Environmental pathogen testing is a vital step in monitoring and controlling contamination on food processing facilities. It’s a proactive way to mitigate the risk of unsafe products making their way to shelves and ultimately in the kitchens of consumers.
FDA recommends environmental monitoring and product testing as ways to verify control of harmful contamination in food processing facilities.
Often, organizations focus on testing for Listeria, particularly in ready-to-eat (RTE) foods, because of its prevalence and its ability to survive even in adverse conditions. But foodborne illness isn’t limited to Listeria, of course. There are several other tests that should be considered for a robust environmental monitoring program. Depending on your facility and the types of food you are working with, it may be beneficial to up your monitoring game and include more types of tests.
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Here are five proactive tests you should consider running instead of or in addition to testing for Listeria.
Environmental Pathogen Testing Beyond Listeria
1. Salmonella, E. coli, and Coliform
Effective environmental pathogen testing programs are specific to the risks related to the product and facility. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Besides Listeria, consideration should be given to monitoring for other organisms such as Salmonella, E. coli, Enterobacteriaceae, and Coliform, or others. Stopping these pathogens before they reach consumers can be the literal difference between life and death, as some of them are antimicrobial-resistant and can be dangerous to human health.
Testing for these additional pathogens is important, particularly in a dry facility producing low-moisture foods. Raw meat and poultry products are typically associated with Salmonella, though recent outbreaks have been associated with peanut butter, spices, and powdered milk. It’s important to remain vigilant in your sanitation practices and your monitoring program to keep foodborne illness at bay.
2. Yeasts and Molds
Microbiology testing is always important in finished product safety programs, but it’s also a great way to check that your facility is not inadvertently harboring dangerous mycotoxins that can make their way into the food. Yeasts and molds are particularly prevalent in warm, damp and humid conditions, and can pass through to humans in meat and dairy products. Cooking and freezing don’t destroy mycotoxins, so testing products frequently is critical.
3. Airborne Microorganisms
Airborne pathogens can infiltrate food processing facilities through HVAC systems, raw materials, and even employees and equipment. Bioaerosols like Bacillus and Clostridium and viruses like norovirus and hepatitis A are common airborne contaminants. Storage environments are particularly susceptible to airborne microorganism contamination, as RTE foods do not undergo a final treatment to ensure safety prior to consumption.
4. ATP Monitoring
Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) swabbing is helpful in conjunction with microbiological swabbing for a more comprehensive approach to risk mitigation. When performing ATP testing, you are assessing the general cleanliness of your facility and equipment.
ATP monitoring utilizes a rapid bioluminescence-based testing schedule that detects the presence and amount of energy that exists in living cells. If high levels of organic residues are present in your plant, this could indicate potential contamination. Test results for ATP are ready in seconds, and are a quick way to determine if further testing is needed in a particular area of your facility.
5. APC and Indicator Organisms
Assessing Aerobic Plate Count (APC) and testing for other indicator organisms can ensure your sanitation procedures are adequate and give you a clearer picture of the cleanliness of your facility. APC does not differentiate types of bacteria, but a high APC can indicate potential health hazards and point to the need for additional pathogen testing.
Indicator organisms are organisms whose presence tend to coincide with pathogens or spoilage. They act as an early warning sign of food contamination, and are typically much easier to identify, particularly in large areas or batches of product.
APC and indicator organisms are typically more abundant than pathogens in a food processing facility. Results are quantitative, not just positive or negative, so you can track trends over time. When taking samples, you can use the same swab to test for indicators, while pathogens will need individual swabs for each one.
The Risk of Insufficient Monitoring
No one wants to find out weeks after a product hits the market that there is an outbreak. Recalls are extremely expensive and a major problem for a company’s reputation — not to mention the significant health risk the contaminated food poses to consumers.
Proper environmental monitoring techniques help to keep that from happening. Having a plan in place for if/when a sample comes back positive can mean the difference between an effective response and a major catastrophe.
Setting up your environmental pathogen testing program should be a thoughtful, thorough exercise. Depending on the type of food your facility produces and the conditions that are inherent to your plant, a customized, documented set of processes should be in place and communicated to your entire staff. Sticking with a regular sampling schedule and identifying the proper tests to run can help keep your products safe for customers.
Find the Right Lab Partner
Barrow-Agee Laboratories helps you understand specific risks and the right tests to include in your environmental pathogen testing program. We work with you to develop a robust plan to keep your products — and your customers — as safe as possible, so that you reduce the possibility of expensive recalls and reputation hits.
Our online results portal gives you fast access to test results, which we typically turn around in five days or less. With several industry-relevant accreditations, certifications and proficiency testing programs, Barrow-Agee delivers you accurate results, every time.