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STOP Foodborne Illness
Food Safety Culture Club

Kellogg and Stop Share Strategies to Strengthen Food Safety Culture

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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STOP Foodborne Illness

With 37 facilities and close to 500 suppliers, Kellogg works with a large and diverse workforce. Over the years, the company has implemented several strategies to teach and reinforce good food safety practices. As a member of the Alliance to Stop Foodborne Illness, the company works with Stop to share what they have learned with fellow food industry professionals. We spoke with Sherry Brice, Chief Supply Chain Officer and former VP of Global Quality and Food Safety at WK Kellogg Company, and Vanessa Coffman, Ph.D., Alliance Program Director at Stop Foodborne Illness, to share their insights on training, rewards and free tools that can help food companies of all sizes enhance their food safety culture.

What are some of the strategies that Kellogg is using to strengthen its food safety culture?

Sherry Brice
Sherry Brice

Brice: Some of the things that Kellogg has implemented over the years—and every year we evolve—include a campaign called “Kellogg Food Safety Own It Every Day.” The campaign is about driving engagement at every level of the organization. We have behaviors that we expect of our employees at the frontline leadership level, the executive level and the management level. We provide training on engagement strategies to better articulate food safety culture, including the things they should recognize and how they should recognize them. We also do virtual reality trainings that help to educate our people. After education and engagement, the third pillar is recognition—recognizing and rewarding people around food safety culture.

Is food safety training part of all employee’s onboarding?

Brice: We do have onboarding for new employees. We also do quarterly and annual trainings, because doing it one time is not enough. You have to repeat, repeat, repeat. We have food safety videos that we have launched in partnership with Stop Foodborne Illness that include real life experiences and stories of people who have dealt with foodborne illness. These help team members internalize the training and personalize it, so they are thinking about the impact their actions have on the customers we serve every day. We use one of the videos for onboarding and also leverage them for our annual training and refresh trainings as well.

How did Stop Foodborne Illness get involved with Kellogg and what kind of resources are available for companies?

Vanessa Coffman, Ph.D.
Vanessa Coffman, Ph.D.

Coffman: Kellogg has been a member of the Alliance to Stop Foodborne Illness since 2021. We rely heavily on Sherry and her team’s insights in multiple work streams, one of which is the ever-growing video series that is posted to our food safety culture toolkit website, and these are all free and publicly available.

We created two customized videos with Kellogg, each featuring one of Stop’s constituent-advocates alongside a Kellogg executive. These remind employees why food safety is so important and emphasize the commitment that Kellogg has made to safe food. We’ve also worked together on gamified learning, leveraging some of the games that Kellogg uses in its training, and those can also be accessed in the toolkit that is free and publicly available.

Since Kellogg joined the Alliance, has that changed your training strategies or your recognition strategies?

Brice: Stop has given us access to their constituents, which really brings to life why food safety is so important at every level of the organization. Engagement with people who have been affected by foodborne illness is crucial to getting to the hearts and minds of employees, and emphasizing the importance what they do every day.

Since joining the Alliance, we have also added virtual reality to our trainings, starting with the most important one which is around sanitation. We created a virtual reality space where new employees—as part of onboarding—put the glasses on and go through our sanitation process. If you do not do the right step, it will not let you go forward. It’s a way to do hands-on training without having to actually be on the line.

The Alliance has been a great partner for Kellogg. It is an investment, but it is money well spent. When you hear the stories of their constituents, you cannot help but think, I never want a situation like that to be on my watch, what can I do to prevent this from happening?

Kellogg is a very large company. How do you ensure this training is happening and that you’re communicating a consistent message throughout the whole organization?

Ready to start improving your food safety culture? Join the Food Safety Culture Design Workshop on October 16, at the 2023 Food Safety Consortium.

Brice: We have a global quality council made up of members from regions around the globe. We all come together on that council to align and make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of what we are going to do to impact the broader organization, and then we disseminate that action out into the regions. This way, we ensure that we have the right ownership, and that everyone is clear on what needs to be done and how we’re going to do it. We also use the council to track and make sure that people are getting access to the videos and completing the training in the time that we have identified.

We created a toolbox tool that is crafted and geared toward Kellogg employees based on the region they’re in, and the council helps to disseminate that and then track that the work is being completed. We also incorporate this into our audit to make sure that people are internalizing the information and getting something out of it.

You mentioned training on engagement strategies, is that through role playing?

Brice: Yes, it really is about how to drive good behaviors, ownership, escalation and empowerment. If you’re a technician and you have to give feedback to a manager, that can really be intimidating, so we want to make sure we’re arming employees with the right tools. We do this in our training by simulating how to have these crucial conversations. If I go into a plant and I’m not following protocol, somebody is going to give me feedback, and I hope that they give it to me in the right way. We want to arm people with the knowledge on how to do that so that they’re comfortable giving that feedback no matter who they are.

Does Kellogg work with its suppliers to help train them as well?

Brice: We do work with our supply base and also our co-manufacturers (co-mans). Our co-mans get a lot of the same training that our plants get. We have an “owner” from the supplier management team that oversees each of the suppliers and that owner manages what training the supplier needs, depending on where that supplier is in their journey. We provide them with the toolbox from Stop, so they can leverage those resources. and we have found that very helpful because if that supplier has a great food safety culture that means we’re going to great materials. Likewise, if our co-mans have a great food safety culture then we feel more comfortable with what they’re producing for us.

In addition to the videos, what are some of the other ways that the Alliance to Stop Foodborne Illness partners with companies?

Coffman: The Alliance was formed in 2018, and we have worked with companies across the food system from farm to fork. We utilize the power of Stop Foodborne Illness constituents and their stories of foodborne Illness. These are people who survived a harrowing experience or the loved ones of those who did not. They will go onsite, take part in town halls, write down their stories and share them on our website, and they have also participated in the videos. We make customized videos for companies like Kellogg, and we’ve been able to leverage that content to create shorter videos that are more generic for the toolkit website.

We also work with companies to develop other materials. As Sherry mentioned, we have some gamified learning. People can download those games and tweak them to their own needs, and some of those have been provided by Kellogg. We’ve also been able to create communication plans based on the nearly 20 Alliance members’ experiences and food safety culture journeys, and we share those plans with the small and medium-sized companies at no cost.

Sherry mentioned recognition of employees, what are good ways to publicly recognize good work in protecting food safety?

Coffman: Like many aspects of food safety culture, it is going to be company dependent. You do want to solicit input from your employees before implementing a rewards program. For example, some people love employee of the month recognition, while others would rather not be publicly recognized. They would prefer a gift card or time off. If you go to our YouTube channel, you can watch some of our past webinars, including one on rewarding and recognition.

Brice: We implemented an “Achievers” platform. Through the platform, we give points to employees and those points can be used to purchase items. We also do on the spot recognition and recognition dinners. It depends on the situation and the person, but “Achievers” is our main recognition platform because we have found that our employees like this. They can trade their points in for a gift card, a T-shirt, a vacuum cleaner—there are many different things on the platform.

It is often said that every company has a food safety culture whether positive or negative, how do you go about assessing where you’re at to understand what you need to implement?

Brice: You can do this through surveys and small group sessions. Asking open-ended questions so people can provide content that helps you understand truly where you’re at and listening are important. Anonymous surveys maybe the best place to start because people may not be very open to speaking up during a small groups. The surveys help you understand where you’re at and what areas do you need to focus on first. Stepping back and looking at what’s happening every day in the company will also give you an understanding of where your company is. How do people feel about stopping a line if they see an issue? Are they comfortable speaking up?

Coffman: Assessment isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. It has to be carefully thought out and will vary from company to company and even from location to location within the same company. I would like to add that assessment without action is fruitless. If you put forth the time and effort to collect and analyze data, you must take action.

Once you’ve done your assessment and are ready to improve your food safety culture, what are some of the steps you can take to get started?

Coffman: We have a page on our toolkit website dedicated to this, and it leverages learning from our 20 Alliance members from across the industry, looking at both the successes and the bumps they’ve encountered. It is going to look different for each company so I encourage everyone to go to the toolkit website and look at the Plan Your Journey tab.

Brice: The best plan includes people from all areas of the organization. You don’t want just the manufacturing base or the managers, you need to understand why people have the behaviors they have today and what needs to change. If all employees or departments feel that they have ownership in the plan, then the plan will come to fruition faster, and you’ll also create food safety champions along the way.

 

 

 

Rochester Midland

Peak Rock To Acquire Rochester Midland Corporation

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Rochester Midland

An affiliate of private investment firm Peak Rock Capital has signed a definitive agreement to acquire Rochester Midland Corporation (RMC), in partnership with RMC’s founding family and management team.

Founded in 1888, RMC is a leading supplier of specialty chemical products and value-added services across water energy, food safety, facility hygiene and other applications. The company works with thousands of businesses worldwide across diverse end markets including food and beverage, healthcare, packaging and facility services. RMC is headquartered in Rochester, New York, with additional facilities in the U.S., Canada and U.K.

“RMC represents an exciting opportunity to invest in a supplier of mission-critical services that enable customers to operate safely and efficiently. We look forward to helping the company accelerate its growth trajectory while pursuing complementary acquisitions to extend RMC’s production capabilities, geographical presence, and service offerings,” said Jordan Campbell, Managing Director of Peak Rock.

 

Glen Ramsey
Ask The Expert

Ask the Expert: Why You Need to Pay Attention to Stored Product Pests

Glen Ramsey

With food safety as a top priority for your business, keeping all pests out should also be top of mind. Stored product pests are tiny insects that can quickly damage your products and lead to lost profits. Glen Ramsey, board-certified entomologist and Director of Technical Services for Orkin, explains how facilities can keep stored product pests out of their facilities and why quick action is essential to successfully managing these pests if your facility confirms an infestation.

What are stored product pests?
Ramsey
: Stored product pests are small insects, commonly beetles and moths, that feed on the ingredients in food manufacturing and handling facilities. These pests mainly target dry foods such as grains, cereals, seeds, chocolate and fruit. Depending on their feeding habits, they are categorized as external feeders, internal feeders, secondary feeders or scavengers.

Why are they harmful in food-handling facilities?
Ramsey
: While they don’t cause structural damage or spread diseases, stored product pests can cause significant damage to stored goods resulting in lost product and lost profits for your business. These pests breed rapidly, so it’s important to look for signs of their activity and act quickly if you notice their presence. In addition to damaging your ingredients, many stored product pests can produce chemicals that alter the taste of food, and some of their larvae can irritate the digestive tract or even cause allergic reactions in vulnerable people.

What prevention methods can I implement to help avoid this pest issue?
Ramsey
: Managing stored product pests takes a comprehensive strategy, which is where Integrated Pest Management (IPM) comes into play. Instead of relying on chemical treatments, IPM focuses on a proactive cycle of inspection, sanitation and monitoring tactics. Here are a few ways you can be proactive in helping to prevent stored product pest problems in your facility between pest control visits:

Storage

  • Store ingredients off the floor and at least 18 inches away from walls to allow access for staff to inspect and clean the area.
  • As a precaution, remove any products that are damaged or found in poor condition.
  • Try to maintain storage rooms at 55 degrees Fahrenheit or lower; stored product pests are generally inactive at these lower temperatures.

Sanitation

  • Use a vacuum with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to remove debris from cracks and crevices.
  • Immediately clean up any product spills and encourage employees to do the same.
  • If you haven’t yet, start a continuous deep-cleaning program to ensure that every shelf is inspected, vacuumed and wiped down at least twice per year.

Ingredient Care

  • Inspect incoming shipments for signs of pests, such as webbing, larvae and live adult insects. Pay close attention if your packaging material has been damaged, as this can alert to product infestations.
  • If any suspicion of activity is seen, even only on the surface of the product, use a grain probe or similar instrument to inspect and determine the extent of the infestation.
  • Quarantine known infested product away from clean product.
  • Set aside a sample of every shipment in a closed, labeled plastic container. If insects appear over time, immediately quarantine and inspect any remaining product and notify your supplier.
  • Rotate ingredients on a first-in, first-out basis to help prevent them from deteriorating and inviting scavengers and secondary feeders.

When it comes to monitoring and managing stored product pests in your facility, you should work with a pest management provider. Make sure the provider you select is reliable and knowledgeable about the food and beverage processing industry.

 About the Expert:

Glen Ramsey, MS, BCE
Director of Technical Services, Orkin, LLC

Glen Ramsey is Director of Technical Services for Orkin. He is a board-certified entomologist and provides technical support and guidance across all Rollins brands in the areas of training and education, operations, and marketing. For more information, email gramsey1@rollins.com or visit www.orkincommercial.com.

Ana Allende
Food Genomics

Listeria Contamination Patterns in Produce Processors

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Ana Allende

A study published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems (May 2023) looked at Listeria monocytogenes (Lm) contamination patterns in three produce processing facilities—one with a cut iceberg lettuce line, one with a cut fruit line and one with a salad bowl line. Lead author Ana Allende, Ph.D., and her team from the CEBAS-CSIC research institute in Spain also tested biocides against resident Lm populations to gauge efficacy and potential loss of sensitivity.

The two-year project was designed to yield practical data about produce facilities’ environmental monitoring plans as well as the efficacy of sanitation programs.

Their first objective was to understand how different factors such as zoning, sanitary design and connectivity affected the probability of contamination in different fresh produce processing facilities. In the case of salad bowls, the ingredients included not only leafy greens and other vegetables but also proteins from meat, fish and cheese, or pastas from different sources.

The researchers divided the processing areas into three zones based on their proximity to contact with the produce. Zone 1 involved areas with direct contact, such as knives and conveyor belts. Zone 2 included surfaces that did not contact food but were in close proximity. Zone 3 included more remote noncontact surfaces, such as drains, floors and ceilings, that could potentially lead to contaminating zones 1 and 2.

The researchers conducted systematic sampling of the facilities at the end of the day before cleaning and sanitizing. They also resampled the three processing lines after the cleaning and disinfection activities. In addition to the more than 600 total samples from the three zones, the researchers collected 45 samples from raw ingredients and end products.

Findings

Regardless of the facility, the highest number of positive Lm samples came from Zone 3. Whole genome sequencing revealed that the same two serotypes of Lm were found on the three processing lines after the two samplings, before and after cleaning.

“This makes us understand that these serotypes are inherent and are moving from zone 3 to zone 1,” said Allende.

When evaluating the efficacy of biocides against resident Lm isolates, “we found, indeed, all of the isolates obtained from the environment after cleaning were sensitive to the biocides,” she said.

While the research aimed to provide relevant results for the three cooperating produce processors, it also has broader implications for the produce industry about how they should conduct environmental monitoring including sampling after processing just before cleaning, Allende said. In addition, it should help processors better understand the main contamination points in zone 1 and how they relate to identical or similar Lm sequence types in zones 2 and 3.

“One of the hypotheses we had was the raw material was introducing much of the Listeria,” she said. “This was before we did sampling and the whole genome sequencing to understand the isolates and that they were not all coming from the raw material. Some of the contamination was probably coming from zone 3 in the different processing facilities.”

Image: Ana Allende, Ph.D.

Frank Meek, Orkin
Ask The Expert

Ask the Expert: Keeping Flies Out of Your Facility

Frank Meek, Orkin

Food companies have to manage a variety of pests seeking harborage, food, water and other resources in their facilities. Among these pests, flies can be some of the most difficult to manage. Frank Meek, technical services manager for Orkin and board-certified entomologist with 36 years’ experience in the food industry, shares strategies to you can take to mitigate the risk of flies in your food facility.

Why are flies such a problem for food companies? 

Meek: Flies are prolific breeders, carriers of multiple potential pathogens, vectors of contamination and a costly pest for food manufacturing and processing facilities if not handled appropriately. One female fly can create hundreds of eggs in five or six days and potentially introduce many microorganisms and pathogens. 

Which types of flies pose the greatest risk to food establishments?

Meek: The types of flies most likely to impact food-handling establishments are:

  • “Filth” flies, which can transmit bacteria and other pathogens to surfaces
    • Attracted to odors first, then food waste, organic build up, sewage and feces
    • g., house flies and blow flies
  • “Nuisance” flies, which typically do not transmit pathogens, but can still cause harm
    • Attracted to overripe or decaying fruits, vegetables or other organic materials
    • g., fruit flies, drain flies and phorid flies

How can you keep flies from entering your facility?

Meek: Flies don’t need a lot of space to get in and out of buildings. They typically enter buildings through frequently opened doors and improperly sealed openings such as drains/pipes, ventilation systems and windows. Because of this, exclusion—using preventive methods to help eliminate pest entry points—will help to keep flies out.

  • Seal any unplanned cracks, holes and crevices as soon as you notice them to avoid pests accessing your building.
  • Seal all doors and windows with weather stripping.
  • Limit direct lighting around the entrances of your facility.
  • If you must have lighting near the entrances, use sodium-vapor light bulbs, as these are less appealing to insects than fluorescent bulbs (which draw pests in, especially at night) or indirect lighting.

The best way to deter flies is to seek a pest control provider that offers an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program. A successful IPM program is proactive, environmentally conscious and addresses the reasons pests are attracted to your facility. IPM is a team effort between you and your pest control provider. Once implemented, your IPM program should be reviewed at least annually with your pest management professional to ensure continued improvement.

How can facilities improve sanitation methods to prevent infestations?

Meek:  Ensure you have a rigorous sanitation routine that addresses high and low pest-pressure areas within your facility. If you already have a schedule, work with your pest control provider to review it so it includes the following:

  • Keep dumpsters and trash cans as far away from the facility as possible.
  • Work with your waste management company to routinely clean or rotate your dumpster.
  • Install odor control devices where needed to eliminate foul smells that might attract flies.
  • Remove trash, debris and food from areas like employee lockers or breakrooms multiple times throughout the day.
  • Keep tight lids on interior trash receptacles, change the liners daily and regularly clean out the bottom of the bins.
  • Sanitation teams should also regularly clean machinery that handles food, as joints and crevices can build up organic matter and attract pests.

If you have a fly infestation, how do you get control of that and reduce future issues?

Meek: There are several steps you can take to control and prevent infestations. They include:

  • Sanitation Routine: should be rigorous to help eliminate fly eggs, habitats and attractants
    • Work with your pest control provider to review your current cleaning program and make any needed changes to frequencies.
    • At times, non-residual and / or residual pesticide application may be needed to help reduce populations
  • Traps and Fly Lights: monitor the efficiency of your overall fly control program, but they are not a complete control option
    • Mechanical traps can be used in many areas of your facility. Your pest control provider can work with you to determine the best locations and type of device needed.
    • Installing fly lights will allow you to monitor fly activity.
  • Employee Training: can help catch pest issues before they become a bigger problem
    • Work with your pest control provider to train your staff on how to spot and report signs of pest activity.
    • Most pest control providers offer complimentary staff training that clarifies the role your employees play in preventing pest infestations.

Want to learn more about how flies can affect food-handling businesses and what you can do to protect your products and employees? Download Orkin’s No Fly Zone Fly Prevention for Food Processors ebook.

 

Charles Giambrone

Detection, Remediation and Control of Biofilms

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Charles Giambrone

Biofilms, those slimy films of bacteria that cling to surfaces, can wreak havoc on your equipment and harbor dangerous pathogens that contaminate your products. And they are not easy to detect or remove. Charles Giambrone, Food Safety Manager, Rochester Midland, shared strategies for the detection, remediation, and control of biofilms at the Food Safety Tech Hazards Conference in April.

“Biofilms are how microbes look to survive in nature and within your food plant,” said Giambrone, “and they can form quickly—within 13 hours.”

Biofilms form on any equipment with a large surface area and, in addition to contaminating food, they can damage equipment. “Once you get biofilms on the conveyor belts, you have slippage,” said Giambrone. “Just as biofilm plague will rot your teeth, biofilms form acid that corrode equipment. Eliminating biofilms can increase performance and prolong the lifespan of equipment.”

Detection of Biofilms

If you are seeing any of the following, it is a sign that you have a biofilm(s) in your facility:

  • Sporadic out of spec environmental test results
  • Rainbow appearance on stainless steel
  • Decreased shelf life of product
  • Increased bacterial count in finished product
  • Spike in bacterial counts that disappear and reappear

“When you get these spikes, where the bacterial count goes down and then whips up, that is a biofilm,” said Giambrone.

Where Biofilms Like to Lurk

The most common areas for biofilm formation include dead legs, slow-moving water lines, conveyors, floors, drains, pipeline or filler gaskets, and pump valves and gasket junctions. “You must do periodic tear downs to clean gasket junctions because the CIP (clean in place system) cannot reach these areas,” he said.

Control and Remediation

Removal of biofilms requires mechanical action as well as the application of strong chemicals applied for a lengthy contact time. “You need to detach the biofilm from its surface with mechanical action,” said Giambrone. “The irreversible adhesion of biofilm prevents a CIP system’s shear flow rate forces from properly stripping biofilm from a surface.”

High water temperatures (based on the specific cleaner you are using) are necessary for removal, but Giambrone cautioned against use of the FDA-approved temperature of 180 degrees F. “You want hot water—about 130 degrees F—not scalding (180 degrees F), because scalding water fixes the protein to the surface making it harder to clean, and it’s also a safety hazard,” he said, noting that contact time is also important. “Increased contact time of cleansers/sanitizers will yield better results.”

The goal of your biofilm removal process is to detach biofilms from the surface, break down the community into small components via detergents, surfactants, and mechanical action, and then completely destroy the detached subsections via true oxidative sanitizers: PAA, chlorine or ozone.

Additional risk factors for biofilm formation include:

  • Extended run operations
  • Dry cleaning only during the week
  • Equipment cleaned daily but not with a stringent regimen to remove biofilms
  • Walls and drains not cleaned every 24 hours

The agents Giambrone recommended for biofilm remediation include: Chlorinated alkaline cleaners, acidic cleaners, EDTA (chelating agents), which remove minerals from biofilm matrix—“These are very effective in removing the biofilm from the surface,” he said—and enzymatic cleansers.

 

 

Abby Snyder

Superheated “Dry” Steam: A Potential Sanitizer for Produce

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Abby Snyder

Superheated Steam (SHS) may offer dry facilities a new, effective option to destroy pathogens on produce harvesting, processing, and packing tools. SHS differs from the visible, wet steam vapor emitted by a tea kettle in that it is invisible and acts like a hot gas at super-high temperatures. Applied to surfaces, SHS has been shown to kill pathogens without leaving moisture or condensation. However, little is known about its performance on a pilot scale.

A new research project from Abby Snyder, Ph.D., of Cornell University hopes to fill this void. As part of her research, titled “Practical application of superheated steam to harvesting, processing, and produce packing tools and equipment,” Dr. Snyder is evaluating how well SHS works and how current tools need to be improved to better support the produce industry.

She also plans to address other considerations, including cost, range of applications, wear and tear on equipment, changes to ambient relative humidity and worker safety.

“It’s a really tough problem to solve,” Dr. Snyder said. “We wanted to bring some practical assessments to our academic research to better understand whether these tools would be useful to the industry.”

Joining her as co-principal investigator is V.M. Balasubramaniam, Ph.D., with Ohio State University, who brings expertise in food and agricultural engineering. “He’s an important collaborator because the project is at the intersection of produce safety and process engineering,” said Dr. Snyder, whose background is microbial food safety. “This is an interdisciplinary approach to developing novel sanitation technology.”

The researchers are using portable pilot-scale roll-along and backpack units fabricated by a collaborating manufacturer. As part of the project, they reviewed Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines and developed worker safety and operator compliance training.

Initial trials looked at thermal distribution across stainless steel coupons—or discs—at ambient temperatures using three different coupon thicknesses and three different nozzle distances. Temperatures at the contact point ranged from 170 to 320 degrees C (338 to 608 degrees F), depending on nozzle distance. The researchers plan to conduct similar tests with concrete coupons as well as ones made of materials used in picking bags.

Although SHS doesn’t use large amounts of water, it is unknown whether prolonged use of the technology could change ambient relative humidity in enclosed spaces, depending on size and ventilation. As part of the project, Dr. Snyder said they will look at whether those relative humidity changes could potentially lead to condensation with extended SHS use. They also plan to characterize how rapidly temperature dissipates across surfaces.

One of the project’s objectives is to better understand how much the industry would be willing to pay for SHS technology. To that end, Dr. Snyder is conducting an online survey that proposes different scenarios.

Because SHS doesn’t use large amounts of water, the technology could offer the produce industry potential water savings in addition to more sanitation options.

 

Wiping down table
Food Safety Culture Club

Norovirus Season Is Here: Foodservice Actions To Help Prevent Outbreaks

Wiping down table

Cases of norovirus are reaching new highs, necessitating a review of preventive measures for retail food establishments. After experiencing a lull during the first two years of the pandemic, norovirus cases came surging back in the first quarter of 2022, with outbreaks peaking at over 100 per week in late February, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.[1] Last week, the CDC updated its NoroSTAT page showing a similar increase happening over the past four weeks.

“It’s not a coincidence that U.S. norovirus cases dropped to historic lows in 2020 and 2021, then came surging back as Americans began dropping their pandemic precautions this past spring,” said Chip Manuel, Ph.D., Food Safety Science Advisor, GOJO Industries. “People are fatigued by social distancing, isolation and masking, but it is important to remember that everyday practices like hand and surface hygiene help to control norovirus and many other infectious diseases.”

Food establishments can protect their customers from outbreaks by taking the following steps:

  • Keep sick employees home. 70% of norovirus outbreaks are caused by infected foodservice workers,[2]so preventing employees from coming to work sick with norovirus is an important step in preventing outbreaks in foodservice establishments.[3] Adopting sick leave policies and employee wellness screens will reduce the risk of a facility causing a foodborne illness outbreak. Employees that come to work sick can spread the virus to foods, surfaces, customers, and other employees.
  • Practice frequent proper hand hygiene and minimize bare-hand contact with food. Inadequate hand hygiene and bare-hand contact with foods are the most frequently encountered contributing factors to norovirus outbreaks.[4]Ensure bare-hand contact with foods is minimized by emphasizing proper glove use. More frequent handwashing, providing handwash stations, and providing alcohol-based hand sanitizers when soap and water are not available, are all best practices related to hand hygiene.
  • Disinfect high-touch surfaces regularly. Establishments should continue to disinfect high-touch surfaces since they have a direct carryover to controlling foodborne illnesses, especially norovirus. Examples include frequent disinfection of restroom door handles, handwash sink faucet handles, and restroom stall latches.
  • Clean before you sanitize. Proper surface sanitizing requires the surface to be cleaned first to remove all food debris, fats, oils, and other soils. The U.S. Food Code requires that all food-contact surfaces must be cleaned before the sanitizing step.[5]This ensures that the sanitizer solution will remain effective, as these soils can interfere with the sanitizer’s effectiveness.
  • Ditch the “rag and bucket” practice. Using a red bucket of sanitizing solution and a reusable cloth is a common way to sanitize tables in a restaurant. But research shows that reusable cloths can easily become breeding grounds for foodborne disease-causing bacteria.[6]They can then spread pathogens to other surfaces throughout the establishment. Sanitizer solution must be monitored throughout the day so it maintains a required concentration level and be changed out when the solution appears dirty, plus the cloths must be stored in the solution, laundered daily, and not used for multiple tasks. Switching to applying a food-contact sanitizer by spray bottle or a disposable wipe can reduce some of the risks associated with reusable cloths.
  • Use effective surface products with low toxicity that work quickly. Using ready-to-use products with short contact times (e.g., a minute or less for organisms of interest) can increase compliance with enhanced disinfection protocols, which help reduce the risk of an outbreak within a facility. These products also save your staff valuable time. The EPA categorizes products from I (highly toxic) to IV (very low toxicity.) If possible, select products rated as category IV to limit your staff and guests’ exposure to harsh fumes. When using higher toxicity products follow all “Cautions” noted on the product labeling, as these products may require handwashing after use and/or personal protective equipment, such as gloves, gowns, and eye protection during use.

“In 2022, the U.S. saw the largest number of norovirus outbreaks in more than 10 years, even though the 2021-2022 norovirus season peaked late (late February vs. early January),” said Hal King, Ph.D., Managing Partner, Active Food Safety and Founder/CEO, Public Health Innovations. “In 2023, we can expect even more norovirus infections will be circulating in our communities, and many of these infected persons will likely be workers and customers entering restaurants. The best means to reduce the risk of transmission of norovirus in restaurants is to continue to screen employees for wellness (with a focus on all foodborne disease signs and symptoms), continue disinfection of high-touch surfaces in the restaurant (especially the restroom areas), and ensure proper hand hygiene and glove use before, during, and after food preparation.”

 

References:

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Reporting and Surveillance for Norovirus: NoroSTAT.” https://www.cdc.gov/norovirus/reporting/norostat/index.html Accessed Dec. 12, 2022.

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Preventing Norovirus Outbreaks.” https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/norovirus/index.html Accessed Nov. 22, 2022.

[3] Duret, S., et al. Quantitative risk assessment of norovirus transmission in food establishments: evaluating the impact of intervention strategies and food employee behavior on the risk associated with norovirus in foods. Risk Analysis, 37(11), 2080-2106, 2017.

[4] Brown, L. G., et al. Outbreak characteristics associated with identification of contributing factors to foodborne illness outbreaks. Epidemiology and infection, 145(11), 2254–2262, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0950268817001406

[5] U.S. Food & Drug Administration, “Food Code 2017.” https://www.fda.gov/food/guidanceregulation/retailfoodprotection/foodcode/ucm595139.htm Accessed Nov. 22, 2022.

[6] Scott, E. and Bloomfield, S. 1990. Investigations of the effectiveness of detergent washing, drying and chemical disinfection on contamination of cleaning cloths. J. Appl. Bacteriol. 68: 279-283.

 

Jeff Chilton

What Food Manufacturers Can Learn from the Baby Formula Recall

By Jeff Chilton
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Jeff Chilton

Months after the most high-profile product recalls in U.S. history, grocery stores are replenishing their supplies of baby formula. While the news remains fresh in everyone’s memory, food manufacturers have an opportunity to reflect on the mistakes that brought about this tragic event.

Abbott Nutrition, which produces about one-fourth of the nation’s infant formula, will be associated with this year’s baby formula shortage for years because it failed on so many levels to keep products safe at its plant in Sturgis, Michigan.

Many of the factors behind this crisis could have been easily avoided or at least quickly corrected. Instead, it took a whistleblower to alert the FDA, citing falsified records, releasing of untested products, sanitation problems, information hidden from auditors, failure to take corrective actions, and traceability issues.

In addition to near irreparable damage to its brand, Abbott Nutrition and members of its executive team are facing regulatory actions, criminal prosecution, and lawsuits.

The formula recall offers an opportunity for food manufacturers to learn from Abbott’s mistakes and to prepare for intensified scrutiny from federal regulators. Let’s dive into some of the most important lessons learned from the Abbott baby formula recall.

Empower Employees
Your frontline employees are your best defense for maintaining food and workplace safety. Make sure they know they won’t face retaliation for reporting incidents. In Abbott’s case, the whistleblower talked about retaliation against employees for reporting food safety concerns. And some employees were afraid they might lose their jobs if they raised concerns.

Take Corrective Actions
A failure to take effective corrective action was a big issue across the board for Abbott and something that all companies find difficult to do. Unfortunately, in the food industry, it’s much more common to put a band-aid on a symptom than conduct a root cause analysis to identify a problem. Fix the root problem as soon as you discover it so you’re not fighting the same fire day after day.

Ensure Record-Keeping Integrity
This seems obvious, but many food manufacturers still don’t have a formalized process to maintain proper record-keeping practices. This process should be documented and shared when necessary with auditors, and there should always be a zero-tolerance policy to prevent falsified records.

Provide Audit Transparency
During the Abbott investigation and audits, there was a lack of transparency and a willingness to withhold information. This can be a fine line to walk. When your workers’ and customers’ health and safety are on the line, it’s critical to be as forthcoming as possible. When preparing for audits, there is the temptation to answer questions only when asked and to avoid volunteering additional information. However, this mentality can mask problems that will eventually come to light.

Establish Proper Sanitation Practices
Many food manufacturers fail to maintain, validate, and consistently implement proper sanitation procedures. Sanitation jobs can be challenging. They involve cold and wet processing environments and are usually worked during third shifts. Most companies struggle with an excessively high employee turnover in these positions. And with few workers on hand, they strive to prepare for the next shift in just a few hours. Maintaining sanitation procedures is a big challenge for many companies, but critical to delivering safe food products.

Validate Environmental Monitoring
Food manufacturers should have environmental monitoring programs in place where they test equipment and the processing environment for various pathogens. From food contact surfaces to areas inside the processing room—including floors, walls, and drains—to outside processing areas like break rooms and common hallways, it is imperative to identify the correct sites to sample, ensure adequate sampling frequency, and act when necessary based on the results.

Establish Traceability

Food manufacturers need to be able to trace all raw materials, packaging materials, processing aids, and anything else that goes into their finished product, as well as their shipping processes and destinations. Most companies have a good idea of where products are shipped, but they’re not as adept at tracing the raw materials and processing aids that come into their manufacturing facilities. That was one of the issues cited with Abbott Nutrition, and it’s a problem in the food industry.

Ensure Redundancy and Sustainability in the Supply Chain

Our country relies too much on just a few manufacturers to supply critical food supplies in too many areas. In the case of Abbott Nutrition, one major factory shutdown sent shockwaves through the industry and panicked consumers. Food manufacturers must have backup plans and processes in place in case of recalls, fires, tornados, floods, sabotage, or any other issue that might bring their operations to a halt.

These are some of the most prominent lessons we can all learn from Abbott’s missteps around their baby formula recall. The food industry must do as much as possible to ensure a safe and sustainable food supply. This means evaluating food safety and quality assurance systems to identify potential risks and reassessing programs to create a stronger food safety quality assurance system.

It’s also critical to develop a robust food safety culture across the entire company from the top down. Every manufacturer needs to be proactive in maintaining food safety. No company should rely on inspectors or auditors to discover their issues. They must anticipate questions and problems that can occur during audits through robust internal review processes. This not only allows them to pass their audits but also gives them the ability to proactively identify and address issues before they become major violations or national recalls that make headlines.

Listeria

Listeria Outbreak Response: Actions To Take Now

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Listeria

The CDC is currently investigating two Listeria monocytogenes outbreaks. An outbreak linked to deli meats and cheeses has led to 16 illnesses, 13 hospitalizations and one death. A multistate outbreak related to Brie and Camembert soft cheese products announced in September had led to six illnesses and five hospitalizations to date and a widespread product recall.

The CDC notes that it is difficult for investigators to identify a single food as the source of outbreaks linked to deli meats and cheeses, because Listeria spreads easily between food and the deli environment and can persist for a long time in deli display cases and on equipment.

We spoke with Chip Manuel, Ph.D., Food Safety Science Advisor at GOJO about steps retail food establishments should be taking now to reduce the risk of Listeria contamination in their facilities.

With the multi-state Listeria outbreak happening in delis, what should retail delis and deli departments be doing to reduce the potential spread of Listeria until a specific food is identified?

Manuel: Since Listeria is a hardy bacteria that thrives in many food products and conditions, it’s vital that food retailers and operators not only understand the conditions in which Listeria can persist but also ensure that conditions are kept which help to minimize its growth. These best practices include ensuring that proper hot/cold temperatures for holding food are maintained; cleaning and sanitizing refrigerators, display cases and frequently used kitchen equipment (especially deli slicers!); and maintaining the sanitary conditions of your establishment.

Listeria can be found in various nooks and crannies throughout a facility, including those hard-to-reach equipment parts, such as blades, cart wheels, and even grease catches and drains. Lack of frequent sanitation of these locations can increase the risk of Listeria cross-contaminating food contact surfaces in these settings. Therefore, it is vital to:

  • Evaluate the conditions of your facility, equipment and tools. Are there issues with standing water or cracked tiles? These are notorious for harboring Listeria biofilms and need to be replaced and repaired. Similarly, are your cleaning tools in good condition without cracks? If not, consider replacing these. Research has shown that cleaning tools in poor condition, especially squeegees, can become a source of contamination.
  • Ensure your sanitation program is up to speed. First, ensure you are choosing products that are effective against Listeria. Make sure you give your employees the time needed to clean and sanitize equipment effectively, especially larger pieces of equipment such as deli slicers. Make sure they have the tools and knowledge required to clean and sanitize these pieces of equipment, including specifically in nooks and crannies where Listeria can hide.
  • Ensure that deli slicers are maintained properly. Repair and/or replace any components of slicers that are in disrepair, as these can become harborage sites for Listeria. Ensure deli slicers are completely broken down for cleaning and sanitization as required by the local regulatory authority (usually every four hours for deli slicers operating at room temperature).
  • Minimize the use of high-pressure hoses within a deli environment. Research has shown these tools can spread Listeria throughout a facility (for example, if sprayed directly into a contaminated drain).
  • Check that display, storage and refrigerator or cooler cases are set to an internal temperature of 41˚F or lower while ensuring adequate airflow.
  • Ensure raw and ready-to-eat products are stored in separate areas. RTE products can become contaminated if stored under raw products (due to dripping, etc.)

Looking at the soft cheese outbreak, what can retail food environments do to reduce the risk of distributing contaminated product to consumers and identify and respond to potential Listeria contamination in these higher-risk cheese products?

Having a supplier verification program and managing incoming ingredients with approved suppliers and approved sources is critical—particularly for soft cheeses which are at higher risk for contamination. Purchase solely from approved sources with food safety programs in place. Ensure that food safety is always part of your supplier specifications and requirements, and work with your suppliers to understand their pathogen prevention and environmental programs. If possible, visit their facilities to get a sense for how well their food safety program is operating.

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