The report states that a sediment sample coming from an on-farm water reservoir in Santa Maria (Santa Barbara County, California) tested positive for the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7. Although this particular farm was identified in several legs of the Fall 2018 traceback investigations that occurred in the United States and Canada, as well as being a possible supplier of romaine lettuce in the 2017 traceback investigations, the FDA said that the farm is not the single source of the outbreak, as there is “insufficient evidence”. The traceback suggests that the contaminated lettuce could have come from several farms, because not all tracebacks led to the farm on which the contaminated sediment was found.
“The finding of the outbreak strain in the sediment of the water reservoir is significant, as studies have shown that generic E. coli can survive in sediments much longer than in the overlying water. It’s possible that the outbreak strain may have been present in the on-farm water reservoir for some months or even years before the investigation team collected the positive sample. It is also possible that the outbreak strain may have been repeatedly introduced into the reservoir from an unknown source,” stated FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. and Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas in a press announcement.
Although the exact route of contamination cannot be confirmed, the FDA hypothesizes that it could have occurred through the use of agricultural water from an open reservoir, which has increased potential for contamination.
The investigation teams also found evidence of “extensive” wild animal activity and animal burrows near the contaminated reservoir, as well as adjacent land use for animal grazing, all of which could have contributed to the contamination.
Considering the significant effect that the past two E.coli outbreaks involving romaine lettuce have had on both the public as well as the produce industry, FDA made several recommendations on preventive measures that leafy greens growers and industry can take to avoid such pathogenic contamination, including:
Assessing growing operations to ensure they are in line with compliance to FSMA and good agricultural practices
Making sure that any agricultural water that comes into direct contact with the harvestable portion of the crop, food contact surfaces and harvest equipment is safe and sanitary
Address and mitigate risks associated with agricultural water contamination that can occur as a result of intrusion by wild animals
Address and mitigate risks associated with the use of land near or adjacent to agricultural water sources that can lead to contamination
Conduct root cause analysis whenever a foodborne pathogen is identified in the growing environment, agricultural inputs like water or soil, raw agricultural commodities, or “fresh-cut” ready-to-eat produce
For the broader industry:
The development of real-time procedures that enable rapid examination of the potential scope, source and route of contamination
All leafy green products should have the ability to be traced back to the source in real time, and information include harvest date. In November, FDA requested voluntary labeling [https://foodsafetytech.com/news_article/cdc-alert-do-not-eat-romaine-lettuce-throw-it-out/] to help consumers identify products affected during an outbreak
The adoption of best practices in supply chain traceability
In an effort to determine the prevalence of Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli O157:H7 in sprouts, FDA conducted a large sampling study of sprouts, the results of which were released last week.
The agency collected 825 samples from 37 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia and found 14 positive samples at eight of the 94 growers (10 samples came from four growers). Samples were collected from three production process points: Seeds, finished product and spent irrigation water, and tested for contamination. FDA found the following contamination:
Salmonella on 2.35% of seed samples, 0.21% in finished sprouts and 0.53% in spent irrigation water
Listeria monocytogenes on 1.28% of finished sprouts
No positive E. coli O157:H7 results in finished sprout or spent irrigation. Due to limitations of the test method, FDA didn’t test seed samples.
“Sprouts are especially vulnerable to pathogens given the warm, moist and nutrient-rich conditions needed to grow them. From 1996 to July 2016, there were 46 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness in the United States linked to sprouts. These outbreaks accounted for 2,474 illnesses, 187 hospitalizations, and three deaths.” – CFSAN
In the event that contaminated sprout samples were uncovered, FDA worked with the firms that own or released the affect sprouts to conduct voluntary recalls or destroy them. FDA inspections also followed.
In 2011 three U.S. government agencies, the CDC, the FDA and the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) created the Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration (IFSAC). The development of IFSAC allowed these agencies to combine their federal food safety efforts. The initial focus was to identify those foods and prioritize pathogens that were the most important sources of foodborne illnesses.
The priority pathogens are Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes and Campylobacter. To research the most important product sources, the three agencies collaborated on the development of better data collection and developed methods for estimating the sources of foodborne illnesses. Some of this research was to evaluate whether the regulatory requirements already in effect were reducing the foodborne pathogens in a specific product matrix. The collection, sharing and use of this data is an important part of the collaboration. For example, when the FDA is in a facility for routine audit or targeted enforcement, they will generally take environmental swabs and samples of air, water and materials, as appropriate, which are then tested for the targeted pathogens. If a pathogen is found, then serotyping and pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) fingerprinting is performed, and this is compared to the information in the database concerning outbreaks and illnesses. This data collection enables the agencies to more quickly react to pinpoint the source of foodborne illnesses and thereby reduce the number of foodborne illnesses.
The IFSAC strategic plan for 2017 to 2021 will enhance the collection of data. The industry must be prepared for more environmental and material sampling. Enhancement of data collection by both agencies can be seen through the FSIS notices and directives, and through the guidance information being produced by the FDA for FSMA. Some examples are the raw pork products exploratory sampling project and the FDA draft guidance for the control of Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods.
Starting May 1 2017, the next phase of the raw pork products exploratory sampling project will begin. Samples will be collected and tested for Salmonella, Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STECs), aerobic plate count and generic E. coli. In the previous phase, the FSIS analyzed 1200 samples for Salmonella for which results are published in their quarterly reports. This is part of the USDA FSIS Salmonella action plan published December 4, 2013 in an effort to establish pathogen reduction standards. In order to achieve any objective, establishing baseline data is essential in any program. Once the baseline data is established and the objective is determined, which in this situation is the Health People 2020 goal of reducing human illness from Salmonella by 25%, one can determine by assessment of the programs and data what interventions will need to take place.
The FDA has revised its draft guidance for the control of Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat food, as per the requirement in 21 CFR 117 Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Human Foods, which is one of the seven core FSMA regulations. Ready-to-eat foods that are exposed to the environment prior to packaging and have no Listeria monocytogenes control measure that significantly reduces the pathogen’s presence, will be required to perform testing of the environment and, if necessary, testing of the raw and finished materials. Implementing this guidance document helps the suppliers of these items to cover many sections of this FSMA regulation.
The purpose of any environmental program is to verify the effectiveness of control programs such as cleaning and sanitizing, and personnel hygiene, and to identify those locations in a facility where there are issues. Corrective actions to eliminate or reduce those problems can then be implemented. Environmental programs that never find any problems are poorly designed. The FDA has stated in its guidance that finding Listeria species is expected. They also recommend that instead of sampling after cleaning and/or sanitation, the sampling program be designed to look for contamination in the worst-case scenario by sampling several hours into production, and preferably, just before clean up. The suggestion on this type of sampling is to hold and test the product being produced and to perform some validated rapid test methodology in order to determine whether or not action must be taken. If the presence of a pathogen is confirmed, it is not always necessary to dispose of a product, as some materials can be further processed to eliminate it.
With this environmental and product/material testing data collected, it is possible to perform a trends analysis. This will help to improve sanitation conditions, the performance of both programs and personnel, and identity the need for corrective actions. The main points to this program are the data collection and then the use of this data to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness. Repeated problems require intervention and resolution. Changes in programs or training may be necessary, if they are shown to be the root cause of the problem. If a specific issue is discovered to be a supply source problem, then the determination of a suppliers’ program is the appropriate avenue to resolve that issue. Generally, this will mean performing an audit of the suppliers program or reviewing the audit, not just the certificate, and establishing whether they have a structured program to reduce or eliminate these pathogens.
Don’t miss the Plenary Mock Food Safety Trial: Sam I Am who made Green Eggs and Ham is represented by Shawn Stevens vs. Food Safety victims represented by Bill Marler. Judged by Steve Sklare | November 30 at the 2017 Food Safety Consortium | Learn moreWith FSMA regulations coming into effect, food companies must prepare for the arrival of FDA investigators, as the agency has made it a priority to inspect U.S. food facilities, and they won’t always show up announced. Prior to an investigator’s arrival, it’s important to iron out several details in order to be adequately prepared. The following are 10 questions that every company should add to its pre-inspection checklist and make sure they are addressed before the inspection.
Where will you meet? Pinpoint a place where you will host the FDA investigators. It should be a space that has enough room for them to review records, but it should not provide access to records (paper or digital) that could be viewed unsupervised.
Who are the Designated Individuals? Assign a primary and secondary Designated Individual (DI) for each facility. This person serves as the liaison with the FDA investigators and should coordinate vacation time to ensure that one DI will always be available if FDA arrives. Although not required, the DI should also complete Preventive Control Qualified Individual Training.
Has the written food safety plan been finalized? And, do the primary and secondary DIs know its components (i.e., GMPs, Sanitation Programs, Preventive Control Plan, Recall Plan, Environmental Monitoring Program, Foreign Supplier Verification Plan, Sanitary Transportation Plan, Food DefensePlan, and Produce Safety Plan)?
Are records readily accessible? The DI should be able to immediately access any supporting records from the past three months for FDA review (FDA requires that most records are maintained for at least two years, but investigators usually ask to review the preceding three months).
Have corrective actions been documented? When a deviation occurs, you must document all corrective actions. These actions should identify the deviation’s root cause and actions to prevent recurrence. If product safety is not affected, this should include a written conclusion that the deviation “does not create an immediate or direct food safety issue.”
Have you conducted environmental monitoring and environmental sampling? If your company processes ready- to-eat food products that are exposed to the environment prior to packaging, FDA will require you to have an environmental monitoring program. In addition, the agency will collect 100–200 microbiological samples from your facility, so you need to know exactly what FDA will find before it arrives. By conducting your own FDA-style facility swabbing, you’ll be able to identify and immediately correct any hidden problems. It’s also important to develop your swabbing and testing plan with the help of legal counsel so that the final testing results are confidential.
Do you have a “No Photographs” policy? If not, you should. FDA Investigators will often insist on taking photographs while inspecting the processing environment. If your corporate policy prohibits visitors from taking photographs, you may in some cases be able to prevent FDA from taking pictures as well.
Do you have a “Do Not Sign” policy? Sometimes, FDA Investigators will insist that a company representative sign a statement or affidavit during an inspection. You’re not legally obligated to do sign such a document. You should develop a policy stating you will neither sign nor acknowledge any written statements presented by FDA Investigators.
Have you identified a suitable “on call” food industry lawyer? Add a food industry lawyer familiar with the inspection process to the company’s emergency contact list. This lawyer should be notified and remain “on call” during the inspection and serve as a resource to help answer any regulatory or investigator-related questions that arise during the process.
Did you conduct a mock FDA inspection? One of the most effective ways to prepare for an FDA visit is to conduct a mock inspection. Food industry consultants and/or lawyers can visit your facility and play the role of the Investigator. Ask them to review your programs to identify possible regulatory shortfalls, and work with you to implement strategies that will strengthen your programs and reduce your regulatory exposure.
Building the right food safety culture around environmental monitoring requires a realistic approach to your processes. “Culture starts with understanding your process,” Zephyr Wilson, product manager at Roka Bioscience told Food Safety Tech at the 2016 Food Safety Consortium. “You need to ask questions—a lot of questions.”
In the following video, Wilson talks about food safety culture in the context of environmental monitoring and how companies should approach environmental monitoring. “Understand all of your processes,” she said. “Take an honest look at your metrics and make sure you’re encouraging your employees to find the Listeria.”
She also reviews the steps a company should take when undergoing self-auditing, and encourages companies to work under the direction of an attorney to ensure that all results are confidential.
Pathogen testing of food samples, whether in-plant or outsourced, is a critical task. Although some companies find it more cost-effective (and they have the capabilities) to conduct testing in-house, other companies don’t want to touch it due to cost and potential risk.
“Food processors are far more comfortable analyzing samples for nutritional parameters, contaminants and routine microbiology in an in-plant lab, but fewer are comfortable running pathogen tests in-plant,” stated Bob Ferguson of Strategic Consulting in the Food Safety Tech article, Changing Landscape for Selecting a Food Safety Contract Laboratory.
According to Ferguson, some of the factors that lead food processors to outsource pathogen testing include:
Need for skilled analysts (including recruiting and maintaining accreditations
Lab accreditation (just 20% of food company labs are accredited)
Analytical methods require complex equipment, which can be expensive to maintain
Risk of in-house pathogen contamination
The below infographic reveals some of the findings, discussed at the 2016 Food Safety Consortium, of a survey conducted of more than 100 food processing customers of food contract laboratories.
The advent of PulseNet in the late 1990s enabled more effective identification of outbreaks, even as many of them overlapped. The database brought to light the fact that many of the products sold in commerce nationwide contained ingredients that were at risk of contamination with dangerous pathogens. In many instances, these ingredients were in products from a single lot or batch and then sold by a single supplier to dozens of customers. From there, they were used in hundreds of products that would be distributed into thousands of retail locations.
Attend Food Safety Tech‘s Listeria Detection & Control Workshop | May 31–June 1 in St. Paul, MN | LEARN MOREFDA created the Reportable Food Registry (RFR) as a way to prevent the shipment of contaminated ingredients into the food supply. If received ingredients or products test positive for contaminants, the RFR requires that the company inform FDA. The agency uses the reports to take regulatory action against the original supplier and requires that all ingredients or products from all potentially affected lots be recalled from commerce. Because the RFR allows FDA to immediately begin tracking and containing ingredients testing positive for pathogens, its introduction in 2009 resulted in a significant spike in recalls.
Driven by the recalls triggered by PulseNet and the RFR, a national perception about an extremely unsafe U.S. food supply began to emerge. The public and media demanded that Congress take action, and so FSMA was born. The regulations require all FDA-regulated food companies to develop and implement written preventative control programs designed to control pathogens and other hazards in food. As a result, food companies will face heightened regulatory risk, scrutiny and exposure.
To further decrease the incidence of outbreaks and recalls, FDA is implementing regulatory enforcement initiatives that include sampling food products at retail for the presence of pathogens; conducting microbiological profiling of food processing facilities during routine inspections; and exploring criminal sanctions against companies that have been linked to positive samples in food products or production facilities associated with an outbreak or foodborne illness.
Microbiological Sampling in Retail
FDA is sampling products intended for human consumption as well as those for animal consumption. As testing continues at the retail level, the likelihood of more food products testing positive for the presence of pathogens is much higher. When positive product samples are found, FDA will take immediate action against the company that processed the product and require the company to recall all affected product. The agency will also demand access to the production facility at issue and conduct extensive environmental sampling, including from drains, floors, walls, production equipment, and finished products, in an effort to find the same strain as the sample testing positive at retail. If product or environmental samples test positive, FDA will perform genetic DNA testing on the isolates and compare the DNA fingerprints against those of the isolates collected from sick case patients in PulseNet over the past 15 years. If a match between the DNA fingerprint and an illness(es) in PulseNet is found, the agency will presume that these illnesses were caused by product originating from that particular facility. FDA will also demand access to all food production and microbiological testing records from previous months, or years, and critique those records.
Microbiological Sampling in Food Production Facilities
In accordance with FSMA, FDA will inspect all food production facilities (drains, floors, walls, food processing equipment, and finished products) that process high-risk ingredients or food products within the next three years (lower risk facilities will be inspected within the next five years). The agency is also performing extensive microbiological profiling of the food processing environment in all production facilities during routine inspections. If a positive sample is found, FDA may require the company to recall the affected product. It is expected that the level of sampling will intensity in the coming months and years as a result of FSMA mandates. And as the extensive microbiological sampling in food production facilities continues, FDA will perform genetic DNA testing on any positive samples collected, once again comparing the DNA fingerprints of samples against those of sick case patients over the last two decades. If a match is found, FDA will take the same course of action as in retail and presume all illnesses were caused by a food product originating from that specific facility. When that occurs, in addition to the potential recalls that may be required, the food companies at issue may become the target of a criminal investigation as well.
My next column will cite recent examples of FDA’s criminal offensive against food companies.
In order to ensure that a food testing laboratory maintains a quality management system that effectively manages all aspects of laboratory operations that affect quality, there are numerous records, reports and data that must be recorded, documented and managed.
Gathering, organizing and controlling all the data that is generated, managed and stored by food testing laboratories can be challenging to say the least. As the ISO Standards and regulatory requirements for food testing laboratories evolve, so does the need for improved quality data management systems. Historical systems that were very efficient and effective 10 years ago, may no longer meet the demanding requirements for ISO 17025 certification. One way to meet the challenge is to turn to automated solutions that eliminate many of the mundane tasks that utilize valuable resources.
There are many reasons for laboratories to seek this certification, including to enhance reputation, gain a competitive advantage, reduce operational costs, and meet regulatory compliance goals. A major advantage for food testing laboratories to obtain ISO 17025 Certification is that is tells prospective clients that the laboratory has a strong commitment to quality, and they hold the certification to prove it. This certification not only boosts a laboratory’s reputation, but it also demonstrates an organization’s commitment to quality, operational efficiency and management practices. Proof of ISO 17025 Certification eliminates the need for independent supplier audits, because the quality, capability and expertise of the laboratory have been verified by external auditors. Many ISO Certified laboratories will only buy products (raw materials, supplies and software) and services from other ISO-certified firms so that they do not need to do additional work in qualifying the vendor or the products.
There are many areas in which a LIMS supports and promotes ISO 17025 compliance. Laboratories are required to manage and maintain SOPs (standard operating procedures) that accurately reflect all phases of current laboratory activities such as assessing data integrity, taking corrective actions, handling customer complaints, managing all test methods, and managing all documents pertaining to quality. In addition, all contact with clients and their testing instructions should be recorded and kept with the job/project documentation for access by the staff performing the tests/calibrations. With a computerized LIMS, laboratory staff can scan in all paper forms that arrive with the samples (special instructions, chain of custody (CoC), or any other documentation). This can be linked to the work order and is easy assessable by anyone who has the appropriate permissions. The LIMS provides extensive options for tracking and maintaining all correspondence, the ability to attach electronic files, scanned documents, create locked PDFs of final reports, COAs (Certificate of Analysis), and CoCs.
Sample Handling and Acceptance
Laboratories are required to have a procedure that defines all processes that a sample is subjected to while in the possession of the laboratory. Some of these procedures will relate to sample preservation, holding time requirements, and the type of container in which the sample is collected or stored. Other information that must be tracked includes sample identification and receipt procedures, along with acceptance or rejection criteria at log-in. Sample log-in begins and defines the entire analysis and disposal process, therefore it is important that all sample storage, tracking and shipping receipts as well as sample transmittal forms (CoC) are stored, managed and maintained throughout the sample’s analysis to final disposal. To summarize, the laboratory should have written procedures around the following related to sample preservation:
Sample acceptance conditions
Holding timesShipping informationStorage
Results and Reporting
The LIMS must allow capture and tracking of data throughout the sample’s active lifetime. In addition, laboratories are also required to document, manage and maintain essential information associated with the analytical analysis, such as incubator and refrigerator temperature charts, and instrument run files/logs. Also important is capturing data from any log books, which would include the unique sample identifier, and the date and time of the analysis, along with if the holding time is 72 hours or less or when time critical steps are included in the analysis, such as sample preparations, extractions, or incubations. Capturing the temperature data can be automated such that the data can be directly imported into the LIMS. If there is an issue with the temperature falling outside of a range, an email can automatically be spawned or a message sent to a cell phone to alert the responsible party. Automation saves time and money, and can prevent many potential problems via the LIMS ability to import and act on real-time data.
If any instrumentation is used in the analysis, the following information must also be recorded in the instrument identification (to ensure that it is in calibration, and all maintenance and calibration records are current), operating conditions/parameters, analysis type, any calculations, and analyst identification. In addition to analyst identification, laboratories must also keep track of analyst training as it relates to their laboratory functions. For example, if an analyst has not been trained on a particular method or if their certification has expired, the LIMS will not allow them to enter any result into the LIMS for the method(s) that they have not been trained/certified to perform. The LIMS can also send automated alerts when the training is about to expire. Figure 1 shows a screen in the LIMS that manages training completed, scheduled, tests scores, and expiration dates of the training, along with the ability to attach any training certificates, exams, or any other relevant documentation. Laboratory managers can also leverage the LIMS to pull reports that compare analyst work quality via an audit report. If they determine that one analyst has a significant amount of samples that require auditing, they can then investigate if there is a possible training issue. Having immediate access to data allows managers to more rapidly identify and mitigate potential problems.
Another major area that a LIMS can provide significant benefit is around data integrity. There are four main elements of data integrity:
Documentation in the quality management system that defines the data integrity procedure, which is approved (signed/dated) by senior management.
Data integrity training for the entire laboratory. Ensures that the database is secure and locked and operates under referential integrity.
Detailed, regular monitoring of data integrity. Includes reviewing the audit trail reports and analyzing logs for any suspicious behavior on the system.
Signed data integrity documentation for all laboratory employees indicating that they have read and understand the processes and procedures that have been defined.
The LIMS will enhance the ability to track and manage data integrity training (along with all training). The LIMS will provide a definition of the training, the date, time, and topic (description); instructor(s); timeframe in which the training is relevant, reminders on when it needs to be repeated; along with certifications, quiz scores, copies of quizzes, and more. With many tasks, the LIMS can provide managers with automated reports that are sent out at regular time intervals, schedule training for specific staff, provide them with automatic notification, schedule data integrity audits, and to facilitate FDA’s CFR 21 part 11 compliance (electronic signatures). The LIMS can also be configured to automatically have reports signed and delivered via fax or email, or to a web server. The LIMS manages permissions and privileges to all staff members that require access to specific data and have the ability to access that data, along with providing a secure document control mechanism.
Laboratories are also required to maintain SOPs that accurately reflect all phases of current laboratory operations such as assessing data integrity test methods, corrective actions and handling customer complaints. Most commercial LIMS provide the ability to link SOPs to the analytical methods such that analysts can pull down the SOP as they are doing the procedure to help ensure that no steps are omitted. Having the SOPs online ensures that everyone is using the same version of the locked SOPs, which are readily available and secure.
Administrative Records, Demonstration of Capability
Laboratories are required to manage and maintain the following information on an analyst working in the laboratory: Personal qualifications and experience and training records (degree certificates, CV’s), along with records of demonstration of capability for each analyst and a list of names (along with initials and signatures) for all staff that hold the responsibility to sign or initial any laboratory record. Most commercial LIMS will easily and securely track and manage all the required personnel records. Individuals responsible for signing off on laboratory records can be configured in the LIMS to not only document the assignment of responsibility but also to enforce it.
Reference Standards and Materials
Because the references and standards that laboratories use in their analytical measurements affect the correctness of the result, laboratories must have a system and procedures to manage and track the calibration of their reference standards. Documentation that calibration standards were calibrated by a body that can prove traceability must be provided. Although most standards are purchased from companies that specialize in the creation of reference standards, there are some standards that laboratories create internally that can also be traced and tracked in the LIMS. Most commercial LIMS will also allow for the creation, receipt, tracking, and management of all supplies in an inventory module, such that they document the reference material identification, lot numbers, expiration date, supplier, and vendor, and link the standard to all tests to which it was linked.
The ISO 17025 Standard identifies the high technical competence and management system requirements that guarantee your test results and calibrations are consistently accurate. The LIMS securely manages and maintains all the data that supports the Quality Management System.
Key advantages of food testing laboratories that have achieved ISO 17025 Certification with a computerized LIMS that securely and accurately stores all the pertinent data and information:
Proof of ISO 17025 Certification eliminates the need for supplier audits, because the quality, capability and expertise of the laboratory have been demonstrated by the certification.
Knowledge that there has been an evaluation of the staff, methods, instrumentation and equipment, calibration records and reporting to ensure test results are valid.
Verification of operational efficiency by external auditors that have validated the quality, capability and expertise of the laboratory.
Defines robust quality controls for the selection and authentication of methods, analyzing statistics, controlling and securing data.
Clearly defines each employee’s roles, responsibilities and accountability.
Confidence that the regulatory and safety requirements are effectively managed and met in a cost efficient-manner.
In ongoing efforts to eliminate foodborne illness, the FDA recently issued the next step in rules designed for the enforcement of FSMA. The rules are aimed at modernizing food manufacturing processes after a wave of deadly outbreaks in the past decade stemming from contaminated cantaloupes, apples, spinach, lettuce, peanut butter, ice cream, cucumbers and other products. The rules require companies to draw up and implement written plans for keeping food safe. An important part of any food safety plan is the implementation of methods to verify that the controls put in place are working.
The food industry faces many challenges in meeting these new regulations. Two significant technical challenges for control verification are that the testing process takes too long and the sampling plans are often inadequate.
The pathogen testing process for all commercially available diagnostic tests requires an upfront culture or growth step to allow any pathogens present to multiply to a level that they can be detected by the test in use. This growth step, referred to by microbiologists as enrichment, is especially challenging in heavily processed foods and environmental samples, because the bacteria present in the sample have been stressed and are not in a rapid growth phase at the time of sampling. Advances in diagnostic sensitivity and robustness have reduced the amount of time required for enrichment from three or more days with traditional methods to about 24 hours on average with rapid methods. Even with rapidly growing and low-stress organisms such as E. coli O157:H7, enrichments take more than eight hours before implementing the diagnostic. The time required for this growth step creates a bottleneck in the production and distribution process. Although diagnostic companies are continuously improving the sensitivity of their methods and new methods are constantly being developed, there are practical limitations that have thus far prevented the elimination of the upfront culture step prior to testing. Historically, improvements in the sensitivity of rapid food pathogen diagnostics have been traded for time. In other words, having a more sensitive test means that fewer bacteria are needed for detection and therefore, less time is needed for bacteria to divide during the enrichment step. Some commercially available assays require as few as 1,000 to 10,000 target cells in the sample for detection. Since the purpose of the enrichment step is to increase the number of target pathogens in the sample to a detectable limit and bacteria reproduce by cell division, further diagnostic sensitivity improvements would need to be greater than ten-fold to have a significant impact on further reducing enrichment times.
Unreliable sampling methods are an even bigger issue for industry. An example demonstrating current practice is a field of 40,000 heads of lettuce with four (.01% of the total) heads of lettuce contaminated by a pathogen. The current best practice is to go into the field and collect 60 (.15% of the total) leaves from the heads of lettuce, mash them together and test them for contamination. The probability of this sampling method finding the four contaminated heads of lettuce in the sample is much less than 1%. When the undiscovered four heads of lettuce are washed with the other 39,996 heads of lettuce, cross contamination occurs and people get sick.
Technology advances that reduce or eliminate the requirement for enrichment and make the sampling process more reliable could have a big impact on improving control verification testing. But, those advances need to be delivered in a practical and affordable manner. I recently learned about a technology that has great potential to make improvements on both of these fronts, especially for the produce industry and any process that is able to use a wash step as a control point. The recently patented OmniFresh sampling system (developed by OmniFresh, LLC) concentrates a sample from the food processing wash water, allowing immediate testing representative of the food being processed. The concentration process is performed during the entire washing cycle for a lot and is consequently representative of the entire lot.
Concentration technology has been used for many years by academic researchers and scientists to collect samples for biological testing. Ultrafiltration methods for concentrating samples have typically used smaller sample sizes in the 1-10 liter range. The OmniFresh system allows for very large samples to be concentrated, typical volumes of 400 liters are concentrated to 50 ml.
The concentration process takes about one hour to complete after the first wash cycle. During processing, a side stream of water from the first wash tank is diverted to the concentrator unit. Tens to hundreds of gallons of wash water, depending on the size of the wash tank and the type and amount of produce being washed, flows into the concentrator. Throughout the sample collection period, large particulates are removed through a course filtration. Using ultra-filtration, bacteria and other small particles are isolated from the large volume of wash water into a much smaller, concentrated final sample. This concentrated sample can then be tested directly by a diagnostic test, eliminating the need for enrichment.1
The wash water in the tank comes into contact with all of the produce being washed, the majority of bacteria is removed from the produce, and it then enters the wash water.2-4 This process, combined with the continuous sampling of wash water, means that low levels of intermittent contamination can be detected without testing high numbers of samples. Field testing of the OmniFresh System has returned promising results. The ability to rapidly screen produce for contamination could also provide a practical lot definition instead of cumbersome field-based definitions that can impact multiple processors.
Improvements in sample preparation and sampling technologies have much to offer the industry. Improved sampling methods which are representative of entire lots identify contaminated food earlier and with high confidence. Additionally, the negative test result is of much higher quality and will result in an increase in the overall confidence of the food supply.
The OmniFresh technology is one example of the type of improvements that are needed. More research that focuses on these most challenging aspects of control verification testing is needed.
Dyer, M.A. (2009). “New biosensors for food safety screening solutions.” SPIE.
Beuchat, L. R., and Ryu, J.-H. (1997). “Produce Processing Practices,” Emerg. Infect. Dis 3 (4), 459-465.
Sapers, G. M, (2001). “Efficacy of washing and sanitizing methods for disinfection of fresh fruit and vegetable products,” Food Technol. Biotechnol. 39 (4), 305-311.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (1998). “Water: Control of Potential Hazards: Wash Water.” Chap. II.B.2.3 in Guide to minimize microbial food safety hazards for fresh fruits and vegetables, by US FDA.
What happens when a food company does not have an effective environmental monitoring program in place? The cost of failure can be significant, warns Prof. Ann Draughon, ranging from placing contaminated food in the markets, to managing product recalls, and businesses getting shut down.
Effective Environmental Monitoring, Sampling and Testing (EMS) Programs are absolutely necessary to protect our consumers, and make safe food, and are also required from a regulatory and food safety point of view, and to verify that our food safety programs are working.
In a recent webinar, Prof. Ann Draughon offered some insights on what happens when such an EMS program is not set in place – the cost of failure is much greater, and the repercussions can be severe, she warns.
What is on the horizon with EMS given the new regulatory landscape under the Food Safety Modernization Act and the proposed rules? Prof. Draughon talked about the Mandatory Preventive Controls described in Section 103 of the Act that lists the following controls that FDA will require:
Environmental monitoring programs;
Sanitation and cleaning requirements;
Mitigation of hazards; and
How will FSMA affect FDA’s regulatory sampling of food facilities and products? The volume of environmental samples will increase at a much higher rate than sampling for allergens or ingredients, she adds. And in order to meet such a high demand for environmental inspection and sampling, it will be important to have in place effective EMS programs. Prevention will be cost-effective and give companies the ability to detect and destroy the microorganism before they cause any issues. Prof. Draughon provided the following numbers as cost of reinspection: $224 per hour for domestic inspections, $325 per hour for foreign inspections, and cost of FDA reinspection in FY 2012 estimated to be around $21,000.
She described two case studies of companies that suffered bankruptcy, and business losses due to massive food safety related recalls, caused by inadequate or lack of environmental monitoring programs.
“This company is currently bankrupt due to a massive recall. While they had a great food safety plan, they did not back it up with a strong EMS program,” Prof. Draughon explained.
Speaking about the second company, she explained that the strong and capable leadership had done everything right for the company, but what went wrong? “There was a:
Lack of trend analysis of environmental data;
Lack of communication within company about any positives Listeria results;
Sporadic Listeria positives occurred – while the problem was fixed, they continue to reoccur and the source was never detected or fixed;
The company had a reactive EMS, but not proactive,” she explained.
What are some of the recurring problems due to ineffective EMS programs? Prof. Draughon listed these as:
Increased risk of recall;
Increase loss of product;
Increased liability exposure;
Build-up of pathogens and spoilage agents or chemicals in environment;
Lack of regulatory compliance; and
Reaction to problems, not prevention.
Based on this high cost of compliance, Prof. Draughon strongly recommended establishing an effective EMS program, which has the following attributes:
Focus on having the appropriate indicators and hazards;
Ensure the best procedures selected and validated;
Strong sampling plan, which is well-designed and dynamic;
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