Toss a food-safety coin up in the air. Which side do you want to see facing up when it lands? Prevention? Or recalls and lawsuits?
That was the underlying question that Marc Bates, senior dairy consultant, posed to a group of small-scale dairy producers during his recent presentation about changes to the Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law by President Obama at the beginning of the year.
Bottomline, he said, preventing foodborne illnesses–not reacting to them after they happen–is the focus of the new food-safety law. And that’s exactly the tack dairy producers, no matter how small their operations might be, need to take.
Bates, who specializes in training, product development, quality, and food safety, has extensive experience in the dairy industry, including a 27-year stint as operator and manager of the Washington State University Creamery, which produces the world-famous Cougar Gold cheeses.
Food Safety Matters
Injecting some marketplace realities into the picture, Bates said that buyers such as stores and restaurants want producers to have good prevention safeguards in place because they want to protect their reputations and the future of their businesses.
“If they’re getting something from you, they don’t want a problem,” he said. “When a food safety victim’s attorney comes calling, he’ll go after whomever in the supply chain has the largest insurance policy.”
That’s generally the business that sold the product, not the producer.
As a consultant, Bates audits dairy processors to see what food-safety practices they’re following and reports that information back to the buyer.
While the new food-safety law does include an exemption for producers or processors with gross sales of of less than $500,000, Bates said that states can opt to take that exemption away.
And in the case of dairy, most states require some sort of licensing, which includes inspections, for dairy farms–even for very small ones. (Dairy producers are advised to contact their Agriculture departments about the requirements in their states and municipalities, especially in the case of raw milk and raw-milk cheeses.)
As an example, Washington state law requires that all dairies that sell their milk, whether pasteurized or unpasteurized, obtain a dairy producers license from the state’s Agriculture Department. Dairies that bottle milk for sale to the public, whether pasteurized or unpasteurized, also require a dairy processors license.
Jason Kelly, spokesman for the department, said the size of the dairy and the number of animals milked does not exempt any dairy from these requirements in Washington state. Dairies that produce cheese or other dairy products must meet the same requirements under state law.
Have a Risk-Based Plan
Bates told the group that an important part of preventing foodborne illnesses is having a risk-based plan in place that details what’s being done at all of the steps along the way where contamination can occur. Known as HACCP (Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points) plans, they are designed to prevent food from becoming contaminated from start to finish.
To do a HACCP plan, good manufacturing practices such as keeping facilities clean, providing proper hand washing and toilet facilities, keeping flies and rats out, and having a clean water source must all be in place, Bates said.
In her book, “The Farmstead Creamery Advisor: The Complete Guide to Building and Running a Small, Farm-Based Cheese Business,” Gianaclis Caldwell, a former nurse and now the co-owner of Pholia Farm in southern Oregon, says that under the HACCP principle, “if you’ve identified everything that could go wrong and you develop procedures to prevent all of these potential problems, then the odds are very good that you’ll be producing a safe product.”
But Caldwell also points out that the foundation of a good HACCP plan is knowledge, and that includes being well-educated in the microbiology and chemistry of the cheese making process as well as being well-versed in cleaning and sanitizing.
“Without that, you can’t adequately understand or foresee the potential hazards that exist,” Caldwell says.
She told Food Safety News that one of the chapters in her book, “Why ‘It Hasn’t Killed Anyone Yet’ Isn’t Good Enough,” provides information about food-safety guidelines such as good manufacturing practices, sanitation standard operating procedures, and HACCP.
“Even if it’s just for your own home use, food safety is something everyone should think about,” she said.
Caldwell will be on a speaking tour with stops in California and one in Oklahoma.
The Dairy Practices Council provides educational guidelines on milk quality and sanitation, with some of the guidelines specifically addressing food safety, HACCP, and even food safety in farmstead cheese making, among others.
Guard Again Cross-Contamination
Taking potential food-safety hazards into consideration, Bates said that the biggest risk for dairy producers and cheese makers is cross-contamination. With that in mind, he shared a seemingly simple, practical first-step strategy with the group.
“Look at your hands and look down at your feet,” he said.
Explaining that a cheese-processing room or a milking parlor is often in the center of a farming operation, Bates said that merely walking through the pasture into the barn and from there into the milking parlor or cheese-making room is a sure way to spread pathogens from one area to another.
“That’s why a lot of cross-contamination comes from hands and feet,” he said.
That also goes for visitors who come to the farm, which is why some small-scale dairy farms and cheese-making plants have stopped providing tours.
Analyzing the flow of people, whether they be employees, owners, visitors, or even state and FDA inspectors, is important in minimizing risk, Bates said, pointing out that disposable booties, gloves and aprons are “tools” that can help prevent cross-contamination.
Put It in Writing
Bates is a strong advocate for the written word, which he calls “the biggest key” for food-safety plans.
“Say what you do, do what you say, and document it,” he said.
Acknowledging that a lot of people hate the idea of writing down procedures, Bates advised the dairy producers and cheese makers to think of written procedures as a learning process and an excellent tool for employee training.
“Write down what you do, and now you have a procedure,” he said. “You’re a whole step further into the process.”
When it comes to audits, which look at written procedures, records, and checklists, Bates said that if you have procedures in place and you have a record that you’re doing them, the auditor will take that in
to consideration. It wil
l also give the auditor an opportunity to show you where there’s room for improvement.
Come Clean with Regulators
He also encouraged having a good attitude toward the inspector or auditor.
“Be open with them, and they’ll work with you,” he said. “You need to establish good communication with them. We all have the same goal, and that’s food safety.”
When giving advice about various safeguards producers should have in place, Bates started off with hand washing. The law says you have to have a sink convenient or near. His advice is to have the hand washing facilities outside of the bathroom, so hand washing can be monitored.
It’s also best to have a hands-free hand washing system, one that turns on the water via an electric eye or pressure from a foot or knee.
As for water temperature, you want something that encourages hand washing, and that means warm water.
For ready-to-eat products, which includes dairy products, hand washing with bacterial soap, followed with a hand sanitizer, is recommended.
Because foodborne pathogens can be spread by people, the health of employees is an important part of the food-safety equation, although Bates said that here in the United States, this is generally given only lip service.
In contrast, he said, in Chile random checks of food-industry employees–similar to random drug checks–involve taking nasal swabs from a certain number of the employees every 15 days or so.
In some other countries, doing nasal swabs of food-industry employees is “random and routine,” said Bates.
Know Your Bugs
Bates also advised the group to “get to know” the various bugs–foodborne pathogens–that can contaminate their products.
“Each one of these bad guys have different characteristics,” he said.
For example, 30 percent of the population can be carrying staph with no signs of it. And some cows can be staph positive as well. Listeria, on the other hand, is everywhere, even in the soil. And it thrives in wet, cool places, which is pretty much the typical environment in a dairy processing room.
New Food Safety Legislation
In discussing the new food safety law, Bates told the group about some specific changes that will be coming down the pike.
— Registration. Food facilities will be required to register with the Food and Drug Administration biennially. Currently, registration is required only once under Homeland Security provisions.
— Lab tests. Results of tests done by federal labs or accredited labs must be sent not only to the person requesting them but also to the FDA.
— Recalls. Instead of being voluntary on the part of the offending party, the FDA or USDA can now issue recalls.
— Relevant health data. FDA has to review relevant health data every 2 years. Bates said that in the case of the United States, which currently has zero tolerance for Listeria, compared to the European Union, which has a tolerance for a small amount of Listeria colonies, the U.S. policy might be revisited in the coming years.
— Traceability. Bate’s told the group that it’s important to follow a “one up-one down (or back) policy. Bottomline, that means dairy processors need to keep written records of where a product was sold and where they got the milk and supplies from. It’s also important to keep track of the date when the product was made.
Raw Milk and Raw Cheese
Bates is quick to say that for him raw milk and raw-milk cheese are two different things altogether.
“I see them as night and day,” he said.
He believes the biggest gap with retail raw milk regulations is the time between milking and when a person buys the milk and takes it home. One of the problems with this is that customers sometimes keep raw milk in the trunk of their car while running errands before getting home. Pretty soon, he said, it’s not at the right temperature to prevent pathogens from “growing out”. For example, Listeria can grow at refrigeration temperatures of 40 degrees or below. Only cooking kills them.
“We’ve added the false expectation that raw milk has a shelf life,” Bates said.
He likes the model that some municipalities in Connecticut have put in place. In those cases, milk has to be in the hands of the consumer within 30 hours of milking, and the consumer has to agree not to buy it in quantities that can be stored for a week or more.
“I encourage you to do what you can to make sure you provide your customers with fresh milk,” he said.
As for using the 60-day aging standard for soft raw-milk cheeses, such as Brie and Camembert, Bates believes it’s a flawed standard because it doesn’t take into account that the cheese culture might not have worked in the cheese making process. For food-safety’s sake, the acid level has to reach a certain point in a certain amount of time and needs to be monitored to make sure that’s happening.
“There’s no one factor in cheese making that makes it safe,” Bates said. “There are a lot of factors. You have to pay attention to it–keep an eye on it.”
He also takes issue with people who say that the FDA is specifically targeting small-scale raw-milk cheese makers.
“Believe me, it’s not true,” he said. “The big guys are having to buckle down too.”
Some good examples of that are a recent FDA inspection that found Salmonella senftenberg at a Dairy Farmers of America milk plant in Minnesota and FDA’s inspection of 35 shell egg farms in six states–Ohio, Maine, Pennsylvania, Washington, South Carolina, and Utah. All 35 of the plants had either been associated with an outbreak or were flagged because of a poor compliance history. During the inspections, Salmonella entertidis was found at one of the egg farms, which the agency has not yet named. It has also not yet named the other egg farms.
Photos, courtesy Gianaclis Caldwell, author of “The Farmstead Creamery Advisory” and co-owner of Pholia Farm, which makes farmstead raw-milk cheeses. Top, Caldwell teaches a cheesemaking class at the farm, and bottom, Caldwell displays one of the farm’s cheeses in the creamery’s aging room.