6 FAQs About Biosecurity

Mar 5, 2019

By John Mason. This article was originally published on foodqualityandsafety.com and has been reposted to the PathSensors blog. All credit goes to John Mason as well as the Food Quality & Safety website.

Q: Why are biosecurity-related incidents on the rise in the food industry despite so many layers of protection and increased regulatory compliance requirements?

A: It is likely that in many cases the contamination has always been there, so it can’t be said for certain that contamination itself is on the rise. The industry is detecting contamination more often than it did before because it has higher detection capabilities and higher frequency of testing than was previously the case.

However, pesticide residuals are now more tightly regulated. It is possible that the industry is seeing more organisms come into facilities or these organisms could become resistant to the conventional sanitation approaches used pre-processing. The drive towards organic and the drive towards the fresh-to-market concept also contribute to a higher potential for bacterial contamination because the products are less processed.

Regardless of the reason or reasons, now that companies are discovering contamination in their facilities, they have to address it. In addition, if they haven’t discovered contamination, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are contamination-free, or couldn’t become contaminated tomorrow or the day after.

Q: What are the most vulnerable entry-points pathogen contaminants can penetrate food processing and manufacturing plants?

A: Pathogens can penetrate either with the product being processed or with the people associated with it. People do carry pathogens. That is why, for example, hand sanitation and all the prepping of personnel before handling the product are so important.

The product is vulnerable to cross-contamination during the production stage. Improper wastewater or fertilization methods of the product can happen at the production facility it originated from. Cross-contamination can also occur during the transportation stage. Trucks may have been contaminated either coming in or going out of facilities.

Cross-contamination can also occur in the plant itself in the form of latent materials, such as dust or dirt, that go undetected until sampling a specific location and looking for that kind of airborne contamination to mitigate it before it becomes a problem. For example, in dry storage facilities, dust can be transported in an airborne fashion to the commodity being processed.

It is probably not possible to monitor, or even know every possible entry point, or, at a minimum, do so in a cost-efficient manner. That is why periodic, proactive decontamination is emerging as a best practice for processors.

Q: What are the limitations of the prevalent sanitation practices in use during sanitation cycles? Are there emerging or alternative methods that address these limitations?

A: Currently, the processing industry utilizes liquid-based sanitation methods, which are limited in their penetration, ease of coverage, and degree of sanitation effectiveness. The contaminated area is isolated and treated along with people working in the area. What happens if there’s a big problem, such as Listeria or Salmonella, but you cannot actually find it? Therefore you do not know which area/surfaces to isolate and treat?

Gas-based sterilization solutions directly address this limitation. Gas inherently goes everywhere. It penetrates everything and when properly applied there is not a spot that is left untouched, including all the places that are otherwise hard to get to, such as air ducts or underneath the cutting boards. Gas-based deployment decreases the risk of human error (for instance, missing a contaminated area that can be very small in size and still provide a significant contamination threat) and ensures consistent and correct application throughout the facility by penetrating all types of surfaces, including the porous ones. Unlike liquid sterilants, gas does not move contaminants around. Gas-based sterilization is also easier and faster to apply while ultimately being less expensive than manually wiping down thousands of square feet of processing floor space. It is for this reason that gas greatly facilitates proactive and preventative sanitation in addition to its advantages in reacting to a contamination event.

Finally, when you say sterilization you really want it to mean, “I have eliminated 99.99 percent of every piece of dirt or dust that could be a contamination threat.” Sterilization achieved by gas provides a higher level of sanitation and decontamination than other methods. BioWALL proved that by decontaminating the Senate Office Building, NBC, the National Enquirer, and various post offices infected with Anthrax in 2001. There was absolutely zero margin for error in that environment—any residual contamination would likely have resulted in death for those reinhabiting those buildings.

Q: What specific preventive measures should quality assurance and food safety managers and food plant managers undertake to manage risks in their own facilities?

A: Continuously step up sampling methods and look at airborne samples to detect what’s being spread around. Even though you did not have a recall, it does not mean that there are no latent threats that could potentially develop into a much bigger issue.

Use a gas-based approach during the required weekly or monthly high-level sanitations and use the liquid-based approach during the daily one. Facilities are required to conduct weekly or monthly high-level sanitations. Those would be the best times to use a gas-based approach to eliminate all the pathogens that could be working and not give them a chance to build up.

Go into critical control mode during routine testing. If areas have been identified as known problem areas, you should constantly test those areas to preserve a contamination-free space. Do not just “administratively pass tests” by sampling for physical contaminants. Challenge those routines by adding known very-resistant pathogen surrogates and make sure that they are killed.

Q. Why does preventive biosecurity planning matter?

A: Look at the cost of a potential risk and ask yourself how much is your brand worth to you, what are you doing to protect it, and what is the degree of “surety” you want that there isn’t any contamination in the plant?

Barriers are needed all along the way. It is the segmentation of those barriers that provides the protection needed to safeguard the quality of your product, your reputation, the overall costs of recalls or production downtime, and public health.

The industry needs to move toward protection and prevention, and away from response.

Q. What will food processing biosecurity look like in the next two or three years?

A: Experts within the food industry are currently being tasked with solving the questions posed here. As a result, the industry will continue to advance its efforts and safeguards to protect brands and consumers. Additionally, the increased regulatory presence will help drive adaptation of technologies. There are solutions to these issues—it is about providing the industry with comprehensive tools to address them.

Mason is chief science officer at BioWall, LLC and Sabre Intellectual Property Holdings, LLC. Regarded as a leading authority on chlorine dioxide, Mason has been the lead technical advisor to governmental agencies and commercial businesses on numerous events, ranging from U.S. Capitol anthrax attack, to large agribusiness viral contaminations, to biosecurity protocols and onsite evaluation of former Soviet Union weapons facilities. Reach him at 212-925-6900.

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