Steve Loehndorf

Martin Mitchell

Editor’s note: To better understand food safety trends involving refrigerated prepared foods, Refrigerated & Frozen Foods contacted the Refrigerated Foods Association, Atlanta. Following is an interview with Steve Loehndorf, technical director for Reser’s Inc., Beaverton, Ore., and chairman of RFA’s technical committee; and Martin Mitchell, managing director for Certified Laboratories, Plainview, N.Y., and RFA technical director.

Refrigerated & Frozen Foods:What were last year’s most pressing refrigerated food safety issues?

Steve Loehndorf: The most pressing food safety issue in the refrigerated foods industry continues to revolve around the threat of Listeria Monocytogenes - both in terms of plant control measures and regulatory oversight. I was surprised by how little media attention there was to last year’s Listeria outbreak and recalls involving a major Canadian food processor. In that instance, at least 20 people died, hundreds were sickened and more than 200 refrigerated products were recalled.

There are many lessons to be learned from such an incident. These issues begin with the constant vigilance needed in plant sanitation practices. Meanwhile, we still need to determine the appropriate relationship between company responsibility and regulatory oversight as well as the handling of crisis communications.

The Refrigerated Foods Association (RFA) has been very proactive in helping member companies deal with each of these issues. We are also tracking and responding to potential changes to the “zero tolerance” standard for Listeria in foods, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidance on Listeria control measures to be used in our plants. We’re keeping members informed of developments in these areas and we’re striving to keep any new regulations and expectations both realistic and effective.

Marty Mitchell: Food safety is the issue of the day and the Listeria pathogen, is No. 1 on the list of concerns. It’s a constant battle and I’d say there has been some good news and bad news in this area.

The good news is that FDA finally recognized that we should have a tolerance for Listeria in foods. They have proposed that foods with less than 100 CFU of Listeria - that can be shown to not support growth - be acceptable. We support that proposal, believing that the public’s health is in no way compromised, but allowing for incidental findings in foods that do not allow growth. Many RFA members have lived in fear of inspectors coming in, finding a positive sample for Listeria and triggering a recall. All along, however, their product’s CFU level was well below the infectious dose and the product itself doesn’t support growth. This new proposal is a great way to separate the food safety issue from the regulatory issue.

What we had concerns with was FDA’s manufacturing guidance document. It has a fatal flaw in that it’s very prescriptive. Although they say it’s “not binding,” our members’ experience with inspectors is that - if the guidance says this - well then that’s the law and they take action.

R&FF: What were a few RFA activities last year in the food safety and food quality arena?

Loehndorf: I think last year’s biggest achievement involved our expanding the technical committee membership. This increased the activity and participation of this group. We currently have more than 40 committee members and the ability to draw from the collective knowledge and expertise of this diverse set of individuals truly adds value to each member’s experience.

The RFA board of directors provides unwavering support for all technical committee activities, so we have many opportunities to interact with each other during monthly conference calls, symposiums and our annual conference.

R&FF: What will be some critical food safety issues in 2009?

Loehndorf: It is clear that regulatory changes are on the horizon and we can be sure that new rules will become more stringent. Processors need to stay abreast of these changes and know how they will be affected.

Personally, I believe that membership in the RFA is an excellent way to stay informed on these issues. As a trade association, RFA also can comment on - and influence - policy in a way that’s not possible (or even wise) for an individual company.

Another huge topic involves the globalization of our world food supply. It is no longer feasible to avoid using foods or ingredients from foreign sources that may or may not be as safe as their domestic counterparts. Determining how to deal with this situation promises to be a major topic at our upcoming annual meeting in Orlando.

Mitchell: One issue that affects all food processors is adulteration and the presence of chemo-therapeutic agents in aquaculture products. Aquaculture is becoming a more extensive, global practice and many processors use these foods (including fish, shrimp and seafood) as ingredients. There are lots of antibiotics used in aquaculture and our laws are a little antiquated regarding the use of these drugs. The same drugs may be approved for other animal uses but - if there’s no approval for that drug in connection with seafood - that product is illegal.

Processors also face the problem of making sure their ingredients are not adulterated. We’ve seen melamine coming out of products from China but that’s not the only country involved. There are stories involving adulteration in juice, edible oils and other foods. You have adulterators who are in the business for the money and - while they’re making something cheaper - they’re not thinking about the unintended food safety consequences.

Our upcoming conference will feature Robert Brackett, Ph.D., the senior vice president and chief science and regulatory officer for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. He’ll talk to us about this important issue and about what food processors should be doing.