Food Safety Summit and Expo - More Than Just Hand Washing

By Pam Ahlberg, Editor of Food Online

The first annual Food Safety Summit and Expo closed last Wednesday in Washington DC. With more than 500 paid attendees, representing QA and QC personnel from food processing, retail and foodservice as well regulatory agencies, the show's sponsors consider the event a success. Plans are currently underway for next year's summit, which will be held in the same place in either March or April of 2000.

Tuesday's program, which opened with U.S. Senator Tom Harkin's (D-IA) keynote address, covered a host of topics - from a look at food safety in a global economy, to the Disney organization's food safety methods, to a hand washing contest. Wednesday's sessions included hygiene testing and auditing, a Listeria update, how to manage food allergens, and more. Most of the sessions were broad enough to attract food service providers as well as food processors.

One of Tuesday's early sessions, "Food Irradiation: What's the Next Step?" was summed up best by Food Engineering Magazine's Steve Berne's opening remark - "If you build it, they will come." The panel seemed to share his optimism. Three food irradiation equipment manufacturers, Sterigenics International (Memphis, TN), Titan Scan (San Diego, CA), and IBA/Pastore Technologies (Liberty Corner, NJ), presented their various products and technologies. NFPA food scientist, Jeff Barach, PhD, said that his association was working diligently to expedite the review process and modify labeling requirements. Panelist George Pauli, FDA, said that industry needed to speak about food irradiation "with one voice", and be careful not to offer up irradiation as the food safety miracle. Rosanna Menzer-Morrison, USDA, presented some actual dollar figures food processors could use when considering food irradiation in their plants.

In another Tuesday session, "Rapid and Automated Methods in Microbial Testing", Dr. Daniel Fung, professor of food science at Kansas State University, provided an evaluation/overview of the current rapid test methods available to food microbiologists. He said that with the increase in the requirements for the monitoring of the safety of food supplies, such as HACCP, he expected food microbiologists to soon catch up with medical microbiologists in skill and sophistication. Dr. Fung named the following attributes most desirable when considering an automated microbiology test: accuracy; speed; cost; acceptability by scientific/regulatory agencies; simplicity; training requirements; necessary reagents; manufacturer's reputation; technical service; and utility and space requirements.

Later in the afternoon, "Facility Design: Can you 'Build In' Food Safety?" offered the points of view of two food plant engineers - Ben Webber of Webber/Smith Associates and David Flushing, Jacobs Engineering (formerly Sverdrup). Webber presented a floor to ceiling account of better and worse design decisions in terms of food safety. Answering the question with a "no" at the outset, he went on to say that thoughtful planning could certainly minimize food safety risks. Key to planning a food-safe plant included: Knowing what you're going to make; defining how you're going to make it and what's required. (ie., packaging material, number of employees, etc.); determining whether marketing will be a function of the facility; considering future expansions; developing worst-case scenario plans, such as plant shutdowns or bottlenecks; evaluating HACCP requirements carefully; and keeping in mind employee facility requirements and utility support areas.

Flushing's presentation stressed the need for "sanitary design" to be included in the initial planning of a food facility. He recommended hiring a sanitary design expert whose job would be to review all design plans with food safety in mind. He also said that getting everyone involved to sign off on a "sanitary design criteria document" was critical to the success of a food-safe facility.

Both Flushing and Webber said they believe that the kind of validation currently required in pharmaceutical plants will soon be required of food processors as well - recommending that the food industry get prepared by studying what the pharmaceutical guys are doing. Simply put, "validation is saying what it is you're going to do and then doing what you said you would," said Flushing. He went on to warn that not being prepared could increase plant start-up costs by 40% - which, if anticipated, should be more like 20%. Both engineers said they don't expect validation standards in food plants to be as strict - as least not at the onset.