KANSAS CITY -- Safe food production is always top of mind for dairy processors. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million people get sick from foodborne diseases each year in the United States. Because of the higher prevalence of illnesses, the dairy industry is highly regulated, presenting high expectations for manufacturers.
“The control of pathogens in any production environment requires several key principles that work together to create a culture that fosters food safety,” said Mike Clark, global marketing manager for Bio-Rad, Hercules, Calif. “Some of these principles include Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), effective cleaning and sanitation, control of moisture, and a good pathogen environmental monitoring system.”
The key pathogens of concern in dairy production are Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, Cronobacter sakazakii, as well as other pathogens such as Bacillus cereus, Staphylococcus aureus and Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli, according to Mr. Clark.
Suppliers, such as Bio-Rad, have created solutions to help manufacturers stay at the forefront of safe food production. Bio-Rad’s molecular and chromogenic agar testing helps deliver results for raw ingredients, finished product and environmental surfaces. They continue to develop new solutions to address the ongoing need for detection and enumeration of microorganisms.
“There are several emerging technologies that can support the control of pathogens such as whole genome sequencing, metagenomics, sensors, Blockchain, etc.,” Mr. Clark said. “Unfortunately, pathogens cannot be controlled with a single process or a single technology. Pathogen control in any environment is a hands-on, proactive approach that requires multiple tools working together to provide usable data. The most important part of this equation is being able to convert all the data to usable knowledge to help control pathogens.”
Impacts of pathogens and other contamination in consumables is more visible than ever. In 2019, The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy released expanded guidance recommendations on how to control pathogens for processors.
The 90-page guide, “Controlling Pathogens in Dairy Processing Environments: Guidance for the U.S. Dairy Industry,” was authored by a team of dairy industry and sanitary design experts. It built upon previous guidance that focused on Listeria monocytogenes to include best practices to control Salmonella and Cronobacter Sakazakii. The guide included checklists the dairy industry can use to improve existing food safety programs to ensure adequate control of environmental pathogens.
Pathogens are an ongoing concern when figuring out how to manage risks, including how to assess food safety culture in the dairy plants themselves. Ecolab, St. Paul, Minn., which specializes in water, hygiene and infection prevention solutions and services, has been working with its customers to address those concerns.
“Lately customers have been changing their product mix which involves new equipment and new risks,” said Rick Stokes, area technical support manager for Ecolab. “We work with them as part of the sanitary design review process to make sure the equipment is designed appropriately for sanitation. If there are new risks, like allergens, we work with the plants to guide them on how to set up a robust allergen management program.”
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 put a spotlight on pathogen control in food production. Although it is a respiratory virus, not a food-borne virus (which needs a live animal or human host to survive and multiply), continued assertions made by Chinese health officials and state media suggested traces of the virus on imported frozen food or frozen food packaging may have been the source of the June outbreak of COVID-19 in Beijing and even of China’s initial outbreak in Wuhan in December 2019.
A joint statement issued in February by the Food and Drug Administration, the US Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention underscored “there is no credible evidence of food or food packaging associated with or as a likely source of viral transmission” of the virus causing COVID-19.
“Our confidence in the safety of the US food supply remains steadfast,” the agencies said. “Consumers should be reassured that we continue to believe, based on our understanding of currently available reliable scientific information, and supported by overwhelming international scientific consensus, that the foods they eat and food packaging they touch are highly unlikely to spread SARS-CoV-2.” The statement was attributed to then Acting Secretary of Agriculture Kevin Shea and Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, MD.
The International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods affirmed, “Despite the billions of meals and food packages handled since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, to date there has not been any evidence that food, food packaging or food handling is a source or important transmission route for SARS-CoV-2 resulting in COVID-19.”
While concern for food safety related to COVID-19 was tempered, the conversation quickly pivoted to the protection and wellbeing of employees in production facilities.
“The virus should be killed at the same temperatures of other food-borne pathogens including viruses,” said Mr. Clark. “The high risk lies with the production workers and protecting them. Providing proper PPE is not enough. Educating and re-educating employees on proper GMPs including hand washing is important.”
FMI, The Food Industry Association, announced in March the establishment of the Food Protection Committee to establish intiatives regarding food safety.
“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be understated with regard to the food industry,” wrote Hilary Thesmar, PhD, RD, CFS, chief food and product safety officer and senior vice president, Food Safety for FMI, in a blog post on the organization’s website. “While there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted via food, there is a need for food safety professionals to apply their knowledge of controlling microorganisms to help control viral transmission during this pandemic.”
Cleaning and sanitation took on a new level of importance as well as employee health programs, both of which have long been in existence to help reduce foodborne illness transmission, according to Thesmar.
Ecolab’s Food and Beverage division was initially focused on ensuring their antimicrobials, which were already approved for Emerging Pathogens, was on the appropriate list to ensure effectiveness to inactivate the SARS-CoV-2 virus. They also worked with the EPA to follow all the protocols to provide data on additional products to be put on the EPA’s register for products that are effective against SARS-CoV-2, known as List-N.
“To help the industry adapt to the changes that were brought about in the last year we found that frequent communication was the key,” Mr. Stokes said. “Our early efforts were focused on educating a broad audience about how COVID-19 would or would not change their existing practices in the manufacturing plants.”
The challenges that have arisen during the pandemic accelerated the need for action in pathogen control, especially at the highest levels. In July 2020, the FDA announced its “New Era of Smarter Food Safety.”
“The world around us is changing rapidly; many believe we will see more changes in the food system over the next 10 years than we have in decades,” the agency said. “To keep pace with this evolution, FDA is taking a new approach to food safety, leveraging technology and other tools to create a safer and more digital, traceable food system.”
The FDA will work over the next decade on goals to enhance traceability, improve predictive analytics, respond more rapidly to outbreaks, address new business models, reduce contamination of food and foster the development of stronger food safety cultures. It outlines a partnership between government, industry and public health advocates to create a more modern approach to food safety.
“Our ultimate goal is to bend the curve of foodborne illness in this country by reducing the number of illnesses,” the agency said.
New and emerging technologies have played a key role over the last year in keeping operations running smoothly during a turbulent time.
Ecolab began providing remote support to local teams when the pandemic started, when their subject matter experts were not able to hop on a plane to be where they were needed in-person due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“We used mixed reality technologies, like the Microsoft HoloLens 2 and Remote Assist application to continue to bring that expertise to the local team,” Mr. Stokes said. “The development of this technology has allowed us to respond even faster to urgent events. We have used these technologies to hunt for microbial harborage sites, identify CIP sanitation failures, troubleshoot membrane cleaning efficiency and optimize lubrication systems.”
Digitizing and embracing new technology for more optimized monitoring of the supply chain is an important step and necessary step in the manufacturing process for the dairy industry. However, it comes with risk.
“The newer technologies produce a lot of information that not only improves a production facility’s ability to control pathogens, but also improves traceability of the supply chain,” Mr. Clark said. “Simplifying anything leads to complacency. No matter what emerging technology or trend is integrated into a food safety program it is no match for complacency.”
This story is featured in the April 2021 issue of Dairy Processing.