With FSMA changing standard operating procedures to focus on prevention as opposed to damage control when it comes to foodborne pathogens, luminometer technology and ATP testing can enable detection, verification, and documentation to go hand-in-hand with your commissary’s revamped sanitary maintenance programs.

Luminometers measure the potential for bacterial presence, basically detecting if a given area is a welcome environment that could harbor bacterial growth if said bacteria were to land there. Tom Dewey, food safety global marketing manager of 3M, a company that produces the 3M Clean-Trace Hygiene Monitoring and Management System (among numerous other technologies), says the purpose of the machine and its software is for documented verification that certain areas of a commissary or any other food production facility are sanitized as needed.

“This is a technology used for verifying cleaning and sanitation, not specifically detecting and identifying microorganisms,” he says. “The data generated from the tests provide the basis for making the decision that surfaces and rinse water are clean and ready for food production or preparation.”

The technology gives instant readings and is considered more affordable and faster than sending off samples to a microbiology lab, which can give you more detailed results, but can take three to four days to receive. Using a luminometer system supplies more generalized results, but it still works on a molecular level to enable daily evaluations.

“While microbiology testing is still an important part of an environmental monitoring program, it doesn’t provide the immediate feedback needed in a rapidly moving food processing facility,” says  Lauren Roady, marketing manager at Hygiena, whose luminometer system, called the SystemSURE Plus, also includes a handheld device and software to catalog immediate readings of any given water or production surface. “Managers need to know if equipment is clean and surfaces are safe before a shift begins and before food is processed or handled on that equipment. The risk is simply too high to cross our fingers and hope results come back clean in 3-5 days. ATP testing, on the other hand, is extremely affordable and takes only 15 seconds per test. So a manager can check all the necessary control points or surfaces in a food handling environment in just a few minutes to ensure surfaces will not pose cross-contamination risks, endangering consumers.”

“From a process standpoint,” Dewey explains, “samples are collected from surfaces within a food processing or retail environment and then inserted into the luminometer handheld device. If a sample has any adenosine triphosphate (ATP) – an energy molecule found in all organic cells, including microorganisms – a chemical reaction inside the test immediately produces light. Therefore, the luminometer is a diagnostic tool that identifies low levels of light resulting from a biological/chemical reaction. This light, imperceptible to the naked eye, emanates from microorganisms that may be present in the areas tested.”

But what exactly is ATP? According to Roady, it’s found in varying levels in all organic materials. “When surfaces and kitchen tools are properly and thoroughly cleaned, ATP is significantly reduced if not eliminated from that surface. A surface that is properly cleaned cannot harbor bacterial growth or enable development of biofilm, which is basically a build-up of microorganisms that forms over time when surfaces are not thoroughly and consistently cleaned.”

Because of its increased evolution as a quick and easy way of sanitization verification over the years, Roady says ATP testing has grown to be the standard within the food manufacturing industry for decades now.

“In a more globalized marketplace, where food service establishments, restaurants, and grocery stores can source ingredients and foods from the highest quality sellers, upstanding quality control has gone from a differentiating factor to a basic requirement to sell into the modern food supply chain,” she says. “Recently, the implementation of FSMA has motivated food processors to step up their quality control programs to include robust environmental monitoring programs and thorough sanitation monitoring.”

Dewey agrees, noting that the technology is used within all parts of the supply chain to ensure sanitation and FSMA compliance, from the commissary to the transportation vehicle, to the arrival site and beyond­.

“Verifying cleanliness allows facilities to confidently start food production, prevent contamination/recontamination, and potentially avoid reputation-damaging recall situations,” he says. “Inside food and beverage production facilities, companies will designate zones according to level of concern, starting with areas like conveyer belts or fillers that directly come into contact with food and expanding to others areas like floor drains. Organizations establish various test points in their locations as well as pass/fail limits, and have individuals come in periodically to gauge cleanliness to ensure their surfaces are meeting those standards.

“For example, food and beverage manufacturers with wet foods like soup, milk and other liquids have production environments involving pipes and plumbing, so they’ll test the rinse water that cleans those pieces of equipment,” Dewey says. “Testing for open manufacturing environments that have conveyer belts and other pieces of equipment that come into contact with dry food ingredients will use surface test swabs to be inserted into the luminometer. Food preparation, deli and dining environments will use these surface-testing media as well.”

So basically, both the 3M Clean-Trace Hygiene System and the Hygiena SystemSURE Plus are primarily used for areas that have been sanitized but need to be scrutinized. Both include test swabs that can collect hard-to-reach areas and directly catalog all data for longterm documentation within their software systems, and as always, there are benefits to using both that can be further studied on their respective websites. At the end of the day however, it’s important to remember that no one test or testing technology can replace or eliminate the need for other food safety measures.

“It’s important to note that not all hazards are necessarily bacterial in food manufacturing,” Roady notes. “Consider one of the largest food safety concerns — allergens. This is a critical concern that food service establishments must address in their risk assessments. Also, many food safety risks aren’t introduced by the food ingredients being handled, but by the people working in those areas and touching those surfaces.

“But ATP testing is used anywhere there is potential risk for cross-contamination of surfaces with bacteria, dangerous food residues such as allergens, and for general hygiene,” she says. “When the question is, ‘Did this surface get cleaned?’ or ‘How well was it cleaned?’ ATP testing provides the answer.”