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Sample Prep Standards Ensure Safety
As consumers’ food safety fears grow, integrated, automated modes of sample testing could help
by Lorna McLeod
Consumers have never been more aware of food safety issues. A quick Google News search for “food safety” turns up headlines from around the world. In addition to the usual suspects such as botulism, E. coli, and Salmonella, consumers worry about pesticides and other chemical contaminants in their foods. Another fear is food bioterrorism.
Just the mere suspicion of a contaminated product has far-reaching consequences for a food supplier. Because testing food samples (whether it is to look for contaminants or to examine nutritional components) can help find irregularities before products reach consumers, it is a vital activity in the food industry.
According to Mark Carter, general manager of Silliker, Inc.’s Food Science Center (Homewood, Ill.), sample preparation is the most overlooked aspect of food safety. “A lot of work gets done on the back end in detection or enumeration, but we tend to neglect the sample prep area,” he says. Sample prep needs to be validated and optimized along with test procedures and should be re-examined every time any change is made to verify that the procedures being used are still applicable.
“There are a lot of directions to consider,” Carter says. “For example, how do you categorize your product? Is it meat, poultry, dry powder, or liquid? How you begin obviously depends on what you’re testing and what you’re testing it for. Currently, there is no compendium.” Some people, including Carter, would like to change that.
Desperately Seeking a Compendium
A working group of 19 met in July at the International Association for Food Protection’s (IAFP) Annual Meeting, held in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., to discuss the state of sample prep in the food industry. Led by co-chairs Mary Lou Tortorello, PhD, of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Lee-Ann Jaykus, PhD, associate professor, North Carolina State University Food Science Department, the group’s long-term goal is to create a compendium for sample test methodology in the food industry.
“This meeting was the kick-off to decide what we will try to do,” says Tortorello. “A compendium is a very long-term goal. We discussed what considerations need to be made if we want to improve sample prep to the point of linking it up and integrating it with detection or ID assays in an integrated, automated system. Initially, we’ll focus on microbiologic testing; we won’t be looking at toxins.”
Tortorello points to the many inconsistencies that can occur, depending on which agency is involved. “Whether you are talking with the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA], FDA, Health Canada, or some other agency, you might find very different ideologies and methodologies in sample prep. The first thing the group would like to see is consistency, and the second is to move into that integrated, automated mode within each commodity area.”
Commodity Areas Defined
Although there were differences within the group, it has been able to define commodity areas based on guidelines from the Association of Analytical Communities. The group’s commodity list includes meats; poultry; dairy; eggs; fruits, vegetables, and nuts; seafood; cereals, grains, and pasta; bakery, chocolate, and confectionery; and dressings, condiments, and spices.
“We decided to assemble a team of experts for each commodity,” Tortorello says. “These experts will examine the status of sample prep in their area and decide how to make it more consistent. Each expert group will recommend the best methods for achieving the goal of an integrated, automated approach to sample preparation.”
The working group’s first output will be a white paper authored by five of the 19 members of the working group. Meanwhile, other members of the group are focusing on recruitment. The working group participants are all volunteers who expressed interest in the area of sample prep.
Tortorello and Jaykus started by e-mailing the list of participants in the applied methods segment of the IAFP Annual Meeting. Nineteen of them responded favorably. The group consists of members from industry, regulatory agencies, and academia and hopes to attract more interest with the white paper.
While members of the food industry would have an obvious interest in the topic, Tortorello points out that there is a great deal of expertise available in academia as well. She hopes to draw on the knowledge of both groups. Tortorello adds that she is not working with the group in an official FDA capacity and that the FDA is not overseeing the working group. She is, instead, a member of the working group representing her own interest in the issue.
During the initial meeting, the working group debated how to choose sample prep methods and collect samples, discussed the current information gaps, and tried to define needed research and improvements. “We didn’t always agree on things,” Tortorello says. “It was a lively discussion.”
Also meeting for the first time was a subcommittee of the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods (NACMC). It is charged with determining the most appropriate technologies for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to adopt in performing routine and baseline microbiological analyses. The group will develop guidance and recommendations for the FSIS for improving both laboratory and in-plant testing methods for pathogens and indicator organisms.
According to an NACMC update, “this project will assist the agency with its goal of moving into the next generation of microbiological testing methods and will focus on exploring the utility of new technologies.”
The formation of the working group to put together a compendium for sample testing follows the FDA’s July 2007 launch of the Manufactured Food Regulatory Program Standards, which were designed to encourage state agencies to adopt more uniform enforcement of FDA regulations. The program is voluntary, but the agency hopes it will lead to more consistent enforcement across the United States.
That enforcement is crucial; foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. These program standards are expected to set out best practices for protecting consumers from such foodborne illnesses.
McLeod is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Ore.