The 2022 Food Safety Summit closed on Thursday with a presentation on the reality of sanitation work in food production plants, as well as how sanitarians and processing facilities can stay ahead of hygienic risks by leveraging data. The session was led by Joe Stout, R.S., President and Founder of Commercial Food Sanitation, and a leader in the sanitation field with over four decades of experience; and Eric Moorman, Ph.D., Corporate Manager of Food Safety and Scientific Affairs at Butterball LLC.

Mr. Stout began the session by handing out several items for attendees to observe: brass door hinges, a door hinge with a rough surface coating, and clear plastic bags filled with flour. Mr. Stout also asked for four volunteers to take an apple each and try to clean it as best they could with a dry paper towel. The items were passed around the audience throughout the session, and were returned to Mr. Stout at the end of the presentation for a demonstration.

The Intersection of Raw and Ready-to-Eat 

After handing out the aforementioned items, Mr. Stout outlined the ten deadliest foodborne illness outbreaks in U.S. history. “It is good to look back at this [history] so we don’t forget the key learnings,” he said. Mr. Stout honed in on an outbreak caused by cantaloupes, grown by Jensen Farms, that were contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. He used the Jensen Farms outbreak as an example with which to explore the question “Who owns the intersect point between raw [foods] and ready-to-eat (RTE) [foods]?”

To explore the question, Mr. Stout demonstrated how bacteria such as L. monocytogenes can easily contaminate foods. He showed a cantaloupe to the crowd, which he purchased from the supermarket prior to the presentation. “This cantaloupe was picked up from a field somewhere,” he said “…and, I mean, this surface is really bad.” Mr. Stout explained that when he purchased the cantaloupe, it was cold to the touch and soaking wet, which is a problem that occurs from changing temperatures. Chill, moist environments promote the growth of L. monocytogenes; such problematic conditions existed at Jensen Farms.

Mr. Stout then presented images of magnified bacteria on the head of a pin—a cleanable surface—and explained, “As you can see, there’s a lot of cells [on the head of the pin]. All it takes is one cell to go on and multiply … and all of a sudden you have a whole family [of bacteria], with whole genome sequencing (WGS) marking that one cell that populated the factory under ideal conditions [for growth].”

Mr. Stout then talked through the many conditions for ideal L. monocytogenes growth that existed at Jensen farms, as well as the incident’s timeline and data, and used critical thinking to discern what factors could have led to the L. monocytogenes outbreak. Potential causes he mentioned were no segregation of work zones, rusty and reused equipment, standing pools of water under processing areas, inadequate and compromised sanitation procedures, and inadequate temperature control. 

Mr. Stout delineated several lessons that can be learned from the Jensen Farms foodborne illness outbreak. Mr. Stout explained that pooling water is problematic, and that dry conditions are best for managing bacterial growth. He also mentioned that testing pooled water on the floor of a facility can be a valuable way to assess the conditions of Zone 1 food contact surfaces, because water on the ground often drips down from Zone 1 surfaces. Mr. Stout further explained that prior to its L. monocytogenes outbreak, Jensen Farms was scoring well in hygiene and sanitation assessments; Mr. Stout warned against facilities becoming lax in maintaining good cleaning practices due to overconfidence.

At the end of his Jensen Farms critical thinking exercise, Mr. Stout returned to the cantaloupe that he had presented to the audience earlier. Mr. Stout cut the cantaloupe with a knife and then shone a blacklight on the meat of the cantaloupe. It was evident that the cantaloupe meat had been contaminated by soil on the rind by the simple act of slicing the knife through the melon. “So, in the kitchen you cut the cantaloupe, infect the meat of the cantaloupe, and then you put it in the fridge overnight—which creates optimal growing conditions [for L. monocytogenes]—and then you feed it to someone the next day,” he said. “Can you see how stuff happens? It makes perfect sense why there was a situation, what the situation involved, and how somebody could get sick and die.” 

Mr. Stout then showed a mathematical depiction of the risk of a plant’s food safety practices not being 100 percent perfect. According to Mr. Stout’s formula, if a plant produces 2 billion food items and executes its food safety practices perfectly only 99 percent of the time, then this will result in 20,000,000 food items that are not up to standard. After acknowledging that total perfection is not possible, he pondered what may be an acceptable level of risk. “All it takes is a split-second wrong decision to lose perfection,” Mr. Stout said.

He then returned to his earlier question of “who owns the intersect point between raw and RTE foods?” According to Mr. Stout, the answer to that question is, “If you knowingly or unknowingly have or create insanitary conditions causing product contamination, then you are responsible for the associated consumer reactions.”

Extracting Value and Insights from Sanitation Verification Data 

Mr. Stout invited Dr. Moorman to the stage to discuss how a food processing facility can extract as much information and analysis from test swabs as possible to systematically target problem areas in its operations. Dr. Moorman demonstrated his points with two case studies, using real-life data from Butterball LLC.

The first case study examined how facilities can utilize sanitation audits as a tool. Dr. Moorman presented graphs of Salmonella prevalence on meat grinders in a certain Butterball plant. The data showed that one grinder in particular tested positive for Salmonella significantly more than any other grinder in the plant. “So, we asked ourselves the question—why? What’s going on here? What could be driving that [trend]?” Dr. Moorman said, before delving into the sanitation factors at play in the case study.

Dr. Moorman showed the audience real pictures of the Butterball facility and grinder in question. The pictures revealed inadequate sanitation processes, including meat that had been shoveled down the floor drains, runny foam detergent consistency, and meat that was still visible on equipment when the foam detergent was applied. Dr. Moorman expressed the difficulty of consistently executing perfect cleaning procedures throughout an entire plant and verifying the hygienic conditions of equipment on a daily basis. “We owe it to ourselves to go and inspect [facilities and equipment],” he said. “We need to trust, but verify.” 

Dr. Moorman closed the first case study by noting the success that Butterball achieved in remediating the situation by leveraging the information gleaned from sanitation audits. After the issues identified by the sanitation audits had been addressed, the grinder in question showed a 60 percent reduction in Salmonella over the following 12-week period.

Dr. Moorman’s second case study addressed what useful information can be found in sanitation verification data, what testing can be done by facilities, and how data from testing can be analyzed to determine if intensified sanitation is remediating existing issues. The case study again used real-life data from a Butterball facility, where microbiological testing done at the end of raw finished product production—prior to product freezing—revealed variation over time in Salmonella prevalence in the finished products. 

To begin his investigation and analysis into the data, Dr. Moorman listed questions that facilities can ask their quality assurance teams:

  • Are you using a random generator to select new pre-operation swab sites each day?
  • Have you done an analysis to show what swab sites or pieces of equipment have the highest out-of-specification (OOS) rate?
  • What is unique about these sites? (E.g., Are they difficult to access or hygienically designed? Is one associate or set of associates responsible for cleaning the site? Is one day of the week more frequently OOS?) 

Dr. Moorman showed the audience several different ways of looking at testing data to exemplify what clues can be gleaned from various angles, including analysis of sanitary indicator results by day and percentages of positive swabs per site. Dr. Moorman noted that both technical solutions and process-related solutions are available to solve sanitation problems. While facilities should pursue technical solutions if the data suggests they are necessary, sometimes a facility merely needs to revisit the basics of sanitation. “For us, this was just time spent crawling around equipment and really improving our process,” Dr. Moorman said.

Hands-On Demonstration

Mr. Stout returned to the stage to revisit the items he had previously given to the audience for observation. When placed under a blacklight, all of the apples retained an unhygienic film on their skins and sepals, despite having been wiped down with paper towels by the audience volunteers. This exercise revealed the necessity of proper cleaning tools in sanitation, as well as the difficulty of cleaning the nooks and crannies of surfaces. 

The bags of flour had miniscule metal shavings within them, which were barely visible to the naked eye. The contaminants were revealed after Mr. Stout passed a magnet over the bag, showing the importance of magnetism in metal detection. 

Finally, the smooth brass door hinges showed much less soil under the blacklight than the hinge with a rough surface. This exemplified the importance of smooth surfaces in processing plants because they allow for easier and more complete cleaning. 

The 2022 Food Safety Summit took place in person at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Illinois from May 9–12. Food Safety Magazine thanks everyone who attended this year’s event, and we look forward to seeing you in person again next year in Rosemont from May 8–11!