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Taking a systematic approach to managing food safety risk

04 February 2019

Fabrizio Tardioli comments on how to maintain effective control of food-borne pathogens in the production process. 

Food safety is a critical concern in food production. Every other element becomes secondary to the risk of a cross-contamination event. Risk can come from potentially pathogenic cross contaminations, or from cross-contamination that might alter the shelf life or the sensorial and quality parameters of a product.

There is no food production business that doesn’t have and ethical and legal responsibility to maintain the highest standards of hygiene. There is also no part of an operation where the threat is diminished. Statistics only confirm this: in 2015, 40% of food product recalls were due to microbiological contamination.

Improving analytical techniques and better detection systems, that were not previously available may explain why the number of cases of food-borne pathogens appears higher, but they are also the reason it is not a fair comparison. There is also the impact of an increased volume of controls applied both by the industry, the retailers and the authorities to take into account. Similarly, any comparison of recorded rates for Listeriosis in countries across Europe needs qualification. Figures convey the seriousness of the problem, yet simultaneously highlight the countries where systems of identification are more advanced and industry standards might be stricter, as much as they are a definitive indicator of any national hierarchy of risk. 

There has been research to determine both the speed of, and potential for, contamination at a new chicken processing facility – initially declared completely free of Listeria – to determine how long it would take for Listeria to gain a presence and what would cause the spread. The risks become clear when results show that within four months, persistent strains of Listeria were established in the drains  and this remained despite having in place all Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and control methods. The incoming chicken meat was the primary source and it was shown that Listeria could become easily aerosolised in the facility - even from an intermittent two second spray of water. 

With Listeria there is no one single source of contamination that a food processing facility can concentrate on. If this were the case the focus of checks and controls would be a relatively straightforward process. However, listeria can contaminate final food products due to a number of different causes, such as an ineffective hygiene regime and where personal hygiene practices are not followed systematically amongst staff. With no discernible difference in food appearance and without a taste, or smell to help suggest that anything is untoward, contamination can continue to develop despite continued product refrigeration. It can also carry on growing in the processes of transportation, warehousing, or in-store display, to amplify the risk of illness for the consumer. 

Even with the best of intentions it only takes a tiny breach of hygiene protocols and site-wide procedures to lead to an outbreak which creates a negative spiral that it is difficult to escape from. 

It is important to be proactive and employ a solution that encompasses a total approach. There are places in a processing facility that harbour Listeria or where risks will be more prevalent, such as in cold and wet environments - cold rooms, chillers, and anywhere that condensation occurs, including drip trays where bacteria can multiply. There is also the risk of Biofilm which allows protection of many bacteria species and often acts as a primary point for the infection to be spread across the facility or on machinery. 

Eradication relies on killing the bacteria, as well making sure all sources of infection and conditions for the bacteria to become prevalent in the environment are properly managed. There is no magic bullet. A systemic approach involves the education of cleaning staff about the proper procedures for control of particular pathogens, in addition to core protocols of cleaning and disinfecting. 

What should a systemic approach to food safety and hygiene deliver? A collaborative, consultative partnership is key. Everyone has the potential for an incident of cross contamination to occur. They typically happen when one of the control elements is not itself properly controlled. Maybe an excess of confidence has lulled operators into a false sense of security? When there has been no issue for a long period of time a lapse might occur because the regime unconsciously becomes more relaxed. 

The food processing industry has a very high turnover of staff. Ensuring that all are kept up to date with training is a challenge and can result in a lack of effectiveness in applying the cleaning process and GMPs. However, there can be one or any number of issues, in addition to a breach in application, including a lack of focus on maintaining the right temperature or a cleaning regime that has not been designed as sufficiently rigorous. There is a broad consensus that the difference revolves around control. Maintaining hygiene in a processing plant is a combination of defined tools and procedures but also specific knowledge of elimination and the control of pathogens.

A matter of data
Data is often cited as the answer in managing operational safeguards. A system-wide technology solution that combines food safety and big data is a target of much industry excitement and focused development. Improvements in data analysis are only one aspect. Driving food safety from the management of your many data sources to generate vital insight, requires alignment of all figures involved – including, temperature, normative quality, microbiological and hygiene results. There is so much data generated from disparate data sources - new applications, new sensors, or developments in real-time microbiology – all of which need integrating to deliver one version of the truth.  

The number of sources and volume of data are only likely to increase. Compliance to new regulation and the introduction of new processes, as well as uncharted reach and depth in supply chains, calls for ever more complex risk assessments requiring extra inspections and audits. In this context, control over food supply and production chains, thereby strengthening overall food safety measures, is even more vital.  Hundreds of ingredients which may come from countries applying a different hygiene standard to your own levels of compliance may need to be stored and shipping products to distant locations means it may require a longer shelf life. 

Monitoring food safety becomes a huge task when contamination can occur at any point across these extended global food chains. 

A consultative approach
Early detection and rapid response are the holy grail for the food processing industry. Adopting the correct systematic approach will help ensure food safety and operational efficiency. A system which identifies exactly where problems may occur before they actually do is key.

Starting with a comprehensive appraisal of different aspects of your facility – from production to final product storage - all elements of your processes should be checked. Statistics and data analysis from this then identify the areas within the process that have the potential to harbour and promote the spread of microorganisms. 

Such a diagnostic tool can help improve and maintain food safety standards during the manufacturing process. Monitoring progress over a specified time you can measure the impact and effectiveness of corrective actions, reducing the risk of contamination by implementing the recommendations made to drive efficiencies in utility, chemicals and labour. A tailor-made plan created during the process simplifies the management of food safety and hygiene throughout your site. 

Prioritising areas of improvement and taking action and benchmarking the business against industry performance tools will ultimately reduce the microbiological burden on the final product. The value of this solution is in being preventative rather than predictive. As an operational solution it should evolve and provide industry-specific models for pathogens and food groups. 

It is always better to be safe than sorry. Mitigating the risk of the constant threat of pervasive pathogens will make a facility a safer environment and, if a problem does arise, will ensure that you are in control.

Fabrizio Tardioli is global food safety solutions director for Diversey.

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