Waiting until a product is at the tail end of R&D to examine potential food safety and regulatory compliance issues can lead to unnecessary delays and tension between teams, according to experts at the 2023 IAFP Conference in Toronto. Wendy White of the Georgia Tech Manufacturer Extension Program and Kory Anderson of Cargill co-moderated the panel discussion, “From Bench-top to Scale Up: The Unspoken Food Safety Challenges of Research and Development.” They were joined by panelists Shawn Stevens, an attorney with Industry Counsel, LLC, Benjamin Warren, Senior Science Advisor for Food Safety at the FDA, and Michael O’Rourke, North American Regional Microbiology and Food Safety Leader at Cargill.
Key food safety challenges associated with new product development highlighted by panelists included a lack of clear communication between departments, especially food safety, R&D and buyers.
Failure to bring your food safety leaders in early in product development can lead to sales and marketing decisions that are not implementable, said White. Stevens noted that traditionally there is tension between R&D and regulatory professionals in food companies that needs to be addressed in order to avoid food safety risks and delays in bringing new products to market.
Challenges when introducing new products or processing methods extend beyond in-house R&D to new suppliers as well. O’Rourke warned that risks occur when new buyers choose to purchase products from small companies that are not ready to scale up for national distribution. In addition, small companies with novel foods often have a lack of food safety know-how and may be introducing products that have not been vetted and/or do not meet regulatory standards.
O’Rourke further encouraged companies to be aware of risks when working with food brokers, as this may cloud traceability. “It may require pushback to get a clear view of the processing of the products at the primary source,” he said.
Meeting the Challenge
One way to avoid costly delays is to work with the FDA through its voluntary counseling program that encourages companies with novel products and new processing methods to meet with the FDA early in the R&D process. “This can help companies chart a regulatory path and smooth the transition to market. It helps companies understand what data is required—and what is not,” said Warren, noting that submissions to the FDA are often incomplete.
Another process that can help companies forecast safety risks and regulatory roadblocks early in the ideation and development process is a Design Hazard Analysis (DHA). “This mimics food safety plans, but begins during development to provide early consideration of regulatory requirements,” said Warren.
All panelists agreed that food safety team leaders should be brought in early in product development and be given a vote on what moves forward and what does not.
Infant food safety, including new arsenic and cadmium action levels, are among the new priorities the FDA plans to address before the end of 2023. On July 6, the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) and Office of Food Policy and Response (OFPR) released an updated list of draft and final guidance topics that are a priority for the FDA Foods Program to complete during 2023.
The following guidance topics have been added to the 2023 agenda:
Draft Guidance on Dietary Supplement Master Files
Draft Guidance on Low-Moisture Ready to Eat Foods (including infant formula)
Draft Guidance on Action Levels for Arsenic in Food Intended for Babies and Young Children
Draft Guidance on Action Levels for Cadmium in Food Intended for Babies and Young Children
Amendment to the Menu Labeling Supplemental Guidance
Guidance on Protein Efficiency Ratio (PER) Rat Bioassay Studies to Demonstrate that a New Infant Formula Supports the Quality Factor of Sufficient Biological Quality of Protein.
Public comments on the list of human food and cosmetic guidance topics, including suggestions for alternatives or recommendations on the topics the FDA is considering, can be submitted to www.regulations.gov, using Docket ID: FDA – 2021-N-0553.
The FDA’s list of guidance topics is just one of several resources that the Foods Program routinely shares with stakeholders and partners to inform them of agency priorities. Most proposed and final rules are on the “Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions,” which is published by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Office of Management and Budget. The Unified Agenda is updated twice a year and reports planned actions by federal departments and agencies government wide. A list of those FDA regulations and guidance documents under Administration review is available on the Office of Management and Budget website.
Food defense is the effort to protect food from intentional acts of adulteration where there is an intent to cause harm. Like counterterrorism laws for many industries, the IA rule, which established a compliance framework for regulated facilities, requires that these facilities prepare a security plan—in this case, a food defense plan—and conduct a vulnerability assessment (VA) to identify significant vulnerabilities that, if exploited, might cause widescale harm to public health, as defined by the FDA. Lessons learned during the conduct of food defense vulnerability and risk assessments and the preparation of the required food defense plan are detailed throughout this three-part series of articles. Part I of this seriesaddressed the importance of a physical security expert, insider threat detection programs, actionable process steps (APS) and varying approaches to a VA. Part II reviewed access, subject matter experts, mitigation strategies and community drinking water. This final article reviews broad mitigation strategies, feasibility assessments, food defense plans, partial ingredient security and the “Three Element” approach through more lessons learned from assessments conducted for the largest and most complex global food and beverage facilities, but which can also be applied to the smaller facilities that are currently in the process of readying for the next deadline of July 26.
Lesson 14: When the final rule was released, the concept of using broad mitigation strategies was eliminated. That notwithstanding and realizing that many companies seek to operate at a stricter standard for food defense with a clear focus on brand protection, versus only those process steps that potentially could result in a “wide scale public health impact.” Broad or facility-wide mitigation strategies should not be abandoned, but are less likely to get you a lot of credit for IA compliance. Including existing food safety prerequisite programs (PRP), programs and practices that are put in place to maintain a sanitary environment and minimize the risk of introducing a food safety hazard, can, in some cases, also be included as security mitigation. PRP’s with slight modifications can also contribute to a good “food defense” posture. For example, one PRP addresses hazardous chemicals and toxic substances. In some cases, non-food grade substances that could result in product contamination (not necessarily wide-scale public health impact) might be available to a disgruntled insider. It is obvious companies are concerned about contaminants being brought into the plants, but please do not overlook contaminants that are already there and ensure that they are properly secured when not in use.
Other facility-wide programs (broad mitigation) that contribute to effective food defense might include site perimeter or building security, visitor and contractor management, pre-employment background checks, employee security awareness and food defense training and sanitation chemical management.
Lesson 15: If you are using the three elements approach (Guidance Chapter 2 Section G) or the hybrid approach (Guidance Chapter 2 Section H), you will be required to make an assessment on feasibility. In the early VA’s conducted, prior to the second installment of the guidance in March of 2019, feasibility was essentially an all or nothing proposition. One could argue that a judgment call was required as to whether an intentional adulteration incident could be accomplished given the inherent conditions. Those conditions might include a lot of coworkers who might be able to observe and serve as witnesses to deter the act. With the release of the second installment of the guidance from the FDA, a new tool was made available which would allow food and beverage companies to run a calculation and make a more accurate prediction of how much of an unnamed “representative contaminant” which is assumed to be highly lethal and heat stable it might take to contaminate a product batch. Typically, the larger the batch size, the higher the quantity of the “representative contaminant” would be required to achieve a lethal dose (LD) in a serving size. So, to provide an additional level of validation with identified actionable process steps, the use of the LD calculation might be considered to provide more realistic insight into the feasibility element. For instance, if it would require one hundred pounds of the “representative contaminant,” you might feel justified in concluding that it is not realistic to get that amount of contaminant into the batch at the process step and rule out the point, step or procedure as an APS. This can save money and ensure limited food defense resources can be channeled to the areas where legitimate risk can be reduced.
Lesson 16: After an APS is identified, sites will need to determine, as the rule states, whether the existing “mitigation strategies can be applied…to significantly minimize or prevent the significant vulnerability.” Simply stated, what is in place today for food safety, and the broad-based security measures in use, may or may not be enough when you consider an insider motivated to contaminate the product. The FDA’s mitigation strategies database may offer some insights into additional food defense measures to consider. Where additional mitigation strategies are identified, from the time of completion of the VA until a site’s regulatory compliance deadline arrives (next one is July 26, 2020), that change must be incorporated into the food defense plan and fully implemented. We recommend that a site make a list of new mitigation strategies after the VA is complete for tracking purposes during the implementation phase. No mitigation strategies should be included in the food defense plan that are not fully implemented and where records cannot be adequately produced.
Lesson 17: In the second installment of the guidance, the concept of partial ingredients was introduced. The key activity types (KAT) of secondary ingredients is now considered to include the storage of partially used, open containers of secondary ingredients where the tamper-evident packaging has been breached. Tamper evident tape looked to have promising benefits, but several of our clients have abandoned the use of this mitigation strategy, which has been proven repeatedly to be defeated without detection. It appears that using containers that can be secured with numbered seals might be a better option and even better if the seals would be metal detectable in the event one went astray in a product stream.
Lesson 18: Food defense plan unification. Facilities regulated under the IA rule are likely to already have a food defense plan for other initiates such as SQF or BRC. The IA Rule is not unlike other counter-terrorism regulations in potential to create challenges to meet voluntary and regulatory requirements without having multiple food defense plans. The IA Rule based on its modeling after HACCP creates some very specific requirements in terms of how data needs to be presented and records maintained. Sites may be doing other things to support food defense, and one strategy that might keep auditors in their lane would be to include any non-IA Rule food defense content (e.g., for SQF or BRC) in an appendix to the IA Rule Food Defense Plan.
Lesson 19: Under the VA method the FDA refers to as “the “Three Element” approach, suggestion is made in the guidance released in March 2019 that regulated facilities might consider creating stratified categories for each element of public health impact, degree of physical access and ability of the attacker to successfully contaminate product. This is asking regulated facilities to engineer their own vulnerability assessment methodology. It is our opinion that this is asking a lot from a food and beverage facility and that creating categories for each element (e.g., refer to Table 3 on page 54) will extend the time it takes to complete a vulnerability assessment, create a lot more uncertainty in the process and does not necessarily help companies to identify the areas where intentional adulteration risk is highest.
Organizations who have yet to execute vulnerability assessments (due July 26) or those who have already completed vulnerability assessments who may wish to reflect back on their existing VAs in an effort to eliminate unnecessary APS’s should find these strategies helpful in focusing limited resources to the areas where they can have the greatest effect. Since the initiation of this article series, the FDA has released its third installment of the guidance. Once we reflect on this new installment, we will address our thoughts in a future article.
In America’s food supply chain, food is sourced globally. Since ingredients often come from multiple countries, inspection and quality control is challenging, as regulations, policies and processes differ in each country. Product management begins with the suppliers, from the fields where the foods are grown, to the pesticides and fertilizers used, to harvesting, washing, shipping, storing, and processing (manufacturers), and finally, to packaging and delivery to consumers.
Figure 1 shows each step of the product management process can introduce contamination due to unsafe practices or other risks. As such, test data and traceability must begin in the field and end when the final product is delivered to the consumer. The Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) captures all information to ensure that quality data is effectively managed, communicated, and easily and quickly accessible in the event of a contamination issue. The LIMS allows producers to provide authorities with the required sampling and testing documentation to prove compliance.
U.S. consumers expect their food products to be affordable, consistent, safe and unadulterated. Consumers have seen numerous food recalls in the news, and it has shaken their confidence. The CDC estimates that about one in six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and approximately 3,000 die of foodborne diseases each year. Global food directives for international food initiatives include CODEX, ISO (International Standards Organization), and the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI).
The U.S. Government has implemented various food safety programs, from Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) to FSMA in order to identify and correct potential contamination in the food supply. In fact, one of the primary focuses of FSMA is preventive action based on risk assessment.
The food landscape has changed significantly, especially over the past decade, as consumers demand year-round fresh fruits, vegetables and juices, along with more exotic foods. The fact that U.S. food is globally sourced has resulted in numerous challenges in quality assurance, shipping, traceability, labeling, storage, blending, testing, and reporting.
For example, upon reading the labeling on an apple juice can, it is not uncommon to learn the juice has been possibly sourced from numerous countries including the United States, China, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and many other countries from the European Union. Oftentimes, labels state that ingredients may come from some of the countries listed, but it does not specify what percentage comes from each country or exactly from which country the product was sourced. Figure 2 shows how LIMS can track and manage this information in a relational SQL Server LIMS database.
A similar scenario is true for tracking hamburger meat: The meat that was used to make burgers can come from multiple ranches and hundreds of cows. Many consumers don’t understand why their food/beverage is blended in large ton batches, and producers want to reach the required final product specifications, while offering a consistent product and experience to the consumer. Blending has become commonplace in the food industry, and it makes traceability much more challenging. The same is true in blending different meats, for example regulators have found pork in products marked 100% beef, this has led to the use of molecular tests to determine if meat has been adulterated.
FSMA and Traceability
FSMA focuses on a preventive approach rather than reaction and response to foodborne outbreaks. A central focus is on traceability, involving a complete understanding of the complex food chain and conducting testing at the key control points that can introduce contamination. It is important to understand the source of all the raw ingredients that make up a final product as well as the details of where they are sourced, the CoA (Certificate of Analysis) report, other test results, and all associated documentation. These elements are especially important, because each region of the world has different approved testing methods and is challenged with different potential contaminants and processes. As a result, food manufacturers must manage a significant amount of information on all raw materials that they receive, along with the associated paperwork, which includes the CoA, confirmatory test data, and all plant, production and final product test data.
Case example. As operations scale, so does the testing. In order to manage all the testing, most laboratories turn to LIMS and laboratory automation to manage high throughput screening. A client that was performing nearly 1,000 Listeria tests per day was using an automated microbiological screening platform to complete this testing. They were struggling to hire more resources to manage and run the instrument, as the time was short and the increased sample volume was imminent. The goal was to automate testing from the nine plants that were submitting samples to the main laboratory, such that the entire process could be automated from the laboratory knowing how many samples were coming from each plant and from deploying pre-configured worklists to upload to the instruments. The instruments would then run the samples and send the result back into the LIMS. This integration alone saved more than six hours per day. In addition, the electronic data transfer was fast and error-free, and since the data was imported into the LIMS, any positives were automatically flagged in real time. This approach allows immediate action.
In addition, all data from shelf life studies and additional testing on the food product (i.e., pesticide testing, environmental testing for Listeria sp., mold, yeast, etc., formulations, and blending) can be managed in the LIMS, one centralized database.
How LIMS Supports FSMA
Over the years some manufacturers have relied on less-robust tools to manage and maintain testing data, from multiple Excel spreadsheets to paper log books. Challenges with using these tools include data corruptions, data loss, typographical errors, and accidental or malicious data changes. These systems are often costly, especially from a resource standpoint (i.e., data errors, hours spent interacting with the data for calculations, tracking samples, and manual report creation alone). In addition, creating reports for regulating authorities can be time-consuming and because there is no control over changes to the Excel sheets or logbooks, there is typically no audit trail, and because the data is not in the database, querying the data can be very difficult.
A quality LIMS will ensure that the organization is bullet-proof when it comes time for regulatory audits. It also provides a complete and secure solution to manage, track and monitor batches of product from farm to table. LIMS not only helps clients manage their regulatory compliance goals, but it also facilitates communication across the organization and provides laboratory intelligence that gives buyers insight into the best suppliers to purchase from, based on final product specification, consistency and pricing. Managers can also better understand when it is time to outsource testing based on workload data, allowing them to maximize their resources and profitably through more efficient operations. The system also accelerates communication: As soon as testing is completed, reports can be automatically emailed and alerts sent to cell phones, if any issues arise.
When dealing with perishable products, time is of the essence, LIMS save time. Table 1 lists just a few of major benefits of the LIMS in FSMA regulatory compliance.
Sample tracking and management
Integrated barcode support (both 1D and 2D), manage all batch data, tests, from raw materials, in process testing to final packaged product testing
21 CFR Part 11
Compliance with electronic signature requirements
Easily, automatically generate the CoA report once testing is completed, validated and approved
Manage final product, supplier and customer specifications and pricing
Link all paperwork to Work Order for ready access and retrieval
Full Chain of Custody
Automatically generated and linked to the order
Records data and all paperwork associated with product
All paperwork that arrived with the raw ingredients, CoA, and shipping documentation or additional test data
Records all test results
Automatic data import from instruments as well as hand entered data
Setup, manage and track all aspects of shelf life studies
Formulations and Blending
Manage and track as components and specifications for final product blends, and leverage predictive tools for optimal purchase options from suppliers
Track actions in the system and generate a report of all audits made to any result data
CAPAs (Corrective and Preventative Actions)
Track and manage open CAPAs in the LIMS, and tie to testing results for easy management to increase customer satisfaction
Traceability back to the source (farm, country) and forward to the store that it was shipped to, with key data (lot number, ship date, etc.)
Users can view all components and associated test results, along with any notes on the final product, back to the supplier and forward to locations that offer the product to the consumer
Manage employee training records and view Standard Operating Procedures online to ensure access to work instruction and provide evidence for audits
Manage all quality control data on the instruments used in the testing, as well as documented calibration data, maintenance, any repairs, or any issues. Users can link the PDF manual in the LIMS
Enterprise integration (ERP, SAP, SCADA, MES, SAS JMP)
Data sharing allows users with permissions access to data when they need it, so that they can quickly view and monitor information they need to perform their job. Users can also view data with integrated statistical tools to view trends that may not be readily evident
A LIMS is a critical tool to the success of food companies. It organizes and securely manages all aspects of food testing, facilitates regulatory compliance, enhances communication within the organization, and maximizes productivity. Many food producers are concerned about protecting their brand and providing a high quality, consistent, and safe product to consumers while operating efficiently and at a profit. An LIMS allows them to meet these goals.
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