Transportation
  • Emergency Services
  • Chemical
  • Communications
  • Nuclear
  • Information Technology

One of the easily forgotten, but perhaps most important, is food and beverage manufacturing. A cyber attack on a food and beverage company might not result in the lights going out or clouds of toxic gas, but they could result in explosions, or tainted food. We need to start paying more attention to cybersecurity in the food and beverage industry. What would happen if a hacker got into the control system at a frozen foods distribution facility? They could raise the temperature in the freezers, thaw the food and then refreeze it. This could result in food poisoning for hundreds or thousands of people. Bad actors can do a lot of harm by targeting this sector.

Many companies are pushing to combine their IT and OT departments, something they call IT/OT convergence. This can be done, but you need to first understand that IT and OT have differing goals.

It is important to review the organizational structure. You will typically find that both IT and OT report organizationally to the CEO level. We also find senior management believes IT owns the industrial control system (ICS) networks and security—mainly because IT owns support, maintenance & operational budget for network and security (basically letting OT off the hook).

IT’s primary goals are confidentiality, integrity and availability, the CIA triad. While working toward these objectives IT also tries to make it possible for users to access the network from any location from which they are working, using whatever computing device they have with them. The goal is to make it as easy to work from an airport, hotel room or coffee shop as it is to work in the office itself. Technology is updated and replaced often. Service packs are loaded, new software releases are loaded, and bugs are fixed.

OT’s primary goals are availability, integrity and confidentiality—a complete reversal of the CIA triad. They strive to keep production running, be it an electric utility, an oil rig or a pop-tart factory 24/7/365. OT is all about what works, a “We’ve always done it that way” mentality. OT will always be reluctant to make any change that might bring down the production line. Remember, they are graded on widgets per minute. There must be trust and open communication between IT and OT if things are going to work properly.

When we are talking about OT cybersecurity, we usually use terms like secure or prevent, when we really should be thinking about words like containment. Securing the network and preventing attacks is important, but at some point, an attack will get past your defenses. Then it is a matter of containment: How do we keep the problem from spreading to other networks?

One thing to definitely avoid is the desire by IT to have bi-directional communications between the IT and OT networks—this should never happen. Also, avoid the desire to connect the ICS to the Internet so that you can control the process remotely. There is no reason for the plant manager to be able to go home, have a couple beers and then log on to see if he can make things run better. If the control system is going to be connected to the corporate IT or the Internet, it should only have out-going uni-directional data transmission to allow monitoring of the system.

Building a good OT cybersecurity program, you need to do three things:

  • Get C-Level support and buy-in for the changes to be made.
  • Communicate with stakeholders and vendors.
  • Make decisions as a team, make sure all the stakeholders, IT, OT, engineering are all involved.

After you have set up the structure and started communicating, you need to begin cybersecurity awareness training for the OT staff. This training should be focused on educating plant personnel on what cybersecurity is, both at work and at home, and how to respond or escalate something that seems wrong. They need to be trained what needs to be dealt with immediately and what can wait. Consider doing tabletop exercises where you practice what to do when certain things occur. This can act as a stress test for your incident response plan and help find the holes in your plan and procedures. These tabletop exercises should involve C-suite individuals as well as people from the plant floor, so everyone understand their part in a cyber-attack response.

If these concepts are followed, you will be well on your way to creating a much more cyber-secure production environment.

April Kates, EAS Consulting
Retail Food Safety Forum

Labeling Impact of FDA’s Nutrition Innovation Strategy

By April Kates
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April Kates, EAS Consulting

On March 29, 2018, FDA announced the Nutrition Innovation Strategy, which signaled their intention to take a fresh look at what can be done to “reduce the burden of chronic disease through improved public nutrition.” The agency wants to facilitate consumers making better food choices to improve their health. At the same time, FDA has acknowledged that in many cases, changes in food processing technology has rendered outdated certain provisions of the regulations once written to both inform and protect the public. Therefore, FDA has developed a plan to move ahead to update its policy toolkit.

This multi-pronged approach includes modernizing food labeling, including food standards, health claims policy, ingredient labeling requirements and continuing implementation of the updated nutrition facts label, menu labeling, and reducing sodium in processed food products.

In particular, in trying to gather information to help determine the best approach to revising food standards of identity, FDA held a public meeting on September 27, 2019. FDA is attempting to provide room in the regulations for industry to be able to use modern and hopefully more healthful manufacturing methods while at the same time retaining the traditional characteristics and nutritional value of standardized food products.

During the public meeting, consumer advocacy groups, food industry trade groups and medical associations expressed many points of view as to what FDA should do to make the more than 250 food standards of identity more applicable to the modern food supply. FDA also took comments on updating food ingredient labeling requirements, including simplifying terms for ingredients such as vitamins. Because each food standard of identity is a regulation, it will be no small effort for the agency to update, remove or add standards of identity as needed. This meeting was a way to get input to help guide their decisions and priority—making for food standards and ingredient labeling revisions.

Obviously, with such a broad-based effort, the revisions and changes will be incremental. But the thing to keep in mind is that it all points to an effort to improve public health through the food supply as well as an effort to impactfully modernize the regulations. What follows is a very brief summary of some of FDA’s recent actions in this regard.

On December 30, 2019, FDA announced the final guidance on Serving Sizes, Dual-Column Labeling, which provided additional information about when dual column labeling for nutrition is required and what exemptions are in place to provide relief for certain products or package sizes.

On December 27, 2019, FDA reopened the comment period on the use of ultrafiltered (UF) milk in certain cheeses. When the proposed rule for UF milk in cheeses originally published in 2005, FDA received many comments. Essentially, ultrafiltration was a means to enhance the speed of cheese production, and the standard of identity cheeses were written before this technology was common and did not permit this type of process. FDA seeks to modernize the cheese standards while keeping intact the nature of these cheeses, and so the agency is eager to learn about what can be done to accommodate the new technology without losing the essence of the standards that consumers have come to expect. Because of the time lapse since the previous comment period, FDA is seeking more information to inform their rulemaking.

On October 25, 2019, FDA released a final rule revising the type size for calorie declarations on front of pack labeling for glass-front vending machines. The 2014 rule establishing calorie labeling for products sold from vending machines had provisions that were difficult for certain products to meet. This new rule recognizes those challenges and was an attempt by the agency to provide a middle ground for the industry to meet the requirements of visible calorie labeling on small packages sold in vending machines.

On August 15, 2019, FDA announced final guidance on converting units of measure for Folate, Niacin, and Vitamins A, D and E on the nutrition and supplement facts labels. The guidance provides help to the industry in meeting the requirements of the revised nutrition facts label.

Regarding updating the “healthy” claim on food products, when this term was originally defined by the agency, saturated fat was the nutrient of focus for these claims. However, since then, there are new focuses on health, such as added sugar and calories. In September 2016, FDA sought to modernize the claim, and provided an interim policy to guide its use.

In May 2019, FDA published a draft guidance to provide enforcement discretion for the use of the term “potassium chloride salt” on ingredient statements. In addition, in April 2019, FDA provided a draft guidance for the calculation of calories from a newer sweetener, Allulose.

As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts to FDA’s effort. What will be the impact on the food industry? Changes will most likely be gradual. Over time, there will be modifications to food standards of identity, and potentially claims, and both of these will cause label revisions. And, typically, there may be enforcement discretion by FDA to allow the industry time to revise their products and /or labeling as needed.

You will see FDA requests for information from the public and the industry on various related topics to the Nutrition Innovation Strategy, and guidance documents will be updated.

Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

Machine Vision Training Tips to Improve Food Inspections

By Megan Ray Nichols
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Megan Nichols

As machines become more intelligent, every industry on earth will find abundant new applications and ways to benefit. For the food industry, which has an incredible number of moving parts and is especially risk-averse, machine vision and machine learning are especially valuable additions to the supply chain.

The following is a look at what machine vision is, how it can play a role in manufacturing and distributing foods and beverages, and how employers can train workers to get the most out of this exciting technology.

What Is Machine Vision?

Machine vision isn’t a brand-new concept. Cameras and barcode readers with machine vision have long been capable of reading barcodes and QR codes and verifying that products have correct labels. Modern machine vision takes the concept to new levels of usefulness.

Barcodes and product identifiers have a limited set of known configurations, which makes it relatively straightforward to program an automated inspection station to recognize, sort or reject products as necessary. Instead, true machine vision means handlers don’t have to account for every potential eventuality. Machine vision instead learns over time, based on known parameters, to differentiate between degrees of product damage.

Consider the problem of appraising an apple for its salability. Is it bruised or discolored? Machine vision recognizes that no two bruises look precisely alike. There’s also the matter of identifying different degrees of packaging damage. To tackle these problems, it’s not possible to program machine vision to recognize a fixed set of visual clues. Instead, its programming must interpret its surroundings and make a judgment about what it sees.

Apples, machine vision
On an apple, no two bruises are alike. Machine vision technology can help. Photo credit: Pexels.

The neural networks that power machine vision have a wide range of applications, including improving pathfinding abilities for robots. In this article, I’ll focus on how to leverage machine vision to improve the quality of edible products and the profitability of the food and beverage industry.

Applications for Machine Vision in the Food Industry

There are lots of ways to apply machine vision to a food processing environment, with new variations on the technology cropping up regularly. The following is a rundown on how different kinds of machine vision systems serve different functions in the food and beverage sector.

1. Frame Grabbing and 3-D Machine Vision
Machine vision systems require optimal lighting to carry out successful inspections. If part of the scanning environment lies in shadow, undesirable products might find their way onto shelves and into customers’ homes.

Food products sometimes have unique needs when it comes to carrying out visual inspections. It’s difficult or impossible for fallible human eyeballs to perform detailed scans of thousands of peas or nuts as they pass over a conveyor belt. 3-D machine vision offers a tool called “frame grabbing,” which takes stills of — potentially — tens of thousands of tiny, moving products at once to find flaws and perform sorting.

2. Automated Sorting for Large Product Batches
Machine vision inspection systems can easily become part of a much larger automation effort. Automation is a welcome addition to the food and beverage sector, translating into improved worker safety and efficiency and better quality control across the enterprise.

Inspection stations with machine vision cameras can scan single products or whole batches of products to detect flaws. But physically separating these products must be just as efficient a process as identifying them. For this reason, machine vision is an ideal companion to compressed air systems and others, which can carefully blow away and remove even a single grain of rice from a larger batch in preparation.

3. Near-Infrared Cameras
Machine vision takes many forms, including barcode and QR code readers. A newer technology, called near-infrared (NIR) cameras, is already substantially improving the usefulness and capabilities of machine vision.

Remember that bruised apple? Sometimes physical damage to fruits and vegetables doesn’t immediately appear on the outside. NIR technology expands the light spectrum cameras can observe, giving them the ability to detect interior damage before it shows up on the exterior. It represents a distinct advantage over previous-generation technology and human inspectors, both of which can leave flaws undiscovered.

Tips on Training Workers to Use Machine Vision

Implementing machine vision into a productive environment delivers major benefits, but it also comes with a potentially disruptive learning curve. The following are some ideas on how to navigate it.

1. Take Advantage of Third-Party Training Courses
Don’t expect employees to hit the ground running with machine vision if they’re not familiar with the fundamentals of how it works. Google has a crash course on machine learning, and Amazon offers a curriculum as well to help companies get their employees up to speed on the technology and how to use it.

2. Get the Lighting Right
Having the appropriate intensity of light shining on the food product is essential for the machine vision cameras to get a clear photo or video. The most common types of lighting for machine vision are quartz halogen, LEDs, metal halide and xenon lights. Metal halide and xenon are better for larger-scale operations because of their brightness.

Train employees to check the amount and positioning of the lighting before each inspection station starts up for the day, so that no shadows obscure products from view.

3. Single Out Promising Subject Matter Leaders
Companies today don’t seem to have much confidence in how well they’re preparing their workforce for tomorrow, including future innovations. According to Deloitte, just 47% of companies in the world believe they’re doing enough to train their employees on the technologies and opportunities of Industry 4.0.

Machine vision does not involve buying a camera or two, setting them up, then slapping the “autopilot” button. As products turn over, and manufacturing and distribution environments change and grow over time, machine vision algorithms require re-training, and you might need to redesign the lighting setup.

Employers should find individuals from their ranks who show interest and aptitude in this technology and then invest in them as subject matter experts and process owners. Even if an outside vendor is the one providing libraries of algorithms and ultimately coming up with machine vision designs, every company needs a knowledgeable liaison who can align company needs with the products on the market.

Machine Vision Is the Future of Food Inspections

The market for machine vision technology is likely to reach $30.8 in value by 2021, according to BCC Research.

It is important to remember that neither machine learning nor machine vision are about creating hardware that thinks and sees like humans do. With the right approach, these systems can roundly outperform human employees.

But first, companies need to recognize the opportunities. Then, they must match the available products to their unsolved problems and make sure their culture supports ongoing learning and the discovery of new aptitudes. Machine vision might be superior to human eyesight, but it uses decidedly human judgments as it goes about its work.

Susanne Kuehne, Decernis
Food Fraud Quick Bites

Another Seafood Fraud: The Cephalopod Edition

By Susanne Kuehne
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Susanne Kuehne, Decernis
Squid, Portugal
Find records of fraud such as those discussed in this column and more in the Food Fraud Database.
Image credit: Susanne Kuehne.

For more than three years, more than 100,000 pounds of giant squid from Peru was imported into the United States by a father-son duo who owned two Long Island food processing and distribution companies, and then marketed the squid as the more expensive octopus. The mislabeled seafood was worth over $1 million, and 10 grocery stores were defrauded during this time period. This kind of fraud carries steep fines and a possible five-year prison sentence.

Resource

  1. The United States Department of Justice (November 25, 2019). “New York Food Processing and Distribution Companies and Owners Plead Guilty to Seafood Sales Fraud”. Retrieved from Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs, Press Release Number 19-1307.

 

Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

How Will AR and VR Improve Safety in the Food Industry?

By Megan Ray Nichols
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Megan Nichols

The food and beverage sector is a huge presence in the U.S. economy. As of 2017, the industry employed 1.46 million people across 27,000 different establishments. Total food and beverage sales stand at around $1.4 trillion and add $164 billion in value to the economy as a whole.1 This presents significant opportunities and risks alike. Companies that trade in food products are held to some of the highest regulatory standards. With globalization ongoing and a higher demand than ever for variety and niche products, companies find they need to expand the mobility of their services. They must also broaden their product choices without missing a beat when it comes to quality.

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have emerged as unlikely allies in that quest. These technologies are already having a positive impact on food and worker safety in the industry.

Improves New Employee Training

Onboarding and training new employees is a costly and time-consuming endeavor in any industry. Moreover, failure by companies to impart the necessary skills, and failure by employees to retain them, can have ghastly consequences. Errors on assembly lines may result in faulty products, recalls, worker and customer injuries, and worse.

The stakes in the food and beverage sector are just as high as they are in other labor- and detail-oriented industries. VR provides an entirely new kind of training experience for employees, whether they’re working on mastering their pizza cutting technique or brewing the perfect cappuccino. Other times, “getting it right” is about much more than aesthetic appeal and immediate customer satisfaction.

Animal slaughtering and processing facilities represent some of the more extreme examples of potentially dangerous workplaces in the larger food and beverage industry. Between 2011 and 2015, this U.S. sector experienced 73 fatal workplace injuries. Excepting poultry processing, 2015 saw 9,800 recordable incidents in animal processing, or 7.2 cases for every 100 full-time employees.

Some adopters of VR-based employee training claim that virtual reality yields up to an 80% retention rate one year after an employee has been trained. This compares extremely favorably to the estimated 20% retention rate of traditional training techniques.

Training via VR headset can help companies get new hires up to speed faster in a safe, detailed and immersive environment. Food processing and service are high-turnover employment sectors. The right training technology can help workers feel better prepared and more engaged with their work, potentially reducing employee churn.

Helps Eliminate Errors in Food Processing

Augmented reality is already demonstrating great promise in manufacturing, maintenance and other sectors. For instance, an AR headset can give an assembly line worker in an automotive plant detailed, step-by-step breakdowns of their task in their peripheral vision through a digital overlay.

The same goes for food and beverage manufacturing. AR headsets can superimpose a list of inspection or processing tasks for workers to follow as they prepare food items in a manufacturing or distribution facility.

In 2018, there was an estimated 382 recalls involving food products. Augmented reality alone won’t bring that number down to zero. However, it does help reduce instances of line workers and inspectors missing critical steps in processing or packaging that might result in contamination or spoilage.

Eases the Learning Curve in Food Preparation

There are lots of food products in the culinary world that are downright dangerous if they’re not prepared properly and by following specific steps. Elderberries, various species of fish, multiple root vegetables, and even cashews and kidney beans can all induce illness and even death if the right steps aren’t taken to make them fit for consumption.

In early 2019, inspectors descended on a Michelin-starred and highly respected restaurant in Valencia, Spain. The problem? A total of 30 patrons reported falling ill after eating at El País, one of whom lost her life. Everyone reported symptoms similar to food poisoning.

The common element in each case appeared to be morel mushrooms. These are considered a luxury food item, but failure to cook them properly can result in gastric problems and worse. Augmented reality could greatly reduce the likelihood of incidents like this in the future by providing ongoing guidance and reminders to new and veteran chefs alike, without taking the bulk of their attention away from work.

Brings New Efficiencies to Warehousing and Pick-and-Pack

Consumers around the globe are getting used to ordering even highly perishable foodstuffs over the internet—and there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle. Amazon’s takeover of Whole Foods is an indicator of what’s to come: Hundreds of freezer-equipped and climate-controlled warehouses located within a stone’s throw from a majority of the American population.

Ensuring smooth operations in perishable food and beverage supply chains is a major and ongoing struggle. It’s not just a practical headache for companies—it’s something of a moral imperative, too. The World Health Organization finds that around 600 million individuals worldwide fall ill each year due to foodborne illnesses.

Augmented reality won’t completely solve this problem, but it may greatly reduce a major source of potential spoilage and contamination: Inefficiencies in picking and packing operations. Order pickers equipped with AR headsets can:

  • Receive visual prompts to quickly find their way to designated stow locations in refrigerated warehouses after receiving refrigerated freight.
  • Locate pick locations more efficiently while retrieving single items or when they already have a partial order of perishable goods picked.

In both cases, the visual cues provided by AR help employees navigate warehousing locations much more quickly and efficiently. This substantially lowers the likelihood that food products are stuck in limbo in unrefrigerated areas, potentially coming into contact with noncompliant temperatures or pathogens. The FDA recognizes mispackaged and mislabeled food products as a major public health risk.

For food and beverage companies, AR should be a welcome development and a worthy investment. FSMA recognized that 48 million Americans get sick each year from compromised foods. The act required these entities to be much more proactive in drawing up prevention plans for known sources of contamination and to be more deliberate in standardizing their processes for safety’s sake.

AR and VR Boost Food, Worker and Customer Safety

Augmented and virtual reality may seem like an unusual ally in an industry where most consumers are primarily focused on the aesthetic and sensory aspects of the experience. However, there’s a whole world that lives and dies according to the speed and attention to detail of employees and decision-makers alike. Augmented realities, and entirely new ones, point the way forward.

Reference

  1. Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board. (March 2017). “Economic Contribution of the Food and Beverage Industry. Retrieved from https://www.ced.org/pdf/Economic_Contribution_of_the_Food_and_Beverage_Industry.pdf.
Technology, apple, Birko

Electrostatic Intervention Technology: An Effective and Efficient Future for Food Safety

By Mark Swanson
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Technology, apple, Birko

Using electrostatic technology in food processing isn’t a new idea. It has been around for years, but no one has been able to effectively harness the possibilities of this method for pathogen reduction. That’s all changing thanks to the research and dedication of a food safety group made up of experts and leading protein processors.

Now, food companies of all types stand to benefit from an innovation with the potential to revolutionize the industry. For the first time, there is a way to use electrostatics to deliver antimicrobial intervention with a high level of efficacy and minimal resources.

Less water, less chemical and better coverage—it almost sounds too good to be true. But it’s a reality, and it came from a focus on providing better protection with precision application.

The Basics of Electrostatics in Food Safety

The ultimate goal of using electrostatic technology in food processing is to achieve a high level of transfer efficiency. In terms of antimicrobial use on food products, that concerns how well a processor is able to cover products with a solution over a 360-degree surface.

There’s a large amount of waste, or very low transfer efficiency, that comes with current antimicrobial intervention methodologies. Most food processing operations either use a lot of water and chemical solution to cover a less-than-ideal surface area, or they use an enormous amount in an attempt to get better coverage.

The hope for electrostatics has been that it could improve transfer efficiency by applying opposite charges to food products and antimicrobial solutions. Opposites attract. Positively charged particles are drawn to negatively charged particles, and so, an antimicrobial intervention, such as peracetic acid (PAA), should better adhere to protein products if the two have opposite charges.

In theory, the science seems very simple. But in practice, finding ways to use electrostatics effectively was an extensive, eye-opening journey. It took a team of scientists, food safety thought leaders, and participation as well as funding from three top beef processors to find the answer.

Research and Development

The food safety group, which included Keith Belk, Ph.D. of the Colorado State University Center for Meat Quality & Safety, spent years experimenting, testing and fine tuning electrostatic application technology to make it as precise as possible.

In the beginning, there was no clear indication whether the efforts would produce results. The group didn’t know which type of electrostatic technology would work, what parameters should be used or if any of it would be effective. Just as Thomas Edison experienced many failed attempts while inventing the electric lightbulb, our group went through a series of exercises that eventually led to the right type of electrostatic application. Yet just as importantly, we discovered many methods that did not work.

For example, testing showed that applying a charge at the spray nozzles was not a good way to harness the potential of electrostatics. The charge was too difficult to control using this approach. Eventually, researchers found the best way to achieve transfer efficiency was to apply a negative charge directly to the source of the antimicrobial intervention. This allowed the negatively charged solution to effectively adhere to the positively-charged meat product with maximum control of the operating parameters.

Interestingly, while the group explored a variety of ways to apply antimicrobial intervention using electrostatics, applying a charge to the source proved to be the only technique that worked. The rest had virtually no impact.

After identifying the right approach, there were still big questions researchers wanted to answer. One such question was what happens when a vacuum is applied to the process? Would it work better, worse or have no bearing on the results?

Theoretically, the group thought a vacuum might aid in the process by opening up the surface of the meat, allowing for deeper penetration and further reduction of pathogens. However, tests revealed that applying the antimicrobial solution with electrostatics in a vacuum provided no additional benefits.

The next step was developing a prototype system to support both beef and poultry processing. Finding ways to control electrostatics and achieving transfer efficiency in a pass-through system proved to be challenging. Food production lines don’t stop, which means antimicrobial intervention can’t be done in batch mode.

The final equipment design included a conveyor system that slowly rotates to expose all surfaces of the product as it moves through the line while maintaining constant line speeds.

The Results

In-plant testing at beef processing facilities proved just how much of a difference electrostatic technology will make for food companies looking to improve efficiencies and strengthen food safety efforts.

During recent tests, researchers ran the system at a high volume between 265 and 700 pounds per minute using peracetic acid at approved levels between 1600 and 1800 parts per million (ppm). The results showed a log reduction in the range of 2.1 to 2.6 with an average of 2.4 on a series of tests. That is outstanding, especially considering many facilities typically achieve a log reduction of around 1.0 to 1.5. Plus, most food manufacturers are using substantially more antimicrobial solution to achieve that sort of pathogen reduction.

Results from laboratory studies show the technology provided equal coverage to a dip tank, but it used 95% less solution. Dip tanks are common in poultry processing, but they are very inefficient and waste a tremendous amount of water and chemical. Poultry facilities switching to electrostatic intervention technology would use a fraction of the water and chemistry, greatly improving efficiency.

Beef and pork processing facilities use sprayers for antimicrobial solutions and are much less likely to use dip tanks, as they’re not a viable intervention method for an operation of that scale. However, sprayers alone may not provide adequate coverage, creating the possibility for food safety risks.

Beef and pork plants could achieve better coverage with electrostatics while using the same or even less solution. That’s because the preciseness of this innovative approach also eliminates waste that comes from over spraying.

The Potential Benefits of Adopting Electrostatic Technology

How much of an advantage a food processing facility gets from implementing electrostatics into its antimicrobial intervention process is very dependent on the type and size of the operation as well as its current approach to food safety. There are, however, several major benefits that any food company will realize after adopting the technology.

  1. Improved food safety. Processors can be confident they are achieving 360-degree coverage while bolstering efforts to eliminate pathogens on food products.
  2. Efficient use of water and chemical. The precision achieved from utilizing electrostatics has the potential to dramatically reduce waste without compromising food safety. High transfer efficiency means processors save money and resources.
  3. Reduced water treatment costs. Protein processing facilities have large amounts of waste water that need to be treated in-house. More efficient use of antimicrobial solution significantly reduces money and resources needed for water treatment.
  4. Reduced repair and maintenance costs. Because of the acidic nature of food safety chemicals such as PAA, overspray of antimicrobial solution can unintentionally land on other surfaces and equipment. The low pH levels can lead to corrosion and damage, requiring repairs or additional maintenance. But, precise application with an electrostatic method within an enclosed space reduces the overspray problem.
  5. Better indoor air quality (IAQ). Another side effect from over spraying is chemical odors in the plant. Here again, protection with precision offers a unique benefit. Minimization of overspray improves IAQ, producing a safer and healthier environment for workers.

An additional benefit of electrostatic intervention technology is that it allows for precise measurement of the degree of the charge applied at the source, the concentration of the chemical in the solution and the overall transfer efficiency. While the original food consortium involved members of the protein industry and was optimized for use by meat processors, produce and fresh-cut facilities also stand to benefit from implementing electrostatic technology.

Changing the way your plant operates may feel risky, and being among the first to adopt an innovation can come with some uncertainty. However, in this case, avoiding early adoption could put you at a disadvantage, and the food safety risks are greater than those associated with pursuing this opportunity.

Electrostatic technology for antimicrobial interventions provides impressive advances in efficiency while offering protection–for both the public’s health and safety as well as brand reputation. The future of food safety looks precise.

Chelle Hartzer, Orkin
Bug Bytes

Product Contaminators: Filthy Flies and Creeping Cockroaches

By Chelle Hartzer
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Chelle Hartzer, Orkin

Remember the childhood game “Red Rover?” The one where a line of kids lock arms to form an unbreakable connection, then other kids try to run through the arm barrier to break through? With enough time, these runners always eventually break through the tough barrier, and the first to do so is a winner!

Turns out, this childhood game is similar to a much less enjoyable occurrence: Pests invading your facility. You’ve taken the time to implement an integrated pest management (IPM) program to form a robust barrier around the outside of your facility. And yet, pests will inevitably find a way in if they’re allowed the same circumstances over time.

That’s because pests are clever, resilient and persistent. It isn’t a matter of “if” pests will try to find a way into your facility, it’s a matter of “when” they’ll find a way in. When they do find a way inside, these pests need to be removed quickly or they can create significant contamination problems for your product.

All pests carry some risk if they get into your facility. Some may simply pose contamination issues while others are able to spread disease-causing pathogens.

In fact, some of these disease-spreading pests can be quite small, making them more likely to find a way through your facility’s external barriers and contaminate product.

That’s bad news for your business’s bottom line. Imagine the cost of losing an entire shipment to contamination. Or even worse, imagine the impact on your business if a supply chain partner farther down the line received this contaminated product and didn’t notice, allowing it to make it all the way to the consumer! The resulting public outcry could devastate a brand.

So, you must be proactive in your efforts to prevent these contaminators. Two of the most common across the United States—flies and cockroaches—love to live and feed on waste and decaying organic matter, which is rife with disease-inducing pathogens. After flies and cockroaches touch or land on these substances, they pick up microscopic pathogens and then move on in search of other things they need to survive. Those three needs: Food, water and shelter.

Unfortunately, your facility has all three of these needs, meaning any food processing facility is a top target for inquisitive pests. Knowing these pests can cause diseases like typhoid fever, dysentery and cholera makes it even more important to proactively prevent them from coming into contact with your product.

Luckily (or unluckily!), there is a lot of overlap in the types of food sources attractive to both flies and cockroaches. To understand how to prevent these pests from thriving inside your facility, it helps to know what makes them tick.

Why do flies and cockroaches like food processing facilities?

To answer this question, it’s important to look at the biology of these pests. While there are some differences between fly and cockroach species, they’re all attracted to the same general food source: Organic matter.

Fruits, vegetables, meats, grains—you name it, these pests would love to eat it. The presence of these organic foods alone will be enough to draw in flies and cockroaches. But these pests, especially cockroaches, prefer to stay hidden in cracks and crevices when not searching for food.

Cockroaches and flies aren’t picky eaters, so nearly any food is a food source for them. That’s why they can both be found around waste areas, whether that’s the lingering garbage left in the break room trash can or the overflowing dumpster in the back. These locations offer organic materials aplenty, and both flies and cockroaches are going to feel quite comfortable calling these areas home. Some flies are even notoriously able to thrive off the organic material built up in drains!

Once they have found a home in or around the facility, flies and cockroaches alike are going to start reproducing. Both have incredibly high reproduction rates, so a few of these pests can turn into an infestation in no time.

Cockroaches (depending on the species, of course) lay dozens of oothecae over the course of their lifetime, and each of these oothecae—or egg cases—can produce a dozen or more immature cockroaches that can emerge in less than a month. They take a few months to develop but they are feeding that whole time! Flies, on the other hand, have even more daunting reproduction rates. One female housefly is capable of laying up to 150 eggs in a batch, and she’ll produce five or six of these batches over the course of a few days! Within a day after the eggs are laid, maggots will hatch and slowly begin to mature. Within one to two weeks after hatching, these maggots will turn into pupae and then mature into adult houseflies.

It becomes easy to see why flies and cockroaches would love a food processing facility. Simply put, there are plenty of food sources and hiding spots for reproduction to occur. Therefore, careful monitoring procedures and preventive strategies need to be in place and be robust enough.

How can facilities protect themselves from filthy pest pressure?

Roaches and flies are constant scavengers, so any open doors or windows are an invitation for pests to come in. Roaches are also known to squeeze their way through tiny gaps in the exterior of a facility. Loading docks and break rooms are high-risk areas, too, as they’re prime harborage areas with plenty of hiding places and potential food sources. Even clutter like cardboard boxes collecting in a corner can be a perfect home and food source for cockroaches!

When reviewing the food safety plan for potential improvements, look at the proactive sanitation and exclusion tactics and ask yourself if these are effectively preventing pest issues before they become a problem.

Here are a few examples of sanitation and exclusion tactics every facility should be doing to prevent filthy pests like flies and cockroaches:

  • Make sanitation a priority with your staff. Make a sanitation schedule with daily, weekly, and monthly tasks. Assign cleaning roles to your employees based on where they work around the facility, and make sure they know what to do if they spot a pest somewhere. A pest sighting log in a centralized location helps. Don’t forget to clean up break rooms and offices.
  • Use automatic doors and check door seals. End the “open-door policy” for pests. Any entry point is a risk, so reduce the amount of time and number of access points for pests however you can. Air curtains can also help push pests away from frequently used doors, as they push air out of the facility when doors are opened. As a result, any nearby flying pests are blown away from the facility.
  • Seal cracks and crevices. Walk around and inspect the outside (and inside!) of the facility at least quarterly. Using a waterproof caulk or other sealant, cover any gaps or openings you can find. Remember: Some pests only need a few centimeters to squeeze into a building.
  • Inspect incoming and outgoing shipments. Vehicles transporting goods can become infested with pests, too. Inspecting shipments not only reduces the chances of pests being brought in by staff unintentionally, but in partnership with supply chain partners it can help you detect the source of an infestation more effectively to get your operations back up and running quicker.
  • Store food securely. Make sure products are stored off of the floor and are sealed when possible. In kitchens and other areas where employees store food, use airtight containers and empty trash bins at least daily to avoid food waste becoming a target.
  • Don’t forget to look up. Many issues could start on the roof and roof vents, and air-handling units can serve as access points for many pests.

Pest prevention doesn’t have to be hard, but you do have to be organized and, most importantly, proactive. If you take the time to create a strong food safety plan focused on the proactive prevention of pests, you’re going to better protect your business’s bottom line and brand reputation. And, perhaps even better, having a strong plan in place will give you some peace of mind knowing your products are protected from invasive, filthy pest contaminators.

Gabriela Lopez, 3M Food Safety
Allergen Alley

Method Acting: Comparing Different Analytical Methods for Allergen Testing and Verification

By Gabriela Lopez-Velasco, Ph.D.
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Gabriela Lopez, 3M Food Safety

Every day, food industries around the world work to comply with the food labeling directives and regulations in place to inform consumers about specific ingredients added to finished products. Of course, special attention has been placed on ensuring that product packaging clearly declares the presence of food allergens including milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soy, sesame and mustard. (Additional food allergens may also be included in other regions.)

But labeling only covers the ingredients deliberately added to foods and beverages. In reality, food manufacturers have two jobs when it comes to serving the needs of their allergic consumers:

  1. Fully understand and clearly declare the intentional presence of allergenic foods
  2. Prevent the unintended presence of allergenic foods into their product

Almost half of food recalls are the result of undeclared allergens, and often these at-fault allergens were not only undeclared but unintended. Given such, the unintended presence of allergenic foods is something that must be carefully considered when establishing an allergen control plan for a food processing facility.

How? It starts with a risk assessment process that evaluates the likelihood of unintentionally present allergens that could originate from raw materials, cross-contact contamination in equipment or tools, transport and more. Once the risks are identified, risk management strategies should then be established to control allergens in the processing plant environment.
It is necessary to validate these risk management strategies or procedures in order to demonstrate their effectiveness. After validation, those strategies or procedures should then be periodically verified to show that the allergen control plan in place is continually effective.

In several of these verification procedures it may be necessary to utilize an analytical test to determine the presence or absence of an allergenic food or to quantify its level, if present. Indeed, selecting an appropriate method to assess the presence or the level of an allergenic food is vitally important, as the information provided by the selected method will inform crucial decisions about the safety of an ingredient, equipment or product that is to be released for commercialization.

A cursory review of available methods can be daunting. There are several emerging methods and technologies for this application, including mass spectroscopy, surface plasmon resonance, biosensors and polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Each of these methods have made advancements, and some of them are already commercialized for food testing applications. However, for practical means, we will discuss those methods that are most commonly used in the food industry.

In general, there are two types of analytical methods used to determine the presence of allergenic foods: Specific and non-specific methods.

Specific tests

Specific methods can detect target proteins in foods that contain the allergenic portion of the food sample. These include immunoassays, in which specific antibodies can recognize and bind to target proteins. The format of these assays can be quantitative, such as an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) that may help determine the concentration of target proteins in a food sample. Or they can be qualitative, such as a lateral flow device, which within a few minutes and with minimum sample preparation can display whether a target protein is or is not present. (Note: Some commercial formats of ELISA are also designed to obtain a qualitative result.)

To date, ELISA assays have become a method of choice for detection and quantification of proteins from food allergens by regulatory entities and inspection agencies. For the food industry, ELISA can also be used to test raw ingredients and final food products. In addition, ELISA is a valuable analytical tool to determine the concentration of proteins from allergenic foods during a cleaning validation process, as some commercial assay suppliers offer methods to determine the concentration of target proteins from swabs utilized to collect environmental samples, clean-in-place (CIP) final rinse water or purge materials utilized during dry cleaning.

ELISA methods often require the use of laboratory equipment and technical skills to be implemented. Rapid-specific methods such as immunoassays with a lateral flow format also allow detection of target specific proteins. Given their minimal sample preparation and short time-to-result, they are valuable tools for cleaning validation and routine cleaning verification, with the advantage of having a similar sensitivity to the lowest limit of quantification of an ELISA assay.

The use of a specific rapid immunoassay provides a presence/absence result that determines whether equipment, surfaces or utensils have been cleaned to a point where proteins from allergenic foods are indiscernible at a certain limit of detection. Thus, equipment can be used to process a product that should not contain a food allergen. Some commercial rapid immunoassays offer protocols to use this type of test in raw materials and final product. This allows food producers to analyze foods and ingredients for the absence of a food allergen with minimum laboratory infrastructure and enables in-house testing of this type of sample. This feature may be a useful rapid verification tool to analyze final product that has been processed shortly after the first production run following an equipment cleaning.

Non-Specific Tests

While non-specific testing isn’t typically the best option for a cleaning validation study, these tests may be used for routine cleaning verification. Examples of non-specific tests include total protein or ATP tests.

Tests that determine total protein are often based on a colorimetric reaction. For example, commercial products utilize a swab format that, after being used to survey a defined area, is placed in a solution that will result in a color change if protein is detected. The rationale is that if protein is not detected, it may be assumed that proteins from allergenic foods were removed during cleaning. However, when total protein is utilized for routine verification, it is important to consider that the sensitivity of protein swabs may differ from the sensitivity of specific immunoassays. Consequently, highly sensitive protein swabs should be selected when feasible.

ATP swab tests are also commonly utilized by the food industry as a non-specific tool for hygiene monitoring and cleaning verification. However, the correlation between ATP and protein is not always consistent. Because the ATP present in living somatic cells varies with the food type, ATP should not be considered as a direct marker to assess the removal of allergenic food residues after cleaning. Instead, an analytical test designed for the detection of proteins should be used alongside ATP swabs to assess hygiene and to assess removal of allergenic foods.

Factors for Using One Test Versus Another

For routine testing, the choice of using a specific or a non-specific analytical method will depend on various factors including the type of product, the number of allergenic ingredients utilized for one production line, whether a quantitative result is required for a particular sample or final product, and, possibly, the budget that is available for testing. In any case, it is important that when performing a cleaning validation study, the method used for routine testing also be included to demonstrate that it will effectively reflect the presence of an allergenic food residue.

Specific rapid methods for verification are preferable because they enable direct monitoring of the undesirable presence of allergenic foods. For example, they can be utilized in conjunction with a non-specific protein swab and, based on the sampling plan, specific tests can then be used periodically (weekly) for sites identified as high-risk because they may be harder to clean than other surfaces. In addition, non-specific protein swabs can be used after every production changeover for all sites previously defined in a sampling plan. These and any other scenarios should be discussed while developing an allergen control plan, and the advantages and risks of selecting any method(s) should be evaluated.

As with all analytical methods, commercial suppliers will perform validation of the methods they offer to ensure the method is suitable for testing a particular analyte. However, given the great diversity of food products, different sanitizers and chemicals used in the food industry, and the various processes to which a food is subjected during manufacturing, it is unlikely that commercial methods have been exhaustively tested. Thus, it is always important to ensure that the method is fit-for-purpose and to verify that it will recover or detect the allergen residues of interest at a defined level.