We even look to see how far away from home our food was produced. More than ever before, today’s consumers are aware of what we eat, where our food comes from and how safe it is.
Food recalls are a consistent topic in the news today, and social media makes that information readily available in real time. Consumers expect more information about what’s in our food, and we demand a new level of transparency from food producers, manufacturers and retailers.
But who’s really responsible for the safety of our food?
Well, it’s complex. As the food we eat makes its way from farm to table, a number of people work to keep that food free of dangerous pathogens – from government agencies to producers, shippers to processors, retailers to food preparers, all the way to consumers who shop at the farmers markets and grocery stores and prepare their meals at home. But there’s one particular team of people whose role 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.
Ann Cook is one of those people. She’s 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.
“I’ve devoted my career to ensuring the food we produce at ADL is safe for consumers, and it’s an honor to do so,” says Ann.
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 from farm to table 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.
Technology also has enabled 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.”
As technology evolves, so does Ann’s job. Ongoing food safety training is imperative for managers and their teams of quality control technicians to stay current on the latest trends and technological advances. From learning about new ways to test for pathogens to regulatory compliance and audit preparedness, continuing education is a key function of this important job.
“That feeling of doing my part to protect people is a responsibility that comes with the territory – and ongoing education and training is a big part of that responsibility,” says Ann. “It’s something I take very seriously.”
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.”