Recipes - Food Safety
Everyone has experienced communication challenges from traveling, watching an international film or trying to talk with a young child. Very quickly you learn either to rely on facial expressions, pull out Google translate or maybe use a calculator. Building understanding, but more importantly, trust is no easy task.
Working in Malaysia for two years and not speaking any of the local languages or understanding the cultural elements at first, I had to learn how to build trust quickly. After I learned enough Malay, I scanned the environment to string similar conversations. Often, conversations led to food and family, especially in business situations.
Today, working between different regions and countries in highly regulated environments with varying priorities – language and technical understanding can be a greater challenge. It’s not just a matter of knowing the language but interpreting unspoken ques and regulatory requirements. Luckily, in the dairy industry, there are several benchmarks for microbiological standards that make language a little less challenging.
Data can cut through language barriers, as well as complicate communication if expectations are not met. Bad data can throw off a system that is based on trust and integrity. Accuracy becomes even more important as the dairy industry becomes more globally interconnected. Having accurate data can help understanding where we are at today and where we want to go without needing a lot of explanation.
Food safety in the United States has improved dramatically over the last 40 years.
Leaps in the last 12 years have transformed the process of protecting human health to the point where in the event of an outbreak, in some cases, product is pulled out of circulation prior to it ever being placed on the shelf.
Many factors have influenced these changes. In 2007 outbreaks of illnesses due to contamination in spinach and peanut butter began the processes of legislative change. Allergens and labeling became a hot topic with the increase in sales of artisanal and small batch food products. In the same year with the advent of the social media explosion, recalls were changed forever. Suddenly processors had to contend with people sharing illnesses attributed to their products over the Internet to the general public. This all culminated into the development of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) regulations.
In 2013 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) moved from swabbing and plating cultures to whole genome sequencing, resulting in over 50,000 pathogen fingerprints in its current database. For example, the Blue Bell Ice cream recall in 2015 caused three deaths. was initiated faster than any previous recall thanks to whole genome sequencing. Additionally, advances in epidemiology have increased the speed of recalls, while advances in communication have increased the ability to recall physical material while it is still in transit.
Fast ward forward to 2018. Per the FDA, 50% of all recalls are caused by bacterial contamination, 28% are allergen contamination (soy, tree nut, egg, milk proteins etc.), and the rest are foreign material and process deviations. Overall, recalls are down by 30% from 2007, because we now have the ability to test a group of affected people and narrow down the contamination to a common product, which leads to a specific manufacturer. This can now be further narrowed to an area of a specific plant, and we are almost at the point of being able to identify a specific piece of equipment that has caused the contamination. These advancements are all from whole genome testing and an increase in communication technologies.
Recalls are no long counted in weeks, but in days, if not hours.
This means that not only are we as an industry contributing to consumer protection on the front end with better general manufacturing practices, but we are also responding faster and more accurately on the back end. Soon a day will come where hopefully no one ever dies from eating contaminated processed food products.
Organic milk demand is gaining momentum. Images of cows basking in the sunshine, grazing on fresh grass in open pastures and being milked when they want it. This is what the movement wants to you feel when you are at your dairy case in the grocery store and reach for a gallon of organic and smile. This choice is healthier right?
Organic milk is from dairy cows that have not been treated with antibiotics.
As an industry, organic dairies make up less than 10% of all milk produced and overall sales have run roughly parallel to traditional milk sales, but they are slowly gaining ground. The idea behind milk that is free of chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides or artificial agents seems like a sound notion, but is somewhat misleading.
Consider bovine growth hormones (rBGH), which is still approved for use to escalate the growth of young heifers. These hormones do not have any natural receptors in the human body, so they are considered inactive with zero known effects on human physiology. There is a grass roots movement based on conflicting studies, that these hormones cause cancer in humans, because they increase blood levels of IGH-1, an insulin growth factor. Subsequent studies, however, have been unable to verify this link, so no clear scientific link can be established. The worst-case calculation determined that if an infant drank 1.5 liters of milk from a cow treated with rBGH, the amount absorbed would be far less than 1% of the infant’s daily production of IGF-1.
Regarding questions related to the effect of antibiotics on the quality of traditional milk, it is important to know the facts. Cows that are identified as needing antibiotics to control common infections such as mastitis infections are pulled from the herd on a traditional farm and not added back in until they test negative. After the treatment of antibiotics, the body metabolizes and cleans itself very quickly. Several factors can lengthen this like the age and weight of the cows, but overall, the antibiotics are entirely cleared within a couple of weeks. Only then are the cows put back into milk production. On organic dairies, the infected cows are completely removed from the herd if antibiotics are ever used.
Organic cows are mandated to graze for at least 30% of their lives on pastures that have been free of pesticides for at least three years.
Pesticides and fertilizers are generally broken down within six months, depending on environmental factors. This requirement is over-kill but is a guarantee that the consumer will not have to worry about chemical contamination. On traditional dairy farms the cows are moved to pasture when they are drying off for two months, if pasture is available.
Ultimately, whether the consumption of organic milk is a fad, or one based on science, it seems there are arguments for both sides. Purists would say that they enjoy knowing that there is no possibility of chemical contamination or increased risk of cancer. They may also like the idea that dairy cows get to walk around in a field for a significant portion of their lives. The average consumer would say that they have faith in the government regulations that protect them from any potential risks associated with traditional farming. An informed decision really comes down to personal preference.
I opened the refrigerator and pulled the gallon of milk out eagerly anticipating the first sip of goodness. After breaking open the sealed cap of the new container, I watched the smooth flow of the brilliant white fluid fill my glass to the top. Lifting it to my lips, I swallowed a couple of large mouthfuls and immediately spit it out. I had expected to taste the rich and creamy flavor of whole milk, but instead, the inside of my mouth was coated with the taste of a farm.
I have been on thousands of farms, and inside each milk house of everyone I have visited has the distinct aroma of stagnant milk. This is a subset of bacteria called Psychrotrophic Spore-formers. These bacteria grow in temperatures between 0 to 7 degrees Celsius and is a factor of what cause milk to spoil in the refrigerator. Further, these bacteria are activated by pasteurization, which releases the spore inside the bacteria. Some species, like Bacillus, are even resistant to the pasteurization process.
Could this be avoided?
Yes. We could increase the temperature and shorten the time of the pasteurization process. In Europe, milk is pasteurized at 135 degrees Celsius for 2-5 seconds. This method not only kills the bacteria, but the spores as well. But this solution is not economically feasible in the United States as the entire dairy industry would need to change its process. Also, the very particular U.S. market would have to adapt to the change in taste that is associated with Ultra-high temperature processing (UHT) milk.
Increase sanitation standards and testing
The more economical option would be to increase sanitation standards and testing for this specific group of bacteria on the farm. Testing every tanker truck’s load of milk for Lab. Pasteurized counts (LPC), and Preliminary incubation (PI) and reducing the acceptable levels would also accomplish this goal. Understandably, this could increase the stress on an already burdened farmer, but this proactive measure would be an investment in the industry and have far-reaching effects.
Saddened by my findings, I knew what I needed to do. I poured the entire gallon of milk down the drain. What was even worse, is I knew this was not a unique case.
The sale of fluid milk is decreasing rapidly, compensation is at a 4-year low and farmers are struggling. The only way to stop the trend is to find ways to protect the product and brand. Increased testing for non-pathogenic bacteria which create customer dissatisfaction needs to become a major priority. If we work together, the dairy industry can re-establish itself as a premier product.
Any given company can head to the Internet and read a plethora of articles about how to create a food quality culture. The Food Safety Moderation Act (FSMA) has laid the groundwork in sterile detail about what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires from a fundamental standpoint. Tier one quality systems like Safe Quality Food (SQF) provide an organization a checklist of tasks which, if followed, will protect the company and consumers from physical adulteration and defend production procedures or processes. Validation and verification track and trace activities create a log, which in the event of an outbreak can be traced back to a specific action. But the question remains. What elements create a true quality culture?
Dairy farms and beverage companies understand that the number one contributor to production issues is the humans doing the tasks. A task can be an impersonal checked box on a clipboard, but a practical understanding of what the work represents is the key to changing a culture. Employees who have a list of tasks are prone to have an increased tendency to error, but when tasks are coupled with a genuine belief in the safety and the protection of consumers, the employees become advocates. In a short time, employee advocates become empowered front-line defenders of the company and public.
Investing in the development of the newly minted employee advocates is the road to excellence for a food producer or manufacturer. Farm and food processing employees see disconnects that may be oblivious to upper management. They are the eyes and ears of the production process on a granular level and have insights that may save the company from a recall in the future. A task driven employee will take a sample from silo via an un-sanitized petcock. An empowered employee advocate will recommend installing an aseptic access point to avoid possibly contaminating the product.
When you empower and train your staff to make quality-related decisions based on macro-level thinking and understanding, you can genuinely say that you have a quality culture where everyone wins.
Farmers dedicate significant time to keeping cows dry, udders healthy, and teats clean. On the surface, pre and post dips are mechanisms to remove bacteria and organic contaminants before the milking cluster is applied. A properly executed pre and post-dip will help protect the cow from a mastitis infection from bacteria like S. aureus. When proper technique is consistent for every cow that enters the parlor, the overall herd somatic cell counts will go down, and the farm’s milk quality will go up. Proper hygiene is more than just a task in the parlor – proper milking procedures could save lives.
What is not fully understood is that while S. aureus has a detrimental effect on the health of cows and productivity, the presence of another bacterium, Listeria monocytogenes, can lead to deadly consequences. Listeria is naturally occurring on farms. In fact, dairy farms act as reservoirs for Listeria. It is frequently found in bulk tank milk samples and the feces of clinically healthy cows.
Listeria monocytogenes is a Gram-positive non-spore-forming bacterium which has an amazing ability to survive in harsh environments. Listeria can grow in temperature ranges of 1-45O Celsius, pH of 4.5-9.6, 25.5% salt concentration, with or without available oxygen. To make matters worse, it is the causal agent of Listeriosis which has a 20-30% mortality rate if consumed by humans. The mortality rate can reach as high as 70% of it goes untreated and infiltrates the nervous system.
Given the real possibility of health complications and even death from consumption of Listeria, the importance of mitigation through proper teat hygiene cannot be overstated. The proper technique for a pre and post-dip is as follows:
1: With a single use towel, wipe away all visual organic matter from the teat.
2. Teats must be entirely submerged in solution or covered with sanitizing foam.
3. Teats must remain in contact with the solution for at least 30 seconds or as per the manufacturer’s instructions.
4. Teats must be thoroughly wiped to remove the solution. For best cleaning action, teats should be wiped in a circular motion with attention paid to teat ends. Wiping stimulates milk let-down and reduces the risk of contamination up, into the teat end.
Proper Post Dip:
1. Disinfectant must be applied as soon as possible after removing the milking cluster.
2. Disinfectant must coat the entire surface that was covered by the teat liner.
3. Do not wipe disinfectant. In frigid weather, remove the excess sanitizer from the end of the teat to prevent freezing.
4. Products should be antimicrobial to eliminate bacteria with a skin conditioner since sores can lead to infection.
To verify teat sanitation and overall milking procedure hygiene, aseptically pen/string sample every group into a sterile collection unit and send the samples to a verified lab. Request species-specific results for staph, strep, coliforms, and pathogens like Listeria. A structured sampling program is the key to verifying on-farm milking procedures are being performed correctly and will identify possible issues before the herd is contaminated. When used as part of a Mastitis Control Plan, farmers can also proactively impact their quality premium and ensure they get paid top dollar for the milk they produce.
Proper hygiene is more than just a task in the parlor. It can literally save lives. Train your staff with the knowledge they need to mitigate this possibility.