Recipes - Food Safety
Photo credit: www.consumerreports.org/issue/food-safety
Starting the new year, I could write about plans or best intentions. Instead, I decided to reflect on what it was like to grow up with a father who is a food microbiologist. Most people wouldn’t know what that was like. Let me tell you, it took a lot of the fun away from indulging in some foods, but it has allowed me to appreciate the impact that food safety professionals have on our health and wellbeing.
From a young age, I understood that there were certain foods that presented health risks. Raw cookie dough, sunny-side-up eggs, sushi, hollandaise sauce, and raw milk, of course, were all on the list. However, I knew that I could eat my favorite brand of weeks old yogurt in the fridge, because Dad said they had a “good operation.” Little did I know then what that meant; I just trusted what he told me.
My father is a humble, easy-going man. However, as soon as you mention the idea of eating raw oysters, his skin begins to itch. Better yet, threaten a glass of raw milk; that gets an immediate reaction. If I wanted a bigger reaction, I would whip up some cookie dough and suggest eating it, just to get a comment like, “you can drive yourself to the hospital,” or “good luck with the toilet.” Growing up with the threat of getting sick if certain foods were consumed shapes the way you see food.
The reason he reacts so strongly is that he spent his entire professional life going into dairy processing plants to help identify sources of contamination. He has seen how salmonella or listeria has hurt both vulnerable populations and the sources of the contaminants.
When you chase these bugs, you can’t look at food the same way.
For my dad, it really hit home in 1985 with a listeriosis outbreak in California from Mexican-style cheese. 142 cases were identified. 28 died, including 10 newborns and 18 adults. There were also 20 miscarriages.
The tragedy made the food safety industry question the way it monitored pathogens. My dad was able to come in as a consultant with his aseptic sampling tools and testing expertise to develop an effective process monitoring system. Accurate data results in accurate monitoring to identity and prevent contamination.
Fast forward to today. It is now my turn to visit dairy plants and farms to create sampling plans that don’t only prevent tragic outbreaks but empower Quality Managers and farmers with confidence and accurate data. Foodborne illnesses in dairy are still a concern, but the way we manage the risks has significantly reduced those concerns. Much dedicated time and many resources are invested in food safety. QualiTru’s sampling systems and procedures are designed to support that hard work and make it worth the time and effort.
It is a powerful legacy to know that the work of our company continues to support the production of healthy and safe foods from the farmer to the plant. When my dad or I walk in a grocery store, we can both feel proud when we see that our partners’ product lines are stamped with Quality.
If you go online and Google, “cost of a food recall,” you get a canned response of, “The average cost of a recall to a food company is $10 Million in direct costs, in addition to brand damage and lost sales” according to a joint industry study by the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
What does that impact look like in a real-life scenario?
Paul Kruse, CEO and President of Blue Bell Creameries knows all too well. He informed investors last year that the company needed $125 Million or it would close, four years after a Listeria outbreak that made national headlines. The outbreak, linked to ten illnesses and three deaths, cost Blue Bell $255.2 Million from 2014 to 2017. Ouch!
A recall can deeply affect a company financially in the immediate aftermath, but there is a sinister long-term financial problem associated with a recall. Immediately after a recall, a company will likely face a dramatic loss of direct sales, the costs of FDA and USDA compliance penalties, possible lawsuits and litigations, and insurance impacts. These costs, while extremely high, can be survivable. I would argue that the hardest issue can continue to plague a company long after the publicity of the recall fades from the headlines.
That issue is brand tarnishment and deterioration.
A company’s brand is its badge of quality and purity. The general consumer makes certain assumptions when it comes to purchasing and eating food. First and foremost is that all food is safe to eat until told otherwise. Even if the company can sustain the immediate astronomical costs of a recall, the loss of consumer confidence in the brand can ultimately destroy a company. The brutal truth about a recall is that a single outbreak can be the ‘kiss of death’ to a manufacturer.
What is the takeaway from this story? How can the devastating costs of an outbreak be prevented?
A program of rigorous, routine aseptic sampling may seem like a luxury item to some producers, but it can serve as a company’s first line of defense against the ravaging effects of a recall. Strategically placed samplers can detect bacteria early on and catch outbreaks before products leave the plant and are placed on retail shelves.
Is rigorous, routine sampling worth the expense? Given the costs of a food recall, perhaps a better question is, can you afford not to do rigorous, routine sampling?
He bought a sack of mangoes from a local grocery store on his way into work. He called his team together, sat the sack on the table and made a simple request. He asked his staff to identify the country of origin and trace the path of the mangoes from the farm to his local store. The request seemed easy enough as all food that enters the United States comes with import paperwork and all food grown here is traceable.
Six days and 18 hours later, the mango pedigree was delivered to his desk and the FDA decided that there needed to be a better way.
Enter blockchain supply tracking and trace technology. The idea seems so simple. Every individual lot of food meant for human consumption is given a unique identifier and as it moves through the supply chain process it is scanned and verified each step of the way. Once the product reaches its destination, all the points it has traveled are stored in the cloud for easy accessibility. It’s a big data nightmare, but overall a great idea. The magnitude of benefits would include full audit trail traceability, single timestamped and tamper-proof source of data, real-time rule-based verification of multi-party confirmations and trusted digital signature-based peer to peer interactions.
Imagine a world where transparency reigns supreme. Imagine a world where regulatory agencies, processors and consumers all have access to the same data. That data would help to ensure and verify the overall quality of the producer who grew the food, the plant where it was made and the regulatory agency that oversaw the process.
Mr. Yiannis announced that this revolutionary process will be the next horizon for the FDA. By using blockchain tracking and trace, the same search that previously took almost seven days could be completed in a mere 2.3 seconds.
In personal and professional life, picking the right long-term partner is no easy task. On the personal side, before marrying my husband last summer, about half of our relationship had been a long distance one. During that time, I received a lot of sympathy from those who didn’t understand how lucky I felt to have a partner that I trusted and respected to support me in pursuing my ambitions to complete my MBA and reconnect with family.
These same values of trust and respect are the foundation of our business. I have learned over the years that those values are the secret to building strong partnerships.
Growing up in a family business, I have seen firsthand how trust and respect for people in the business directly translates to outside collaboration. Our company strongly believes that the integrity of aseptic sampling and data accuracy supports farmers and Quality Managers to produce safe and delicious dairy products. Providing a highly regulated and technical sampling process while building partners in academia or distribution depends on more than logistics: it relies on strong mutual trust and respect.
We have distribution partners who have successfully expanded our scope for sampling to situations where their unique connections and knowledge were needed. One partner consults dairy plants in proactively managing contamination by establishing CIP procedures with strategic sampling points. Another partner stayed awake for 24 hours to take hourly samples in order to accurately identify contamination on a farm. Still another partner tapped into a new industry by introducing aseptic sampling to monitor liquid egg processing equipment for pathogens. All of these partners verified aseptic sampling credibility and used their expertise to solve real challenges.
Today expanding our business by working with new partners, we can learn from our long-held relationships to foresee how solutions are delivered to new farmers or Quality Managers.
I recently visited our new distributor in Denmark, Fooddes. This team has the technical expertise to advise dairies on good hygiene and food safety practices. More importantly, the team closely works together with their customers to solve challenges or foresee risks. Their integrity is evident, both in the office and the collaborative manner in which they work with partners.
The secret recipe to the sauce of strong partnerships is quite simple. It starts with products and processes that can be trusted. It continues with partners who understand the importance of building relationships while solving problems. Mutual trust and respect create win-win scenarios.
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.