Product Safety Demand Grows
By SARAH THEODORE
New technologies help ensure beverage safety and efficacy
An outbreak of E.coli in fresh spinach, a fast food-related E.coli outbreak, and a botulism toxin linked to a carrot juice product, all occurring within a few months of each other last fall, have put product safety front and center in consumers’ and regulators’ minds in 2007. Late last month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office placed food safety on its list of high-risk areas “warranting attention by Congress and the executive branch.” And some members of the new Congress, including Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, came back to Washington in January touting product safety reform as part of the new agenda.
On the business side, demand for food safety products in the United States is expected to exceed $2 billion within the next three years, according to the Freedonia Group, a Cleveland, Ohio-based industrial research firm. Interest will be led by the development of new products, renewed federal interest in eliminating foodborne illness, concern over the arrival of avian influenza in North America, and the development of a National Animal Identification System. The company’s Food Safety Products report indicates that disinfection and sanitation chemicals will lead the food safety market. But the primary driver of disinfectant product sales will be “new types of disinfection equipment as companies — particularly in the beverage industry — seek reliable, non-chemical means of ensuring that contamination risks are minimized.”
The report’s comments are echoed by food safety experts who say beverage companies, particularly those focused on health and wellness, are seeking new technologies that ensure the safety of their products while also maintaining efficacy. Traditional high-temperature pasteurization can damage product flavor and functional ingredients in addition to the harmful organisms it is intended to destroy. But newer technology has the potential to kill or inactivate pathogens while preserving the favorable components of a product.
“Beverages are an absolutely wonderful platform for health — for functional, bioactive components,” says Martin Cole, director of the National Center for Food Safety and Technology (NCFST), Chicago. “Companies are struggling with how to ensure safety but preserve functional bioactivity because many of these bioactives that we’re trying to promote — antioxidants, polyphenols, things like that — many of them are sensitive to heat,” he says. “That’s why there is a lot of interest in non-thermal technologies.”
Much of the work in alternative pasteurization methods for beverages was driven by the fresh juice industry and the Food and Drug Administration regulations that went into effect in the mid-‘90s requiring a five-log reduction in pathogens for unpasteurized juice products. Some of those cold pasteurization techniques include the use of ultraviolet light, high-pressure processing and pulsed electric fields.
“One of the wonderful innovations that we saw with the fresh juice industry was the use of ultraviolet light being used to pasteurize apple cider,” says Don Schaffner, extension specialist in food science at Rutgers University, and a food safety expert with the Institute of Food Tech-nologists.
“There is some clever technology there,” he says. “The key thing with UV light is the penetration depth. What some innovative folks did was say, ‘We need a way to control the flow rate of the apple cider so that cloudy cider will flow more slowly to give better UV penetration, and juices that are less cloudy flow more quickly. We’ll control the flow rate based on the turbidity and that will allow us to deliver the appropriate ultraviolet dose.’”
Not as common in the United States, but showing promise elsewhere are pulsed electric field technology, which the NCFST’s Cole describes as “punching holes in the microbial membrane,” and high-pressure processing, which uses extreme hydrostatic pressure to destroy harmful organisms.
“The bottom of the ocean is about 100 mega pascals, and you’re talking about six times that for these pressures,” Cole says. ”You get the pasteurization of the bad guys but you leave all vitamins and flavors intact.”
The NCFST is a research consortium comprising the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the Illinois Institute of Technology and the food industry. Its responsibilities include validating food safety techniques, and Cole says some of the testing on high-pressure processing has resulted in juice products that almost cannot be distinguished from fresh juice.
High-pressure pasteurization currently is being used by Fresherized Foods, formerly known as AvoMex. The company uses the technology on food products such as guacamole and has introduced Fruitmost smoothies and juices. Genesis Juice Corp., Eugene, Ore., has used pulsed electric field technology for its juices.
Cole says the definition of pasteurization has been redefined by the USDA’s National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods, allowing cold pasteurized products to be labeled as pasteurized.
“They’re redefining pasteurization as the required outcome or step in pathogen reduction,” he says. “So it opens it up to these other technologies.” However, debate continues as to whether the products can be labeled as fresh.
The fresh juice industry might originally have been the focal point for these new technologies because of the FDA’s requirements, but it also is good testing ground for other reasons, says Larry Hobbs, executive director of the International Society of Beverage Technologists (ISBT), St. Paul, Minn. The sensitive sensory nature of juice means a sterilization process that passes the juice test likely can be applied to other beverages.
“Juice is probably a good test point from the standpoint that it is somewhat sensitive to flavor issues,” he says. “So if it works in juice, in all likelihood, it’s going to work in other areas as well.”
Controlling the process
Another result of the FDA’s fresh juice regulations was the implementation of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) programs. Food safety experts say all companies, regardless of whether they are required to file a HACCP plan, will benefit from having one.
“I would say that even if you are not under mandatory HACCP, a great way to start making a safe food is to start with the seven principles of HACCP,” Schaffner says. “Going though that exercise gets you a long way toward producing a safe and high-quality product.”
Bob Hirst, vice president of education, science and technical relations at the International Bottled Water Association, Alexandria, Va., adds: “A good HACCP plan is comprehensive enough to address all possible hazards, but efficient enough to allow good control of the process while minimizing overall impact on production volumes.”
The most important prerequisite to establishing a HACCP plan, Hirst says, is to involve all parts of the plant’s operations, provide training and meet at regular intervals to review the program and assess its effectiveness. Both the FDA and USDA provide information resources for setting up a program.
In addition to keeping consumers healthy, food safety in the post-9/11 world also is a matter of national security. “Today you have the potential for a much more serious threat of someone who might want to intentionally put something into the food supply that could injure consumers or do a lot of damage to a trademark for political issues,” says ISBT’s Hobbs. “In this case, trying to define your system in terms of those issues calls for a completely different type of focus.”
With assistance from the FDA or USDA, he says, companies can develop a program to assess and manage their exposure to such intentional threats. Similar to HACCP, a threat management program helps companies evaluate their individual risks and tailor security to their own operations.
A number of food and beverage associations, including the American Beverage Association, also were involved in creating the standards for the Public Health Security Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002.
“Everyone was very open about ideas they had to improve food security,” says Mike Redman, vice president of scientific, technical and regulatory affairs at the American Beverage Association, Washington, D.C. “Over the past few years, the industry has come a really long way.”
Among the requirements applicable to beverage operations were the registration of food facilities, prior notice of imported food shipments, and records establishment and maintenance provisions.
“Prior to that time, there was not a single federal system for registering food facilities,” Redman says. “A number of other countries already had that in place, but believe it or not, we did not have that in place in the United States.” Today, any facility that produces, warehouses or distributes food for consumption in the United States, whether located in the United States or abroad, must be registered with the FDA.
In addition, the FDA must be notified of any imported food product or ingredient coming into the United States, and imported products must be received through an authorized port of entry. And the 2002 law established standards for record-keeping that Redman describes as a “one up and one down type of reporting.”
“Everyone who receives a food or ingredient has to be able to trace that back one step,” he explains. “By doing that, you can trace something all the way to the original source. You also have to then be able to trace it forward as well. If you have a shipment that goes out of your facility, you have to be able to identify where that went.”
Redman says most beverage facilities already had such programs in place, but, “This is a very specific system as far as the information required and how quickly you have to be able to provide that information — all of that has been formalized through these regulations.”
Despite the need for increased security measures and the recent publicity surrounding foodborne illness, ISBT’s Hobbs says the U.S. food supply is among the safest in the world. “Every industry, without exception, takes food safety and concerns about the consumer very seriously,” he says. “They have to — their brand is at stake. People are taking a look at best practices in other industries and how they can apply them to their industry. I really think that the American food chain is probably as safe as you will find anywhere in the world and people are working very hard to make it even more so.”
What does the public think?
As far as consumers are concerned, the government bears the brunt of the responsibility for food safety, according to the Food Safety Policy Center at Michigan State University. Andrew Knight, visiting assistant professor, presented “Attitudes Toward Food Safety and the National Food System: Results from a National Survey” to a USDA audience last year.
Almost 40 percent of respondents to MSU’s survey indicated that the federal government is the group that should be most responsible for ensuring product safety. Twenty-three percent said processors should be the main line of defense, and 11 percent or less indicated that groups such as retailers, restaurants and consumers themselves were responsible for maintaining product safety.
By age, those 45 to 54 years old were most concerned with product safety, followed closely by the 35- to 44-year-old age group. African Americans ranked far higher than any other ethnic group in their worries over product safety, with 70 percent indicating they have concerns, compared with less than 40 percent for other ethnic groups.
Pesticides and chemical residue were the most common worry, with 70 percent of respondents expressing concern. They were followed closely by foodborne illness/pathogens at 68 percent, additives and preservatives at 52 percent, and antibiotics and hormones at 50 percent.