Food Industry Executive talked with Adam Borger, Outreach Program Manager for the Food Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He shared some of the most recent research in food safety and technology.
Borger also offered advice on how to approach training and attract top talent to the rapidly changing food manufacturing industry.
Food Safety Research Developments
Environmental changes, from water supplies to packaging and transportation, all affect the safety of a food product. Borger encourages manufacturers to understand the science behind the food they produce, from its beginnings as a seed in the ground, to when it ends up in a human stomach.
Understanding microbial adaptation to environmental changes in nature as well as in foods and food systems is very important. This area of research then expands into developing new control strategies to combat potential foodborne illness from these environmental changes and microbial adaptation.
The recent rise in global water temperatures can drastically impact which foodborne and waterborne microbiological pathogens may survive and proliferate in water sources. Thus, in addition to researching how this may impact water safety and quality, farmers and food manufacturers must also consider where those water sources may be used for irrigation, watering animals, and so on, and be prepared to take some measures to ensure safe drinking water and safe foods.
There are many more areas of interest to researchers, Borger says, including understanding microbial adaptations to low-moisture environments, acidic conditions, how these adaptations may impact food processing and preparation, and how scientifically sound interventions may then be used to reduce the risk of foodborne disease.
Borger says research on the impact of the microbiome is gaining a lot of attention. There are many facets to this research, but in general, researchers are very interested in how the microbial community of different hosts (humans, animals, plants, etc.) impact health and disease of that particular host.
Researchers investigate, for example, whether a person’s diet impacts the makeup of the bacteria in their gut and how this make-up of bacteria might then impact metabolism and prevention of certain diseases such as cardiovascular disease.
Furthermore, says Borger, microbiome research is expanding into manufacturing facilities to better understand the interactions of microbes within these environments and whether certain microbial communities impact human, animal, and plant health in positive or negative ways.
An ounce of prevention: Whole genome sequencing
Advances in microbiological genetics and data interpretation—specifically the ability to very rapidly identify a foodborne pathogen in a human, a food source, and even a manufacturing environment—use a very discriminatory method that relies on sequencing of genomic material and correctly interpreting the results.
Whole genome sequencing and other methods of identifying microorganisms and characterizing them are already very widespread. Understanding how to efficiently use this information, not only to react to foodborne illnesses, but to prevent them in the first place is one area of focus in this field.
Borger says manufacturers can expect to see more and more use of these methods for identifying, tracking, and typing microorganisms – whether they are foodborne pathogens in foods or beneficial microbes in microbiome research.
Developing Technology Alongside Research
Understanding science, Borger says, will help food manufacturers make better choices about the new technology and equipment they employ. He also recommends that companies collaborate with research institutions for continuing education and development of crucial, proactive safety practices.
Technology tools for manufacturers
Borger believes, from an ownership standpoint, companies must invest in proper instrumentation designed for their food safety purposes. All of these have a dramatic impact on food safety:
- New, properly functioning ovens and smokehouses for cooking
- Machinery to clean and sanitize produce
- Equipment developed to sanitary design standards for easy cleaning
- pH meters and water activity meters
- Technology to rapidly and correctly detect foodborne pathogens in the processing environment, raw materials, and finished products
From a research standpoint, Borger says he hopes that companies work with universities in the future and invest particularly in the areas of research mentioned above. Manufacturers need to better understand how microbes may adapt and react in different foods and environments. Once they have a scientifically validated path, they can develop methods and technology to overcome these adaptations and eliminate the risk of foodborne disease in processing facilities.
Science equals compliance: FSMA education and operations
Borger says FSMA compliance will rely, in part, on using scientific evidence to validate food safety systems and perform risk assessments.
Manufacturers need to maintain excellent processing systems, measurement devices, data collection systems, and equipment. Also, everyone involved in the manufacturing of food needs to understand food safety risks and hazards and what conditions may reduce those risks (or increase their likelihood).
Food safety training at the plant level needs to be interactive, engaging, and in the workers’ native language. This area of educating employees is getting better, but it still has a long way to go.
Training and attracting talent
It’s important to be proactive as a company, and to engage young talent, says Borger. Connect with high schools, technical colleges, universities, and other educational establishments. Get in touch with departments at your local university that specialize in food production and food safety – and establish a relationship with that group.
Many students are very interested in food production and understanding where their food comes from. Seize that opportunity to explain to them how they can have an impact on that production in the future!
Volunteer to address a student group or class to talk about your company and what you do. Don’t be shy in contacting departments that may not always immediately come to mind – chemistry, chemical engineering, soil sciences, and genetics departments, not to mention nutrition, or even communications and marketing – all can be potential sources for new food industry employees.
What’s research got to do with it?
The right safety measures begin with knowing up front what’s going into food. As your company barrels toward FSMA compliance, it’s growing more crucial to better understand the links between scientific research and good processing practice.
About the Food Research Institute
The University of Wisconsin’s Food Research Institute (FRI) has a long history of performing excellent scientific research, specializing in food safety and toxicology. Their mission is to catalyze multidisciplinary and collaborative research on microbial foodborne pathogens and toxins and to provide training, outreach, and service to enhance the safety of the food supply.