Despite the industry’s best efforts, foodborne illnesses and food recalls are regular occurrences. These instances are not only dangerous to public health, but also disastrous to business operations and brand reputations.
It is clear no one is immune to the problem. Fast food chain Chipotle is the latest company to garner national headlines for six outbreaks involving three different foodborne illness: E.coli, Salmonella and norovirus. In the midst of the crisis, the restaurant’s stock price has suffered. And while executives are working hard to address the problem — going so far as to shut down all 2,000 locations Feb. 8 for an all-staff food safety refresher — it remains to be seen if customers will return and if the business will truly recover.
Chipotle is just one cautionary tale among many. It is apparent the industry as a whole must do more to properly secure our global food chain.
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which President Obama signed into law in 2011, was a critical step forward. It addresses the single biggest factor needed for food supply safety success — a focus on proactive strategies to prevent recalls and illness outbreaks. Industry best practices have now been turned into law, and it is time that we work together to make it easy to implement the new regulations.
The FSMA furthers the push toward proactive food safety measures — forcing the FDA to extend beyond its traditional reactive role. For the first time, the FDA has the power to stop unsafe and possibly contaminated food from entering the food supply.
While the FSMA is made up of five primary provisions, the first, “Preventative Controls,” is the heart of the initiative as it focuses on the proactive steps needed and provides a framework for a successful food safety program. To best comply with these requirements, companies need to consider implementing better visualization, documentation and communication tools that can deliver better insight into food safety processes. Here are five ways to leverage those technology tools based on the key tenants of the Preventative Controls rule.
1. Analyze your hazard risk
Most companies have strong HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical control Points) plans in place, taking into account food safety hazards at all stages of their operations.
Risk assessment and risk management must be a key part of the process and critical control points defined. To successfully manage this moving forward, consider tools that enable visibility.
However, true visibility doesn’t stop with a one-time snapshot view. Organizations need to have immediate access to both current and historical situations at control points to easily see their proximity to each other, as well as to other components in the plant.
2. Test for preventive controls
Preventative controls, such as food allergen, supply chain and sanitation controls, are also called out as part of the FSMA requirements. This also includes recall plans.
Again, critical control points (CCPs) are they key to make sure controls are effective. Consider indicator test points to stay one step ahead.
Food safety leader John Butts routinely reminds industry players that indicator test points are one or more steps removed from the critical control points. Testing these areas allows companies to identify possible risk areas before they even reach control points — allowing them to address any potential issues proactively rather than reactively.
3. Keep a watchful eye
Each production, packing or distribution plant should have a plan that includes written procedures for monitoring preventive controls. The plan needs to specify how frequently preventive controls should be checked.
The monitoring plan should take into account zone coverage, randomization, test frequency, test timing and sampling order. Depending on the business and regulatory rules of any given plant, testing should include non-food contact and food contact surfaces.
Test point randomization is an important way to ensure that testing is representative of the actual conditions in the plant. In addition, test frequency and test timing should be defined. Companies should seek tools that automate these business rules.
4. Hope for the best but plan for the worst
If something does go wrong, what is your corrective action plan? A written procedure for identifying and correcting a problem is an absolute must.
For both the plant and for regulators, a clear record of the plan and the steps that were followed to close out any issues is now a requirement. Make sure that the team understands each component, including the number of re-tests and any recall requirements.
Seek out tools that automatically alert relevant team members to potential problem situations and track responses and testing. This will make it easier to share details if an issue arises.
5. Plans mean nothing without results
Having a plan is only half the job. Trust, but always verify. By using environmental and finished product testing programs to ensure that controls and corrective actions are effective, organizations can effectively put plans into action.
Rapid testing technologies can reduce time between testing and results, while rapid communication of verification results keeps the team coordinated.
Many companies fear that compliance with FSMA — or any government regulation — will cause more problems, strain resources or create more disruption than they are prepared to handle.
Compliance does not need to create a massive headache. More preventative food safety procedures will ultimately help businesses and guarantee that each organization is providing safe food for customers to consume. Many food companies have been implementing these best practice guidelines for years; FMSA simply offers the industry an easy-to-follow checklist.
Living with the law
If we are to secure our food chain for today and tomorrow, prevention is the key. To achieve it, the industry must wholeheartedly embrace new regulations like FSMA.
Don’t stop at committing to comply, though. Renew your dedication to leveraging the best tools and technologies to support food safety strategies and rally your organization around the goals and objectives of a proactive food safety program. Collectively, this combination of people, processes and technology will serve as the lynchpin to make our food supply safe and enable businesses to future-proof their operations against the impact of an outbreak.
Michael Koeris co-founded Sample6 Technologies Inc. in Boston in March 2013 and serves as vice president of business development and operations of the company, which is the developer of an “enrichment-free” diagnostics platform powered by synthetic biology.
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