Environmental Monitoring for the Food Industry: What You Need to Know
Mar 29, 2020 07:26
Environmental monitoring entails the process in which RTE (ready-to-eat) food companies assess the cleanliness of their plants and other conditions like temperature, pressure, etc., typically to maintain regulatory compliance and ensure food safety.
In a typical RTE food processing facility, monitoring meanings checking various surfaces, such as conveyors, tablets and cutting blades for microbial or pathogens. Swaps are then sent out to a laboratory for testing and analysis.
Consider this article a crush-course on everything you need to get started with your environmental monitoring. Herein, we’ll cover 7 things food processors and packers should make sure they’re doing correctly to develop an effective environmental monitoring system.
1- Recognize the Specific Regulatory Requirements Your Facility has to meet
First things first, you need to ask yourself: do you need an environmental monitoring system set up in your food processing facility? From the FDA’s standpoint, the decision to put a monitoring system in place is up to you, the food company.
For food processors and packers you must be subject to third-party audits, however, the requirement is clear: you must have an environmental monitoring program installed if you process RTE foods that are exposed after the post-kill process.
The reason behind this is that RTE foods are typically not processed (cooked, microwaved, heated, etc.) by the consumer before being taken, so it’s crucial that there’s no possibility they may have been cross-contaminated by microbial within the facility.
As a general rule, you need a monitoring system in place if:
● Your process includes a kill-step, such as cooking
● Any of your products is an ingredient of an RTE food that will be served without a kill-step, such as sliced tomatoes for making burgers
● Your products are exposed before packaging or after the kill-step
● If your refrigeration is susceptible to Listeria monocytogenes growth
From this point, it’s imperative that you identify specific regulatory requirements that have to be satisfied in your food processing facility. Under FDA’s new Preventive Controls Rule for Human Food, you might be required to develop a full program to satisfy every requirement.
2- Determine the Allergens or Microbial to Monitor and Control
Before you design your environmental monitoring program, it’s paramount to understand the pathogens, allergens, and contaminants that are required to be monitored and controlled. The same goes for in-plant conditions such as temperature, pressure, voltage, air sampling, and so forth.
Identifying them makes it easy for you to develop an effective monitoring system and hire the right people for the job. In particular, determining potential pathogens means that you will identify where they are likely to grow within the processing plant. As such, you will develop a set of precise corrective actions.
3- Choose the Surfaces to be Monitored
It’s a no-brainer that you cannot install data loggers everywhere or sample every bit of your processing unit. Instead, you will identify specific surfaces, whether they are slicers, conveyors, packing stations, or tablets, to be sampled. Your choice here will make a massive difference in terms of the efficacy of your monitoring system.
It doesn’t matter if you’re doing the testing manually or using specialized equipment like data loggers, you should sample a variety of surfaces throughout your facility. When these surfaces test negative for microbial, you can be certain that your entire facility is pathogen-free.
Once you have a list of these surfaces, you can place them into methodical categories that will allow for seamless testing and monitoring.
For example, your first zone will comprise product contact surfaces, which means they come into direct contact with food or raw material, such as the brushers, screens, belts, hoppers, fillers, and so forth.
Another zone should encompass all non-product contact surfaces like the hand trucks, phones, air return covers, and even fork lifts. Remember measuring the cleanliness of your facility will include areas beyond the processing zones, and may include hallways, cafeteria, locker rooms, and loading bays.
4- Select Appropriate Data Loggers for your Environmental Monitoring
Using the right tools to collect and monitor environmental data is critical. During processing, packaging, transportation and on-site storage, RTE foods are exposed to numerous environments. It’s super important that all the points and surfaces in the food processing monitored using state of the art data loggers.
What are data loggers? These are electronic equipment that uses either external or internal sensors to monitor and record environmental data over a specific period of time. Aside from the sensor, they have a microprocessor that “processes” environmental data from the sensors and sends it to the storage, which can be a flash drive, hard drive or cloud-based storage service.
Data loggers are manufactured by specialized companies like Dickson. However, not data loggers are created equal, which is why you need to keep the following questions in mind to pick the right equipment for your monitoring needs:
● Does the logger match your specific accuracy preferences?
● Is the logger’s software interface user-friendly?
● Does it fit your needs for collection speed and sample rate?
● Do you need it for fieldwork or in-facility use?
● Do you have any networking and software requirements that have to be met?
● Is the logger designed to withstand the conditions it’ll be exposed to in the facility?
The last thing you want is to install a fragile data logger in an area where it will collapse under pressure.
5- Determine your Readiness
Once you have confirmed every aspect of your monitoring system, you must determine your readiness.
Do you have faith in your sanitation process? Your monitoring system is only a test of your cleaning, which means you need a cleaning program that’s thorough.
6- Create a Preventive and Corrective Action Plan
The monitoring system is set up to give you warnings about your environmental conditions. It’s upon the company to put in place corrective actions and measures to not only clean up contaminated areas but also dispose of any contaminated products safely.
7- Choose Your Testing Partner
Another crucial step is to select a qualified lab that uses standard & certified testing methods. Make sure to pick a partner that will advise you on your journey to compliance.
As the FDA continues to enforce the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), food processors and packers are starting to realize the importance of a solid environmental monitoring strategy for preventing allergen cross-contact and minimizing pathogen cross-contamination. It pays to choose the best data loggers to ensure the integrity of your environmental monitoring system.
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