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Food Borne Illness Prevention

Development – To define detail, scope and purpose.

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Training participants will gain a basic understanding of Food Borne Illness Prevention and its applications within food safety and quality systems. Basic knowledge competency will be verified through successful completion of the accompanying Food Borne Illness Prevention assessment activity. Basic skill competency can be verified through the Food Borne Illness Prevention competency checklist available as a resource for this training activity.

Key Definitions For Food Borne Illness Prevention
- Bacteria: Bacteria are microscopic single-celled or non-cellular spherical or spiral or rod-shaped organisms which are present everywhere; in the air, the soil and on human skin. Many types of bacteria can cause diseases, but others can be very helpful to humans.
- Food Borne Illness: Food borne illness, also food borne disease and commonly referred to as food poisoning is any illness resulting from the consumption of contaminated food.
- pH: From potential of Hydrogen. The logarithm of the reciprocal of hydrogen-ion concentration in gram atoms per litre; provides a measure on a scale from 0 to 14 of the acidity or alkalinity of a solution where 7 is neutral and greater than 7 is more alkaline and less than 7 is more acidic.
- Ultra Heat Treatment or UHT: Ultra-high temperature processing or ultra-heat treatment both abbreviated UHT, is the partial sterilization of food by heating it for 1 to 2 seconds at a temperature exceeding 135 Degrees Celsius or 275 Degrees Fahrenheit, which is the temperature required to kill bacterial spores in milk.

Food Borne Illness Prevention Development
When considering the development, documentation and implementation of Food Borne Illness Prevention within food safety and quality management systems, the following information should be considered to ensure effective outcomes:

About Food Borne Illness Prevention
Micro-organisms, in particular, bacteria, are by far the most common cause of Food Borne Illness. Food Borne Illness is also commonly referred to as food poisoning. Symptoms of “food poisoning” can include diarrhoea, stomach cramps and pain, paralysis, vomiting, nausea, fever, headache and sweats. For some specified groups including the elderly, infants, immune-compromised and children, the effects of Food Borne Illness can lead to chronic problems, sometimes even death.  In this context, it is essential that the microbiological integrity of a product is upheld at all stages while it is being processed and for the entire life of the product. 

Food-poisoning organisms can potentially grow during food storage or preparation in food business. They may already be on the food when it is received, for example, Campylobacter on raw chicken, or may contaminate the foodstuff during preparation, for example, Staphylococcus introduced by a food handler, or from a dirty environment, for example, Listeria from wet surfaces or Salmonella from rodents. To complicate the issue, some food-borne organisms can spread from one infected person to another. Food borne viruses may start such an outbreak in a workplace. The symptoms of food poisoning include any or all of the following: diarrhoea, vomiting, severe abdominal pain, nausea, fever, and headache. The severity of the symptoms depends on the organism, the dose received, and the person suffering the illness.

There are three main causes of Food Borne Illness:
- Presence of naturally occurring toxins produced by bacteria in higher than specified safe levels;
- Actions of micro-organisms themselves once inside the host human;
- Chemicals or other contaminants.

Food poisoning does not necessarily occur immediately after eating contaminated food - Most people automatically assume the last thing they ate the cause of the problem. An incubation period is required. This is the time between the contaminated food being eaten and when the symptoms become apparent. The incubation period varies between the different types of food-poisoning organisms. In some cases it is measured in minutes, hours, days or even weeks.

It generally goes without much thought, but the occurrence of any Food Borne Illness outbreak is far reaching in its destruction of reputation, confidence and livelihoods:

The Reputation of your:
- Name and your business brands;
- Professionalism as a food industry professional;
- Capabilities to adhere to the required food safety legislation.

Confidence in:
- “Farm to Fork” Food Safety Management;
- Your moral obligations to supply safe foods to those who loyally choose to patronize your food business;
- The businesses that supply your ingredients and services.

The Livelihoods of:
- Your friends, colleagues and business associates involved with your food industry sector;
- Each individual working in the food industry;
- People who have a financial investment in your food business.

Food Borne Illness outbreaks are often caused by the following:

Bacteria and Viruses
Bacteria and viruses are extremely microscopic in size. It could take millions of bacteria to produce a colony the size of the full stop at the end of this sentence. This amount of bacteria is more than enough to cause many people to become seriously ill.

Chemical Contamination
Chemicals are usually in solution and cannot be seen unless they are a recognized colour. Food accounts for a high percentage of the total human exposure to most chemicals from environmental sources. Fish poisoning, for example, by Ciguatoxin and Scombrotoxin accounts for a large portion of the reported outbreaks. Scombroid poisoning is most often a result of histamine production in fish that have been improperly refrigerated. Heavy metal poisoning occurs frequently when acid foods such as lemonade and carbonated beverages come in contact with such heavy metals as copper, zinc, antimony and cadmium.

Parasites involved in most outbreaks are very small and cannot be seen with the unaided eye.

Process Control Management: Food Preservation Methods
Foods are preserved in a number of different ways and for varying purposes. The primary concern relating to food preservation lies with making food safe through preventing presence of pathogens and food spoilage organisms. In today’s consumer driven world, preservation methods have evolved to be considerate regarding quality characteristics such as palatability, odour, flavour, texture, appearance and longevity.

Food preservation methods include:

Atmospheric Control 
Packaging protects the product from the effects of air, moisture, and contamination by foreign matter. The amount of gasses such as moisture vapour, oxygen and carbon dioxide can be controlled in the packaging process. Oxygen may be totally or partially excluded from packaging, and replaced with gasses such as nitrogen or carbon dioxide or a combination of gases, which will help to prolong the product life. The selection of light proof or light retardant materials can reduce a product’s exposure to light that may otherwise induce spoilage.

Foods are heated to kill bacteria, yeasts and moulds, and to neutralise naturally occurring enzymes, all of which will change the food if left undisturbed. Sterilisation, retorting, pasteurisation and blanching are all common treatments covered by the cooking sector in preservation. Cooking is also useful in making foods more palatable in texture, and also aids in changing the taste of foods distinctively.

Moisture Control
The most ancient and widely practiced method of food preservation is drying. Drying eliminates the moisture that micro-organisms require for growth. The sun and the wind were the sources of energy used in earlier times to dry foods, and now dehydrators and drying ovens are most popular pieces of equipment in food production and preservation.

Other methods of controlling moisture levels in foods include the use of chemical humectants such as salt, sugar and glycerine. These substances are very effective in controlling moisture levels in foods, while also leaving foods with textural characteristics that dried foods lack.

pH and Acidity Control
Acid control has been a long used method in food preservation. As micro-organisms do not tolerate high levels of acidity in their growth, storing food in acid for preservation works very successfully. Pickling fruits and vegetables, meats and fish in vinegar has been practiced for thousands of years to preserve these foods for use when they would have otherwise spoiled.

Pasteurisation is a heat treatment used to destroy vegetative bacteria. It does not necessarily destroy spores or toxins. Pasteurisation is a gentle process designed for foods that may be affected by very high and abrupt temperatures. Times and temperatures for pasteurisation vary from one food type to another. An example of pasteurisation is the method conducted for milk, which is usually standardised at 72 Degrees Celsius or 162 Degrees Fahrenheit or above for at least 15 seconds. Foods that have undergone a pasteurisation process not contained within hermetically sealed packaging must generally be stored under refrigerated or frozen conditions.

Sterilisation is a heat treatment that destroys almost all vegetative spores and bacteria and spores. It is usually referred to as Commercial sterility as some bacteria may still be present. The process commonly usually involves heating hermetically packaged products to 121 Degrees Celsius or 250 Degrees Fahrenheit or higher for a specified timeframe. Commercial canning operations are considered a form of sterilisation.

Ultra Heat Treatment
Ultra Heat Treatment or UHT is used to give a long shelf to foods otherwise affected by prolonged high temperatures. It involves heating to high temperatures. For an example, UHT milk may be heated up to 135 Degrees Celsius or 275 Degrees Fahrenheit for one to two seconds before rapid cooling.

Temperature Control
Temperature control is probably the most commonly used preservation method for potentially hazardous foods. The ability to control foods at low temperatures through refrigeration and freezing for storage, distribution and handling, and high temperatures for short term storage of cooked product, enables us to use temperature as a viable preservation method.

Temperature recording and related protocols need to be scheduled and maintained as components of a successful food safety program. The basis of temperature recording is the ability to record temperatures correctly and efficiently in relation to adhering to documentation when temperatures are found to be outside of nominated boundaries.

The following steps can be taken in initiating temperature control as a Critical Control Point:
- Assess a food ingredient or product as to its potentiality to become unsafe if not kept within specified temperature bounds. Food ingredients or products may be regarded as potentially hazardous if they are found to become unsafe if not kept within specified temperature parameters. Such food ingredients or products should be nominated for temperature monitoring as part of the food safety system;
- Nominate a temperature measuring device to be used for each particular item to be measured, taking into account;
- Accuracy of measurement, including calibration and suitability of measurement device for the item to be measured;
- Efficiency of measurement;
- Safety of measurement, so as not to affect the safety or suitability of the food ingredient, product or equipment to be measured;
- Nominate safe food temperature limits including exposure times where applicable where items are being cooled or heated through hazardous temperature zones;
- Nominate control measures to be initiated where temperatures are found to be outside the prescribed limits for food safety;
- Nominate and sufficiently train the personnel involved in temperature monitoring and administering corrective actions when required;
-Training should include all relevant factors in recording and processing temperature monitoring information;
- Store the nominated food ingredient or product under temperature controlled conditions using appropriate methods and equipment;
- Monitor the food ingredient or product, as well as the equipment used in temperature control at scheduled intervals, using nominated temperature recording equipment;
- Regularly verify and validate temperature monitoring and recording procedures along with its associated documentation and role within the food safety system.

Chemical Preservation Methods
In many foods, chemicals, in conjunction with one or more of the previously mentioned methods of preservation are used. Stringent care must be initiated when using these chemicals, to ensure that they are only used in accordance with valid safety data in creating a safe, consumable product. Misuse of such items can very realistically result in potentially more serious human complications than the very problem that chemicals are used to combat in the first place.

A good understanding of the growth requirements for relevant pathogens is required to operate a sufficient food safety program.

Chemicals used for this process may include:
- Sodium and Potassium Nitrates and Nitrites: Commonly used in cured meat products; these chemicals not only preserve the product, but also give a pink colouring to the food. There is some concern that these may be carcinogenic or cancer causing;
- Lactic Acid: This occurs naturally in soured milk, and are also added to foods such as other dairy products and liquid items;
- Benzoic Acid and Sodium Benzoate: These are commonly used in beverages including softdrinks, beer, cordials, syrups and fruit juices;
- Sorbic Acid and Potassium Sorbate: Sorbic acid occurs naturally in some fruits, but is sometimes added to some beverages and foods such as yoghurt and processed cheese to aid preservation;
- Citric Acid: Citric acid occurs naturally in citrus fruits such as lemons. It is commonly used in baked goods and tinned vegetables as a preservative;
- Sulphur Dioxide, Sulphite and Sodium Metabisulphate: These chemicals are used extensively throughout global food industries. The unique aspect of these is that they stabilize Vitamin C, and also act as a bleaching agent for flour and other starches;
- Acetic Acid: Also known as vinegar, acetic acid has been used throughout the centuries to Pickle foods;
- Sodium, Potassium and Calcium Propionate: These chemicals are often used in dairy products to prolong shelf life;
- Antibiotics: Nisin is an example of an antibiotic used in foods to aid preservation. It is also commonly used in canned foods.

Additional Relevant Information
The following information is provided from other foodindustrycompliance.com Training Activities as the content is relevant to Food Borne Illness Prevention:

Process Control Management: Preparation
The types of preparation and Process Control Management required are generally dependant on the following:
- The scope and purpose of the food processing business and the capabilities of staff;

- The shelf life of the foodstuffs produced;
- The origin and the correct and appropriate storage of the materials used for food processing;
- The equipment and facilities available for processing.

Preparation related Critical Limits may include:
- Personal hygiene;
- Cross contamination prevention;
- Time allowed for preparation;
- Safe processing and preparation of foods at ambient temperature and hygienic food preparation procedures.

It is advantageous in any food business to have areas designated specifically for food preparation. In such areas, it is of prime importance to regard the risk of cross contamination as the most important factor.

The preparation of raw and cooked foods can be managed by:
- Ensuring that food processing areas are sufficiently cleaned and sanitised before the preparation of raw or cooked foods;
- Ensuring that time limits for preparing perishable products are adhered to;
- Ensuring that all equipment, utensils and food contact surfaces used for processing is cleaned and sanitised prior to and after use. The details of the cleaning and sanitising requirements of all equipment should be found in the appropriate section of your food safety program;
- Ensuring that all nominated food and personal hygiene requirements are met regarding the processing of foodstuffs;
- Ensuring that cross contamination does not occur, and all relevant measures are taken to prevent such an occurrence. Utensils or equipment used should only be used once for a specific task, and cleaning and sanitising of the involved equipment should be initiated between different tasks. For example, utensils and equipment must be changed or cleaned and sanitised between handling raw and cooked product.

Types of Food Preparation and Practices
Types of food preparation and practices may include:       
- Cooked meals: Involves preparing and cooking foodstuffs as required;
- Cook, Chill or Reheat meals: Includes foodstuffs that have been prepared, cooked and chilled, and require reheating before consuming. Such foodstuffs must be cooked, handled and reheated as per the specifications of the cook chill method;
- Uncooked meals: May include foodstuffs that have been pre-processed or do not require cooking;
- Procured prepared chilled foodstuffs: Foodstuffs that are pre-prepared and do not require and further processing, only appropriate storage and handling;
- Procured prepared heated foodstuffs: Foodstuffs that are supplied hot, protected from potential contamination and held at appropriate temperatures during transport and handling;
- Sanitation of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Washing and Sanitising Foods
Some food products may need to be washed and sanitised prior to further preparation or service. Where this is the case, separate facilities for washing foods, for example, a designated sink, must be made available for this purpose only. As with facilities for washing food equipment, sinks for washing foods need to be provided with a running hot and cold water supply and must be connected to the waste drainage system. Types of food that may require washing prior to preparation and cooking include produce that will be peeled, cut and cooked after washing. Types of foods that may need to be washed and then sanitised could be fresh fruit and vegetables that will be consumed without further processing such as cooking. There is a variety of chlorine and peracetic acid based food sanitisers on the market, and the use of these products reduces the microbial loading on the products to a safe level. The application of these chemicals is particularly useful for hard to wash products with intricate surfaces such as curly parsley and oranges. The concentration of the chemical sanitiser used, temperature of the washing water and the contact time required must be observed according to the manufacturer’s instructions in order to obtain a sufficient and appropriate microbial log reduction. The produce sanitation is process is regularly used in high risk food service facilities such as hospitals and in the pre-packed salad industry for retail sale.

Thawing Foods
Thawing must be conducted under controlled conditions to ensure food safety or quality risks do not impact upon the foods involved.

The two most acceptable methods for thawing food items are as follows:
- Placing frozen items into a suitably cleaned and sanitised container, and storing them under refrigeration for a timeframe that facilitates appropriate controlled tempering. The container used must be of size and structure that it will catch any liquid that escapes the item during defrosting. The shelf life of a defrosted product is generally different to the shelf life when frozen and advice from the manufacturer should be sought on the shelf life once defrosted.  Products that have been thawed using this method must not under any circumstance be refrozen unless they have undergone further processing to control potential pathogen growth or toxin formation;
- Placing frozen items into a suitably cleaned and sanitised container and allowing cool running water to flow around them until they are sufficiently defrosted. This method should only be used for items that will thaw within an appropriate time frame. It should also be taken into account that items that will lose quality due to water interference may not be suited to this method. Water should not be permitted to enter the packaging of the item purposefully, and all defrosted items should be drained of any “intruding” water before further use.  Products that have been thawed using this method must not under any circumstance be refrozen unless they have undergone further processing to control potential pathogen growth or toxin formation.

Food Preparation Time Control
It is important to limit the timeframe in which potentially hazardous food items are exposed to ambient or operating area temperatures, unless such areas are specifically temperature controlled. 30 minutes exposure at ambient temperature is a generally accepted as a suitable timeframe during food preparation for food items to be out of temperature controlled storage prior to further processing. Good Manufacturing Practices constitute that foods must not be subjected to excess time within the temperature danger zone when processing or prior to cooking.

Food Preparation Storage Requirements
- All food items should be stored in appropriate containers;
- Storage containers must be cleaned and sanitised before use, must include appropriate labelling and be stored under refrigeration where applicable;
- Items removed from original packaging must be re-packaged and stored in a manner that facilitates protection from contamination and excessive microbiological growth;
- A pro-active FIFO policy must be followed when storing or re-storing containers of foods in designated storage areas. Should any item of risk be found without labelling, it must be assessed to verify its safety and suitability to be used. Failing any verification activity should result in such an item being hygienically disposed of;
- Hot foods being chilled should be covered sufficiently to reduce the risk of contamination. Items such as plastic wrap may be used to cover a food item once the temperature of the item has dropped enough for the plastic wrap not to melt upon contact;
- Food handling staff should apply diligence regarding the continual cleanliness of food storage areas consistent with other housekeeping schedules.

Cutting Boards and Containers
Depending on the scope and purpose of your food business operation, you may have adopted a colour coded cutting board system to reduce the risk of cross contamination. The standard colours for these systems vary from region to region. For example, some colour coding systems specify the following colour and uses: Green: fruits and vegetables, Red: raw red meats, Yellow: raw poultry, Brown: cooked meats and poultry, Blue: raw seafood, White: dairy and baked Goods.

There are many different variations for use of the coloured board systems as nominated above. All are generally acceptable as long as all boards are cleaned and sanitised appropriately between each use. It is important to also consider the contamination issues presented by raw and cooked foods though differing varieties and species of animal products. Boards must still be changed and cleaned and sanitised before being used for different types of items.

Requirements for cutting Board Safety and Hygiene include:
- Cutting boards should be stabilised prior to use by the use of a damp cloth or other non-slip material placed between the work surface and the base of the board;
- After the use of each board and each variety of food, the area immediately surrounding the board should be cleaned and sanitised using appropriate chemicals;
- Chlorine soaks using recommended concentrations of chemicals for boards may prove beneficial to the sanitation process.

Cutting boards can generally be stored in either of two ways:
- Air-dried to reduce contact contamination and separated vertically from other contact surfaces on the cutting surface of the board. A common option is to store cutting boards within a chiller refrigerated area;
- In a regularly changed and maintained chlorine bath.

As with the colour coding principles defined above for cutting boards, many businesses also apply similar rules for use of storage tubs and crates. For example,  White: product, blue: rework, red: general waste, green: food waste or animal feed, grey: maintenance tools.

Process Control Management: Cooking
It is important to consider the staff who is involved with the monitoring of cooking critical limits. They must be competent in all food safety related activities involved, and must be of sound ability to make objective judgements. Hazards present may include Chemicals, Foreign Objects and Pathogenic Micro-organisms.

It is generally recognised that food is cooked to increase palatability, to tenderise, to change the character of the food, for cultural reasons or just to make it hot. Another important reason to cook some foods is to destroy organisms that cause disease. Proper cooking is often the “critical control point” in preventing food borne disease outbreaks.

Cooking related Critical Limits may include:
- Personal hygiene;
- Cross contamination prevention;
- Appropriate time and temperature requirements for specific foods.

Process Control Management - Cooling
It is important to consider the staff who is involved with the monitoring of cooling critical limits. They must be competent in all food safety related activities involved, and must be of sound ability to make objective judgements. Hazards present may include Chemicals, Foreign Objects and Pathogenic Micro-organisms.

Cooling processes are implemented not only to control potential microbiological pathogen growth but also to ensure the quality of finished products.

Cooling related Critical Limits may include:
- Core temperature of product as a maximum nominated time and temperature. For example, a potentially hazardous food items may be cooled down from above than 60 degrees Celsius or 140 degrees Fahrenheit to less than 21 degrees Celsius or 70 degrees Fahrenheit within the first two hours, then from 21 degrees Celsius or 70 degrees Fahrenheit to less than 5 degrees Celsius or 40 degrees Fahrenheit within the next four hours.

The application of a dual time and temperature limit is based upon the growth profiling of pathogenic micro-organisms. For example, pathogenic micro-organisms may grow easier at temperatures between 60 degrees Celsius or 140 degrees Fahrenheit to 21 degrees Celsius or 70 degrees Fahrenheit than between 21 degrees Celsius or 70 degrees Fahrenheit to 5 degrees Celsius or 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

It is recommended that nominated time and temperature limits for cooling of potentially hazardous foods are structured and defined to meet regulatory specifications, and according to the composition of the products involved.

About Product Assessment and Testing Development
Finished product samples must be assessed and tested against the criteria included within the finished product specifications and regulatory requirements to ensure ongoing compliance. The criteria for such assessment and testing may include food safety, food quality and regulatory parameters.

Product assessment and testing is conducted to confirm that products meet their intended specifications. Whether the specification criteria being tested is from a customer specification or a regulatory standard, the outcomes of the Product and Assessment process must provide evidence that the product is appropriate.

As each and every food product is different, so too are the methods and procedures for Product Assessment and Testing. The differences between Product Assessment and Testing are defined as follows:
- Product testing is the confirmation of product parameters such as microbiological or chemical attributes through analytical methods. Product testing is often referred to as “Analytical testing”.
- Product assessment is generally the comparison of physical or organoleptic parameters defined within the finished product specifications. It is common for results from product testing to be used within the product assessment process as references for microbiological or chemical attributes.

It is important to consider that some analytical testing methods are defined by regulatory agencies to ensure appropriate outcomes are maintained. This may also be evident where a particular customer specification may reference certain analytical testing methods to be used for a specified test.

Microbiological and Chemical Assessment and Testing
Microbiological and Chemical criteria for foods are commonly defined within both regulatory and customer standards. It is important that food businesses conduct validation and verification testing on an ongoing scheduled basis to provide evidence that such Microbiological and Chemical limits are being met.

Microbiological and Chemical assessment and testing is commonly conducted either in-house, within the food business, or by a contracted external service provider. Regardless of whether in-house or external laboratories are used for Microbiological and Chemical assessment and testing, it is important to ensure that the testing methods and results reporting formats meet regulatory and customer requirements.

In-house assessment and testing may include the use of rapid indicator tests, or standardised laboratory techniques. Where in-house Microbiological and Chemical assessment and testing is conducted, it is important to ensure that the methods used and outcomes applied meet the expectations of regulatory and customer standards. It is important to ensure that Microbiological and Chemical assessment and testing activities are conducted in a manner that meets the prescribed requirements of Good Laboratory Practices, so as to achieve appropriate outcomes whilst not providing any risk of product contamination.

Contracted external laboratory service providers are often utilised where required Microbiological and Chemical testing can’t be conducted onsite, usually due to the availability of suitable resources. Where an external laboratory service provider is required, the nominated laboratory should be managed through the Approved Supplier Program to ensure appropriate outcomes. The generally accepted minimum requirement for contracted external laboratory service providers is for them to be accredited to the ISO 17025 standard, which provides confidence in the testing methods and results issued by the business. ISO 17025 is a global standard, established by the International Organization for Standardization, for the technical competence of calibration and testing laboratories.

The methods used for testing and reporting are often based upon published and accepted national or international standards. These are commonly given codes to differentiate a specific assessment or testing method from another method. In some cases, where a specified testing method code is nominated against Microbiological and Chemical criteria, it is important to ensure that the results show some correlation between the required testing method, and the actual testing method employed. This is particularly important where external laboratories are used; these laboratories may have their own testing code linked to a national or international standard. In such cases, it is common for testing results to reference both internal and external testing method codes, or for the contracted laboratory to provide an equivalence statement, which provides a link between the accepted national or international standards and their internal testing codes.

Examples of Microbiological and Chemical Assessment and Testing include, but are not limited to:
- Bacteria and pathogen screening;
- Bacterial toxin screening;
- Food additive chemical screening;
- Agricultural chemical screening;
- Cleaning and sanitation chemical screening;
- Naturally occurring chemical screening;
- Heavy metals screening;
- pH assessment;
- Allergen screening;
- Species testing;
- Identity preserved status testing.

Organoleptic Assessment and Testing
Organoleptic assessment and testing activities are most often conducted within food business as elements of ongoing routines. This is where finished products are assessed against parameters that characterise a product. The criteria for such assessments are usually agreed upon within finished product specifications.

Examples of Organoleptic Assessment and Testing criteria include, but are not limited to:
- Colour;
- Texture or mouth feel;
- Flavour;
- Aroma.

Organoleptic assessment and testing is not only conducted on finished products; shelf life testing is also usually inclusive of organoleptic criteria to ensure that products are still complying with specified parameters of acceptance up until the end of their nominated shelf life. Retention samples are often used for this purpose, though it is also common practice for food manufacturers or suppliers to purchase their products from retailers and test the purchased products.

Shelf Life Testing
Shelf Life testing is often required where food products are likely to become microbiologically unsafe, mainly due to their composition, packaging and intended use. The primary concern for such testing is to define the length of time parameters, under which a particular item of food will remain microbiologically safe under its intended storage conditions. Other relevant factors may also include water activity and acidity as pH.

The important factor to consider in this regard is how consumers may actually store the foods, and whether or not this factor may have some impact upon the food that they will eventually consume. This is where consumer education, and in particular, product labelling are most important. Labelling specifications for storage not only provide an indicator for consumers to abide by, but also provide a due diligence approach to ensuring the foods consumed are in fact safe when they are consumed.

Re-validation of the shelf life of a product should take place whenever an input ingredient or production process is changed.

Shelf life testing is usually broken into two components:

Microbiological Shelf Life Testing
Microbiological Shelf Life testing is usually conducted in a controlled laboratory environment, where the food items being tested are subjected to a variety of tests covering a spectrum of applicable pathogenic bacteria and spoilage organisms, usually nominated by legislative and industry guidelines. A certain number of specific types of bacteria may be acceptable in a product at the end of its life. The testing is conducted over the span of the product's designated shelf life, whilst the product is being stored under the nominated storage conditions. If the amounts of identified nominated bacteria are within the acceptable parameters of the guidelines, this provides a validation that the shelf life that has been given to the food product. When testing a product for its shelf life, testing should carry on past the shelf life to collect data that will enable an assessment on whether the shelf life may be extended.

If there are detections of specified micro-organisms above the specified levels, corrective actions are generally required. These may include:
- Raw material review;
- HACCP plan review;
- Process review;
- Training review;
- GMP review; or
- Any one of a number of investigations to identify why the product is not safe for consumption within its designated shelf life.

Organoleptic or Sensory Shelf Life Testing
Organoleptic or sensory shelf life testing includes as assessment of the food’s parameters including look, smell, texture, taste, weight and size, to anticipate and define the customers' perception of an acceptable and unacceptable product. This type of activity is predominantly driven by quality aspects, which assume that the product is already safe, and that the sensory testing will provide information regarding how the product will perform in the marketplace, and whether or not it will be accepted by the customers who consume it. Finished product specifications are an important component of this process, and are usually referred to during testing.

Organoleptic testing provides a wealth of information regarding a food product, and how it will perform until its Use By or Best Before date arrives, especially when combined with microbiological shelf life testing as previously mentioned. It is important, to ensure that any food undergoing organoleptic testing is safe prior to initiating such testing, particularly within the context of research and development for new products.

Some food businesses use taste panels to facilitate this kind of testing, where a number of people from different employment and social backgrounds give their opinions regarding elements such as look, smell, texture and taste, and whether or not the finished product specification is truly reflected in the product being tested. The items being tested should remain anonymous for the testers, until the testing has been completed. Testers should be honest in their approach to testing, and rely on all of their senses to create a valued judgement regarding all samples being tested.

Retention Samples
Retention samples are often required for manufactured foods to ensure proof of safety and quality aspects. These are generally samples of finished products that can be accessed if product assessments or testing is required after the product has been released to customers. Retention samples are often used to provide validation of product safety or quality after an issue with a product has been identified, either through testing conducted after the product has been released to consumers, or through an incident linked to a particular food product.

Some regulatory and industry standards require that a specified sample of food products are retained up until the defined expiry of shelf life of the product, or until the product is reasonably likely to have been used or disposed of by consumers.

In many circumstances, it is advantageous for businesses producing high-volume high-risk foodstuffs to take samples of products periodically. The holding of samples can provide evidence where an alleged food borne illness has occurred, and your business has been implicated.

The following may be considered where retention sampling is initiated:
- Sampling may be undertaken where large quantities of foodstuffs are served, especially where the intended consumers represent a large age range, or where specific groups such as the young or vulnerable are concerned. High risk foods to be sampled may include items containing Meats, Poultry, Seafood, Nuts, Dairy products, Rice or Pasta;
- Retention samples are also often maintained where food products are manufactured for a customer or to nominated specifications;
- Samples are taken at the final production point, and must generally conform to the following parameters:
- A small sample of the item can be placed into an appropriate sterilized laboratory quality container, or it can be contained within the products' intended packaging;
- Allergen containing items must be considered regarding their “risk” composition, and contamination risks with other foods;
- A suitable utensil must be used to gather and deposit the sample;
- The sample must be labelled when covered, and include information such as Product description; Date and traceability of product; Person preparing the sampled product; Purpose of the product;
- Completed samples should be placed into a specified and contained area of suitable storage. Batched bags or boxes may be used for each particular sampling session to provide ease of location. Samples may be kept for as long as required. Retention samples are commonly disposed of after a defined period of storage, after product assessment activities have been conducted or until the shelf life of the product has been passed.

If your food business supplies foodstuffs manufactured to a customer’s specifications, it is important to consider any specific Food Borne Illness Prevention Development requirements in relation to their items.

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