Manufacturers become more active in food safety: ‘Ignorance is no longer acceptable’

Nearly 6.5 million pounds of beef was recalled last week due to salmonella illness in 16 states. Earlier this year, romaine lettuce caused a massive E. coli outbreak across 36 states.

Food safety is a growing issue.

And it’s growing as the food industry changes.

The issue transcends grocery stores.

Last year, a Rutgers University-Tennessee State University study found nearly 47 percent of food products packaged by meal kit delivery services reach unsafe temperatures before being refrigerated or cooked.

It is no wonder, then, that safety was of the utmost concern among food manufacturers at the seventh annual National Manufacturing Day, hosted Friday by the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program at The Marigold in Somerset.

Robert Salamone, director of vertical engagements and a food industry specialist with NJMEP, said New Jersey food manufacturers must adequately prepare for increased regulatory inspections by the Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Robert Salamone of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program.

“Management has to be consciously involved and in the know of what their quality assurance team is working with,” Salamone said. “Ignorance is no longer acceptable.

“Whereas once you might have said, ‘I bought that from someone else — it is their problem,’ the FDA is now driving that down and putting the onus on us — the people who actually make foods in New Jersey.”

Ron Giles, director of quality assurance at Goya Foods, the nation’s largest Hispanic-owned Latin food manufacturer in Secaucus, said recalls used to be most often caused by errors within a company’s own manufacturing facility.

“But, more recently, what we are seeing is that a recall is now more likely to be caused by receiving contaminated ingredients,” Giles said. “For example, when cumin was contaminated with peanut protein — you don’t always test for things like that, and some things may slip by.”

Giles said the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2011 to ensure companies were more proactive in preventing recalls, set forth the food safety standards the FDA amends and enforces today.

“For example, we are now obliged to make sure our vendors overseas are meeting the same food safety standards we are in the U.S.,” he said. “That is tough to do if you have 150 international suppliers — especially when what I find while visiting suppliers overseas is that they are not always knowledgeable of FDA rules and regulations.”

That can be difficult when the adequate amount of quality control is constantly being adjusted, Kate Malvetti, a food program subject matter expert at NJMEP who previously worked as the quality assurance supervisor and audit consultant at Refresco in Wharton, said.

“For example, today we have the Global Food Safety Initiative” — a global collaboration to advance food safety — “so, if you are selling to anyone, they are going to want to make sure you have that certification at your facility.”

In response, Malvetti recommended that, any time a product is recalled, companies look at their Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point — a detailed plan that addresses food safety from raw ingredients through consumption — to see if they possibly could have played a part.

Juliana Canale, headquarters manager of food safety and quality assurance at Plated, a New York-based meal kit delivery company, said HACCPs backed up by GFSI certifications look best when doing business.

“Obtaining whichever GFSI scheme the company has decided upon from both a risk mitigation and financial perspective says that your company has given the time, thought and due diligence necessary to its food quality and safety,” Canale said.

That is why, Giles said, Goya Foods implemented the BRC, a quality management system and food safety standard implemented by the British Retail Consortium, at its manufacturing and distribution centers.

“We did not want to do the bare minimum,” he said. “We wanted to have world-class quality while also being proactive and preventative.”

Goya Foods
Goya Foods has implemented strict quality management and standards at its manufacturing and distribution centers.

But Malvetti warned expensive GFSI certifications may not always necessarily indicate quality.

“The first company I worked for did not obtain a GFSI scheme because it was too expensive; however, I would trust the food I got from that company,” Malvetti said. “The second company I worked at was certified as a Level Three SQF” — Safe Quality Food, or an internationally recognized GFSI benchmark — “and I wondered how they ever passed an audit.”

If whoever is working with you wants to verify your certification, you do not really have a choice, Malvetti said.

“But I don’t think it is necessary,” she added. “If you do not have a GFSI scheme, maybe you won’t be paying $10,000, for an audit but you may still be doing all of the right things with management who is committed to food safety.

“And sometimes, if the person you are selling to is cooperative enough and you can prove you are meeting the requirements, a lot of times they will actually work with you. You don’t necessarily need a GFSI scheme to get into Walmart, but you do need to be able to prove why your food is OK.”

But Canale said prior to FSMA and GFSI, many companies weren’t even thinking about things such as allergen control or vendor and supplier approvals.

“Layering in preventative controls, such as a preventative control qualified individual, further upstream in the process is one of the best things to have happened in this industry,” Canale said. “It certainly has broadened and made more forward-thinking companies’ approaches to risk mitigation.”

A PCQI, Salamone said, is responsible for developing the food safety plan for an organization.

“They are going to look at both incoming and outgoing products, internal processes and all of the points of the assembly line to make sure there are no violations which put your company and your consumers in jeopardy,” he said.

Canale said that, while PCQIs are now mandatory for food manufacturers, she recommends a business consider the risk of its products before hiring internally.

“If you manufacture seafood products, yes, I would recommend you employ a PCQI within your company,” she said. “But if you are a small dry goods manufacturer, the best bang for your buck to make sure you are compliant is leveraging a respected third-party consulting company.”

NJMEP offers PCQI training for $750, even if a company also wants to work with a third-party consultant.

“I actually suggest large companies have multiple PCQIs, because if one person quits and the FDA shows up the next day, you don’t want to be without one,” Salamone said.

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