Microorganisms, by their nature and definition, can’t be seen by the eye but can wreak all kinds of havoc. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 3,000 deaths and 48 million illnesses per year can be linked to foodborne illness caused by harmful pathogens.

One hurdle standing in the way of contamination and cross-contamination is the deployment of testing for both products and the environment in which they are processed and handled.

If the meat and poultry industry has been tested over the years with major recalls, foodborne illness outbreaks, rising concerns about allergens and stringent regulations, testing itself has become a key tool in ensuring food safety. New technologies are enabling more rapid, accurate tests, coming at the same time manufacturers are faced with different regulations and sustained interest in food safety throughout the farm-to-plate chain, from consumers to retailers and foodservice operators to legislators.

Similar to a test one might take in school, long-term knowledge is just as important as what is gauged in a food-safety test. To that end, product and environmental testing – including sampling and swabbing – encompass a variety of factors and features.

Laws and SOPs

“There are three sides to this that I see,” says food-safety and HACCP consultant Billy Nolen of Billy G. Nolen Associates in Chicago, of advances and utilization of sampling and swabbing. “First, there is what is expected by law. Second, there are the standard operating procedures for the industry. And then there is the need for acredited labs to do the testing.”

As far as food-safety regulations go, the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law by the president in 2011 but not yet fully implemented, calls for more preventive controls, such as third-party testing.

Mike Clark, market development manager for Bio-Rad Laboratories Inc., Hercules, Calif., says the pending FSMA has already spurred some changes. “Now, you’re seeing more manufacturers, including some of the bigger ones, take advantage of the time that has been given to them before full implementation and being proactive,” he reports, adding, “Some of them are going a step beyond what will be required, too.”

William Hogan, president and CEO of FoodChek Systems Inc., Calgary, Canada, says that although its implementation has been delayed, the act’s implications should be duly noted. “It’s still being lobbied, but at some point, rules will be set and processors will have to have a clear mandate on what they can and cannot do to produce the safest beef,” he observes.

Meanwhile, standard operating procedures in place at meat and poultry plants typically incorporate sampling and swabbing as part of food-safety programs and HACCP plans. The frequency and type of testing, of course, depends on the product; raw ground beef will have different sampling methods than ready-to-eat foods, for example.

Kurt Westmoreland, a microbiologist and vice president of sales and marketing for Chicago-based Silliker Inc., agrees. “It is difficult to put a defined overall frequency of sampling as sampling schemes are typically specific to the individual plant, their customer base and requirements, and the type of products manufactured,” Westmoreland points out.

One example of a proactive testing effort comes from Hogan’s partnership between his FoodChek Systems and Rastelli Foods Group of Swedesboro, NJ. Together, the organizations are launching a Food Chek Test-It program, an ISO-type process that extends directly to the end-user. “The deli products from Rastelli will have a quality mark, and consumers can use their smart phone and go to the Test-It page on our website, where they can learn about the safety of the product,” he explains, adding that educating consumers about proper handling is also a part of the program.

At Columbus Foods in Hayward, Calif., the ready-to-eat meat processing areas are sampled regularly through a system that has worked well for the operation over the past couple of years. “We do weekly samples of RTE production areas, sending them to our lab for testing for Listeria,” explains director of quality Paul Wolfert, adding that all food-contact and non-food-contact surfaces are swabbed every week, and the protocol has worked because of both advanced equipment and employee and plant management buy-in.

Validating and verifying

To Nolen’s third point, a linchpin of food-safety testing in many plants is independent validation and verification. Westmoreland, for his part, says that adage of quality over quantity can apply to food-safety testing. “The answer to a good program is not always more testing or always using the same test profile for all products. For example, environmental programs should be targeted to ensure the most indicative areas of the plant are sampled versus just swabbing randomly and possibly swabbing sites that bring no real value to the program. Likewise, products should be looked at on an individual basis and test profiles developed for each product type, as well as the risk of the product,” he explains.

According to Westmoreland, higher-risk products would be tested more frequently, but lower-risk products may have a less frequent sampling scheme and more limited test profile, thereby impacting testing costs for processors.

As processors use product and environmental testing that meets their needs, they are ever-keen on the need for speed. “Manufacturers are looking at faster time to results and what can help them with workflow,” says Clark.

To that end, Bio-Rad recently launched the iQ-Check Prep, a liquid-handling platform that speeds food-pathogen testing by automating the DNA extraction and PCR plate set-up for their real-time PCR kits. “It allows processors to do up to 500 samples in an eight-hour day,” notes Clark, adding that flexibility is tied into speed, in terms of doing more in less time. Also related to speed: real-time monitoring that can improve reaction time.

“Holding product costs the company money – the faster they can turn it round, the better off they are. So companies are putting pressure on labs to do it as quickly as they can,” Nolen says.

Westmoreland, from his vantage point at a laboratory, says speed remains a priority in the meat and poultry industry. “The use of rapid methods, and really the most rapid methods, continues to grow as clients work to get product out the door more quickly,” he declares. That said, Westmoreland cautions processors to consider not just the speed and accuracy of the method, but whether it’s been validated or verified for use with the sample size requested and the product matrix in question.

While environmental and product testing has gotten faster, processors remain mindful of margins, especially in light of the recession and slow recovery. To those who might push back on the cost of testing, safety experts point to the costs of a recall compared to an investment in food-safety tools like sampling and swabbing. “Part of the financial model for processors is protecting their brand, and the way to do that is through validation,” Hogan notes.

As food safety continues to percolate as an issue, processors are also keeping a closer eye on allergens, an issue that likewise impacts sampling and swabbing. “We are seeing more with allergens and have increased our use of these types of methodologies,” Wolfert reports.

For instance, even though no wheat is used in the production of ready-to-eat meat products from Columbus Foods, interest is high in labels that include gluten-free verbiage. “Our customers are driving certification of the packaging label. To do that, we have to go to a third party to make sure there is no cross-contamination from an ingredient we’re buying. If you’re using pepper as an ingredient, for example, does that have gluten in it somewhere?” Wolfert remarks.

Nolen concurs that allergens are the next wave for product and environmental testing “There’s been a bit of an awakening,” he says.