Create an Effective Environmental Monitoring Program for Pathogen Testing

Mary Hoffman
Contributing Writer

If you can’t find pathogens in your plant, you’re not looking hard enough. Each year, the U.S. tracks approximately 48 million cases of food borne illnesses that result in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Globally, those numbers spike to 600 million cases per year and 420,000 deaths. Effective environmental monitoring programs that prevent these outbreaks depend on practices that are understood company-wide.

Many of these illnesses are caused by pathogens (bacteria, viruses, parasites, etc.) that are either ingested directly by consumers, or establish themselves within a food product and produce toxins that are then ingested by consumers.

In our recent webinar, Environmental Controls: Keeping Pathogens Out, Mary Hoffman, Director of Food Safety at TAG, gives an in-depth tutorial on how to create an effective environmental monitoring program for pathogen testing that keeps your customers and employees safe.

In this blog, we’ll provide a brief overview of what’s at stake and some of the environmental controls you can implement to develop a strong food safety culture in your plant.

Topics include:

  1. Who Are The Main Culprits

  2. Tackling Unseen Risks

  3. Are Your Environmental Controls Up-To-Par?

FSMA webinar series

Who Are The Main Culprits?

Listeria monocytogenes (listeria) and Salmonella spp. (salmonella) are among the top most formidable opponents to an organization’s environmental monitoring program. Salmonella causes the most hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S. out of any other food borne germ. While less prevalent among the masses, nearly all patients identified with listeria require hospitalization, and its rates of fatalities and miscarriages are desolating.

Salmonella spp.

Salmonella is the big kahuna of foodborne pathogens. Symptoms of salmonellosis range from stomach cramps, diarrhea, and a mild fever to major infections that affect the blood, bones, spinal fluid, or even the brain. Because cases with mild symptoms are so prevalent — 2.8 billion cases worldwide — up to 80% of cases are failed to be recognized and reported as part of known outbreaks.

U.S. Salmonellosis Quick Facts

Reported U.S. cases: 1.35 million

Hospitalizations: 26,500

Fatalities: 420

Salmonella lives in the intestines of animals and is spread through contact with feces. As such, salmonella outbreaks can be found in any food, especially if employees are not diligent about proper handwashing and using personal protective equipment. Anyone can be affected by salmonella, but serious salmonellosis is more likely to have dire consequences on the elderly, children, and people with weakened immune systems.

Listeria monocytogenes

Most people are lucky enough to have no to mild side effects after ingesting foods contaminated with listeria monocytogenes. At-risk groups however can develop a life-threatening illness called listeriosis. Listeriosis predominantly affects the elderly, pregnant women, and immunocompromised individuals, and the effects on these groups can be devastating.

U.S. Listeriosis Quick Facts

Reported U.S. cases: 1,600

Hospitalization Rate: 95%

Fatality Rate: 20%

Pregnant women are 10 times more likely to contract listeriosis, and 25% suffer miscarriages or newborn death. The death toll is high for those who contract listeriosis while also suffering from serious underlying health conditions: 5 out of 10 died in a listeriosis outbreak from contaminated celery.

High-risk foods include milk, cottage cheese, cream cheese, soft-ripened cheese (feta, brie, etc.) pre-cooked shrimp or crab, deli salads and sandwiches, and freshly cut fruits and vegetables.

Tackling Unseen Risks

The hardest part about environmental controls is that manufacturers are battling an invisible enemy. Proper testing, cleaning, and employee education are critical to ensuring food manufacturers keep pathogens out of their plants and keep people safe.

Test, test, test.

Put on your detective hat. Environmental monitoring programs for pathogen testing should include frequent vector swabs and surface sponging, especially if tests yield repeat positives. Multiple positives could suggest a resident strain, and facilities will need to double down to identify which cracks and hard-to-clean places are harboring pathogens.

Swabs and rinse methods are particularly useful for testing small areas that are common bacteria havens, such as threaded surfaces, equipment corners, screw holes, and head screws. Periodic equipment teardowns should be performed for testing and cleaning, and involving maintenance and engineering teams can help spur lateral problem-solving for future equipment redesigns that make testing and cleaning easier.

Samples should be collected using sterile gloves, ideally just before clean-up but at least three to four hours into production (so that the bacteria has enough time to work its way out of harborage sites) and well-after any sanitation has been performed (as sanitation chemicals may interfere with test results). The samples should then be properly packaged (refrigerated, never frozen) within 24 hours and processed at a pathogen testing laboratory within 48 hours.

At minimum, the FDA recommends even the smallest processors should sample five food contact surfaces (FCS) and five nonfood contact surfaces. All FCSs should be tested at least once per month, and individual FCSs on production lines should be tested at least weekly when the plant is in operation.

Finally, don’t forget about packaging materials! Potential risks can come into food plants through the packaging material itself. Packaging material must be part of risk assessment to determine biological, chemical, and physical potential risks associated with packaging.

Clean the right way.

Don’t be the wind beneath your pathogens’ wings! Cracks and hard-to-clean places are the banes of food safety, and it can be tempting to use high-pressure water and compressed air to really show those pathogens who’s boss! However, pressurized cleaners can actually backfire — inadvertently spreading pathogens into the air and to previously uncontaminated surfaces.

Contamination from overspray increases when using low pressure within 20 feet of another production line and when using high pressure within 30 feet of another production line. If you absolutely must use high-pressure mediums, use clean curtains or temporary walls to prevent overspray and cross-contamination.

To find out if your cleaning methods are working (or making things worse), conduct microbiological impact studies of each activity. The best food safety programs continually monitor and evaluate current practices to find out what works and what doesn’t, and optimize based on their findings.

Train employees effectively.

Employees need to understand why safety protocols are required. “Because I said so,” just isn’t good enough for employee buy-in, and not providing any explanation at all can lead to honest confusion about how to use available resources. Explain why specific good practices prevent risk and how bad practices cause risk.

Because there are so many nuances to environmental controls, Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) training needs to happen on a frequent, regular basis. Monthly or weekly food safety topics can help ensure employees have a well-rounded understanding of what is expected of them and why. More importantly, the safety topics must be specifically tailored to what your food safety administrators observe happening in your plant, while also being sensitive to not draw negative attention to individual staff members or teams.

Golden rules:

  • Use personal protective equipment (PPE) correctly.

  • Follow GMP protocols.

  • Keep dry areas dry by controlling condensation to prevent water build-up.

  • Avoid high-pressure water and compressed air cleaning when possible.

  • Keep HVAC units clean and accessible.

How to engrain a new set of food safety beliefs into our company culture that translates into measurable reductions of accidents, rework, and recalls

Are Your Environmental Controls Up-To-Par?

Dealing with pathogens is a critical part of the food manufacturing business. Occasional positive tests are inevitable: the point is to catch pathogens before they get into food and make people sick, and optimize food safety practices to stop repeat occurrences. Environmental monitoring programs for pathogen testing are essential to keeping products and people safe.

Watch our webinar to learn more about what specific environmental controls are most important to keep pathogens out of your products.

About the author: Mary Hoffman holds 19+ years experience in food safety/quality program development and continuous improvement, and currently leads proactive initiatives such as supply chain risk mitigation, allergen control, environmental controls & monitoring, and behavior-based food safety culture programs.