BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. — The U.S. arguably has the world’s safest food supply, but an estimated 48 million Americans annually are still impacted by foodborne illness from biological, chemical and physical hazards.
Officials from leading Northeast universities told small business entrepreneurs how to prevent such problems, which can derail fledgling operations, during a pilot “Food Safety First!” course presented at Saratoga County Cornell Cooperative Extension offices in Ballston Spa.
“The idea is to instill a culture of food safety,” said Amanda Kinchla, University of Massachusetts associate Extension professor. “What should people do from the very start? Our goal is to raise awareness that food safety is part of the product development process so you’re thinking about things ahead of time.”
Food safety and quality are two separate, but closely connected concepts that go hand-in-hand.
“By managing both attributes you can create the best product possible,” Kinchla said.
With regard to safety, for example, ensuring that all cookies are baked evenly kills any pathogens that might be present. Similarly, by making sure each cookie is the same size, consumers know what to expect every time — an important quality consideration.
Kinchla urged participants to have a clear well-defined knowledge of what they plan to make, its ingredients, process requirements, its intended market and what distinguishes it from similar existing products.
Once this is done, entrepreneurs must identify and consider potential sources and growth parameters of hazards that can impact a given product.
“Biological hazards are responsible for most foodborne illnesses that occur,” said Nicole Richard, University of Rhode Island food safety specialist. “What are points of introduction? What’s your defense?”
The most common sources of biological hazards are the agricultural environment (soil, water, outdoors), ingredients and raw materials, and personnel.
The top four contributors to risk are improper heating and cooling temperatures, unsanitary storage conditions, cross contamination, and poor personal hygiene.
“So you can see why employee training is so important,” Richard said. “You’re only as good as your worst employee. Microorganisms are everywhere. That’s why prevention is so important.”
Sometimes, controlling a microbe’s ability to grow requires adjusting several growth factors, not just one. These include things such as temperature, water and nutrient availability, time, oxygen and acidity.
For example, most bacteria grow in the 68-113 degrees F range.
But there is no pathogen growth or toxin production when a product’s water activity is less than 0.85.
So baking at correct temperatures and reducing water activity are two strategies for controlling microbial growth in cookies.
Participants were told to minimize biological hazards by adhering to “three K’s” — keep it out, kill it and, if you can’t keep it out or kill it, keep it from growing.
Chemical hazards may be naturally occurring substances that can form when items (nuts, eggs, milk) aren’t stored properly, unintentionally added chemicals (cleaners, pesticides), or those that are intentionally added during processing such as preservatives and additives.
Chemical hazards can be minimized by having a good product design and flow.
Physical hazards are any potentially harmful extraneous matter not normally found in food. Foreign objects are responsible for the vast majority of consumer complaints and run the gamut from glass, metal fragments and wood to twist-ties, wires and clips.
All equipment and tools used in the production process should be analyzed to eliminate the risk of hazardous objects contaminating food.
Mary and Gavin Macdonald traveled several hours from Meredith, New Hampshire for the day-and-a-half course. They own a firm called Genuine Local, a small-batch specialty food production facility and business incubator.
Their goal in taking “Food Safety First!” is to share principles they learned with new food industry entrepreneurs in their region.
“We’ve seen a tremendous growth in farm-based businesses springing up,” Mary Macdonald said. “It all goes back to the local food movement, people wanting to know where their food comes from and who’s providing it.”