For a more proactive approach to reducing food safety issues in the supply chain, Congress and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) created the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law by President Obama on January 4, 2011. By now, this is old news, but actions required to comply with these regulations are still rolling out, including the most recent provision.

CPGs Face New Challenges
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one out of every six people is sickened by a foodborne illness every year. Also, about 50 percent of FDA recalls involve incidents with allergens. Food professionals will have pressing challenges to comply with FSMA regulations in their strides to keep consumers safe.

Consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs) must deal with even greater sanitation issues, economic adulteration and distribution challenges stemming from varying international food safety standards. As a result, U.S. food companies have an even greater need to determine safety, quality and authenticity of products they receive from overseas. Cases of economic adulteration, in which someone substitutes ingredients in a high-dollar item, such as extra virgin olive oil, and charges the same price, increase the need for technologies, testing and strategies for authenticating products.

Changing consumer preferences significantly impacts the food supply chain—and that also presents more challenges for CPGs. As consumers increasingly seek fresh and locally grown foods, there are many associated safety implications. After all, unprocessed foods do not have a “kill step” to eliminate pathogens. This step usually involves baking, roasting, extruding or frying during food production to eliminate the risks foodborne illnesses.

In addition to the more common pathogens, there are some new ones developing. Emerging pathogens, such as Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli, present big concerns, because accurate identification requires new tests. Some pathogens are becoming more resistant to antibiotics making them dually problematic.

Innovation Offers Solutions
Several improvements in technologies can help CPGs comply with food safety regulations and meet the challenges related to globalization of the food supply and changes in consumer preference. Innovative examination and testing solutions provide packaging and processing lines with speed and accuracy to ensure products meet high quality and safety standards. A particular solution to identify environmental pathogens, for example, can provide results in as little as 15 hours, far outpacing current market alternatives. This technology can help manufacturers respond faster to potential issues. Also, enhanced tests for allergens, which are responsible for nearly half of all recalls, are under development. Computers and sensors for inspection purposes are other tools manufacturers can employ. These solutions can handle specific tasks precisely, tirelessly and rapidly.

There are many well-known and understood methods for preserving food, such as modified atmosphere packaging. New technologies are being explored, including high-pressure processing. These new solutions in food preservation can help food manufacturers meet consumer preference for fresh foods while ensuring products are safe to consume. Smart packaging, which identifies what is going on within a package and active packaging, which contributes toward the preservation of color and texture of food, are additional solutions available for food manufacturers.

Answers for OEMs
New regulations stemming from FSMA are forcing original equipment manufacturer (OEMs) and CPGs to be more data driven. FSMA will increasingly require inspectors to analyze data rather than just physically inspect the plant. A greater focus on data analysis will also allow inspectors to review more plants in less time.

Consequently, there is a big push for inspection equipment that provides more information on the line in real time. Technologies such as X-rays are being enhanced not just to detect foreign objects but also to examine the composition of a product. Additionally, lasers are pairing up with X-ray and other inspection solutions to look at position, size and shape of food products.

Machine vision (MV)—a camera connected to a computer that provides image-based automatic inspection and analysis—is a developing inspection technology that is extremely beneficial for manufacturers, as it takes away the tediousness that comes along with inspecting food as it moves through a line. MV can inspect hundreds or even thousands of products a minute. It also has the ability to determine the correct application of labels to product packaging.

Sanitary equipment design can also reduce contamination hazards. It can prevent a build-up of food on machine surfaces and make it easier to clean and sanitize machinery. All this helps to protect the food throughout the supply chain and deliver an excellent and safe product.

Food safety solutions, like those mentioned above, are widely available for the food industry. One place to look for the latest food safety technologies is a trade show near you.  

For more of the latest on food safety, food manufacturers should head to PACK EXPO Las Vegas.
Jeffrey Barach, Ph.D., is a FSMA consultant to PMMI, The Association of Packaging and Processing Technologies.