In his book, “The World is Flat,” Thomas Friedman focuses on what he calls Globalization 3.0. He writes of how the internet and the worldwide web have flattened the world. In other words, the ability to communicate has made the world smaller and business opportunities abound. Friedman also emphasizes that companies that fail to adopt the new technologies and innovate will fall behind and their business will suffer.
It is vital that food processors understand that innovation is an imperative, and a failure to understand that can mean they will begin to fall behind their competitors. This is one reason why ISO 22000 and most audit schemes include a mandate for continual improvement of their food safety management system (FSMS). Every operation should work to continuously improve their food safety programs to ensure that their customers are protected and the business itself maintains the trust of the public.
So, in what ways can or should food processors or different types of processors seek to innovate?
Let’s look first at the produce or fresh-cut produce industry. Consumers have been eating salads for hundreds of years, but the fresh-cut industry is still relatively young, having started in earnest only 30 years back. One of the biggest challenges in the fresh-cut industry is that product is what it says—fresh produce. There is no kill step.
Over the years, fresh-cut salads and other fresh produce items have been involved with a number of recalls that resulted in illnesses involving a wide range of pathogens such as Cyclospora cayetanensis, Listeria monocytogenes, E. Coli 0157:H7 and various salmonella strains. So, one of the goals for the industry is to find a way or ways to minimize or eliminate the potential for foodborne illness in these products. The fresh-cut industry does a great deal to meet that goal. Among the tools used to ensure that what they produce is safe includes the adoption of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) at the field level, keeping the products cold, keeping operations clean and moving the products quickly.
Produce is conveyed using flume water that is kept cold and clean using sanitizers. The sanitizers maintain water quality, but fluming is not deemed a kill step. The sanitizer keeps the water clean so it does not serve as a potential source of contamination. The fresh-cut industry has looked at a number of technologies as potential kill steps. These include pulsed light, treatment with ultraviolet light, plasma technology and irradiation using radioactive sources and high intensity electricity. The goal is to obtain a 3-5 log cycle reduction of potential pathogens yet still preserve the fresh characteristics of the product. The only technology that has been found to be effective is irradiation, but despite oceans of data that show not only its efficacy but its safety, it is not accepted by the public. Many feel that irradiated foods are unsafe; the glow in the dark syndrome. Maybe one day someone will come up with a technology that will ensure that a kill-step can be delivered to bagged salads, thus further ensuring their safety.
“Produce is the only major food category that people consume that doesn’t benefit from a kill step, so preventing contamination has been the focus,” says Dr. Jennifer McEntire, senior vice president of Food Safety and Technology at the United Fresh Produce Association. “With continuous improvement in mind, the produce industry continues to seek the extra assurance that could be gained from post-harvest treatments that would reduce the levels of any pathogens that happened to bypass the robust preventive measures in place.”
For fans of “Star Trek,” one might recall that the transporter contained a biofilter that would remove potential contaminants from members of the crew who were on other worlds. Maybe one day that technology will become a reality.
Safety in frozen foods
The frozen food industry, especially the frozen vegetable industry, is one that has benefited from recent innovations and continues to invest in advancing food safety. The industry—thanks to the leadership of the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI)—conducted a series of studies to validate thermal processes such as blanching for a variety of products. While blanching is typically a process used to stabilize raw vegetables for further freezing, AFFI’s research established blanching time and temperature parameters that will reduce potential pathogens associated with raw produce.
Frozen vegetable processors have applied this science and continue to work with experts to validate their blanching operations. After blanching, vegetables still need to go through additional steps such as cooling and freezing. These processing and handling steps expose blanched vegetables to the environment, thus leading to the potential for cross-contamination. For this reason, AFFI’s Listeria Control Program and its best practices and recommendations emphasize complementing process validation steps with effective sanitation controls and robust environmental monitoring.
In addition, investment in GMPs, sanitary design of facilities and equipment, and hygienic zoning together contribute to minimize the potential for post-lethality contamination. Antiquated freezer designs and incompatibility with adequate cleaning and sanitation processes presents additional challenges, which prompted AFFI to provide recommendations specifically addressing risks associated with Listeria in freezers.
With a commitment to continuous improvement, frozen food processors seek out new technologies of processing, sanitation, monitoring and hygienic design aimed at elevating food safety and manufacturing practices. Food processing facilities undertake a range of operational and structural modifications to conform to these best practices; however, substantive upgrades can be capital intensive. One critical investment is the education of personnel in manufacturing and quality functions, about the risks associated with environmental pathogens such as listeria and the adoption of good hygienic practices. Altogether, it is the application of practical and science-based food safety approaches that help guide the industry to invest and innovate towards safe food production.
The common thread between these two very different industries is cleaning and sanitation. Food Engineering has published several articles on the importance of cleaning and sanitation (most recently in November 2019 and January 2021) which have focused on emphasizing the importance of proper cleaning, because one cannot properly sanitize a dirty surface.
The food processing industry looks to their partners, the suppliers of chemicals for cleaning and sanitizing, cleaning equipment and equipment suppliers, to help them to better do their job. Innovation in these industries can help processors to clean more efficiently and, hopefully, more quickly. Speed is important because in the food processing time is money. If an effective and properly validated cleaning operation can be done in three hours instead of four, that can add an hour to actual production time. Like the new and innovative freezer systems noted above, equipment that meets the basic principles of sanitary design and will allow the cleanup crew to quickly and easily do their assigned tasks is something that a cost-conscious industry will look to adopt.
The innovations in three areas just discussed focused on innovations for ensuring microbiological safety, but the development of properly validated cleaning and sanitizing programs rigorously adhered to are also a keystone for properly managing allergens. But let’s look at that third group of hazards: physical hazards.
Most processors have installed unit operations that can detect and remove foreign materials such as magnets, metal detectors or X-ray machines. X-ray technology has evolved considerably over the last 20 years. Systems are more sensitive, operate at faster line speeds and the costs have dropped, but there are still more innovations to be made. The technology is not effective for detecting pits and stones from products such as cherries or peaches. Processors often rely on workers to find and physically remove these materials yet they will still label finished products with a warning that the product “May Contain Pits.”
Another area where innovations in X-ray technology would be useful is in chicken processing. Chickens are slaughtered at such a young age that the bones have yet to calcify. The density, therefore, is too similar to the meat to be detected and removed. There are some chicken processors that currently employ this technology on their deboned lines with some success, however.
Alex Kinne, applications engineer at Thermo Fisher Scientific, concurs that these issues are challenging and overcoming the challenges with new generations of X-ray performance would bring greater food safety. Detecting chicken cartilage, for example, is extremely challenging for X-ray inspection due to its low density. Similarly, the uncalcified bone in young chickens is light and difficult to detect with conventional X-ray technology.
Chicken is one of the largest sources of meat protein in the US and thus the safety of chicken products has a far-reaching scope. The next generations of X-ray technology aim to alleviate this challenge and in turn provide a higher level of food safety. Establishing a system that can reliably detect more, smaller bones and cartilage is thus a difficult but worthwhile pursuit.
Innovation is essential for businesses to remain healthy and vibrant, or to use a popular term to stay ahead of the curve. There is another old saying: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” The examples of needs in different industries should inspire processors, equipment manufacturers, chemical suppliers and others to work for continuous improvement in the food industry to ensure a safe and wholesome food supply.
Our ongoing pandemic has also provided an impetus for innovation, as—it is sad but true—have wars and other conflicts. The speed at which vaccines were developed, evaluated and approved for use with the public is an incredible example of innovation to meet needs. So, hooray for the innovators and may they continue to make their advances in all kinds of endeavors.