Tag Archives: proactive

FST Soapbox

A Digital Approach to Environmental Monitoring: Let’s Get Proactive!

By David Hatch
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Technology and automation for safety and surveillance have already impacted nearly every industry in the world. For example, in the United States and many other developed regions, we have just lived through the transformation to electronic health records within the healthcare industry. Prior to that, we lived through the digital transformation of all of our banking information to an online banking platform—now the norm across the world.

However, the food and beverage industry is still learning how technology can improve their organizations. The food safety segment of this market is particularly in need of a digital transformation, as the risk associated with foodborne illness is potentially catastrophic to food companies, and moreso, to the end consumers who are impacted by preventable pathogenic outbreaks.

Along with regulation advancements, such as the timed roll-out of FSMA, the industry continues to work towards a more effective approach to food safety. But most regulations, and advancements in the industry are pointed toward a reactive stance to food safety issues, rather than a preventive stance. For example, although traceability is important in leading investigations to the source and taking remediation steps sooner, a more proactive approach to prevention should be considered when investing in food safety programs.

This is where the importance of an automated environmental monitoring program comes in. To be proactive requires a commitment to embracing data and digital technology. Knowing where to start to effectively pivot your digital approach can be a challenge.

Understanding the following thought process can help you to recognize areas of potential improvement and growth within your environmental monitoring program.

  • Define Your Business Objectives. Ask how profitability and production uptime is connected to food safety issues.
  • Verify Suppliers. Establish protocols for incoming product from external suppliers and validate their food safety performance and ability to maintain a clean facility.
  • Modernize Your Environmental Monitoring Program (EMP). Are you able to confirm that your EMP is being executed consistently? Across all facilities?
  • Understand Data Exhaust. See how your organization’s valuable data can be used to identify trends and accelerate root cause analysis that impact decision-making processes.

Define Your Business Objectives

Food companies large and small are being challenged to implement required processes and procedures to meet the demands of FSMA, and ultimately achieve a more proactive and preventative food safety stance. Transformation in this arena, led by government regulation, and enhanced by standards certification requirements, has highlighted the responsibility of suppliers and manufacturers to protect consumers.

Many organizations are not aware that a single failure in their food safety program could actually be the most devastating profitability risk that the organization faces today. When your organization is focused on production uptime and profitability, it can be easy to overlook the details involved in maintaining a strong food safety program. In reality, though, food safety and profitability are inextricably linked due to the risk of production interruptions that can be caused by safety issues.

Whenever a food recall occurs, it has the potential to start the dominoes falling, with major implications regarding costs, reputational damage, compliance penalties, supply chain interruption, and sales declines. Worse yet, these impacts can last for years after the actual event. By delaying both the importance of recognizing the seriousness of this risk as well as taking necessary steps to prevent it, your organization’s reputation could be on the line.

Unfortunately, planning is often sacrificed when managers fail to implement the proper technological solutions. Fulfilling fundamental documentation requirements involves a smart, automated approach. This is the best way to optimize recall prevention. By incorporating an automated EMP process, a supplier management system, and other FSMA Preventive Controls measures, suppliers ultimately improve the strength of the entire chain for their partners, consumers and themselves.

There are many other facets to food safety, but the EMP is where inspectors and auditors will look to see the indicators of contamination and the efficacy of your sanitation controls. Therefore, it is critical that your organization exhibit not only that you are on top of things and are following your EMP procedures consistently, but that you can analyze and pinpoint issues as they arise, and that you have a track record of corrective actions in response to those issues. This, in-turn, allows you to see where your business objectives are most at-risk.

Regardless of which specific food industry segment your company operates in, or which governing body it reports to, it’s essential to stay informed and compliant with changing regulations in order to reduce the risk of experiencing a recall. In a strategic operational role, intelligent environmental monitoring allows companies to not only proactively work to avoid public health issues, but is vital to retaining a consistent bottom line.

Verify Suppliers

Earlier this year, the FDA heralded what they call a “New Era of Smarter Food Safety”. As technology becomes increasingly accessible, more and more companies are investigating how technology can be used to harness and control the growing complexity of supply chain implications.

The challenge of making sure your organization is doing its due diligence to prevent recalls is further complicated when incorporating outside suppliers. For example, 15% of the United State’s overall food supply is imported from more than 200 other countries, according to the FDA. Making sure the product coming into a facility is also meeting your standards is vital to preventing pathogens from entering your supply chain either through containers, people, or the incoming product itself.

The complexity grows exponentially when we contemplate what this means for tracking food safety across a supply chain of this scope. Generally suppliers are asked to provide verification for the cleanliness of the product they are bringing into your facility. However, by going a step further and establishing test points for the product when it comes in, you will be better equipped to catch pathogens before they can enter into your own supply chain and potentially contaminate other products. While you may already have a good relationship with your suppliers, being able to independently verify the safety of their products and that their own processes are working, creates a mutually beneficial relationship.

Modernize Your Environmental Monitoring Program

Food experts at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva discussed the critical nature of ensuring food safety across geographic boundaries, as it is an issue that affects everyone. Incidents of pathogen outbreaks around the world have a direct impact on the health of global citizens, with one in 10 people falling ill due to food contamination.

A traditional EMP allows organizations to continuously verify that their sanitation programs are working by scheduling testing, monitoring results for any signs of pathogens, and maintaining compliance with regulatory bodies. Historically, this type of program is documented in spreadsheets and three-ring binders, but today the acceptance of new tools being offered by vendors and labs are expanding offerings to modernize the monitoring process.

Food safety professionals, many of whom are trained microbiologists, should have better tools at their disposal than spreadsheets that force them to manually sift through data. All regulatory bodies in the food industry have guidelines when it comes to where, what, and when you should be testing in your facilities. Ensuring that this is happening is a basic requirement for meeting regulatory mandates.

By choosing an automated EMP, FSQA teams are able to schedule testing plans including randomization and test point coverage rules, see what testing is being performed when, and obtain all testing data in one system for ease of access before or during an audit. This offers an “always-on” source of audit data and more importantly, trending and root-cause analysis capabilities to find and define actions to remediate recurring problems.

Further, an automated EMP that is integrated with your food safety plan allows you to set up workflows and automatically notify appropriate team members according to your organization’s policies. Each remediation step can be recorded and time stamped as the corrective action moves towards completion.

Understand Data Exhaust

A dominant theme pushed forward by FSMA is the need to document all aspects of your food safety plan, from the written outline to the records indicating proper implementation. Today’s manufacturers face a time of heightened regulation, and with stricter enforcement comes greater requirements for documentation. Automated EMPs not only provide your organization insight into what is happening within your facilities for documentation, it also gives time back to your FSQA team who, instead of spending their days with three ring binders, can analyze and investigate recurring issues in your facility to look for new, innovative ways for the organization to maintain a high standard of quality.

However, effective testing also means reading, understanding and responding to results. It is not enough to simply meet the required volume and frequency of environmental testing metrics. You need to use the resulting information to effect change and improvements by lowering the likeliness of pathogens, allergens and contaminants from entering the food supply chain. The more data collected, the more it leads to true understandings. What testing might show is just the symptoms of the problem—not the root cause of a far bigger problem. As more data is available, it becomes more valuable through the insights that can be gained through trend analysis. This, in turn, moves the conversation to higher levels within the organization who care about ensuring productivity and reducing avoidable risk.

Incorporating your lab into the equation is essential. Find a lab partner that offers an automated testing program that is integrated with their LIMS. Your organization will then be in a better position to ensure results are being responded to in an appropriate time frame.

There are many diagnostic tools in use today, both in-plant and at the lab. Each of these tools generates “data exhaust” in the form of a diagnostic result. But are your data streams being integrated and analyzed to find correlations and potential cause/effect relationships? Or does your ATP device simply record its data to a dedicated laptop or spreadsheet?

Testing, combined with an automated EMP, can allow you to combine data from various diagnostic systems (on-premise or from your lab partner) to identify trends and therefore a more holistic path to remediation. For this to occur, data must be accessible, aggregated and actionable, which an automated EMP achieves.

Forward-thinking companies and facility managers are leveraging valuable software solutions to improve processes, protect reputations, minimize inefficiencies, and simplify multifaceted compliance and audit tasks. Over the next three to five years, numerous organizations will reduce their risk of food recalls by combining their EMPs with analytics capabilities to reduce food risk and improve quality using diagnostic solutions and data assets. This change will be arduous, as all digital transformations in other industries have shown. But, in the end, they have shown the value and long-term success that the food industry now needs to experience.

Frank Yiannas, FDA, Food Safety Summit, Food Safety Tech

Can We Make Progress Before the Next Food Safety Crisis?

By Maria Fontanazza
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Frank Yiannas, FDA, Food Safety Summit, Food Safety Tech

A recall or outbreak occurs. Consumers stop buying the food. Industry responds with product innovation. Government enters the picture by establishing standards, initiatives, etc. “That’s my thesis about how changes happen,” said Michael Taylor, board co-chair of Stop Foodborne Illness during a keynote presentation at last week’s Food Safety Summit. Industry has seen a positive evolution over the past 25-plus years, but in order to continue to move forward in a productive direction of prevention, progress must be made without waiting for the next crisis, urged the former FDA commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.

The strong foundation is there, Taylor added, but challenges persist, including:

  • FSMA. There’s still much work to be done in establishing accountability across the board, including throughout supplier networks.
  • Lack of technology adoption. The failure to use already available tools that can help achieve real-time traceability.
  • Geographic hazards. This is a reference to the contamination that occurred in the cattle feedlot associated with the romaine lettuce outbreak in Yuma, Arizona. “We’re dealing with a massive hazard…and trying to manage the scientific ignorance about the risk that exists,” said Taylor. In addition, in February FDA released its report on the November 2018 E.coli O157:H7 outbreak originating from the Central Coast growing region in California, also implicating contaminated water as a potential source. “There are still unresolved issues around leafy greens,” Taylor said. “What are we going to learn from this outbreak?”

Taylor went on to emphasize the main drivers of industry progress: Consumers and the government. Consumer expectations for transparency is rising, as is the level of awareness related to supply chain issues. Social media also plays a large role in bringing consumers closer to the food supply. And the government is finding more outbreaks then ever, thanks to tools such as whole genome sequencing. So how can food companies and their suppliers keep up with the pace? A focus on building a strong food safety culture remains a core foundation, as does technological innovation—especially in the area of software. Taylor believes one of the keys to staying ahead of the curve is aggregating analytics and successfully turning them into actionable insights.

Frank Yiannas, FDA, Food Safety Summit, Food Safety Tech
Frank Yiannas is the keynote speaker at the 2019 Food Safety Consortium | October 1, 2019 | Schaumburg, IL | He is pictured here during at town hall with Steven Mandernach (AFDO), Robert Tauxe (CDC), and Paul Kiecker (USDA)

FDA recently announced its intent to put technology innovation front and center as a priority with its New Era of Food Safety initiative. “This isn’t a tagline. It’s a pause and the need for us to once again to look to the future,” said Frank Yiannas, FDA’s deputy commissioner for food and policy response during an town hall at the Food Safety Summit. “The food system is changing around us dramatically. Everything is happening at an accelerated pace. The changes that are happening in the next 10 years will be so much more than [what happened] in the past 20 or 30 years…We have to try to keep up with the changes.” As part of this “new era”, the agency will focus on working with industry in the areas of digital technology in food traceability (“A lack of traceability is the Achilles heel of food,” said Yiannas), emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, and e-commerce. Yiannas said that FDA will be publishing a blueprint very soon to provide an idea of what areas will be the main focus of this initiative.

Sanitation in Retail

Out with the Old: From Dirty Rags to Cleaner, Safer Technology in Retail

By Maria Fontanazza
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Sanitation in Retail

Across the board, increased employee awareness and training has become a big issue in food safety. The foodborne illness outbreaks that hit Chipotle Mexican Grill has put retail and restaurant establishments on high alert, yet this is just another example of the reactive culture in which we operate, according to Matt Schiering, vice president and general manager at Sani Professional.

Matt Schiering, Sani Professional
“Think about your own restaurant experiences. Guests don’t want to see or be confronted with a greyish brown rag [that is used to] wipe a table, then wipe a seat, then wipe an adjacent table. It just screams unclean,” says Matt Schiering of Sani Professional.
Food Safety Tech recently hit the road with Schiering and John Caton, regional sales manager at Sani Professional, to experience first hand how one company is communicating its message to customers. Breaking with tradition has been an important part of promoting cleaner technology: The use of the rag and bucket as a means to clean both the front of the house (tables, chairs, counters, etc.) as well as the back of restaurants and retail establishments, while still fairly common, has outlived its effectiveness, and frankly, says Schiering, “screams unclean”. Caton and Schiering continued the conversation with their customers about how using disposable wipes for cleaning, sanitizing and disinfection helps prevent the spread of contamination, along with the cost savings associated with using such products. The company takes a multi-prong approach to promoting awareness among its current and potential clients, from deploying a sales force that directly interacts with quality assurance and food safety professionals in establishments to offering how advances in sustainable technology can help them stay ahead of the curve to driving consumer advocacy.

Food Safety Tech: How is Sani Professional raising the level awareness of the disadvantages of the traditional cleaning method (the rag and bucket method) in the retail environment?

Matt Schiering: There are a few ways to raise the level of awareness. The first and foremost is “feet on the street”. We’ve deliberately moved toward a direct-to-customer sales force, which gives us the opportunity to interface directly with QA, food safety and operations to show them a simpler, more efficient, more effective, and guest appealing way versus the traditional rag and bucket. The first win is one for the user (the employees of a given establishment), because associates have shown us time and time again that they do not like the mixing and measuring, and the errors that are often associated with that process. They don’t like the dirty rag itself—having to fish it out of the bowl and then present it or be seen with it in the front of the establishment. It’s a win for the operator (the manager), because with our system, there’s no longer any heightened heart rate when the health inspector shows up. One of the most common violations is the water in the buckets being out of spec or the rags themselves not being inside the bucket per regulation. And perhaps most importantly, it’s a win for the guest. Think about your own restaurant experiences. Guests don’t want to see or be confronted with a greyish brown rag [that is used to] wipe a table, then wipe a seat, then wipe an adjacent table. It just screams unclean.

As we talk about the evolution in perception, away from traditional methods, we believe that speaking directly to the consumer has to play a role. There has to be a degree of consumer-driven advocacy for a better way. – Matt Schiering

FST: Regarding employee training, how should retailers be more proactive in ensuring their employees are engaging in proper food safety practices and aren’t spreading foodborne illnesses?

Schiering: It varies by chain. Unfortunately, we live in a reactive culture—and that goes well beyond the restaurant industry.

Oftentimes a problem precedes a protocol or other means of addressing said problem. Chipotle is one example: They’ve taken an exhaustive look at restructuring their food safety protocols as a result of a myriad of foodborne illness-related issues that they suffered in the preceding months. The [retailers] who are doing it best are the ones who build it into their establishment in the first place where it’s not predicated by some sort of problem. That involves training materials, in-service lessons, and online training (i.e., ServSafe certifications). Waffle House, for example, has Waffle House University where food safety is a key component to that system.

We envision ourselves as part of that process. We take a microcosm—the notion of proper food handling, prevention of cross contamination related foodborne illness—and provide an innovative and easy-to-use solution, and all the training and collateral materials associated with the solution that explain the proper use. We also provide test kits so that if the health inspector wants an in-the-moment proof that our product is doing what the label says it does, [the retailer] can provide that at a moments notice. It becomes more of a service proposition than simply a product-driven solution.

Sanitation in Retail
Using disposable wipes for cleaning, sanitizing and disinfection can help prevent the spread of cross contamination and foodborne illness.

FST: Where do you see sustainable products fitting into the space?

Schiering: This also boils down to education, because the perception of disposables is that they’re wasteful, when in fact they needn’t be any more costly than existing solutions.

If you’re using a linen service, there’s a cost associated with renting towels, but there’s a higher cost associated with wasting towels. So if a towel ends up in a gym bag or in the trash because of overuse and/or abuse, there’s a significant upcharge for not returning that towel to the rental agency. That’s what we call the hidden cost or the dirty little secret of rag and bucket sanitizing. When you factor that in, and everyone [retailers] experiences that type of loss, and you look at the fact that sanitizing wipes kill pathogens trapped in the wipe as well as whatever it is coming into contact with at the surface, thereby enabling it to be used on multiple surfaces without causing cross contamination—the cost aligns very closely. And of course it’s a more value-added guest experience than a dirty rag being used from table to table, which is not preventing cross contamination.

Speaking to the environmental piece: At the moment, we’re actually fairly well ahead of the industry. It varies chain to chain—some chains are doing a better job than others, because it’s part of their corporate culture. But by providing solutions that are leveraging either recyclable substrates or compostable substrates, we provide greater opportunity to reduce the environmental impact often associated with disposable products. If a retailer is working with a waste management partner that can handle industrial compostable products or non-solid state recyclables, we have solutions that are appropriate for those operations, so that we’re not just adding to landfills but rather essentially recycling and/or regenerating the products that are being used, and at no greater cost.

Most retailers haven’t gotten there yet. It speaks directly to corporate culture and corporate mission of the end user. We deliberately target customers who are a little bit ahead of the curve when it comes to “green technology or “green behavior”. And so when the rest of the industry catches up, we’re more than ready to serve them with products that meet those needs.

FST: Where do consumers fit into the picture, especially has industry moves away from traditional methods in food safety?

Schiering: About a decade ago, consumers started demanding that retailers like Walmart, Target, and local grocers provide a means of sanitizing shopping carts when they walk into their local retail establishments. There were myriad news reports about the germs and potential for contamination and illness arising from the often used and rarely cleaned implements—these vehicles for placing your groceries. We answered the call a decade ago, and at one time it was a significant piece of our business.  It continues to be a marketplace we serve, albeit a much commoditized one. But the rise in that solution would not have taken place if not for consumers advocating for a better way.

We’re starting to create a presence on Facebook and other social media outlets to remind consumers that it’s up to them in many cases to ask for, if not demand a more effective, more pleasing way of ensuring their safety in dining establishments. Unfortunately, incidents like what we saw at the large Mexican food service retailer do ultimately play a part in that consumer advocacy, albeit a negative one, because we are a reactive society. But by presenting a positive message and sharing alternatives in the absence of citing examples or shaming retailers through the problem, we believe that will be one of the keys to changing perceptions at the retail level.