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A New Era in Food Safety [with audio]

With the proposed Produce Safety and Preventive Controls Rule under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), we are entering into a new era of food safety. In order to understand where we are headed, it is worthwhile to reflect on where the California Almond industry has been, and how far we have come regarding food safety. This was the theme of the opening presentation given by Brian Dunning, chairman, Almond Quality and Food Safety Committee, Almond Board of California, and Tim Birmingham, director, Quality Assurance, Almond Board, at the 15th annual Almond Board Food Quality and Safety Symposium.

Brian Dunning (left), chairman of the ABC Almond Quality
and Food Safety Committee, joins symposium speakers
(from Dunning’s left) Dr. Melinda Chen, FDA Office of
Compliance, Dr. Scott Burnett, MOM brands, Dr. Hildegarde
Heymann, UC Davis, and Dr. Themis Michailides, UC Kearney
Ag Center. The 15th annual Food Quality and Safety
Symposium was held in Modesto in early July.
During the opening presentation, handlers, growers and others attending the symposium were reminded that the almond industry made a critical decision when at a crossroads after the Salmonella outbreak in 2001. The industry could have decided that the occurrence was an anomaly; after all, at the time of the incident, conventional wisdom held that Salmonella and other pathogens were not an issue in almonds and other low-moisture foods because they couldn’t grow in the product. However, the industry did not choose to sit idle and accept the conventional wisdom of the day. Rather, it began to investigate the issue in order to gain the knowledge necessary to address the problem.

First Salmonella Field Survey
In 2001, the Almond Board of California began a first-of-its-kind survey of the prevalence of Salmonella in the crop. The survey was repeated year after year, with over 11,000 samples collected from the field and analyzed. This data set was instrumental in understanding the risk posed by pathogen contamination in almonds and determining the minimum Salmonella reduction criteria needed to ensure safety of our product.

In addition to conducting research to understand the risk, the industry aggressively engaged in research to identify ways to eliminate pathogens in the product. As a result, protocols now exist for numerous processes, including oil roasting, dry roasting, blanching, propylene oxide (PPO), steam and others. Food safety programs, including Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Pathogen Environmental Monitoring (PEM), have been developed with training tools and guides disseminated to the industry.

Indeed we have come a long way, but it is good to remember where we have been and the steps we have taken to get to where we are today. We are well positioned to adapt to changes that may occur with finalization of the proposed FSMA rules. This is because the industry has aggressively addressed the issue of food safety when faced with adversity. However, in order to stay ahead of the curve, it remains important to seek out opportunities to improve. Quality and safety need to remain a cornerstone of our industry from the orchard throughout processing and distribution.

Footbaths or No Footbaths?
The first presenter of the symposium, Dr. Scott Burnett, manager of Corporate Quality for MOM brands (Malt-O-Meal), shared results of a study to address concerns of using liquid footbaths in a dry processing facility. The study showed that non-aqueous sanitizing was more effective than aqueous for the combined Isopropyl Alcohol (IPA)-Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (QAC) and Quaternary Ammonium Compound sanitizers tested. As a result, MOM brands has begun to use dry QAC sanitizers in lieu of aqueous footbaths. Given the goal of minimizing water introduction into a dry processing facility, it may be worthwhile for almond handlers to explore alternatives such as dry sanitizers.

Risk of Adjacent Facilities
Dr. Trevor Suslow, UC Davis, shared his experiences with controlling pathogens in the produce industry. Although not an “apples-to-apples” comparison, his experience in crop production inputs and practices on microbial food safety can help our industry to better understand potential areas of concern that we may want to explore further.

Dr. Suslow reminded us that when you think about food safety, you really need to pay attention not only to your own practices, but also those of your neighbors. Adjacent operations can add diverse risk factors that may be difficult to control. Studies have clearly shown that produce operations adjacent to animal operations can easily become contaminated with pathogens. Crop inputs such as manure and compost can be a major risk factor if controls are not in place to ensure the deactivation of microbial pathogens prior to field application. Dr. Suslow shared data showing that once a field is contaminated, it may be difficult to rid it of the pathogen.

Salmonella Survey in Food Processing
Dr. Melinda Chen with the Office of Compliance, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shared results of a 2010 field assignment, a short-term action in the field to inspect nut and nut product facilities. According to Dr. Chen, the purpose of the inspections was to determine if Salmonellae are present in the food-processing environment.

In order to make this determination, FDA inspectors will typically review the floor plan of a processing facility, and document product flow throughout the manufacturing process. During an inspection, they will conduct environmental sampling at 100 to 300 sites throughout the facility. Areas of emphasis include:

  • Floors and related areas;
  • Equipment used to clean floors;
  • Air-conveying equipment located after filters;
  • Product-conveying systems;
  • Nut-roasting rooms and roasters;
  • Employee hallways; and
  • Forklifts.

The areas typically targeted for swabbing are Zone 2 non-product–contact surfaces that could potentially pose a risk of microbial proliferation and lead to product contamination. Most of the observations noted by FDA during the 29 almond facility inspections focused on good manufacturing practices (GMP) violations that could easily be addressed. Dr. Chen recommends that the industry aggressively respond to positive environmental sampling results. In addition, the industry should continue to focus on segregation of raw and roasted/treated nuts. Finally, she added that food safety training should continue to be an integral part to employee training.

New Sensory Lexicon
How can handlers describe the sensory qualities of almonds to buyers? Until now, the “lexicon” of almond sensory attributes has been too large to be of practical use. Dr. Hildegarde Heymann, professor of Sensory Science at UC Davis, presented a pared-down lexicon that she and her co-workers developed, along with a simpler sensory analysis procedure with reference samples. “’Typical almond flavor’ doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “A reference sample is needed to be more specific.”

Dr. Heymann’s research team assembled a panel of five people to assess both raw and roasted almonds to develop descriptors for appearance, aroma, taste, flavor and texture. From a long list of descriptive terms, they bucketed similar descriptors until they narrowed the list down to six appearance attributes, 13 aroma/flavor attributes and 13 taste/texture attributes. A simple assessment procedure was developed concurrently that can be used by industry members who participate in about seven one-hour training sessions.

Potential Aflatoxin Prevention Tool
Switching back to food safety in the orchard, Dr. Themis Michailides, UC Davis plant pathologist, shared exciting information that may soon result in a new tool for growers to combat aflatoxin development in the orchard. The atoxigenic strain of Aspergillus flavus, AF36, is in the second year of commercial use in the pistachio industry. When applied to orchards, AF36 displaces the aflatoxin-producing strains, thus reducing the level of aflatoxin in the product. Field trials in almonds are currently underway at the Nickels Soil Lab in Arbuckle, and show that AF36 is effective in displacing toxigenic strains. Next steps will include commercial orchard field trials.

Continued advancements such as these in food safety technology and implementation will help us to build a quality reputation among our buyers, food manufacturers and ultimately, consumers around world. The Almond Board website has many resources available to both growers and handlers to assist in these efforts.

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