In my career, advising food plants on the priority to control the environmental parameters increasingly has become paramount for processors. Environmental Sanitation and EM (Environmental Monitoring) has become a keystone in a plant’s internal EM programs as well as with the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and federal regulations. In my previous articles “Hygiene Monitoring Strategies that Hit the Mark” (April/May 2013) and “Be Ready to Beat Listeria” (April/May 2008), while food contact surfaces are a high priority, the environmental niches/zones have increasingly had a profound impact and role on a facility’s food safety-sanitation hygiene programs.
There are a multitude of studies that have demonstrated the ability of pathogens like L. monocytogens and Salmonella spp. to not only survive but flourish in a multitude of problematic environmental niches inherent in a wide range of food processing plants. While both types of pathogens survive via their vegetative state, not relying on spores for survival, both have their own modes for survival, persistence and biofilm formation.
As is well documented, Listerial species will persist and flourish in moist environments, and will out compete other species in temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (less than 4 degrees Celsius) being a bonafide psychrotroph gram positive, soil borne opportunist. While being a gram negative pathogen, Salmonella species have exhibited a marked tolerance for dry environs persisting in niches with lower moisture levels than Listerial species require. While not precluding the sporeforming opportunistic pathogens like B. cereus, or C. perfrigens, the other group of microbes that post persistent issues to a plant’s environment impacting food quality are the fungal species. Since most result in quality concerns rather than food safety concerns, these opportunistic environmental contaminants can profoundly impact shelf life and form biofilm alliances with a variety of bacterial pathogens. While some environmental niches are similar between vegetative pathogens and spoilage fungi, some are distinct for each group. Below is both a discussion of these environmental niches and their control measures.
Regulatory, GFSI, Product Type Perspectives
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) cornerstone is prevention akin to the proactive preventative philosophy of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP). FSMA has expanded prevention to include HACCP principles to implement preventive controls. One of the key segments is sanitation controls with mandated verification and validation of the sanitation processes inherent in the operation. Preventive controls include an EM program to verify pathogen control effectiveness which includes not only food contact but environmental zones. In addition, the revision of Good Manufacturing Practices, or GMPs, to incorporate allergen cross-contact controls via preventative procedures is critical and directly involves a facility’s environmental sanitation program.