The mission of food processors and manufacturers is to provide quality and safe food to consumers.
The path to success in this mission, however, is different for every business. Each ingredient, manufacturing process, facility, and finished product presents unique food safety challenges and the current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP) to address them.
However, there is a common enemy that thrives in most food manufacturing plants. Biofilm, a natural mass of pathogens protected by an extracellular polymeric substance (EPS), attaches to surfaces and resists attempts at disinfection.
Biofilm warning signs
When inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration – or certified third-party organizations – visit food facilities, they aren’t specifically looking for biofilm, which is invisible to the naked eye. Inspectors are trained to recognize conditions that would indicate the presence of a biofilm, such as food residue on equipment and other surfaces, as well as drains, as they are known to harbor biofilms.
“We would examine whether sanitation programs are effective, including whether the company is testing for indicator organisms where high numbers could indicate inadequate sanitation and possibly biofilms,” according to an FDA spokesperson. “We often take our own swabs if we see questionable conditions. “
If the samples show a high number of pathogens after sanitation, it is likely that they are protected by a biofilm and not by free-floating organisms. Areas where water has not drained are another red flag, she said.
It is essential that food safety plans prevent conditions that promote biofilm establishment and growth.
“Establish and implement good GMP and sanitation control programs, consider equipment cleanability assessment during risk analysis, and develop cleaning programs that prevent biofilm formation,” the FDA spokeswoman said.
Biofilm control methods
If a biofilm is present in a food processing facility, there are several ways to attack PSEs and pathogens. Bob Forner, director of marketing for Hunt Valley, MD, Sterilex, said the methods have varying degrees of success. Sterilex manufactures microbial control products that attack not only pathogens in the biofilm, but also the structure of EPS. If the protective structure remains intact, pathogens can repopulate the biofilm within two days, Forner said.
The main ways of reacting to biofilm in a food facility are:
- Hand scrubbing: Soap / detergent can help break down EPS, and elbow grease lifts the structure from the surface. It is labor intensive and some areas are difficult to access for hand scrubbing, Forner said. Although the protective case is attacked with a hand wash, a disinfectant registered by the Environmental Protection Agency is required to kill the microorganisms lodged in the structure.
- Heat: An autoclave-type treatment, heating a surface to at least 265 degrees Fahrenheit, is effective. It requires a lot of energy use, and many materials and equipment in a food facility cannot be heated to the temperature needed, Forner said.
- Chemical Oxidation: According to Sterilex, oxidizing sanitizers and disinfectants fall into two categories. Oxidants reactive with EPS such as bleach, iodine and ozone are more aggressive to equipment and do not fully penetrate the biofilm structure, and oxidants entering EPS pass through layers of biofilm to kill pathogens. They are unable to kill both EPS and pathogens, he said.
- Biofilm Agents: Sterilex’s PerQuat technology is approved by the EPA to kill biofilm organisms and remove biofilm from surfaces. The patented chemistry combines an oxidant, hydrogen peroxide, and a phase transfer catalyst, quaternary ammonium, to penetrate the biofilm and release the peroxide to kill the organisms inside.
- Maintenance / Prevention: Although the Food Safety Modernization Act, enacted over 10 years ago, does not address biofilms, the regulations are designed to focus on preventing conditions that could lead to disease outbreaks. foodborne illnesses caused by pathogens they contain.
“The FSMA is focused on controlling hazards and biofilms that may contain pathogens would be addressed through preventive sanitation controls that are required in many food safety plans, as well as cGMPs,” the spokesperson said. from the FDA.
A combination of these steps is the most effective way to combat biofilm in a food facility, Forner said.
“Hand washing and care programs are part of almost every major food processing sanitation plan,” Forner said. “Combining these methods with the appropriate EPA registered chemistry is a powerful way to keep biofilm out of the food processing facility.”
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