Current Trends in the Food Safety Industry
Part 1 of 3
by FPN Correspondent Nancy Christie
Food safety is an ever-changing landscape of new rules and regulations, new contaminants and hazards, new industry goals and consumer concerns, with how to stay ahead of the curve the ongoing challenge faced by food processors.
In this three-part interview, Theodore P. Labuza, PhD, a Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of Food Science in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, shares his insights on issues surrounding food safety.
FPN: What are some of the areas of interest related to food safety?
Dr. Labuza: There is a lot of attention involving the development of rapid tests - not just from a food microbiology standpoint, but also rapid tests for allergens, pesticides and environmental chemicals that shouldn’t be there. A big focus for Homeland Security is a rapid test for egregious economic adulteration, such as the melamine found in milk in China.
My wife, Mary K. Schmidl, PhD, Adjunct Professor in UMN’s Food Science and Nutrition department, and I have been involved in a program for the Chinese Ministry of Health that has focused primarily on chemical adulteration: the usage of pesticides that are illegal in other countries. For example, some tea growers in China use DDT on their crops, a pesticide that’s illegal here, and then ship the tea leaves here to the U.S. for sale to consumers. Since only about 1% of foods imported into the U.S. is tested, it is very possible that tainted tea leaves with levels of DDT above the U.S. action level of 0.5 to 5 ppm (depending on the food) can get into our food supply.
There are chemical adulterations with pesticides, with growth hormones, and with antimicrobials that are used especially in fish farming. Eighty-percent of the fish that we consume in the U.S. comes in as imports, and a lot of that comes from fish farming, which in many Asian countries is done with a lot of chemicals. Added to that is another area that people look at as a health issue, but is really a food safety area: unlabeled allergens, which is the presence of allergens in foods where it shouldn’t be.
So when we talk about testing for contaminants, it goes beyond the typical thinking that it’s a listeria problem or e-coli problem.
Another area involves the need for certification of laboratories that are doing these tests. A serious problem here in the U.S. is the proliferation of dry labbing - labs that are supposed to be testing food for microbes or other contaminants before the product goes to market but instead falsify the data.
Part of FSMA (the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011) is the potential for certifying laboratories that are doing tests for microbes or chemicals. If a company wants a specific test done on its product - for example, a test for lead levels - then it would be able to choose a lab that has been certified to perform those tests.
There is also a need for certification of third- party inspectors who evaluate plants to ensure they are meeting all the requirements of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). There is a lawsuit currently going forward against the third-party inspector, related to the DeCoster egg recall. The inspector had given the shell egg operation a clean bill of health several weeks before the outbreak had happened.
FPN: Even when the tests are performed appropriately, can the producer still defeat the system?
Dr. Labuza: Yes. For example, in the Peanut Corp of America case, the company had sent samples out for salmonella testing per FDA requirements, but when results came back showing positive results with salmonella, the company decided to ship the product anyway. It was the same situation in the DeCoster case. He sent samples to the Iowa State laboratories, and the lab reported they were positive for salmonella - in the chicken, in the eggs, in the soil, in the feces that was eight-foot deep in some of the barns - but he decided to ship the eggs anyway.
FPN: What are the most common types of contamination?
Dr. Labuza: If you go by outbreaks, it’s salmonella and listeria, with salmonella probably the most number of cases. Because salmonella is fairly resistant to dehydration, the requirement for surface pasteurization of tree nuts like almonds and pistachios has become important. Essentially, we have to look beyond the traditional growth conditions for bacteria to their ability to survive in dry media. Nestle in fact has also decided to pasteurize the flour it uses in cookie dough. Buhler has announced this year a new vacuum-steam unit operation that can be used on powders and particulates to do this.
The egg industry is interesting: you have liquid eggs that are pasteurized, which kills salmonella, dry egg protein, which undergoes a second pasteurization (eg. 5 days at 60°C) after spray-drying because there is always the chance of post-contamination, and in-shell eggs that are pasteurized. Nursing homes are a big market for those eggs because many elderly who are immuno-compromised like to have sunny side up eggs, and if done right, these eggs are safe.
Regarding listeria, before the cantaloupe case in Colorado, nobody ever thought about listeria on fresh whole fruits. That outbreak caused 29 deaths, making it the deadliest foodborne outbreak in the U.S. in the past 90 years.
From the standpoint of meat and poultry (which is regulated by the USDA), the USDA has only declared Listeria monocytogenes, E. Coli O157:H7 and this year, six other strains of EHEC as adulterants, but allows poultry and meat to have Salmonella and Campylobacter, even though they are adulterants under the FDA laws. That's because of lobbying pressure.
The industry says, "We can’t get rid of the salmonella." But some countries have gotten rid of it although at a very high expense. But it can be done. You can’t have that condensed, close together raising type of thing that you have here in the U.S. It just doesn't work because it is hard to keep the grounds clean of fecal matter so there is a lot of cross contamination between the animals.
Read the rest of the Current Trends series:
Current Trends in the Food Safety Industry: Part 2
Current Trends in the Food Safety Industry: Part 3