FRESH FOOD: Safety net

Contaminated green onions from Mexico. Mercury- and PCB-laden fish. Mad cow disease. Bird flu in ducks and chickens. A cursory glance at the recent spate of high-profile contamination occurrences leaves little wonder why the tainted products have been dubbed "the grocery list from hell."

At this juncture it's become superfluous to say that nothing is of greater importance to the world's allied supermarket trading partners than food safety and its menacing first cousin, food security. Nevertheless, while the U.S. food supply has lately taken one hit after the other, industry experts say that the ostensibly unrelated events have fostered an amplified sense of urgency, integrity, and accountability throughout the food supply pipeline, which, according to some observers, has been long overdue.

A quick scan of the expo floor at last month's Food Safety Summit provided ample evidence of the frenetic pace the industry has assumed in search of up-to-the-minute food safety advances. Not surprisingly, many of the food safety and quality assurance solutions prioritize prevention rather than a cure, via microbiology and rapid-testing methods; temperature measurement, monitoring, and recording systems; plant sanitation, detection, and surveillance devices; and emerging traceback technologies.

Mark Jarvis, president of the food safety division of the privately held Steritech Group, Inc. in Charlotte, N.C., was among the exhibitors at the annual conference. "Ensuring food safety is no longer an option for retailers, processors, and distributors -- it's a public health responsibility and is of critical importance to brand protection," he says.

Citing the latest food crises, which he says underscore the importance of a comprehensive food safety plan across the total farm-to-table network, Jarvis acknowledges the difficult nature of the task in today's competitive environment.

"But in an era where bioterrorism is being described by the World Health Organization as a 'real and current threat,' coupled with the conventional risks related to food safety and sanitation," consumers' demands to "know what they're eating and where it comes from" have only begun, he notes.

The key, Jarvis says, lies in strengthening each link in the complex process of how food reaches the consumer -- from the way it's grown or raised to how it's collected, processed, packaged, sold, and consumed. "While there's been considerable talk of HACCP-based programs throughout the industry for many years now, most of the work has focused on the table end of the spectrum. However, the most recent spate of outbreaks has highlighted the fact that many breaches of food safety have their origins at the very beginning of the food chain, and many companies are now scrambling to do a lot more work focusing on the farm end of the spectrum."

Broad concern

Jarvis observes that the industry still "has a heck of a lot of work to do at the retail level, regardless of the usual challenges related to good HACCP programs, staff turnover, and the difficulty associated with implementing more sophisticated programs -- not to mention good vendor certification programs. But I think most supermarket chains recognize just how much of a risk it is for them today, and believe there's a very broad concern around the extent to which we've either prevented or prepared for the latest events."

Pointing to a class action brought against Kroger's 87-store Quality Food Centers by a Bellevue, Wash. woman who purchased potentially BSE-infected beef, he says the onus is squarely on grocers to keep verifiable due diligence records by mandating strategies "based on complete ownership of food safety at the retail level." As such, according to Jarvis, "It only makes sense, if you're making investments in the name of food safety and quality, that the process begin at the store level and work backward from there."

The core competencies of Steritech are that of designing, developing, and implementing systems for food safety, quality assurance, and brand protection management. The company currently provides independent third-party operational audits and assessments for a number of leading retailers, including 1,600 IGA-affiliated stores, A&P, Wild Oats, Whole Foods Markets, and Publix.

Describing the firm's retail solution, Jarvis says clients use hand-held computers that capture such information as temperature control, food storage and protection, equipment and utensils, cleaning and sanitizing, and personnel hygiene. All relevant information is entered into the system according to a comprehensive set of audit criteria. After the audit is complete, the auditor and designated manager sign off via the hand-held system, "drastically reducing the potential for multiple interpretations or auditor bias when conducting food safety audits," he notes.

Immediately following the audit, data is uploaded to a secure, centralized data management system. Authorized users can then access their audit results in a wide variety of reports and graphs, via a secure, password-protected Web site. Information is presented in a searchable format with user-friendly features that include automatic e-mail notification options and closed-loop corrective-action functionality.

Line of defense

On the secure Web site, operators can access a range of information such as summaries of audit data, bar graphs showing current and prior audit scores, audit scores for multiple locations and score trends, detailed lists of deductions per location, and corrective-action reports.

While the third-party audit business has heated up significantly in the past year, Jarvis says the segment remains "actually very young. But it's becoming something that must be absolutely central to anyone's brand protection strategy -- regardless of tracking livestock or collecting data from field audits."

For its part, Starkville, Miss.-based Global Technology Resources (GTR) has launched a patented supply chain system to detect, track, and manage food safety threats with the use of a Web-based global positioning system technology/radio frequency identification network. Offering real-time information and tracking, the solution not only provides early detection of disease, foodborne pathogens, and contamination for immediate identification and response, but also enables companies to meet the requirements of the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 and the Country-of-Origin Labeling Act, GTR officials say.

"To protect consumers' health, it's vitally important to know where particular shipments of meats, vegetables, and other products originated and where they've been," GTR president Paul Cheek notes. "Our system provides a key line of defense in the event of a crisis. If contamination does occur, whether it's intentional or unintentional, we can pinpoint where contaminants entered the supply chain, and isolate the problem."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that there are approximately 60,000 documented incidents of contaminated food in the United States each year, says Cheek, adding that less than 1 percent of the food imported into the United States undergoes any type of inspection, "leaving what many call an open door to terrorists. Additionally, there's no existing national emergency technical management system for animal health-related diseases."

Audit trail

Using meat contaminated with E.coli as an example, the GTR system starts from the point of contamination and traces the meat back to the distributor, then to the grinder, slaughter facility, sales yard, and eventually the farm from which the animal originated.

"The system provides an audit trail of everything that's happened to the meat," Cheek says. "Working with a major fast-food company supply chain for the past year, we've been able to develop a patented Web-based program that can trace back contaminated hamburger meat to the source in 10 minutes. In all the major recalls this year, it's been extremely hard for the processor to effectively trace back its entire product," which he says has been evidenced by the "massive" recalls experienced recently.

FreshLoc Technologies, which counts among its clients Fresh Del Monte, Hardie's Fruit and Vegetable Co., 7-Eleven, and H. E. Butt Grocery Co., has also unveiled two new wireless temperature-monitoring products designed specifically for rigorous HACCP record-keeping. The new products, a core probe and a sensor, consolidate the company's self-powered logger technology and its sensors to create a fail-safe system.

A new compact disinfectant/sanitizer aimed at fighting foodborne pathogens in food industry settings via the use of a generator powered by salt and water is currently being marketed by Radnor, Pa.-based Sterilox Technologies, Inc. Employing patented electrolytic technology, the unique disinfectant solution provides a safe, pH-neutral, nontoxic, virtually odorless and tasteless, environmentally friendly oxidant that's effective in a variety of retail uses, including direct use on food to extend shelf life, as well as on direct surfaces.

Company officials say the product is highly effective at reducing contamination, spoilage, and shrink while increasing the shelf life of fresh produce by two to four days. Two feet wide and less than three feet deep, the new generator has been tested with some of the nation's largest supermarkets and foodservice companies, and has achieved excellent results, according to Sterilox.

The disinfectant solution is created on-site through a washing-machine-size patented generator, with the only input being salt, soft water, and electricity. The electrochemical generator takes the brine mixture and changes it into a solution proved to be a nontoxic, bacteria-killing agent.

In addition to reducing the spoilage associated with fruits, vegetables, seafood, and cut flowers, the product can be used as a durable surface sanitizer on countertops, slicers, cutting boards, and utensils. It may also be used in produce misting systems and ice machines to remove biofilms associated with harmful bacteria.

With both National Science Foundation and Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. certification, the disinfectant/sterilizer has been determined suitable for food-processing applications by the FDA and has passed EPA surface-sanitizer testing requirements.
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