Safety of Fresh Fruit and Vegetables

vegetabales
Once you have harvested your produce, how you handle them can reduce bacterial pathogens. Image from Pixabay

In the last month there have been two state recalls or outbreaks around juices. The first was juice not being processed adequately to destroy Clostridium botulinum or its toxin and the second was an outbreak of Salmonella in Minnesota originating at a raw juice bar. When discussing this with my friends who are not food scientists, [yes, I have a few non food sciencey friends] I discovered that they weren’t aware that fruit and vegetables have natural bacteria and other microorganisms present on their surfaces. These microbes could cause foodborne illness.

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Quality Assurance and Quality Control

We end up with piles of paperwork if we don't do quality control properly
Piles of paperwork do not have to be the result of a good QA/QC program. Image from Pixabay.

The next step after deciding your product specifications is to ensure that your products leaving your facility ALWAYS meet your specifications. Large food manufacturers have Quality Assurance (QA) and Quality Control (QC) Departments who carry out this role. They are often combined into one QA/QC division which carries out both functions of preventing defects and taking action when a defect occurs.

Quality Assurance prevents defects by organizing a system of checks, tests, and audits. These ensure that quality standards are defined and that basic food productions principles, as described in GMPs, are followed. Thus, QA includes the GMPS, SOPS, SSOPS, ingredient and product specifications, food safety and HACCP plans. 

Food thermometer in orange juice.
Measuring temperature is an important quality control step. Image by Cathy Davies

Quality Control is the monitoring procedures that verify and validate that the processes and procedures described by Quality Assurance are followed. Quality Control is the thermometer to check production temperature, the test strip to check sanitizer concentration, the microbial tests to check food is pathogen free. This monitoring and record keeping is also a legal requirement and can be used to update QA practices when failures are common.

Both QA and QC can be used to train employees to improve the safety and quality of the products they are responsible for making. The final decision for whether a product is sent to a customer should be made by the QA/QC manager. Legally, business owners and CEOs are responsible for the safety of the products leaving the facility. Most often they rely on their QA/QC department to do their jobs professionally and reliably. 

Small food business, with few coworkers, may struggle to carry out QA-QC responsibilities as they seem like an additional chore. However, QA/QC can improve and tighten up the quality of your food products as, over time, you see where defects commonly occur. Additionally, this responsibility can be shared. Hiring a full time QA/QC manager can be expensive especially one who has the experience to have the experience, personal authority, and confidence to say “This product cannot be shipped”. A solution to this is a part-time consultant, who has the experience and authority but costs less than hiring a full-time co-worker. Interested? Book a call now!

Definition of Food Quality

Some white, mostly black peppercorns. What is your ingredient specification?
How many white peppercorns is acceptable for a high quality black pepper? Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Last week I came up with my definition for food safety. Did you agree? I realized that I also needed a definition for food quality. Food quality is pretty vague as it depends on so many different factors. We quite often link food quality and food safety because a food containing hazards isn’t of a high quality.

As food processors and food manufacturers, the most important quality specification is based on our consumer’s needs and desires. Consumers may base their idea of a high quality food on many different factors. Price or good value for money is probably the most important, even though a lot of us won’t admit that openly. As consumers, we may also be concerned about how the food product was made and whether it is organic or has certain health attributes. 

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Defining Food Safety

Food safety represented by someone checking the temperature of cooking meat.
Do we all agree that this is food safety? Image by Ahmad Ardity from Pixabay

For my book, I am looking for definitions for topics that I, as a food scientist, might consider obvious. Thus, last week I found myself looking for a definition of food safety. This was not something I thought would be hard to find. However, I couldn’t find a decent definition in introductory food science textbooks. There are many people and organizations are involved in food safety. Surely one of them has a good generally understandable definition of food safety? 

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Food from Unsafe Sources: CDC Risk Factor #5

A view of a market stall with lots of colorful fruit and vegetables.
Where we get our food from is an important decision. Image from Pixabay.

When I was a graduate student, I visited Malta and I bought home nougat for my friends. Only to find when I gave it to my friends that there were ants in the packet. Ugh, some gift that turned out to be. Make sure you know the source of all your ingredients and check that they don’t have ants and that the package is intact when you receive them. 

Many small food businesses start out buying ingredients from their local supermarket. We can trust food bought at the supermarket because it has been manufactured and packaged by businesses that have to follow federal food safety regulations. However, as you grow this might not be the best source of your ingredients and you may need to buy greater quantities than they keep in stock. As you buy larger quantities of ingredients, you need to consider your supply chain program.

To support the local food system, you may also buy from small local farms and food businesses. You must ensure their practices meet your standards for food safety and that the farmer is following food safety procedures and good handling practices and you receive the best quality ingredients. 

The best way to ensure that your ingredients come from a safe source is to have a list of approved suppliers. These are farms, local businesses, supermarkets that you have checked to make sure they handle your ingredients to maintain their quality and safety.

Blueberries representing local agriculture.
Blueberries: What do you expect when you buy blueberries? Image by Kai Reschke from Pixabay

Individually checking each supplier can get time consuming and you can ask each farmer or supplier if they follow certain standards. For example, you can ask for their food safety plan or for their third party audit.

In addition to having an approved supplier list, you also need standards for each ingredient. You can ask your suppliers to provide a certificate of analysis (CoA) to come with each batch of ingredients. For example, if you use peanuts, you will want to make sure that they are free of aflatoxin, a known carcinogen. Many peanut farmers and distributors test for aflatoxins and provide certificates to their buyers.

A supply chain program is required as part of the FSMA regulations and restaurants are expected to have an approved supplier list too. Not sure how to start to set up an approved supplier program? Let’s chat so I can support you.

Image says "Be Safe, Wash your damn hands, wear a mask, eat healthy"

Poor Employee Health and Hygiene: CDC Foodborne Illness Risk Factor 4

Handwashing is just one responsibility of food workersf
We should all be washing our hands all the time, especially if we work in a food business. Image from Pixabay.

As we continue our series on the risk factors towards foodborne illness, remember that keeping consumers safe is one of the most important responsibilities you have as a food business owner or manager.  This is the fourth in the series discussing the CDC Foodborne Illness Risk Factors. In the previous articles I discussed holding food at an improper temperature, cooking or processing food at an improper temperature and using utensils and equipment that are contaminated. Today I am going to discuss the role of employees in maintaining safety within a food facility.

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Contaminated Utensils and Equipment

The third CDC foodborne illness risk factor is Contaminated Utensils and Equipment. This is the use of dirty utensils and equipment which spreads bacteria and may also cause allergens to be somewhere unexpected. I want to discuss these and also look at storage.

Bacterial Cross contamination

E.coli is a danger!
E.coli (STEC) is a bacteria that causes foodborne illness. Image from Pixabay.

Bacteria are spread through cross contamination when bacteria spread from a high risk food such as raw meat to food that is normally low risk and eaten without heating, such as fresh vegetables and fruit. Storing all ingredients and food to prevent cross contamination is equally important. The classic example of cross contamination is using cutting boards or knives for raw meat and then reusing them ready-to-eat vegetables and fruit. Hopefully we all know is wrong wrong, wrong. 

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Food Safety Factor 2: Cooking/Processing at an Improper Temperature

Measuring temperature with a calibrated thermometer is an important food safety check.

In this series of posts I am discussing how the knowledge of the CDC foodborne illness risk factors can be used by us, as consumers and food entrepreneurs, to reduce foodborne illness. The CDC foodborne illness risk factors are the top five ways that restaurants and food manufacturers cause foodborne illness. FightBac gives consumers four core practices, chill, cook, clean, and separate, for food safety at home. To produce safe food we need to make sure these risk factors are NOT present in our facilities or homes. Last week I discussed why keeping food cold was important. 

This week I am discussing the second risk factor, Cooking or Processing at an Improper Temperature. This is covered for consumers by the FightBac practice of cook. Cooking temperature was previously discussed in the first of my articles on HARM, H=heat. In that post I wrote:

Pan on stove with lid being opened. What is inside? Is the food being cooked properly?
Is food being heated to the right temperature to stop foodborne illness? Image by Lucia Vinti (https://luciavinti.com/)

“[T]he most common way to remove microorganisms by using heat. No one likes being boiled, microorganisms are no exception. We can either kill all of them by heating the food to a really high temperature, this is called sterilization. Or we can heat the food to a reasonably high temperature to kill off the pathogenic microorganisms. This is pasteurization.”

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Food Safety Factor 1: Holding at an Improper storage temperature

Measuring the temperature of food is good first step to controlling foodborne pathogens.
Food Safety can be increased if we heat food and if we cool food correctly. Image by Cathy Davies

Keeping our consumers safe is one of the most important responsibilities of a food business. Whether you run a local restaurant or a multinational food business, I hope the last thing you want to do is to make your customer ill or worse. 

In my last article I discussed the top five factors that the CDC considers the most important causes of foodborne illnesses. These risk factors apply to consumers as well as to food businesses.

The first CDC risk factors was “Holding at an Improper storage temperature”. What does that mean?

I call this food safety factor, the “keep hot food hot and cold food cold” rule. 

Holding your food at an improper temperature means holding food in the temperature danger zone (40 to 140 F which is 5 to 60 C) for too long, (2 hours or more).. If you are making food to store for longer than 2 h, you must cool it down as food that is kept hot keeps cooking and the bacteria can keep growing. For the quality perspective, think about when you have put food in a oven to keep warm when your kids are late for dinner. It isn’t very attractive after an hour, is it?

Food manufacturers make sure that any food they heat to process is quickly cooled to refrigerated temperatures, below the danger zone. This need to cool quickly doesn’t apply to a hot fill process or an aseptic process because the kill step and the packaging ensure that no bacteria are present to grow as the food cools down through the danger zone. An example of a hot fill process might be bottled barbeque sauce or jams and jellies.

Other places in the production flow where the “holding at an improper temperature” might occur putting our consumers at risk in when we receive refrigerated or frozen product and when we thaw frozen ingredients. As responsible food processors, we monitor the temperature of food to make sure that it arrives cold or frozen and we make sure that food is thawed either slowly in a refrigerator or more quickly under running cold water. We follow the recommendations of how to cool hot food down and we don’t store high risk food in the danger zone.

Are you holding food at a proper temperature? If you are not 100% sure and you are not keeping records, you MUST book a call NOW so we can address this immediately. The health of your consumers and the survival of your business depends on you preparing food properly and keeping good records.

Words say "Be Safe. Wear a mask. Wash your damn hands. Eat a health diet. Remember: Food Safety First. Non-compliance = Death."

What are five things you can do to produce safe food?

Food on a table at a buffet. Hopefully it has been prepared and held at the right temperatures.
Buffet food must be held at the right temperature. What else do food entrepreneurs need to do to make their food safe? Image from Pixabay.

As food entrepreneurs we have the responsibility to make and sell safe food. The overwhelming wealth of information about how to make our food safe makes it hard to filter out the best way to make safe and tasty food.

The CDC’s five top foodborne illness risk factors which would be good to avoid if you are producing food for other people to eat. Start with these five when you are beginning to develop a new food product to ensure that it will be safe from day one. 

The top five risk factors towards causing a foodborne illness outbreak are:

  1. Holding at an Improper storage
  2. Cooking/processing at an improper temperature
  3. Contaminated utensils and equipment
  4. Poor Employee Health and Hygiene 
  5. Food from Unsafe Sources

Over the next few weeks I shall write more about how we, as food entrepreneurs, can prevent each one of these five factors from happening in our processing facility. Make sure you are following this blog!!

Food thermometer in orange juice checking that it is cold.
Measuring temperature is an important food safety process. Image by CDavies

Let’s start by looking at the Food Safety Partnerships four steps that consumers must take to ensure their food is safe. There is quite a bit of overlap with the CDC factors. The recommendations for consumers are to cook, chill, clean, and separate

Cook is cooking to the right temperature

Chill is storing at the right temperature

Clean means not using contaminated utensils and equipment and WASH your damn hands

Separate means avoiding cross contamination and storing food so that raw meat juices, for example, aren’t dripping onto your lettuce

One thing we have all learned from COVID-19 is that public safety is being considered in ways it never was before. This means food safety is more important than in the past. Do not risk losing your business & potentially killing someone because of a silly food safety mishap – schedule your food safety chat now.

Be safe. Wear a mask. Wash your damn hands. Eat a healthy diet.

Remember: Food Safety First.

Non-compliance = Death