Randy W. Worobo, PhD, professor of food microbiology at Cornell University, and associate director of the USAID Food Safety Innovation Lab, and Burcu Yordem, PhD, US technical services manager at 3M Food Safety, discuss current trends and challenges within food safety, and explain the findings of a recent research collaboration that evaluated how the use of rapid-testing adenosine triphosphate (ATP) swabs can improve sanitation practices within food production facilities.
Q: Can you identify some of the key factors that contribute to foodborne illnesses and spoilage?
RW: There are numerous factors that are responsible for higher risks of foodborne illness and spoilage. Improper cooking and/or processing, post-process contamination, contaminated raw ingredients, improper hot and cold holding of foods, cross contamination, and lack of cleaning and sanitation are just a few. To reduce the incidence of foodborne illness and spoilage, all players in the food system (growers, processors, transporters, retail, and consumers) must do their part to minimize the potential for contamination and growth of foodborne pathogens and spoilage microorganisms.
Q: Can you explain how ATP swabs work?
RW: ATP is basically the energy currency for everything that is living. The swab picks up any ATP from the food contact surface and when it is placed with the enzyme and substrate (luciferase and luciferin), the ATP reacts with these two components to produce luminescence that is measured with a luminometer. Higher levels of light suggest the potential for microbiological contaminants to be present on the surface that was swabbed.
“Improving food safety culture and making sure every worker knows the importance of preventing food safety concerns in their facility is essential.”
In real-world settings, it is a rapid way to assess and verify that a food contact surface has been cleaned and sanitized properly to remove any contaminants from the food contact surface. Traditional microbiological plating takes days to get the results, and by that time the food contact surface has already been used. If it was improperly cleaned and sanitized, the contamination is already in the food that has been produced.
Q: Can you discuss the collaboration between Cornell University and 3M Food Safety for the research project on using ATP swabs?
RW: This was actually a collaboration with 3M Food Safety, the food processing facility that we performed the study in, and my research group. The 3M Food Safety researchers and I initially met with the food processing company to identify areas and pieces of equipment that were challenging to clean and sanitize. These sites were initially monitored using the 3M Clean-Trace swabs and luminometer, along with traditional microbiological swabbing and plating, to obtain a baseline of their current contamination levels in their facility. We used the luminometer and microbiology results to identify areas that needed improvements for their current cleaning and sanitation protocols. They continued to perform the swabbing for several months with modifications to their existing cleaning and sanitation regimes.
The results showed the power that ATP swabbing can have to quickly identify equipment or food contact surfaces that weren’t adequately cleaned and sanitized (results are available within 30 seconds). The swabbing also allows the food processor to clean these areas before starting their production operations. Over the course of the entire study, we saw a dramatic improvement in the overall sanitation in the food processing facility.
Q: What are some of the top food safety concerns or challenges today?
BY: One key challenge facing food safety is fostering a strong culture of food safety in the plant. The number of people and processes that touch a product from start to finish is extensive, whether it’s traffic patterns or following Good Manufacturing Processes, or the sanitation practices themselves. Each of these contributes to the risk of a contamination, and are all controlled by the people and their impact. Improving food safety culture and making sure every worker knows the importance of preventing food safety concerns in their facility is essential.
Another challenge can be not having enough available education around what to test for, where to sample, and how often to test to help teams improve the overall quality and safety of the products. Sparing the time to encourage and ensure education among staff is critical.
Q: How is consumer demand driving the direction of food safety research?
BY: As the prevalence of food allergies is increasing, we are seeing that food allergens are becoming a bigger concern and more strictly regulated. Food processors are having to implement safety measures and testing protocols if they do have allergens present at their facility.
Also, as the diet trends change and new food products are introduced to the consumer, in order to maintain the same strict food safety and quality measures, food processors are needing to make sure to verify that their existing testing methods and cleaning procedures are adequate for this new product. Just because it is the same equipment and facility, it cannot be assumed that the food safety risks stay the same. It is important to re-evaluate their risk assessment and identify any risks that the new product poses, while also verifying that their current testing procedure is fit for purpose for this new sample (new food product). Different sample properties could impact efficiency of the current testing methods.
Q: What future trends do you see emerging within the food safety/testing industries?
RW: There is a trend for a genomics approach to identify sources of foodborne pathogens and chronic spoilage microorganisms in the food industry. I believe this approach will continue to be used by the food industry and testing industry to assist in identifying pathogen or spoilage sources.
BY: There is a lot of data being collected in the industry, but sometimes there is a lack of analyzing that data and reacting to trends. So, I think there will be a shift from just collecting data as a single release requirement to a greater focus on analyzing how that data is trending, driving continuous improvement, and improving the long-term food safety culture in a plant.
Randy W. Worobo, PhD, received a BS in food science in 1990 and a PhD in food microbiology in 1995 from the University of Alberta, Canada. Worobo’s primary program area in the Department of Food Science is fruit, vegetable, and beverage microbiology. His expertise area includes food safety, juice HACCP, non-thermal processing, fruit and beverage safety and spoilage, antimicrobials peptides and proteins, and heat-resistant molds and bacteria.
Burcu Yordem, PhD, is the US technical services manager at 3M Food Safety. Yordem’s expertise includes environmental monitoring in food processing, the application of food safety and quality testing methods, as well as molecular biology and genetics. Prior to 3M, Yordem worked at the USDA ARS Cereal Disease Laboratory as a postdoctoral research associate. She holds a master’s degree and PhD in Molecular Biology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.