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April 15, 2015

Research Suggests In-House Testing is the Future of Food Safety

  • Food Safety

By InstantLabs

By Michael Wiederoder

The recent Listeriosis outbreak linked to caramel apples at the end of 2014 serves as a reminder that outbreaks of foodborne illness, like death and taxes, are an inevitable part of life. Events like these put pressure on food manufacturers to monitor product safety at all points of the processing chain, from acquisition, handling, processing, packaging, storage, and distribution. A recent paper titled “Better Food Safety Practices” written by Dr. Y. Martin Lo for the Journal of Food Science and Nutrition discusses these challenges. It emphasizes the need for industry to conduct their own microbial testing of food products and contact surfaces. Unfortunately, many companies do not have the capability to conduct in-house testing due to the perceived high costs and instead send products to commercial labs that can take 4-7 days to return results. This reluctance to invest causes lost product due to long holding periods and prevents the food processor from fully understanding the problems in their facility leading to the possibility for reoccurring problems.
In addition to external lab testing, many food processors currently employ Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) test swabs and visual inspection to evaluate surface sanitation. While these tests are helpful, they rely on representative sampling that is biased by the user to test only some areas and equipment. They also fail to differentiate between biological material left behind during cleaning and more dangerous reservoirs of microbial growth that can harbor pathogens. By not testing for specific microbial species, a wealth of information is lost that could be very helpful to minimize future problems.
The good news is that technology is continuing to evolve so that minimal benchtop space and relatively little training is required to realize self-sufficient microbial testing. Small DNA based detection kits using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) can identify specific microorganisms of interest such as Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, or Listeria in as little as 8-24 hrs. These kits provide easy to interpret computer readouts and enable screening of many samples at the same time to help identify which specific ingredient or piece of equipment might cause problems. In addition to PCR test kits, there are a myriad of new products developed and sold every year to improve testing capabilities for food processors.
While obtaining my Master’s degree in Food Science at the University of Maryland, College Park I saw first-hand the benefits of in-house testing programs to minimize risk. For my research I inspected a fresh-cut produce processing plant with a novel fluorescence-based camera to identify potential reservoirs for microbial growth. Each visit we would find new problem areas identified by the camera and by microbial testing. For each subsequent visit the company had changed its cleaning and sanitation practices and we could no longer find the possible contamination. By remaining vigilant through in–house testing the company was able to alter their practices immediately to reduce the risk of foodborne illness and product spoilage. They also demonstrated how implementation of microbial testing and worker education created a culture of food safety within the processing plant.
Foodborne illness is a challenge that the food industry will always face. But by initiating internal microbial testing, companies can take true ownership of their risk reduction plans to prevent foodborne illness, reducing liability and building a positive reputation amongst consumers. Detection technology is only improving and by maintaining a dialogue between industry and researchers we can develop accurate, cost-effective, and practical tools to prevent pathogens from getting in our food supply.

Michael Wiederoder is a PhD candidate in Bioengineering at the University of Maryland, College Park developing hand-held, medical diagnostic devices for resource limited environments. He previously received a Master’s Degree in Food Science from UMD and a Bachelor’s Degree in Biosystems Engineering from Michigan State University. He spends his free time playing soccer and exploring the foodie scene in Washington DC. For more information about Michael’s Master’s research please read his article “Use of a portable hyperspectral imaging system for monitoring the efficacy of sanitation procedures in produce processing plants” in the Journal of Food Science.