All it takes is a quick glance at the news to see the importance of food safety — particularly cross-contamination — and the role it plays in the health of consumers and, in turn, a company’s bottom line. Chipotle has faced an avalanche of media and public scrutiny after a handful of E. coli outbreaks originated at the company’s locations across the country.
In response, Chipotle is turning back to its pre-2014 method of cleaning, preparing and packaging produce in commissaries instead of handing those tasks to employees in the restaurant. It casts a large spotlight on all centralized kitchens and food producers, especially when it comes to cross-contamination.
“Cross-contamination is the main hazard we want to prevent in the food industry and develop whole food safety management systems to ensure the risk is eliminated,” says Elina Zerva, global manager, food safety services and innovation, AIB International.
Zerva says since all efforts in the food industry are risk-based, cross-contamination prevention is based on a detailed risk assessment that works hand-in-hand with programs such as GMPs, HACCP and prerequisites. Monitoring, then, is a means of assessing if cross-contamination is likely to happen, or has happened already.
“The benefits of monitoring cannot be emphasized enough in relation to preventing cross-contamination,” says Jessica Lemasters, regional food safety services manager for AIB International. “Ideally, ongoing monitoring of food safety practices should be performed at every stage of the food chain and manufacturing process.”
Lemasters points out that monitoring activities enables the facility to know at any specific time whether processes are truly accomplishing their intended goals in regards to food safety control. As a result, the facility can prevent cross-contamination as well as identify and correct situations that may have resulted in cross-contamination.
The challenging part, she says, is determining what activities should be monitored to demonstrate process control. “This varies … but is best determined by conducting a risk assessment at each step in the process to identify whether specific control programs are necessary to manage identified points of potential cross-contamination,” Lemasters says.
Monitoring activities can be performed in a number of approaches: visual, environmental monitoring testing, product microbial testing, ATP equipment swabbing, allergen swabbing and more. And Lemasters points out that more effective results can be achieved when combining one or more monitoring methods.
“Visual checks can be applied for fast, every-day practices where not much risk is involved,” Zerva says. “Whereas appropriate testing is necessary to verify and validate results. Where an allergen or pathogen cross-contamination risk is present, testing has to be carried out to ensure food safety.”
The degree of visual monitoring as opposed to testing will fluctuate, hinging upon the results of the performed risk assessment. Lemasters says I tis important to keep in mind that visual checking provides immediate results at the exact point in time whereas some testing may be accompanied with delays in obtaining the final results, which could be more effective for verification than monitoring.
“Consequently, it is not uncommon for multiple monitoring methods to be combined to provide better assurance of process control to inhibit cross-contamination,” she says.