Environmental sampling: evaluating future

Brenda Stahl reports on the importance of environmental monitoring and evaluation with food production environments.

In recent months, the world has been exposed to a paradigm shift - previously described 'low risk foods' are being implicated in widespread food-borne pathogen outbreaks as the vehicle of contamination.

In these instances, the reliance on water activities <0.85 and a pH of 4.6 is thrown aside to more adherent programmes such as environmental monitoring and evaluation. The duty we have to our consumer lies in our ability to proactively evaluate our environments. By following strict, robust monitoring schemes in all areas of our facilities, we can identify, correct and eliminate potential microbiological concerns prior to product adulteration and possible recalls. How does a facility begin this monitoring process? The main goals of any monitoring programme are proper facility zone-planning management, pre-assessing your microbiological burden level, proper data trending and historical representation, as well as verification and validation of the programme.

In order to objectively understand the 'where-tos' of environmental monitoring, it is essential to prepare a zoned map of your facility. For zoning purposes, the standard rules are as follows:

- Zone #1: Product Contact Areas. Example: bake pans, candy moulds.

- Zone #2: Objects and areas directly adjacent to Zone #1. Example: Oven rack, drains, conveyor belt, utensils, aprons

- Zone #3: Surrounding Areas. Example: Walls, drains, air emission system.

The goal of any environmental monitoring program is to avoid any contamination from occurring in zone #1 by critically evaluating zones #2 and #3. Emphasis on examination of microbiological bio-burden in these areas will allow the facility to manage probable contaminations more efficiently and quickly, compared to testing in zone #1 itself or on products themselves.

The pre-assessment, or bio-mapping, facilities directly fall in line with zoning procedures. Once the facility is properly zoned, an initial assessment to gain insight into the specific areas and their microbiological 'potential' can be evaluated. Typically this is done by a preliminary intense swabbing and surface sampling of locations within each zone. The swabs are microbially analysed for items such as aerobic plate count, pathogen testing that is relevant to the product and environment, as well as yeast and moulds.

Once the swabs, sponges and samples are analysed, the data can be used to understand where environmental issues may be occurring, where pre-requisite programs may be failing, and what the basic level of hygiene is within each area. The data can be trended to determine area microbiological targets, and to understand what your facility 'specifications' can be set for monitoring maintenance.

The most important evaluation of environmental monitoring is programme verification and validation. Verification and validation of zone testing frequency, personnel training involved in sampling procedures and analytical report evaluation are critical to the success of these programmes.

Adherences to proactive processes are paramount in controlling food-borne contaminations. Proper design and training, as well as utilisation of the information will aid in a worldwide approach to combating food-safety at the facility level.

Enter √ or at www.scientistlive.com/efood

Brenda Stahl, PhD, Director of Microbiology, AIB International, Manhattan, KS, USA. www.aibonline.org

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