How far does the food industry need to go with microbiological testing?

Published: 7-Feb-2024

The pandemic has suddenly seen consumers cast a more critical eye over hygiene procedures when seeking a greater sense of safety and better protection for their health and wellbeing. But do the testing requirements and processes within the food supply chain as a whole go far enough?

With society continuing to recover after the global pandemic, the ongoing protection of public health has never been more important. Suddenly, consumers are taking additional interest in, and casting a more critical eye over, hygiene procedures when seeking a greater sense of safety and better protection for their health and wellbeing. 

Plus, with much discussion and speculation industry-wide about the prospect of new legislation following the UK’s exit from the EU, as well as societal challenges being reported, there is a renewed focus on testing requirements and processes within the supply chain as a whole. But what exactly is driving this? What are the implications? And what do manufacturers need to know? 

Ali Aitchison, Food Safety Specialist at Eurofins Food & Water Testing UK explores how those involved in the innovation and production of food products can continue to maintain integrity throughout the food chain long-term - not only to meet demands of the ever-evolving market, but also to ensure consumer safety and reassurance, and to remain compliant with stringent regulations.

Manufacturers have an overarching responsibility when producing food and beverage products to ensure they are produced in a hygienic manner and are safe to eat. The importance of public health should not be underestimated: it is fundamental to how we live and the quality of our life. The consequences of poor hygiene and unsafe food are well documented (you only have to look for recent recalls), and so it’s important that food manufacturers are proactive in their efforts to deliver safe and nutritious products to their customers. 

Legislation: A grey area?

Remaining compliant with legislation is – obviously – a major aspect of this for brands and businesses. The underpinning legislation, the Food Safety Act 1990, provides the framework which has formed the foundations of all food safety legislation over the past three decades, and to which additional requirements have been added over the years.

That said, while some regulations are very prescriptive, others are based on overarching principles that are open to interpretation and can lead to differences of opinion and grey areas.When the UK left the European Union in 2020, we retained the rules and regulations within this sector that had been enforced up to this date.

While some regulations are very prescriptive, others are based on overarching principles

However, there are already examples of divergence where the EU has since imposed new laws that the UK has not adopted, as well as the prospect of UK-exclusive legislation being introduced. As a result, manufacturers need to be mindful of the requirements in all the markets in which they operate, and ensure they have robust systems in place, ready to pivot to meet all or any changes brought in. 

Safe and wholesome

The law states that food must be safe and wholesome, and that food businesses mustn’t do anything which could compromise this. This places much responsibility on the manufacturer, potentially leading to subjective interpretation. Without a standardised framework, some food businesses may make mistakes due to a lack of resource or expertise in-house, or (most worryingly) they don’t realise there’s a gap in their understanding.

And due to the diverse range of food businesses selling within the market – from one-man bands through to multinational enterprises – the scope for expertise, resources, and understanding across the board is, understandably, inconsistent. This isn’t to say that larger companies do business better – often they have bigger teams and budgets but might also have a variety of products being sold in many countries across the globe – whereas smaller companies may be specialists in their niche sector.

This is where scaling up or expanding businesses (regardless of their current size) requires extra attention to safety. Hazard and risk assessments must be undertaken to identify differences – whether due to the scale of operations or environment used.

What’s driving the change?

It’s certainly been a turbulent time for many businesses, with Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic affecting commercial profits, availability of products, and the strength of the supply chain as a whole. The repercussions of the war in Ukraine, and the UK cost-of-living crisis is also impacting the food industry. 

Times are hard – not only for consumers, but for businesses too. Food manufacturers are under immense pressure to keep costs down to ensure they remain competitive and fairly priced for consumers.

To achieve this, some companies resort to cutting certain processes and budgets, including testing. Some have adopted a trial-and-error approach to determine what is needed, what can be reduced, and where money can be saved. The overall impact that this is having on business might not become apparent until a much later stage, when – unfortunately – it might be too late. So, while these changes might save money in the short-term, they can lead to costly consequences.

All too often, I’ve encountered manufacturers who believe that the same microbiological testing and procedure can be undertaken on a plant-based product as has been conducted on the meat equivalent

For example, it might be that fewer cleaning materials are used, a cheaper alternative is purchased, or processes are changed to leave longer intervals between a full clean down of equipment. Or, one of the most widespread decisions we have seen recently is cutting the number of tests for a product. 

Where the right tests are still being carried out at regular intervals, and compliance is maintained, this may result in a cost-saving without compromising consumer safety. But reducing testing must be done in conjunction with industry experts to ensure there aren’t negative consequences.

Make the wrong choice, and hefty costs may be incurred when having to make changes to labelling or reformulation. Or, in some cases, it can result in fines, product recalls, or a potential food safety incident – which could prove fatal and could even damage a brand’s reputation beyond repair.

Innovation and food safety

The food sector is absolutely bursting with innovative products – especially with the rise of plant-based and meat alternative markets. Commercially, it’s brilliant for manufacturers. There is a clear consumer demand within the market, and that’s resulting in higher numbers of exciting and novel items hitting our shelves. That said, it can also pose additional challenges where food safety is concerned. 

All too often, I’ve encountered manufacturers who believe that the same microbiological testing and procedure can be undertaken on a plant-based product as has been conducted on the meat equivalent. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Both have unique source materials, their processing procedures vary drastically, and microbiologically they’re very different. An individual (and regular) assessment is required to determine what exactly is needed, and a blanket assumption is a very dangerous approach to take. 

Key insights

Navigating the very complex world of food safety can feel like a minefield – especially if entering new markets, launching new products, or trying to decipher updated legislation. In order to simplify the process as much as possible, I’ve outlined my key insights for manufacturers to consider when reviewing their microbiological testing requirements:

Best Value

In order to get the very best value, it’s vital that you understand why you’re conducting that particular test, what the result will tell you, and be ready to take action in response (when needed). All too often, manufacturers go through the motions and conduct testing as a tick-box exercise, but don’t utilise the valuable information that’s provided – which is not only a waste of money, but also a waste of resources.

Seek expert support

If you don’t know what you need, what your result means, or what the next steps are, then seek expert support. Testing will cost money – whether it’s internal or external – and so to maximise potential benefits, you must ensure that you have experts reviewing and analysing the results. 

Regular testing

For many, once the test is complete and the pass result received, it can seem like it’s done. But in order to maintain compliance, it’s paramount that regular appropriate testing is conducted – it highlights any issues early which can be rectified before they become a problem, which can (in turn) save time, money, and headaches. 

Trend data

While it can be a little time-consuming, technical teams should be trending data, noting any issues, and taking action before a ‘fail’ result is received. This proactive approach will pay back in spades – meaning fewer costs involved, fewer changes required, and fewer time-consuming challenges, such as product recalls.

What can manufacturers expect from a testing company?

The food industry moves quickly, and so being able to flex is key. Introducing a testing partner to your business can not only streamline processes, but also ensure compliance and protect both consumers and the brand. Whether you’re seeking assistance for a one-off project, or for an ongoing support partner, expert support can prove invaluable. Working as part of existing in-house teams, able to nurture and enhance expertise, testing partners become an integral extension of your business. Providing a wide variety of services - including reviewing current procedures, offering improvement to overall safety approaches, interpretation of results, or whole team training - plus all or everything in-between.

One of the most popular services is Horizon Scanning - where specialist teams of analysts detect early signs of development, issues or trends that need to be addressed or monitored. Alongside innovative technology, these experts can spot opportunities (or threats) at the earliest stage to allow sufficient plans and practices to be implemented, with minimal impact on business. All too often this industry isn’t seen as being glamorous or exciting - but without appropriate time and resources being dedicated to getting it right, it truly has ugly consequences that must be avoided at all costs.

You may also like