In each edition of Food Safety Magazine, we will focus the editorial spotlight on a food ingredient, processing or retail company with a unique take on food safety program management and science-based strategies for improved food protection. The “Case Studies in Food Protection” series will explore the practical side of implementing and improving food safety systems from an industry perspective, highlighting the “lessons learned” and successful aspects of real-world programs that FSM readers can apply to their operations. Also featured will be question-and-answer format interviews with food industry professionals on hot topics and trends in food safety. 

In this issue, FSM features an interview with Doug Willrett, Vice President of Rhodia Food & Co-Director of Food Protection on the growing trend toward developing antimicrobial ingredients for the food industry. Rhodia Food is an enterprise within the Paris, France-based conglomerate and specialty chemical company Rhodia that serves three primary markets-dairy, meat and prepared foods-with a diverse portfolio of food ingredients based on the technologies of food phosphates, hydrocolloids and lactic acid bacteria. In his current position, Willrett is jointly responsible for creating a new business model for food safety in the division. Previously, Willrett was Vice President Rhodia Food, Executive Director Baking Business, where he was responsible for the company’s global baking ingredients business, and was formerly the North American Business Director for Rhodia’s dairy ingredients business in Madison, Wisconsin. He has a Ph.D. in microbiology and had held several technical positions prior to his business experience.

Food Safety Magazine: Ingredient suppliers to the food and beverage industry face many of the same food safety challenges as the companies, which they supply. Can you give an overview of Rhodia Food’s food safety program/systems, the markets it serves and the company’s mission and goals with regard to food safety?

Doug Willrett: Rhodia Food is a global ingredient supplier that has leveraged its three core technologies—phosphates, hydrocolloids and lactic acid bacteria cultures—over three major food markets of dairy, meat and prepared foods. The Food Protection Division activities of Rhodia Food are part of the Consumer Specialties Division in Rhodia. We define food protection as the combined activities of food preservation and food safety. Our efforts in food protection are very closely aligned with our division’s mission to improve the quality of life for consumers.  

Rhodia Food has been involved in selling ingredients for preserving and extending the shelf life of foods for the past decade. In recent years, however, this focus on preservation has shifted to meeting the needs of food processors in the area of food safety. We see food safety as an emerging market. Although today it is difficult to precisely define exactly what this market is, we believe that food safety will become a very important market in the food industry. As a result, we believe it has the potential to play a significant role in our food ingredients business in the future.  

Surveys have clearly shown that consumers are increasingly aware and concerned about the safety of the food that they eat. On average, every second, someone in the U.S. is afflicted with some type of foodborne illness. Usually, the illness is relatively minor, but statistics have shown that as many as 325,000 people are hospitalized and approximately 5,000 people die each year in the U.S. alone. All this pain and suffering costs society upwards of $30 billion in lost productivity. If you haven’t experienced foodborne illness in the past five years or so, consider yourself very fortunate.  

Equally concerned are the CEOs of the major food processing companies who realize that food safety is one of those risks that potentially threatens to “punch a hole below their waterline” and irreversibly damage their corporate brands, their corporate image, and potentially, their company’s viability if they should be responsible for a serious foodborne illness outbreak.

I think this brings up the question, “Why is food safety becoming more of an issue?” Part of the answer is that in the food processing industry, we are trying to push the envelope to make foods taste better and more convenient for consumers to use. In doing so, we often must go outside the traditional parameters that have ensured that our foods would not be contaminated with high levels of pathogens or toxins. For example, if we take a food that perhaps was previously frozen and which did not present a food safety threat to the consumer, and now we want to make it a refrigerated item to improve the taste and appearance, we may be providing a more favorable environment for pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes to grow. Or, maybe we want to raise the pH of a formerly high-acid food to improve its flavor (or increase the moisture to improve the texture). As you begin taking away some of these hurdles or barriers that some pathogens were unable to overcome, you increase the overall food safety risk.

Another contributing factor to the increased food safety risk may be linked to the fact that the quality of our food supply is better than ever before. As we have extended the distribution reach for our food supply from regional to national to sometimes even global in scope, we have had to find ways to process our foods to attain lower and lower levels of spoilage microorganisms in order to provide the required shelf life. Without the spoilage bacteria to spoil the product, we often find that the pathogenic bacteria are free to survive and grow to much larger numbers than in the past. For example, our milk supply is so clean today that a very low level of a pathogenic contaminant can survive and possibly grow in a product with storage temperature abuse; whereas in the past, the milk would have soured in a matter of a few days from normal flora in the milk long before the pathogen ever had a chance to grow to disease-causing levels. Unfortunately, higher quality food does not always equate to higher safety for food.
Rhodia Food has recognized that there is an unmet need in the area of ready-to-eat refrigerated foods in which Listeria monocytogenes has been shown to be present and difficult to eliminate from the processing environment. Listeria monocytogenes is able to grow at refrigeration temperatures and although most people are not severely affected by consuming Listeria-contaminated foods, it can be fatal for unborn fetuses and for people who have compromised immune systems. We have targeted Listeria with our antimicrobial technologies. We have developed several unique blends of generally recognized as safe (GRAS) compounds with known antimicrobial properties that have proven to be very effective in reducing and eliminating the presence of viable Listeria monocytogenes from various ready-to-eat foods. Many of these anti-listerial ingredient solutions are now in the final stages of regulatory approvals in the U.S   

In general, the mission of our food safety program is to help food processors reduce their food safety risk. Today, our antimicrobial technologies are best suited for controlling Listeria monocytogenes and Clostridium botulinum and other gram-positive spore and toxin producers.

FSM: Can you tell us a little more about the company’s focus on antimicrobial research and development?

Willrett: As an ingredient supplier, Rhodia is focused today on natural antimicrobial compounds that we can add to food products as an ingredient or as a surface treatment. Rhodia Food has identified four classes of compounds from which we try to construct our antimicrobial systems. The first of these are metabolites produced by fermentation, referred to as whole fraction fermentates and bacteriocins. Bacteria with a safe history of use in foods are used to produce all of these compounds. The second class of compounds is enzymes, such as lysozyme, which have been used for antimicrobial purposes in food and other products. Third is natural botanicals, or plant-derived compounds, which historically have been used in various capacities for antimicrobial purposes as well as for flavor. Finally, the fourth is live cultures that have been used for thousands of years to produce cheese, yogurt, sausage and a diverse range of fermented foods.   

Several of these natural substances have been used for decades and sometimes longer for antimicrobial purposes. For example, take nisin, a well-known bacteriocin that has been used in cheese and dairy applications for many years: When it is applied as a single component, it has proved to be very effective against certain microorganisms. But we’ve found that in combination with some other antimicrobials, there are sometimes synergistic effects that produce greater efficacy against target microorganisms, or even broader spectrum benefits are uncovered. Often, we have found that the combinations or systems, if you will, of antimicrobials are far more effective than any of the single components used alone. Our value proposition to our customers is based on our ability to discover these synergies and create value by assembling the most efficacious systems possible and applying them to their applications.  

In the end, we believe that the antimicrobial systems we have developed (and will be developing) will be very effective in combating many of the food safety threats that confront the food processing industry. However, we also believe that gaining control of food safety in general, will require the use of several different types of antimicrobial interventions. Some people refer to this as the hurdle concept, where it will be necessary to put a series of antimicrobial hurdles in place in order to successfully reduce the risk of food safety risk to acceptable levels. For example, in addition to our antimicrobial systems, a food processor may choose to add a process intervention such as irradiation or hyperbar to ensure the safety of his products. The complementary nature of many of these food safety hurdles makes this a potentially attractive strategy for the processor to consider. 

And, of course, the use of Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) as an overall food safety umbrella is probably the one unifying food safety intervention that helps tie everything together into the ultimate food safety program.

FSM: What are some of the most significant challenges that an ingredient supplier faces with regard to implementing food safety programs and measures, and why?

Willrett: One of the biggest challenges for an ingredient supplier such as Rhodia is to successfully navigate the regulatory approval processes that are required before introducing any new antimicrobials for use in reducing the levels of food pathogens in our food supply. While undoubtedly it is important that we ensure the safety and suitability of any new ingredient, the regulatory approval of new antimicrobials, and even for known antimicrobials with proposed new applications, does take substantial time and is often unpredictable.  

For example, Rhodia has taken a very proactive position to fully cooperate with the regulatory agencies in the U.S. in order to seek approval as expeditiously as possible for use of several natural antimicrobials to help control Listeria monocytogenes in cooked meat products. Many of these natural compounds have a long safe history of use in certain applications, but have not been used in some of the applications that are most pressing today. For example, nisin is a bacteriocin that has been used in processed cheese and various related products for many years. We have found that it also has some application in certain ready-to-eat foods and especially in cooked meats, but as it stands today, nisin is not allowed for use in such products without regulatory clearance. Therefore, Rhodia Food has assembled an expert panel of scientific experts to review the safety and suitability of nisin, as well as some other antimicrobial compounds used in our anti-listerial systems, and we have taken the independent findings of this panel and submitted them to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for their review. Ultimately, we are confident that this process will lead to the approved use of these antimicrobial systems for controlling Listeria monocytogenes in hot dogs and other cooked meat products. Even though the GRAS notification process is much more efficient today than in the past, it still takes a number of months and sometimes years to get successfully through the whole process.   

Secondly, and equally challenging, is trying to anticipate the future needs and subsequently invest in the most appropriate long-term development efforts in order to meet the food safety needs of the food industry. New food pathogens are emerging, known pathogens are continually adapting to changing conditions in our food supply, and the food products themselves are changing in response to consumer demand. Add to that the broad range of technologies available for potential food safety intervention and all of this makes for a moving target when it comes time for an ingredient supplier to make choices about where to invest its development resources.

FSM: In your opinion, what have been the most exciting developments in food safety and quality-related efforts in the food ingredients sector in the past decade?

Willrett: Of course, I’d say that one of the most exciting developments is the emergence of this whole area of natural antimicrobial compounds, which I discussed earlier, and the recognition that by combining these together we can create a whole new class of antimicrobial compounds that offer increased efficacy.   

Looking to the future, everyone acknowledges that food safety is a serious problem, but as much as food safety is about finding the best intervention technologies to apply, I see an equally challenging issue in the area of communication. Probably the biggest development that will impact us from this perspective is the Internet and related communication technologies like wireless devices—tools that are in their infancy today, but that are beginning to develop very quickly. These c-tools are going to help facilitate the communication of information that in many cases today is lacking. It isn’t that the information is not known, it is just that it isn’t available to the people who need it. We know from food processors that one of their biggest challenges is just getting the information that they already have out to the personnel in all their plants in a timely fashion. What is sometimes referred to as “knowledge transfer” is, in my opinion, going to play a very important role in helping us reduce the food safety risk.    

PulseNet is another specific development that has affected the industry quite dramatically by bringing accountability to the industry where previously it did not really exist. PulseNet, which involves the DNA fingerprinting of food pathogens, essentially gives you the capability to go back to the processing environment after someone has contracted a foodborne illness, isolate the organism, take a DNA fingerprint and match it to the processing environment, thus making a positive link from the food produced to the causative agent for the illness. At this stage, all the finger- pointing becomes a thing of the past, and everyone has little choice but to direct their efforts to solving the problem and preventing it from happening in the future.

FSM: Is science keeping up with the demand for safer food ingredients and products?

Willrett: As a scientist by training, I wish I could answer unequivocally, yes, but I can’t. Unfortunately, the changes in the food processing industry are probably moving more quickly than the remedies to try and offset some of the problems we’ve created in food safety. I think that science is making tremendous strides in food safety, but the challenges of producing and preparing safe food seem almost overwhelming at times. Some people call this job security. I prefer to think of it as never having to worry about getting bored at what I do. 

At Rhodia, a lot of our work up to this point has been conducted on a case- by-case basis. For example, a major customer would come to us and say they’ve got a problem with a particular product and want to work together with us to try to solve it. Many times, we have something that we think will do the job, but more often than not, when we get more deeply involved in the situation, we realize what we have out-of-the-box is not quite good enough; so we go back to the lab and try to find a better combination of components that will better address the problem. This iterative process may take several months before we can successfully develop the best-in-class solution for that particular customer. This process has worked very well, but there’s a lot of companies with similar but not exactly the same problems. Thus, we may be able to customize a solution for one particular customer, but it’s only a good starting point for the other 20 companies’ with a similar problem.

As a result, we’re trying to move our technical resources toward more of a modeling approach where we can apply our antimicrobial know-how to different food environments (i.e., pH, water activity, composition, etc.) in order to model a solution that could be applied more broadly to address an across-the- board industry problem. Going into 2001, Rhodia Food is investing more resources into doing this type of work.

FSM: What are the keys to successful partnerships with regulatory agencies, research institutions and food processing, food service and ingredient companies and why are these partnerships important in advancing better food safety systems?

Willrett: One of the keys to success in food safety is being able to collaborate with all the relevant parties involved in trying to reduce the risk of food safety. Food safety is not being treated as a competitive issue by most food companies, and for all of us to be successful, we need to work together in order to come up with the best solutions. We are seeing this spirit of collaboration with the processors that we work with, regulators and the suppliers of various food safety interventions. Companies that may be viewed as competitors to Rhodia in some other markets are turning out to be potential collaborators of ours in the quest for food safety.   

As an industry, we probably would not have progressed as far as we have had it not been for this spirit of cooperation that exists in food safety, and above all else, it is this industry collaboration that will more than likely take us all to the finish line.