In the pursuit of improved food safety, environmental control measures are highly recommended to prevent finished product contamination. Largely void of state-of-the-art gadgets and gizmos, environmental control programs can be viewed as “the nuts and bolts” of food safety programs. However, their value in the ongoing battle against foodborne disease cannot be denied. This article covers a number of the vital components that are found in environmental control programs.

Good Manufacturing Practices. GMPs cover virtually everything that happens in a plant – quality control, employee training, cleaning and sanitizing, facility design, personal hygiene, preventative maintenance, and so on. Food plants intent on reducing contamination and producing safer products must ensure that their GMP programs are documented, up-to-date, enforced, and monitored. Processors should also consider engaging the services of outside auditors to verify the effectiveness of their GMPs at least once per year.

HACCP. Every plant producing food should determine what its potential hazards are and develop a HACCP system to prevent them. Commonly acknowledged as the foremost food safety program, HACCP accomplishes this in a formal and systematic way. However, strong prerequisite programs, including GMPs and sanitation SOPs, are every bit as important as HACCP. HACCP, like other food safety programs, should be audited by an outside party to ensure programs remain consistent with industry standards.

Cleaning and Sanitation. Cleaning and sanitation is critical to safe food production and its importance cannot be overemphasized. A contaminated plant eventually translates into contaminated products unless a product is biocidally treated in a leak proof, end-use container, nullifying the possibility of recontamination. Facilities are contaminated during production shifts, and this contamination must be removed or reduced before production is restarted. A major percentage of microbial problems encountered by companies can be traced to deficiencies in cleaning and sanitation activities — maintenance/repair practices, equipment/facility design — and other assorted GMP violations.

Pre-operational Monitoring. The quality of a company’s cleaning and sanitizing program is directly related to the stringency of its pre-operational monitoring and feedback effort. Pre-operational monitoring should be performed by QC personnel or staff not directly related to the cleaning crew to ensure objectivity. Acceptable microbial counts on pre-operational samples should be used to establish a sanitation break point in the operations of the plant.

Environmental Monitoring. While some food companies hedge at the cost of environmental sampling programs, the cost is reasonable when compared to the price of not understanding the microbial risks in the environment. To be effective, programs must be conducted in an organized, effective, and consistent manner. Developing an effective environmental sampling program can be confusing. The number of samples that should be taken, frequency of sampling, locations in the plant to sample, sampling equipment and techniques, and organisms to test for, are just some of the factors that must be considered.

Pathogen Testing. One must test for pathogens to discern if they are present. A facility must first determine, based on the history of its own or similar products, ingredients and environment(s), what pathogens should be tested for. Some products have been associated with different pathogens, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry, Listeria monocytogenes in dairy and processed meat plants, and E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef. More times than not, pathogen test results are negative, but this merely means that they were not recovered in that specific sample at the time of sampling by the employed test method. Pathogens are known to be sporadic in their occurrence and distribution and, therefore, difficult to test for.

Finished Product Testing. Finished product sampling is the most effective means of validating the effectiveness of overall environmental control and food safety programs and should be conducted at some frequency.

Product contamination from the processing environment is one of the most frequent causes of product recalls, food poisoning outbreaks, and shelf-life problems. Environmental control programs can serve as an early warning system to detect and eliminate sites of undesirable organisms before the risk of product contamination increases significantly.

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