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A: It is likely that in many cases the contamination has always been there, so it can’t be said for certain that contamination itself is on the rise. The industry is detecting contamination more often than it did before because it has higher detection capabilities and higher frequency of testing than was previously the case.
However, pesticide residuals are now more tightly regulated. It is possible that the industry is seeing more organisms come into facilities or these organisms could become resistant to the conventional sanitation approaches used pre-processing. The drive towards organic and the drive towards the fresh-to-market concept also contribute to a higher potential for bacterial contamination because the products are less processed.
Regardless of the reason or reasons, now that companies are discovering contamination in their facilities, they have to address it. In addition, if they haven’t discovered contamination, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are contamination-free, or couldn’t become contaminated tomorrow or the day after.
Q: What are the most vulnerable entry-points pathogen contaminants can penetrate food processing and manufacturing plants?
A: Pathogens can penetrate either with the product being processed or with the people associated with it. People do carry pathogens. That is why, for example, hand sanitation and all the prepping of personnel before handling the product are so important.
The product is vulnerable to cross-contamination during the production stage. Improper wastewater or fertilization methods of the product can happen at the production facility it originated from. Cross-contamination can also occur during the transportation stage. Trucks may have been contaminated either coming in or going out of facilities.
Cross-contamination can also occur in the plant itself in the form of latent materials, such as dust or dirt, that go undetected until sampling a specific location and looking for that kind of airborne contamination to mitigate it before it becomes a problem. For example, in dry storage facilities, dust can be transported in an airborne fashion to the commodity being processed.
It is probably not possible to monitor, or even know every possible entry point, or, at a minimum, do so in a cost-efficient manner. That is why periodic, proactive decontamination is emerging as a best practice for processors.
Q: What are the limitations of the prevalent sanitation practices in use during sanitation cycles? Are there emerging or alternative methods that address these limitations?
A: Currently, the processing industry utilizes liquid-based sanitation methods, which are limited in their penetration, ease of coverage, and degree of sanitation effectiveness. The contaminated area is isolated and treated along with people working in the area. What happens if there’s a big problem, such as Listeria or Salmonella, but you cannot actually find it? Therefore you do not know which area/surfaces to isolate and treat?
Gas-based sterilization solutions directly address this limitation. Gas inherently goes everywhere. It penetrates everything and when properly applied there is not a spot that is left untouched, including all the places that are otherwise hard to get to, such as air ducts or underneath the cutting boards. Gas-based deployment decreases the risk of human error (for instance, missing a contaminated area that can be very small in size and still provide a significant contamination threat) and ensures consistent and correct application throughout the facility by penetrating all types of surfaces, including the porous ones. Unlike liquid sterilants, gas does not move contaminants around. Gas-based sterilization is also easier and faster to apply while ultimately being less expensive than manually wiping down thousands of square feet of processing floor space. It is for this reason that gas greatly facilitates proactive and preventative sanitation in addition to its advantages in reacting to a contamination event.