Some people call Jeffrey Kornacki, PhD, the Lieutenant Columbo of food safety microbiology. Without the trench coat. Or the cigar. Or the 1959 Peugeot convertible, Model 403. Or the basset hound.
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Explore This IssueOctober/November 2019
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Signature wardrobe, iconic props, and lovable pet notwithstanding, what Dr. Kornacki has in common with the irrepressible TV sleuth is his ability to solve tough mysteries, albeit in food manufacturing plants. Dr. Kornacki doesn’t tackle murder cases, but, as president and senior technical director of Kornacki Microbiology Solutions, Inc., Madison, Wis., he does unravel potentially life-threatening food contamination puzzles with the same relentless attention to detail as Columbo.
Dr. Kornacki says he pursues any of three types of investigations: microbiological product contamination, environmental contamination, and risk assessment. “With product investigations, a client asks me to determine how a contaminant got into a product,” Dr. Kornacki elaborates. “With environmental investigations, they ask ‘How did a contaminant get to this place in my facility?’ Relative to risk assessment, the client says they don’t have a contamination problem, but they want to know what the risks are.”
The Investigation Process
Regardless of the task, ahead of any visit Dr. Kornacki asks to see the plant’s standard operating procedures for cleaning and sanitation, their process flow chart, and a diagram of the facility.
“Ideally, this is a plant diagram that shows areas where they may have found contamination in the past, providing potential clues for further investigation” he explains. “Also requested is a general understanding of product formulation, including water activity, acidity, and post-lethality (after the kill step) ingredients, as well as ingredient test results and certificates of analysis.”
Upon arrival at the plant, Dr. Kornacki spends time with management, asking them what specifically they want to accomplish and how can he help meet their needs. Often, a backward plant tour comes next, starting with finished product and ending with intake of raw ingredients, during which Dr. Kornacki takes notes of his observations. “Most food contamination problems occur post-lethality,” he points out.
With frequency, he climbs ladders and crawls on his hands and knees to search for clues in out-of-the-way, typically overlooked places. After a tour, Dr. Kornacki routinely turns to sampling the product and environment.
Product and Environmental Sampling
“After the tour, I transition to sampling, both product, post-lethality higher risk ingredients, and environmental,” Dr. Kornacki continues. “To that end, if the problem is associated with product, I request that skilled maintenance employees pull the equipment completely apart for swabbing. Management often says ‘oh, we take this apart all the time.’ ‘All the way?’ I ask. ‘Well, we never had this particular equipment this far apart before,’ they often respond when we are done.”
After sampling, Dr. Kornacki departs and waits for the data to come back from the lab he uses, noting that an initial plant visit typically takes from a one to three days. However, in some challenging circumstances, such as large facilities with multiple lines, visits can continue for weeks, he says.
Relative to risk assessments, wherein a client is unaware of product contamination, it is unwise to take pathogen samples of finished products, post-lethality ingredients, or food contact surfaces (FCS), Dr. Kornacki advises.
“If product. post-lethality ingredients, or FCS samples are contaminated, that will lead to a recall,” he points out. “So, you have to honor the client’s wishes. Labs must realize what a client wants to do and stay within the bounds of what they are asked to do. If the risk being assessed is Salmonella, for example, product, post-lethality ingredients, and FCS should be tested with an appropriate indicator organism.” For Dr. Kornacki, non-FCS samples are tested for Salmonella and indicators according to a protocol he published in 2014.
A Plant Is Like a Sandwich
Dr. Kornacki likens a food plant to a sandwich. “A sandwich has bread on the bottom, bread on the top and meat in the middle,” he begins. “All three parts of the plant ‘sandwich’ can have sources of contamination to the product from the environment.”