HARM Part 4: Hurdle Technology

I have written three articles about how we can use food processing to make our food safer and I call these the HARM series because Heat, Acid and Reduced Moisture are the main ways we can reduce the risk of foodborne illness. There are other ways, such as adding preservatives, high pressure processing, or specialized packaging which require specialized equipment or food science knowledge and typically are not what I would suggest first to my clients. 

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HARM Part 3! Reduced Moisture

In my last blog post I discussed the safety of fruit and vegetables and the importance of acidity in their food safety. I referred back to “A” post of my HARM series. I realized that I never finished the series as there is no “RM” post. The pandemic obviously affected more than my ability to visit my clients.

Reducing the moisture content or lowering how much water is present is, along with heating and adding acid, another way of extending the shelf life of food products and preventing foodborne illness. 

A line of jams in bottles. Hot fill requires the food to be hot when put in the hot jars.
Jams have lots of sugar which reduces the available moisture content. Image from Pixabay.

Bacteria and other microbes need water to survive just like we do. Reducing your moisture content can make your food safer and extend its shelf life.

One way to reduce the moisture content is dehydration. However, I personally don’t want all my food to be like packaged camp food. The good news is that we don’t have to! We do not have to completely dehydrate a food product to stop microorganisms from growing in it.

How do we know how much to reduce the moisture content to stop microorganisms?

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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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