One of the biggest threats a food company can face is a food safety incident leading to a product recall with potential harm of consumers. A proactive approach to mitigate risk is an Environmental Monitoring (EM) Program as a part of pathogen monitoring programs. Lauren Devlin, a QA Specialist from Nestlé Quality Assurance Center discusses key considerations for an effective EM program.

1 What are pathogen monitoring programs?

Pathogen monitoring programs are used to verify hygienic controls and elements of a Food Safety Management System, including monitoring of raw materials, process environment, and line health. An EM program is a way of verifying that food safety systems related to line health and process environment are working as intended.

2 Why is an EM program important in the overall pathogen monitoring program?

EM aims at early detection of pathogens and out of specification hygiene indicators to allow for action to be taken, prior to product being impacted. EM data can be used to provide insight into the microbial population of a facility and identify improvement opportunities for pre-requisite programs. While EM does not prevent pathogens from entering a facility, it does mitigate risk of product contamination.

3 What are components of a robust EM program?

They are site selection and testing plan (type/frequency of testing). These components are determined by performing a risk assessment to assign the sampling zone of each site (see question 4). A robust EM program will also include an evaluation of sampling technique, tools, analytical methods, data management/interpretation, and corrective action procedures. It is recommended to re-evaluate your program annually concomitantly with your HACCP plan and ideally with a food safety expert outside your plan to enhance the effectiveness.

4 How are sample zones determined for my program sites?

Sampling zones are determined by risk to product contamination. Zone classification will help determine the type/frequency of testing for a site. Zone 1 is direct product contact surfaces (indicators). Zone 2 is non-product contact, but near product (indicators and pathogens). Zone 3 is non-product contact and not adjacent to product (indicators and pathogens). Zone 4 is Remote areas (pathogens).

5 How much should I invest in my EM?

A tricky, but important, question. The cost is based on a microbiology food safety risk assessment and financial risk analysis. Always keep in mind, the EM cost is insignificant compared to the immediate and long-term cost of a finished product contamination.