Ask a Food Safety Scientist: How Do You Test for Hazards in Food?

Recently, our food safety scientists received the following question: What is the best guidance to assess microbial testing on varying food products to ensure food safety and quality?

Contaminated food sickens customerEach year, 600 million people around the world are sickened by contaminated food. To combat foodborne illness, the FDA sets standards for the food supply in the United States. These standards help companies know when to recall foods due to a hazard.

Typically, companies will take and test several samples of food throughout the processing procedure to ensure the food is safe to eat once it reaches the consumer. This is done at food processing plants, restaurants, foodservice facilities, and just about anywhere that handles food.

So what kinds of tests are done to ensure there are no biological, chemical, or physical hazards in food?

Food testing

Microbial growth is a prominent concern in the foodservice industry because it contributes to many foodborne illness outbreaks. To help keep biological growth under control, taking the temperature of time/temperature control for safety (TCS) foods and keeping a log to make sure they stay out of the Temperature Danger Zone can be very helpful. In addition, taking temperatures while cooking, cooling, and reheating food can also help inhibit microbial growth. If you work at a food processing plant, another common test uses cotton swabs to culture bacteria to ensure that they stay under a specified limit.

Chemicals, especially cleaning chemicals, can be found in all food processing plants, restaurants, and just about any foodservice facility you can think of. It’s important that these are used properly and at the right concentration. The wrong concentration of a cleaning chemical could pose a serious risk for consumers. Using chemical test strips is a common way to test the concentration of such chemicals, especially when cleaning and sanitizing dishes, storing wiping rags in a bucket of sanitizer, and sanitizing equipment and food-contact surfaces.

Depending on where you work and what food your company produces, you may also use an x-ray machine to detect foreign objects, like metal, pieces of plastic, or bones. Typically these are found in food processing plants, but could be found in other areas as well. If you work in a restaurant or other facility that doesn’t have a machine to detect physical hazards, you should throw away food that you think could be contaminated with any foreign object and take extra caution when removing naturally occurring physical hazards.

Food safety regulations and laws

The FDA, USDA, your local regulatory authority, or another entity may have certain standards that need to be met when testing.This includes the method of testing to obtain the most accurate results and the acceptable limits of the results. In addition, your company or restaurant might have stricter guidelines to ensure that the food prepared and produced is well within the standards set by the authorities. Whatever method you use to test food, follow the manufacturer’s instructions when performing tests to ensure the most accurate results possible.

HACCP plans and variances

Food production facilities, restaurants, and other foodservice establishments may need to perform and record extra testing depending on what food they process or serve. For example, if a restaurant cures their own meat, they will need to obtain a variance from their local regulatory authority with an approved Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan. The regulatory authority might require extra tests such as taking the temperature at specified points to ensure it reaches the desired temperature, running the product through an x-ray or other machine to check for physical hazards, or taking microbial swabs to ensure the equipment is within the limits of acceptable sanitation.

There are many other tests that can be done on food to ensure they are safe and of good quality. It’s important to take extra care when performing such tests to get accurate results. For more information on hazards and other food safety training tips or to get your food handlers card, check out our online food handlers course.

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— Janilyn Hutchings

Updated: 05/30/2019 — 4:06 pm
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