First, let me offer my personal thanks to food manufacturing employees and management. When I hear about essential workers, the lists include doctors and nurses, distribution drivers, grocery store workers, and even UPS workers. It appears least likely that food manufacturing workers have ever received a thank you from the public. I know and understand that you have made and continue to make great sacrifices to leave your families at home and go to work. You have been essential to providing pasteurized milk, meat and poultry cuts, bread, and even fresh veggies and fruit through this difficult time. You have risked contracting a disease that is easily transmitted through the air. We have learned much more about the transmission of this disease, and steps are being taken to minimize opportunities for getting it. Yet you are still going to work, taking personal risks for the good of the many in society. My personal thanks to you for doing this — you are my heroes.
We live in complicated times. COVID-19 has affected us all. The cry for justice and equality are forefront in our minds in the things we do. Many of us are still working from home and have not seen family or taken a vacation in a long time. We hustle through shopping to minimize our time with the unknown. There’s a lot on our minds. How do we retain a single-minded focus on the primary aspect of our jobs: food safety?
I have had the time to look through documents that I’ve saved and recently came across one that helps simplify our food safety work. In 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) published Five Keys to Safer Food Manual (https://bit.ly/31c8NGa), which still holds true 14 years later. Its concepts can help us to understand our priorities in food safety and simplify our goals. The five keys are keep clean, separate raw and cooked, cook thoroughly, keep food at safe temperatures, and use safe water and raw materials.
In much of food manufacturing, the keys can be the basis for food safety goals and objectives as well as for HACCP-based prevention programs. Let’s look at each:
- Keep clean. As quality and food safety practitioners, we know the value of personal hygiene and of a clean facility. Keeping clean includes GMPs, pest control, sanitation, trash removal, facility design and maintenance, and many more areas. This is first and foremost in our minds every day at our work and tends to be what we talk about most when asked about food safety. Sanitation is the most important task that takes place at a food manufacturing facility — sanitation of the facility and of the food handlers.
- Separate raw/cooked. Certainly, this is a logical step in keeping a facility clean. Raw products are known to have pathogens, and keeping raw products as well as raw-product handlers separated from products and people who have completed a food safety intervention (heat treatment, appropriate dress, etc.) is a high priority. This is why facilities are designed with a process flow from raw product to finished product. It is why many facilities have rules on who can work and travel within given locations in a facility.
- Cook thoroughly. Food scientists known as “process authorities” have studied food and processes to assure that process minimums are effective at eliminating or reducing to acceptable levels any pathogens in the foods. In the plant, we must ensure that these minimums are met, and that each particle of the food is cooked to appropriate times and temperatures, resulting in a safe product. In today’s scientific world, this includes many non-thermal processes as well (e.g., cold plasma, high-pressure processing, electron beam pasteurization, ultraviolet light, etc.). Each of these novel processes have expected process controls that must be met to provide safe food.
- Keep food at safe temperatures. Bacterial growth is known to occur at most environmental temperatures. Keeping foods out of the danger zone (40°-120°F, 5°-60°C) minimizes bacterial growth and prevents growth of pathogens as well as spoilage organisms. Having appropriate controls for keeping food hot or cold is vital to preventing or eliminating pathogens.
- Use safe water and raw materials. Raw materials may be contaminated with pathogens or even chemicals. Moldy foods may allow for the formation of toxins. Assuring that raw materials — including water — are safe is a vital step in the production of safe finished goods. Use of a compromised ingredient can lead to an unsafe finished product. Water can be used as an ingredient, as ice to chill foods, and in sanitation of people and the facility. Being unyielding on the topic of water safety improves your odds of producing a safe finished product.
In a complicated world, these five keys can be a tool to simplify our work lives and keep our consuming public safe from food safety concerns. Keeping these five topics as objectives in our daily walk-through of the facility will simplify and focus us on the important things.