We read the ingredients list. We check the “use by” or “best before” dates. We even look to see how far away from home our food was produced. More than ever before, today’s consumers are aware of where our food comes from, whether it may have been exposed to allergens and how safe it is.
As our consumer awareness grows, and regulation continues to increase, the food industry quickly adapts and finds new ways to make our food safer in more reliable, consistent and efficient ways.
Consumers expect more and more information but who is really responsible for making sure it’s safe?
There are a variety of ways food makes its way from the farm to your table, and a number of people work to keep that food free of dangerous pathogens. The government, food producers, food processors and consumers all have a role. But there’s one particular team of people whose job is imperative to ensuring the safety of the products we consume: the quality control team in food manufacturing facilities.
These are the women and men who tirelessly and methodically test the water, the air and the surfaces to guarantee the materials, equipment and manufacturing environment are readied to produce safe food. They also test the food at every stage of the workflow, from sample preparation to final product testing, and new technology is continuously developing to help them do their job more effectively and efficiently.
Ann Cook is a quality control technician at ADL, a dairy producer in Prince Edward Island, Canada, that makes award-winning cheeses, butter and ice cream products. Ann and her team’s sole focus? To follow strict processes and ensure adherence to good manufacturing practices and safe quality food standards.
She spends her days performing sanitation verification and allergen testing on equipment, recording and filing relevant record logs and conducting inspections on all dairy products, equipment and machinery. Ann and her team perform daily microbiological testing on the products, using 3M technology to achieve the highest food safety and quality standards possible.
“One person weighs out a sample of the cheese and looks at its chemistry, then we’ll do a microbiology test on that cheese, incubate it, and read and interpret the results,” says Ann. “We check for coliform, yeast, mold, E. coli and other bacteria.”
“Ann says ADL has so many stringent controls to guarantee safety, that by the time her team reaches the final testing stages, they’re already extremely confident the finished product is safe.
Compared to a generation ago, the journey our food makes is decidedly different. Experts estimate that, when it comes to thwarting food-related illnesses, more change has occurred in the past 10 years than the previous 30. We have technology to thank, in large part, for that. Software programs now capture data and analyze potential food safety risks, and whole genome sequencing of foodborne pathogens identifies the cause of contamination sooner.
The long list of tasks technicians like Ann need to complete, and the time it takes to do them, is getting shorter thanks to new technology. That means faster test results, which allow manufacturing companies to release their products to the marketplace sooner. “We used to have to use four agar plates for everything we tested, which took much longer,” Ann says. “Now, technology helps us produce significantly faster results.”
Ann believes we have the right to expect that the food we purchase is safe, and that the ultimate responsibility for investing in resources and implementing appropriate controls to ensure safety of our food lies with the food industry.
But she believes accountability also lies with consumers, who need to be mindful of the level of safety associated with the food they buy and who must handle the food accordingly.
“When you come home from the grocery store on a hot summer day and you accidentally leave your groceries in your car for 20 minutes, you need to understand the repercussions of that,” she says. “The quality control team is accountable to a certain point. But we all need to carry our own weight when it comes to food safety.”
Some of the new technology includes a recently introduced automated plate reader which removes one of the most tedious and repetitive tasks – manually counting colonies.
The new 3M™ Petrifilm™ Plate Reader Advanced, which uses a high resolution camera, fixed artificial intelligence networks trained by 3M microbiologists and software that can turn test results into actionable insights. This technology, allows labs to count up to 900 plates per hour, a significant time-savings reducing the time to enumerate plates by up to 94 percent.*
*observed on the 3M™ Petrifilm™ Aerobic Count Plate with High Counts
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