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Food Safety in the Produce Industry: Application of novel technologies to enhance food safety programs from grower to processor
Takashi Nakamura, VP Food Safety, Fresh Del Monte
Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is espousing a new era of food safety that includes tech-enabled traceability, smarter tools and approaches for prevention and outbreak response, new business models and retail modernization, and food safety culture. This new era is encouraging more collaboration with the industry, growers, and vendors while elevating the field for more science and data-based decision making.
At Fresh Del Monte we welcome this new approach and actively engage in deploying rigorous food safety mitigation programs while also endeavoring to continuously improve our programs through innovation.
With the FDA’s upcoming FSMA 204 requirements in traceability, we started—over a year ago—to systematically and methodically review several technological platforms that will not only ensure our compliance with regulatory requirements, but also allow us more transparency to our customers and consumers. Tech-enabled traceability will allow us to track products from field to fork more accurately in less time (hours to minutes) while reducing waste, enhancing transparency to the supply chain, and limiting the scope of any potential recall.
We are also incorporating technology that will allow us active management and monitoring of key critical control points in a process at the facility level, one of the foundations for maintaining a high level of food safety readiness.
The ability to have real-time active management of critical control points using sensors anywhere, at any time, has assisted in maintaining industry food safety programs. One critical control point that we manage, in large part through an active monitoring and management system, is chlorine levels.
Chlorine has been widely studied and deployed in the fresh produce industry for many years to ensure we don’t cross-contaminate our products during the washing process. There is an established minimum level of chlorine required to appropriately mitigate the growth of pathogens. Many of our facilities around the world leverage equipment and sensors that allow for active monitoring and management of chlorine levels. It is important to note that the fresh produce industry does not employ a “kill” step in the processing and packaging of its product line, nor is one commonly employed at the consumer end depending on the type of produce product. A kill step is a minimum 4 log reduction in microbes. For example, for a million microbes, 4 log reduction would mean that the colony of one million is reduced to 100 or a 99.99% reduction and 5 log reduction would mean that the colony of one million is reduced to 10 or a 99.999% reduction.
Tech-enabled traceability will allow us to track products from field to fork more accurately in less time (hours to minutes) while reducing waste, enhancing transparency to the supply chain, and limiting the scope of any potential recall
Active chlorine level monitoring and management gives us the visibility to see our facilities’ compliance with established mitigation programs, while also highlighting the speed and effectiveness of corrective actions where deviations occur. These active systems are also used in partnership with Operations and Engineering to continuously improve operations through training, equipment, and personnel development.
The area of food safety in produce is constantly evolving and adapting, much like the pathogens we seek to control. Consumer perception of “fresh” is based on limited to no processing from field to fork, availability for seasonal products year around, sourcing locally to internationally, and larger product offerings.
Food safety is the number one priority for Fresh Del Monte and our industryas a whole, and a renewed focus on this has made a difference.For example, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported investigations into ten multi-state food-borne outbreaks in 2020, 19 outbreak investigations in 2019, and 24 outbreaks in 2018. The general group of pathogens of focus in the produce industry are E. Coli, Salmonella, and Listeria (40% of outbreaks were E. Coli related, 30% were Salmonella related, and 20% were Listeria related).
The FDA database also has strong evidence that the industryis doing more diligence in food safety. There were fewer recalled food products in 2020, a trend that continues over the last several years. In other parts of the world, the European Union showed a decrease in food recalls from 2019 to 2020 of 3,484 to 3,414, and the United Kingdom from 179 to 146 in the same time period. While the produce industry has initiated recalls during the past three years, most have been as a result of precaution and diligence for consumer health and wellness, rather than any health impact to consumers.
While we regularly use adenosine triphosphate (ATP) testing to validate the cleaning and sanitation process, we are constantly evaluating and employing newer technologies that are pathogen specific with results in hours rather than days. Traditional ATP testing is a very quick and effective tool to measure the presence of any living cells. Under the supervision of a trained and experienced team member, ATP testing is effective and ensures the appropriate and safe transfer of equipment from the cleaning andsanitation team back to operations.Equipment that can test for specific pathogens, rather than just ATP, are increasingly becoming available in the market at more affordable prices, approved by the government, and have fast response times. This will allow us to increase the speed of detecting specific pathogens (in less than 24 hours) therefore deploying corrective actions and root cause analysis faster, while also performing a larger quantity of tests.
Fresh Del Monte is strategically leveraging advances in material science that will enable faster and more efficient cleaning and sanitizing, while also incorporating antibacterial qualities that prevent the growth of pathogens. .Advances in technology and innovations in detecting pathogens, has resulted in Fresh Del Monte engaging with the next generation of students. We develop networks with universities while also pursuing opportunities for underrepresented minorities. We are developing a program to engage with future leaders in science and technology through programs such as competitions where the next generation solve current issues. As the industry becomes more data and science based, and with consumers demanding more options in the fresh space, Fresh Del Monte is well poised for the future of food safety internally and externally. Like the pathogens we seek to control, Fresh Del Monte is facing the challenges in food safety by adapting and evolving.
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