From indicator organisms to harmful pathogens and heavy metals, safety for food needs to cover a lot of ground.
Food safety testing is a vital component in maintaining the health and wellbeing of consumers, and an important part of quality assurance processes for food product manufacturers. More and more consumers now identify with the importance of testing food, how it’s transported, and the facilities where it’s produced before it enters their home and eventually their bodies.
Food safety testing covers many facets. The United States Department of Agriculture defines food safety as the condition and practices that preserve not only the quality of the food being sent to consumers but also the practices that ensure the prevention of contamination from potentially hazardous materials/compounds, as well as bacterial/viruses that could make consumers sick.
Microbiology testing identifies living organisms and pathogens that can adversely affect consumers and affect the quality of food being sent out. Chemistry testing will find other contaminants, like heavy metals, that also impact consumers and the quality of the product. Environmental monitoring assessments take a look at the facilities where food products are made.
With the cost of food recalls staggering for businesses, it’s essential they do everything they can to mitigate that risk. Food safety testing covers a lot of ground, but needs to in order to give consumers confidence in the products they buy and protect companies from the damage done should contamination occur.
Today we’ll examine some of the many facets of food safety testing from early indicator organisms to post-processed confectionery treats.
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Indicator Organisms Provide Early Warning
Testing for pathogens is a vital part of food safety and quality assurance. However, it may not always be feasible to test large areas or batches of product. In situations where more frequent testing or large-scale testing isn’t possible, testing for indicator organisms in food can act as an early warning sign for situations of possible contamination or spoilage.
Indicator organisms in food are typically much easier to test for than pathogens themselves and can be used to evaluate both the quality of the food product (i.e. for spoilage) and the safety of the environment. Typically, these indicator organisms point to microbial loads and sources of contamination within a production environment. They include coliforms, enterobacteriaceae, yeasts and molds, and lactic acid bacteria (LAB).
Testing for indicator organisms is done primarily through the total viable count on surface measurement. This is a good indicator of hygiene in an area of food production, as it describes the number of colony-forming units of the organism within a defined space. This is often synonymous with the aerobic count, which modifies this approach by indicating the number of colony-forming units in a sample during incubation at ideal growing temperatures. This approach can help determine the presence of microbes as well as the environmental conditions for their growth.
Testing for indicator organisms can also be performed through air testing to identify the presence of these organisms within your facility’s environment. It’s important to remember that these organisms can spread through the air, accelerated by heavy traffic and air systems that move air around inside.
Mycotoxins are a Persistent, Stubborn Threat
Dangerous toxins can be found in food crops at any stage in the supply chain, which is why a regular schedule of food safety testing is vital to the health of the public. One such class of toxins, Mycotoxins, are naturally occurring compounds produced by certain types of molds that can appear on many kinds of agricultural products.
Mycotoxins in food products — the mold commonly affects items like cereals, fruit, soybeans, cereals, wheat, and coffee beans — is a serious concern. Mycotoxins can be extremely harmful and even fatal for humans and animals, capable of causing acute poisoning as well as long-term effects like certain kinds of cancers, immune deficiency, and organ damage. Human exposure happens directly through eating infected foods or indirectly through animal or animal byproduct consumption; for example, consuming milk from a cow that ate contaminated grains.
Health risks from mycotoxins in food can be mitigated through proper testing, inspection, drying, and storage. Mycotoxin molds can penetrate beyond the surface of the food and can occur before or after harvest, during storage, or on or in the food itself under warm, damp, and humid conditions. While there are standards set for the maximum safe level of mycotoxins in foods, it is important that farms, food processors, distributors, and other food industry businesses conduct proper testing because of the mold’s ability to penetrate deeply into food products.
Cooking and freezing won’t destroy mycotoxins as they would some other pathogens and toxins. Analyzing mycotoxins in food presents some challenges, as mold toxins are naturally occurring contaminants. In addition, they are not uniformly spread throughout products and can cause serious damage even at very low levels. These factors make it extremely important to properly sample and test products, and to do so frequently.
Produce Testing Remains a Necessity
Fruits and vegetables are nutrient-dense foods that provide energy and promote good general health. Often low in calories and unneeded factors like fats and sugars, they are essential parts of our lives and proper diets. But while eating raw vegetables and fruit is part of a healthy lifestyle, it’s key to remember that doing so also comes with a real risk of harmful bacteria.
According to a 2018 CDC study, produce — categorized by the CDC as fruits and nuts, leafy, fungi, root, sprout, and vine-stalk vegetables — was responsible for more foodborne illness than any other food group. Produce was responsible for 46 percent of all foodborne illnesses during the study period (1998–2008) and trailed only meat and poultry (29 to 23 percent) in terms of the deaths they were responsible for.
In recent years, the strain E. coli O157:H7 has been the culprit in a series of leafy green safety recalls. As such, E. coli produce testing remains top of mind for food producers. For any company that works with raw produce, it’s just one of many potential pathogens to be cognizant of, including Salmonella, Listeria, and Noroviruses.
A regular food safety testing program is the best way to protect produce from physical, chemical and, of course, bacterial contamination at each stage of the supply chain to ensure the health of your consumers as well as the profitability of your business. A complete food safety program can provide information about the environment, process, and product while also identifying any potential contaminants.
Food Safety Testing Should Include Heavy Metals
Microbiological threats, like bacterias, aren’t the only harmful elements that need to be accounted for in comprehensive food safety testing programs. For example, heavy metals testing has drawn new scrutiny in the last year due to a recent Congressional investigation that detailed how four leading baby food manufacturers sold products containing high levels of toxic heavy metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury.
All four of the heavy metals have been previously linked to cancer, chronic disease, and neurotoxic effects when exposure rises past acceptable levels. Heavy metals, in this context, refer to any metallic chemical element that has a relatively high density and is toxic or poisonous at low concentration levels. The most common heavy metals in this realm consist of the four previously mentioned — lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury. Other examples include chromium and thallium.
Some heavy metals — think of copper or zinc — are essential to maintain the metabolism of the human body. And heavy metals are natural components in the Earth’s crust layer. But all heavy metals cannot be degraded or destroyed. This means heavy metals tend to bioaccumulate. Since they don’t devolve, such metals increase in concentration in a biological organism over time compared to the environment. In living things, heavy metals accumulate faster than they are broken down (metabolized) or excreted.
Heavy metals can be acquired via trace amounts in the food chain, drinking water contamination, or ambient air concentrations near emission sources. With this in mind, it’s important for food manufacturers to employ heavy metals testing in all aspects of their production chain. From soil and water samples used to grow crops that go into finished products to the components of a given product, to the finished product itself.
Don’t Forget About the Sweets
We often think about food safety testing as it relates to the staples of the average diet — proteins, grains, and fruits and vegetables. However, it’s just as important to consider all the sweet treats that we eat. It’s here that confectionery microbiology testing is important to ensure that the foods we love the most remain safe to consume.
Some dessert foods are more susceptible to pathogens than others. Cream-based icings, certain types of cakes, chocolates, and nuts all carry higher risk because they use raw or undercooked ingredients. Likewise, any confectionery products that use raw fruits or vegetables may carry a higher likelihood of contamination.
Raw materials are typically processed by heat before they’re used in confectionery products. Salmonella has high heat resistance in low-moisture foods compared to high-moisture foods when high fat, sugar, or salt are also included. This means that many dessert products have the perfect combination of ingredients to make Salmonella particularly resistant to thermal elimination.
Once the ingredients themselves are determined to be safe and the confectionery product is processed, there still may be a risk of microbial contamination. High-moisture bakery items are more susceptible to microbiological spoilage by bacteria, yeast, and molds. To ensure the highest level of safety, it’s best practice to have strong sanitation policies in place to limit the exposure of microorganisms to the finished products from the environment and employees.
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Get Complete Food Safety Testing Assistance from Barrow-Agee
Barrow-Agee Laboratories is equipped to provide timely, high-quality testing in any area to ensure the safety of your food products. Our microbiology testing laboratory analyzes raw materials, ingredients, finished products, and environmental swab samples for pathogens. From meat, dairy, and confectionery to animal feeds, pet food, and pharmaceuticals, our organic chemistry analysis laboratory supports your efforts to protect consumer health with comprehensive testing services. Our food ingredient analysis takes a deep look at the nutritional values and flavor profiles as well as the chemical, microbial, and physical properties of your food products to make sure that they meet your high standards.
At Barrow-Agee, we perform thousands of analyses per year and can complete most tests within one business week. Our long track record, along with our long list of accreditations and certifications, ensures that when you work with us you’re getting an experienced and proven team to provide you high-quality assistance in food safety testing — no matter the scope or task.