The Great Resignation began sweeping through U.S. workplaces in 2021, resulting in nearly 48 million workers quitting their jobs, according to an April 2022 article in Mashable. Surveys of workers revealed that their top reasons for leaving were better pay, improved benefits, a new career direction, or a better working environment. Nearly 30% of the U.S. workforce was impacted, and the trend continues into 2022 with no clear indication of when, or how, it might ease, according to 2022 research from Statista.
In addition, challenges involving supply chains, transportation, and price pressures are forcing food manufacturers to develop creative solutions that not only serve their immediate production needs but enable greater resiliency in the face of future challenges.
Food safety testing has often followed a predictable pattern: Regulatory, industry, and trade drivers may influence where and how testing takes place, but food manufacturers have long been proactive in developing strategic and tactical approaches to ensuring that food and beverages are nutritious and safe to consume. A closer look at the role that food safety holds across the food manufacturing life cycle can help identify areas in which small changes can significantly improve operational efficiency and worker satisfaction while maintaining the highest product quality and safety standards.
When a worker shortage and employee retention are hurting production as they are today, food processors may want to take a harder look at food safety testing technologies and methods that are easier on the bottom line and safer and easier for new workers to use.
Identifying Mycotoxin Contamination
Produced by naturally occurring soil-borne molds, mycotoxins are highly toxic metabolites found in most field, orchard, and vine-grown crops (see Table 1). Heat stable and persistent, mycotoxins remain on crops after they’ve been harvested, stored, and processed. In fact, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that 25% of the world’s food crops are contaminated with mycotoxins. Recent studies suggest that contamination is more complex and involves the presence of multiple mycotoxins in a single raw material.
Aflatoxins are among the most widely known and highly regulated mycotoxins. Produced by Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus molds, aflatoxin B1 is classified as a Group I carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Additional mycotoxins of food safety importance include fumonisin, ochratoxin A, patulin, ergot alkaloids, alternaria, deoxynivalenol (DON), nivalenol, zearalenone, and the combination of T-2 and HT-2. Each mycotoxin, or family of toxins, carries a unique toxicity profile, and regulatory guidelines are reflective of the intended use for the product. For example, the EU regulatory limit for aflatoxin M1 in milk products is 0.05 parts per billion (ppb); however, milk used to manufacture infant formula must follow a much stricter limit of 0.025 ppb.
The type or level of mycotoxin contamination varies with each crop season; therefore, having a process in place for screening can help identify high-risk raw materials, suppliers, and geographic regions. Severe weather patterns, warm and humid storage conditions, or even late crop planting may contribute to the severity of mycotoxin contamination.
Once a mold begins producing toxin, the contamination may remain highly localized to a very small area within a crop field or in a “hot spot” inside a storage bin. A single grain or nut kernel may constitute 100% of the aflatoxin contamination in each lot or shipment, for example, indicating the need for thorough inspection and careful sampling, especially at harvest.