How to Improve Safety in Food Manufacturing

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The USDA has already confirmed more than 30 recalls and health alerts in 2019. These have encompassed everything from ground beef and packaged chicken strips to romaine lettuce and bagged spinach, and everything in between. That number doesn't even include all the voluntary recalls individual food manufacturers have put in place. The industry as a whole seems to be experiencing a massive problem with food safety. How can companies in the food manufacturing industry improve food processing safety and storage without compromising quality or increasing costs?

Pre-Harvest and Processing Interventions

Pathogens on some food products may seem inevitable, such as salmonella on raw chicken because the poultry excretes the microorganism naturally. However, some professional interventions — both before harvesting and during processing — can reduce the risk that these might become problematic for consumers.

Competitive exclusion uses a specific diet, breeding or both for poultry to encourage healthy bacteria growth in the animals' gut, which prevents the growth of foodborne illness-causing organisms like salmonella from being able to thrive. These microorganisms don't harm the chicken, but they can be dangerous or even fatal for humans. For cattle, the FDA approved an E. coli vaccine in 2009, which reduced the number of animals that tested positive for the microorganism by 85%.

Once the animals get harvested, chlorinated compounds and anti-bacterial carcass sprays can keep microbial growth to a minimum, but as recent events have shown, these aren't sufficient to prevent contaminated products from reaching the public.

IoT for Processing and Transportation

The Internet of Things is making its way into nearly every industry, including food manufacturing. This network of connected sensors and devices can help reduce food safety risks. IoT sensors can provide real-time data on the temperature of any given food product, helping keep it in the temperature-safe zone that inhibits microorganism growth. If the temperature gets too high or low — or even approaches that point — managers and supervisors receive alerts so they can rectify the problem before it results in a recall or a catastrophic loss.

With the average food recall costing more than $10 million, using IoT and upgrading the cold chain monitoring systems could save food manufacturing companies millions or billions of dollars every year.

Eliminate Contamination Risk

Foodborne illness affects 9 million Americans every year and costs an average of $55.5 billion in medical bills annually. For facilities like bottling plants that use air compressors, atmospheric contamination — including dirt, water vapor, oil vapor and other microorganisms — is a sincere concern.

Air compressors require correct installation and maintenance to eliminate the contamination risk. The most significant risk of air compressor is in ready-to-eat foods like cereal and marshmallows, things that don't get cooked before people consume them. These products need the highest-quality purified air to prevent the kind of contamination that triggers mandatory recalls.

Improving Industrial Automation Systems

Industrial automation in the food manufacturing industry, by its very nature, enhances food safety. It provides better quality control than human employees while reducing the chances of workplace injuries and inadvertent contamination. It does have its downsides, though, including needing regular cleaning to prevent microorganism growth. It only takes one person not following the equipment sterilization operating procedure to compromise the integrity of the production system.

Improving food production automation systems, including using IoT sensors to detect when and if crew members carry out maintenance, sterilization and cleaning, will reduce the number of occurrences of processing contamination. Networked IoT sensors can also detect temperature, humidity and, in some cases, the presence of microorganisms that could cause foodborne illness.

FDA Food Safety Modernization

Supply chain transparency is becoming more crucial than ever when it comes to food safety. It's also no longer optional. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which focuses on reducing foodborne illness outbreaks, in response to the fact that one out of every six people falls ill from one of these microorganisms every year.

Instead of responding to foodborne illness outbreaks after they happen, the FSMA requires food manufacturers to be proactive in preventing them from happening in the first place. The most significant step food manufacturers can take to improve food safety is to study the FSMA rules and adhere to them. The FDA hopes this proactive approach will shrink the growing number of foodborne illness outbreaks in the next 10 years.

Looking Toward the Future

Foodborne illness outbreaks are becoming more common. While FDA legislation is changing the way food manufacturers respond to these outbreaks, it's up to each company to improve their processes to ensure the food that makes it to grocery stores and into the hands of consumers is free of dangerous microorganisms like salmonella, E. coli and listeria.

Megan Nichols

Megan Nichols is a technical writer and blogger. She writes about engineering, science and technology topics. Megan is also editor of Schooled By Science, an easy to understand science blog. With Schooled By Science she hopes to encourage others to learn more about STEM subjects.

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