By: Dr. Sanjay Gummalla, American Frozen Food Institute Senior Vice President of Scientific Affairs, and Dr. Lory Reveil, American Frozen Food Institute Director of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs

We compare an effective and consistent food safety plan to putting together a puzzle. Most people start with the corners and edges, then fill in the larger pictures, and finally construct the background. In the case of food safety, the legal and regulatory framework are like the corners and edges, defining the boundaries of our actions. The guidelines and best practices offered by government agencies, academic labs, and trade associations correspond to the larger images. And finally, the internal standards and policies within your operations complete the picture.

As your frozen food business assesses, plans, builds, and evaluates your food safety strategy, here are three key programs to follow:

1. Take advantage of AFFI’s free Listeria Control Program

Listeria monocytogenes (Lm) is the primary foodborne pathogen impacting frozen food facilities and frozen foods, and the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI) is dedicated to the advancement of food safety within the frozen food industry. One way AFFI advances food safety is by investing in scientific research to guide best food safety practices to prevent Lm from farm to frozen food facility to freezer to fork. AFFI’s Listeria Control Program (LCP) comprises these best food safety practices and is used to train personnel representing various roles, such as engineers, sanitation and quality professionals, management, contractors, and suppliers.

The LCP encompasses seven core areas to effectively control risks associated with the presence of Listeria in food manufacturing facilities including hygienic design, sanitation controls, environmental monitoring, process validation, hygienic zoning, freezer management, and good manufacturing practices (GMPs). Within each core area, the LCP presents a series of recommendations, resources, detailed guidelines, and procedures for food manufacturers to use for Listeria control within their facilities. Appropriate use of these recommendations provides early control and pathogen management. 

2. Implement a robust cleaning and sanitation program

Maintaining a clean and sanitary facility is the most effective way to prevent cross-contamination, spoilage, and eliminate foodborne pathogens. Cleaning is a precursor to sanitation and is the physical removal of food or soil from surfaces, and helps prevent recalls associated with foreign material or allergen cross-contamination. Sanitizing refers to the use of chemicals to eliminate or reduce microbial loads to safe levels. 

Generally, four factors affect cleaning and sanitation: (1) the time invested in completing the process; (2) the type of mechanical action used such as scrubbing or water pressure; (3) the chemistry of the detergents; and (4) the temperature of the water – time, action, chemicals, and temperature (TACT). Using the appropriate chemicals, the correct concentration, and the proper application and sequence for sanitizing products is essential to implementing an effective cleaning and sanitation program. 

We highly recommend sanitation managers periodically speak with their chemical providers, given the continuous change and innovation of products, to ensure that they are using the most effective and appropriate sanitizers. It is also essential that personnel are properly trained using various methods, including visual, verbal, text-based, and hands-on teaching methods. Sanitation team members must understand how to follow cleaning and sanitation best practices, and understand how these tasks protect the food supply and consumers.

3. Implement a microbiological sampling and testing program

The food industry can use microbiological testing as a component of an environmental monitoring program. The benefit of microbial testing is that it identifies microbiological hazards within the production environment and can verify a food safety program’s effectiveness. 

Before implementing a testing program, companies should have an awareness of potential food safety issues, know why the tests are performed, understand what the results will mean, and consider the actions to take after the results are obtained. It is important to know that all results must be considered valid and actionable unless there is a reason to suspect they are not accurate. Microbiological testing is not a guarantee of product safety but instead, as mentioned above, it is a way to verify the effectiveness of your food safety program. Therefore, the core areas outlined in AFFI’s LCP must be in place before microbiological testing is initiated. 

An ideal microbiological testing program should cover indicator organisms such as Listeria species and pathogens. It should also be easy to perform, lead to accurate and quick results, and applicable to all food types. It should start with an appropriate risk-based sampling plan. This is very important because if suitable sampling plans are applied, microbiological testing can provide inaccurate information and create unwarranted concerns or false reassurances about a product’s safety.

Whether your company is new to the frozen food category or is an established brand, these three steps will help manufacturers like you create, implement, and continuously improve upon food safety practices. And, remember, AFFI’s Food Safety Zone is here to help!

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