Contaminated food can have profound effects, causing outbreaks that implicate hundreds and thousands of people. Take for instance, the case of melamine-tainted milk in China that occurred in 2008 and affected more than 300,000 babies, resulting in many other nations banning dairy imports from China. The lapses severely undermined consumer confidence in China-produced goods, which was at an all-time low even among the domestic market.
Foodborne illnesses on the other hand, are a global occurrence and a common problem. Yet, outbreaks due to foodborne illnesses are potentially crippling as well. In the US alone, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has revealed that approximately one in six Americans (48 million people) have gotten sick, 128,000 hospitalised and 3,000 died due to foodborne illnesses.
Unsavoury EffectsAnother significant incident was a major E. coli outbreak among fresh vegetables in Germany, where a total of 3,950 people were affected and 53 died. Eventually the bacterium source was found to be fenugreek seeds that were imported from Egypt. The outbreak was not localised to Germany, where a handful of related cases were also found in places like France, the US, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands as well.
This highlights the pressing need for food safety especially in a globalised world. Outbreaks are no longer confined to just one country, but have widespread consequences that affect trade and the food industry on a worldwide scale.
For this particular case, investigators initially had some problem identifying the source of the outbreak because the supply chain was simply too long, which resulted in the false identification of cucumbers from Spain as sources. Inability to narrow the source of the outbreak led to the shunning of fresh fruits and vegetables across Europe, which devastated farmers and trade, especially that of Spain.
Apart from affecting international trade, food contamination incidents also have the power to shut a company down completely. This was exemplified in the Peanut Corporation of America, a peanut processing business that had to shut its doors for good after causing a massive salmonella outbreak in the US from 2008 to 2009, which resulted in the country’s largest food recall after almost 700 people fell sick and nine died. The incident also affected sales of peanut products on the whole, even when they were unrelated to the outbreak.
Outbreaks are no longer confined to just one country, but have widespread consequences that affect trade and the food industry globally.
These incidents have shown that food safety and hygiene often have far reaching effects that influence not just the implicated company, but its entire supply chain and the industry as a whole. Such incidents mar brand reputation, break consumer trust, and in most cases, produce a halo effect on other similar products which are actually safe. This in turn affects demand, consumption, and the influx of exports.
Due to these repercussions, food safety and kitchen hygiene has been, and will always be, the top priority among food processors. This includes making sure that all foods are safe for consumption, regardless of whether it is free from pathogens, foreign objects, excessive chemicals, hormones, or suitable for people with allergies.
Ryan Kitko, Ohio, US
According to a report by the CDC, norovirus was the top contributor and accounted for 42 percent of all foodborne disease outbreaks in the US from 2009 to 2010. This was followed by salmonella, which was responsible for 30 percent of the outbreaks. It was also found that the foods most implicated were beef, poultry, dairy, eggs and fish.
Unpasteurised products were the main contributors in dairy-associated incidents. Of these, the pathogens most responsible for outbreaks in the US were campylobacter in unpasteurized dairy, salmonella in eggs, and E. coli in beef. However, the top causes of death were E. Coli in beef, salmonella in pork and listeria in dairy.
It is important for food handlers to deal with food in a sanitised manner, especially as most raw foods already contain some levels of bacteria. It is extremely easy for meat carcasses to become contaminated during slaughter, in cases of contact with intestinal contents.
This also stands true for vegetables which may have come into direct and indirect contact with manure through fertilisers or contaminated water. The mixing of shellfish or meat scraps into feed has also made it possible for animals to host microbes that stem from the original sources.
One of the issues that have been gaining notice is the transference of pathogens with heightened antimicrobial resistance over food. The increased use of antibiotics to facilitate the growth of animals for food has led to the mutation of various bacteria and viruses and a built resistance to said antibodies. This in turn affects humans, who became more susceptible to infections from the viruses in question due to the inefficacies of antibiotics.
Chemicals & AllergensMeanwhile, food safety does not just include pathogens, but also contamination by chemicals, or by known allergens in allergen-safe foods. In particular, some techniques used to prevent or eliminate the presence of microbial organisms have resulted in chemical by-products themselves. This includes the likes of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), nitrosamines, chloropropanols/monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD), acrylamide and semicarbazide.
PAHs are carcinogenic, and may appear in processes that involve heating or smoking, and especially in the case of meat. Also carcinogenic, nitrosamines are produced when foods containing nitrite have been overcooked. In most cured products such as bacon, sodium nitrite is used as a preservative to cull the growth of clostridium botulinum.
3-MCPD on the other hand, occurs due to certain processing or storage conditions, and is found mostly in refined vegetable oils or products that use those oils. This includes baked goods like bread as well as cooked and cured meat and fish.
Acrylamide is another carcinogenic processing contaminant, most often found in starchy foods like bread, potato products, and cereal. It is the result of a reaction between amino acid asparagine and sugars like glucose and fructose during Maillard browning, or cooking at high temperatures. To prevent its formation, it is suggested for food to be cooked at lower temperatures, and with less browning.
Esmee, The Netherlands
Meanwhile, food allergies are another issue that warrant attention. There is an increasing prevalence of food allergies in Asia with the growing westernisation of one’s diet. In this case, one man’s meat is literally another’s poison. Allergic reactions can include rashes, inflammation, anaphylaxis, and even death, and some of the common allergens are eggs, shellfish, milk and nuts, especially peanuts.
According to a study conducted by TÜV SÜD, allergic reactions accounted for 21 percent of the surveyors’ experience with unsafe food. This was followed by food poisoning at 16 percent.
Due to its dire consequences, it is important that manufacturers and food processors ensure cross contamination does not occur. In particular, extra caution has to be taken for allergens that affect a greater share of the population, or those which have especially devastating effects when taken by people who are allergic to them.
High Risk AreasThe kitchen plays a huge role in maintaining the quality and safety of food, especially since that part of the production process holds the most risk. From the way food is prepared, the cooking methods used, the person handlng it, and the environment in which it is handled, these are all factors that play a vital role in mitigating the risks of contamination.
Apart from keeping tabs on cooking techniques, food processors and handlers also have to ensure that cross contamination does not occur across production lines or different preparation areas. This helps prevent the transference of not only bacteria, but allergens as well.
For starters, the bulk of kitchen activities are handled by humans who may contaminate the food they are handling through unsanitary practices, such as not washing their hands enough, working even though they are unwell, not wearing protective gear or touching food after coming into contact with raw meat.
Often times, infected food handlers can often pass on the norovirus, hepatitis A virus or shigella to food products through unwashed hands. Cross contamination can also happen when there is a lack of teamwork and procedure among workers, such that tools used in different areas (raw and cooked foods) are shared without being washed.
The next crucial area in maintaining food safety has to do with storage. Warm, moist areas are prime breeding grounds for bacteria. As such, foods should be stored in refrigerators, where freezing suspends bacterial growth. However, it has to be noted that bacteria listeria monocytogenes and Yersinia enterocolitica can still grow even at low temperatures. It is therefore crucial that all working spaces are sanitised and disinfected sufficiently and frequently (including storage areas), to minimise contact points with bacteria.
The cooking process plays one of the most important roles in maintaining food quality. Microbes are eliminated through heat, and most pesticide levels are significantly reduced after processing. Food has to be heated to at least temperatures of above 78 deg C so that all pathogens can be destroyed.
Clostridium bacteria on the other hand, are heat resistant and killed only at temperatures above boiling point. Botulism toxin, which can be found in improperly canned products, is also inactivated through boiling. However, processors also have to be mindful of processing contaminants and choose their cooking methods accordingly.
Cleaning The ProcessAdopting good manufacturing practices (GMPs) and adhering to standards such as Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) can help manufacturers greatly reduce the risks of food contamination.
The backbone of these measures is the education and training of employees, who should understand the importance of food safety and the role they play in upholding it. This is particularly crucial for the HACCP plan, which requires people who are knowledgeable or experts in the product/process to identify potential hazards and recommend controls, limits, and corrective action.
This is especially so as a thorough hazard analysis is the first step to an effective HACCP plan. Some points of considerations are the ingredients, raw materials, the entire process, storage and distribution as well as the consumer’s interaction with the product, and how hazards may be introduced through any of these factors.
Matt Moser, Ohio, US
In the next step of the plan, manufacturers will decide which potential hazards need to be addressed, according to their severity and likelihood. They will then move on to determine critical control points (CCPs) — steps in the production process where control can be applied to eliminate or reduce food safety hazards. Some examples of CCPs are cooking, where thermal heat is used to destroy pathogens, or chilling, where adequate refrigeration halts the multiplication of bacteria.
Critical limits should also be established, so that employees know what is over limits and when to act on it. Control measures have to be implemented to prevent hazards, such as the temperature and duration at which food should be cooked. All these measures have to be monitored, so that deviations can be controlled when they occur, and also for the plan to be continually relevant and effective.
Plant owners have to establish the corrective actions required in cases of non-compliance, so that employees know how to bring things back to control. Meanwhile, the HACCP plan has to be verified to ensure that it is sufficient and effective in keeping hazards at bay. All aspects of the plan should also be properly documented and recorded.
One GMP currently in use is zoning, where areas are segregated according to the types of food they deal with (eg: raw and ready-to-eat food, potential allergens, high risk foods, wet to dry areas). Physical barriers are used to separate the areas, and designated staff employed for each area along with specific colour coding of utensils and areas to minimise the risks of cross contamination.
Other GMPs include minimising dust movement, providing proper ventilation, making items such as sanitisers, cleaning supplies, sinks and protective gear readily available. Some have also adopted first-in/first-out (FIFO) or just-in-time (JIT) inventory management systems so that ingredients are not kept for too long. During storage, ingredients have to be refrigerated adequately. In-plant tracking systems are also useful for traceability purposes, especially when control limits are not upheld. Each facility should also have a set of standard operating procedures that employees should work with, that are in line with the HACCP plan.
Testing For SafetyOnce all the measures are in place, how do manufacturers ascertain the effectiveness of their program? This is where testing comes in. All food products have to be tested, be it for chemicals or microbes, to ensure that they adhere to regulations and safety requirements.
“For example, your cakes and what not, and most types of processed food or all of the raw materials used to make those foodstuffs, have to be tested for those banned chemicals,” explained Mark Richards, gas phase applications manager, Life Sciences and Chemical Analysis, Agilent Technologies. He added that “government laboratories, commercial companies would have to monitor fruits and vegetables as they come into the country for concentrations of banned pesticides.”
Testing for food safety is responsibility on the manufacturers’ part, but it also helps them with traceability measures. Due to the globalisation of the supply chain, contamination can happen anywhere along the entire process, and caused by lapses in any one of the many stakeholders. As such, testing does not just include the end product, but also environmental testing of processing facilities, and of the raw ingredients.
Swabs and kits are available for environmental testing during processing, which can be used to detect the presence of microbes in the facility, and is useful for testing the cleanliness of surfaces and high risk areas. Otherwise, analytical instruments such as a mass spectrometer or gas chromatography are utilised to identify the chemical and biological composition of products, which can detect trace levels of antibiotics, growth promoters, or any other substance that is not supposed to be there.
Control measures, such as setting the temperature and duration at which certain foods should be cooked, have to be implemented to prevent the growth of microbes.
An issue with testing is that it can be costly, which is exacerbated for small medium companies. This is further compounded by the fact that at times, testing might not be representative of the actual situation. “One of the challenges is getting representative sampling. When you go to the dock and a ship comes in with bananas, how many and where do you sample from in order to make sure that you have a representative sample that represents the entire cargo?” asked Shanya Kane, VP and GM of GC & Workflow Automation Systems at Agilent Technologies.
Because of the uncertainties involved with testing, together with the complexities and interconnectivity of the supply chain, it is pertinent for all stakeholders to ensure that their food is safe for consumption upon leaving their place. It is crucial for these companies, from suppliers of raw ingredients to food preparation, to subscribe to initiatives that emphasise on a hygienic and contaminant-free process. Food safety is something that needs to be inculcated across the entire supply chain.
Squashing The New Threat—SuperbugsSuperbugs may be armed with high microbial immunity, but they hold little threat against technologies that act on mechanical means. By Lew MacKinnon, COO, Zoono Group
Microbes arrive in the form of bacteria, viruses, mould, mildew, fungi, algae and other organisms. Unfortunately, they no longer respond to conventional methods and techniques because of one major factor: the evolution of superbugs.
Horia Varlan, Bucharest, Romania
Not too many decades ago, manufacturers of traditional cleaning and sanitising products produced quality detergents and sanitising products that contained up to one percent of active ingredients. But over a period of time, the microbes developed their own immunity to the active ingredient and these original products soon became impotent.
Faced with the problem of microbes developing resistance, manufacturers had no option but to increase the amount of active ingredient and again, the products were successful until the microbes increased their immunity, and the pattern continued.
Because of the increasing levels of microbial immunity, some manufacturers now add as much as 10 percent active ingredient into their products — just to kill the original list of microbes! Unfortunately, this ‘leapfrog’ effect of microbes developing new levels of immunity and manufacturers increasing the levels of active ingredient to achieve results has created more resistant microbes and eventually, Superbugs.
The most commonly known of the Superbugs is Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA). In simple terms, MRSA is a strand of Staph that has developed resistance to the antibiotic Methicillin. Whilst once found only in hospital environments, MRSA is being detected in increasing numbers in homes and kitchens worldwide.
What makes this trend of Superbug development more concerning is that some have become so powerful that they are now treated with antibiotics of the last resort. In other words, if these antibiotics do not work, there is nothing left to stop the spread of certain infections.
This is where technology comes in.
Traditionally, microbes and pathogens are killed by one of two methods — by poison or dehydration via products containing high concentrations of alcohol. The problem with these methods is that the pathogen is able to build up resistance to the poison (or the dehydration process) and over time, this promotes mutation—the ability of the pathogen to evolve into a Superbug.
In recent years, some food safe and water based antimicrobial technologies have been developed. These bond to surfaces such as stainless steel benches/food preparation boards to resemble a series of microscopic ‘pins’ that attract, pierce and kill pathogens by lysis — destroying pathogens by rupturing their cellular walls.
This principle of lysis is similar to that of a pin popping a balloon — and just like a balloon that cannot be reformed once it has been popped, the same applies to pathogens that have had their cellular walls ruptured.
These new generation technologies kill by mechanical means and do not leave residues, leach or promote mutation. Significant improvements have been made in the efficacy and longevity of such products.
Some water based solutions that dry to form a covalent bond with a hard surface or skin not only kill bacteria and viruses, but also protect the surface for extended periods of time. Protection for hard surfaces last up to 30 days and protects skin for at least 24 hours. Some of these have also been successfully tested against a variety of pathogens, including superbug MRSA, H1N1 and Norovirus.