Testing Services, Thought Leadership

Your Sample Tests Positive for Environmental Pathogens: Now What?

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A clear, well-developed environmental sampling program allows you to monitor your facility for signs of contamination by pathogens like Listeria and Salmonella. These pathogens are hearty and fast-spreading, which means a small problem can grow exponentially if it’s not detected and dealt with quickly. And since these are human pathogens, you do not want these in your environment unchecked. Any indication they may be present should be a cause for urgent action.

These pathogens can move from your facility into your product, and from your product through the supply chain, endangering operations and consumers alike. That’s why consistent, regular testing is essential. But what happens when your environmental pathogens testing results come back positive?

Record Data for Process Control

A positive test result for pathogens means you need to take quick, decisive action, both to identify hot spots within your operation and to remediate those points as quickly as possible. The first step in this process is the development of a data reporting system that can let you know, based on further testing, which areas of your system have been contaminated by the pathogen. You never want to assume that a contaminant is isolated to a single area.

Process control allows for repeated actions within a production line, smoothing operations and narrowing margins for a more efficient setup. However, when a contaminant is introduced, this kind of replicated process can allow that contaminant to spread more quickly, as products are moving in large batches through standardized equipment under identical conditions.

When you find a pathogen outbreak in the system, it’s helpful to immediately examine your process control and revise it as necessary to slow the spread. Note where the contamination point occurred, if possible, and other high-risk areas. If you determine what caused the contamination, use that information to inform adjustments in your documented process.

Up Your Environmental Hygiene

Receiving a positive environmental pathogens result doesn’t mean you did a bad job keeping your facility clean. It can happen even with high attention to sanitation processes. Pathogens are notoriously difficult to find and remove completely — the best you can do is to continue to test in various areas to monitor potential contamination points.

Food products can be contaminated by equipment, people, other products, or the processing and packing environment. Therefore, pay rigorous attention to cleanliness in high-touch areas as well as locations that may not be as obvious, as some pathogens may travel by air or through employee movement. If an issue is discovered, rapid isolation and neutralization of contaminants is important.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to taking corrective action toward contaminants. The FDA cautions that the corrective actions you take should always be contingent on your unique circumstances. Some options you might engage include intensive cleaning and sanitizing, a root cause analysis, hold and test procedures, and intensified sampling and testing. For L. monocytogenes (Listeria) in particular, the FDA suggests disassembly and thorough cleaning and sanitizing of any equipment, as this is a common source of this pathogen.

Learn, Adjust, and Move Forward

A risk-based corrective action plan as part of your environmental monitoring strategy can reduce future risk for repeat pathogen contamination. This plan should account for every possible contingency, including the number of positive results (a single, isolated positive, or many positive results?), the point of environmental contamination (a food contact surface?), and the proximity of contaminated non-FCS (food contact surfaces) to FCS that could spread the contamination into the food products.

This process is also referred to as zone sampling. Developed by the FDA, the zone concept is a way to find, remediate, and control contamination as it moves from the source to other areas within a facility. There are four zones, with the first being the product contact surfaces, zone 2 being areas adjacent to zone 1, zone 3 being areas in exposed rooms that are away from zone 1, and zone 4 being areas outside of the room wherein which the product was exposed.

Another common remediation strategy is vectoring — a process for identifying the sources and flow of environmental pathogens. When a positive is found, vector sampling begins on that surface, then proceeds on nearby areas. These tests shouldn’t only be performed on areas suspected of having the pathogen but on surrounding areas and high traffic areas, too. Tests should be performed repeatedly until the issue has been resolved.

When creating your own zone sampling strategy and plan, document step-by-step how you plan to use the information from the positive result to reduce the possibility of similar contamination in the future. Then, communicate the corrective action plan to your team at every level.

Perhaps equally important, do not use the positive environmental pathogens result as an indication of poor performance by team members. Noting that it can happen to any facility, use the opportunity to educate everyone on staff the ways to identify and remove the offensive contaminant and reduce risk of future issues. It takes everyone to keep a facility as contaminant-free as possible.

At Barrow-Agee Laboratories, we offer fast turnaround times for test results, which you can access quickly and easily through our designated online portal. You can use us as your primary lab for pathogen testing, or take advantage of our backup lab option if your own lab is behind schedule or overworked. Whatever option you choose, you’re in good hands. We stay up to date on the latest food safety testing technology and regulations, so you know you can trust us for accurate results.

We’d love to talk with you about keeping your facility safe, or developing a corrective action plan in the case of a positive environmental pathogens test. Contact the experts at Barrow-Agee for more information.

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Barrow-Agee Laboratories Staff
Barrow-Agee Laboratories is a laboratory testing services provider for numerous industries that support consumers and businesses alike. Whatever your testing needs may be, Barrow-Agee has the testing solution and support to help you get the results you need.