Bagged salad food safety

Following up on discussions from the Food Safety and Sanitary Design Panel at the FPSA Annual Conference, we recently spoke with panelist Chris Paliaro. His career in produce processing spans more than 20 years, most of which he’s spent at Taylor Farms, where he’s currently the Director of Food Safety and Quality at the company’s Tennessee regional facility.

Taylor Farms got its start in 1995 in Salinas Valley, California. Though it began as a private fresh-cut processor for food service businesses, it has since grown exponentially, with retail and deli arms, as well as 14 operating companies, including the recently acquired EarthBound Farm.

The role of equipment manufacturers in pathogen and allergen control

Controlling pathogens and allergens is an ongoing challenge, made even more difficult in environments that are welcoming to certain bacteria. For example, Listeria thrives in cold, wet environments, where, Paliaro notes, it “out-competes other microorganisms in the facility.”

Listeria presents a particular problem for agricultural processing facilities because it occurs naturally in soil. “We're bringing in raw agricultural products, straight from fields,” Paliaro says. “Product comes in unwashed and in boxes and on palettes that have been out in the growing fields.” As a result, it’s important to have zone separations for dirty and clean products, as well as hygienically designed equipment and strict sanitation routines.

On the allergen side, undeclared allergens continue to be a leading cause of food recalls. Many companies process allergens and allergen-free products in the same plant. “Most of the processing of food that has allergens is restricted to certain areas,” Paliaro says. “But in those certain areas where allergens are exposed to equipment, that same equipment is also producing ready-to-eat meals that do not have allergens.” This makes hygienic design and proper sanitation even more business-critical.

Understanding the customer’s needs

One of the key topics the panel addressed was what suppliers need from OEMs in terms of keeping pathogens and allergens out of food. For Paliaro, it all comes down to having a deep understanding of the application.

“When you have a customer reach out to you for a piece of equipment, it's important for you to understand their needs,” he says. This involves asking questions about how the equipment will be used:

  • What’s the equipment’s purpose?
  • What kind of products will be coming into contact with the equipment?
  • What’s the climate of the space where it will be located (i.e., temperature, humidity)?
  • What cleaning products and procedures will be used?

Questions like these help to ensure the equipment has the appropriate materials and design for the application. Paliaro explains: “For some applications, sanitary design is not as important, like slicing equipment for a product that will eventually be cooked. Or, if it’s a dry application, such as in a bakery, the equipment won’t need the same level of corrosion resistance. In produce, our equipment is used only for RTE products that require high sanitation standards. And, if the equipment will be coming into direct contact with food, you have to consider the wear and tear of chemical washdowns. Are there gaskets or a type of steel that's going to pit or corrode with the aggressive chemicals that we use in our operation?”

As fundamental as this sounds, Paliaro has heard horror stories of situations in which these issues weren’t addressed until the equipment was on the floor. “I've heard stories of plants receiving a piece of equipment and then having the manufacturer tell them they can't use chemicals or get it wet, even though it's being exposed to food. Or they say the motors aren’t washdown-proof, or that the product guarantee may become invalid under certain use or cleaning conditions.”

This isn’t just bad news for the food processors that now have a piece of equipment that they may not be able to use as intended, but also for the OEMs that didn’t take the time to properly understand all the details of the application. Providing the wrong equipment for the job puts an OEM’s reputation at risk because it could lead to early product failure, unhappy customers, a negative perception of the company, and, of course, food safety hazards.

Implementing hygienic design

One challenge to cleanability has been the industry’s reliance on older equipment. “Legacy equipment is a big problem in our industry,” Paliaro notes. “We've inherited equipment from many years ago and limp along with it.” Often, this older equipment is time-consuming to clean, with design problems like hollow tubes that trap moisture.

Part of the reason this equipment is so challenging is because disassembly isn’t easy. “Wherever food touches, the sanitation department needs to have access to it,” Paliaro says. “And some older equipment makes it very difficult for them to access those areas. If you have equipment that can't be broken down by the sanitation department on a daily basis, it requires more invasive disassembly by the maintenance department and deep cleaning on a periodic basis.”

New designs have made it possible to disassemble all equipment components without tools, making routine cleanings a breeze. And open-channel framing has replaced hollow tubing to eliminate any recesses or cavities where contaminants can collect. These are the types of design features Taylor Farms looks for when they build new production lines and replace the equipment on their existing ones.

Hygienic design allows not only for better pathogen prevention, but also for the elimination of allergens before switching over to non-allergen runs. “After each allergen cleaning, there’s a visual inspection and an ATP swab to verify that allergens have been removed,” Paliaro says. “So making that equipment as easy to clean as possible is key to getting that line back up and running again.”

The importance of following up on employee training

FSMA requires all employees to be trained at least annually on food safety, food hygiene, and food defense. Fortunately, technology has made it easier to provide this training. Web-based programs (such as Alchemy) allow employees to work through relevant educational modules, followed by quizzes and tests, to track training progress and knowledge retention.

But Paliaro urges processors to go beyond the minimum requirements by performing follow-up training in the form of on-the-job supervision. This helps companies verify that new staff members not only understand the material, but can apply it to their work. “Don’t just do this immediately following the training,” he recommends. “Go back a day, a week, or two weeks later and verify that they're still doing the task the way you trained it.”

Paliaro says it’s also a good idea to check-in regularly with employees, even well after the observation period, to make sure everyone is still diligently following food safety protocols. This keeps staff from forming bad habits, forgetting the original training, or becoming careless. “Don't assume that just because you had a training that everybody knows what they're supposed to do.”

While suppliers can support this effort with periodic training specific to their equipment and products, Paliaro says processors shouldn’t rely on it alone. The necessary training is often unique to the plant, and it needs to be continually updated as new products and improved practices come into play.

PROCESS EXPO will feature a variety of courses to help processors and suppliers take a more proactive approach to food safety. View this year’s educational program.