Manufacturing safe and reliable foods is no easy task – especially in refrigerated, ready-to-eat meals, side dishes, dips and spreads. Often, these types of products undergo their final processing and packaging without a cook step, which omits the opportunity to significantly reduce the overall microbial load. Ultimately, these products are more sensitive to the contamination of unwanted microorganisms that can lead to human disease (as is the case with Listeria monocytogenes), or shorten the product’s shelf life (as is the case with common spoilage organisms, such as Leuconostoc, Pseudomonas and Zygosaccharomyces spp., for example).

In addition, some of these foods may not be suitable candidates for aseptic packaging or high-pressure pasteurization (HPP). This inherent lack of a “kill step” places added pressure on ensuring sufficient quality of raw materials, on formulation expertise and on the sanitary processing of these foods to ensure that such products meet the industry’s requirements for quality and food safety. While all of these are of equal importance, let’s focus on supplier verification and the qualification and handling of raw materials.

Sourcing raw materials from qualified suppliers is the first step in developing food products under the conditions above. The implementation of the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) places an increased focus on supplier validation, with the true onus of that validation being placed squarely with the company receiving the ingredients. While third-party audits, certificates of analyses (COAs) and other vendor-provided documents may reveal a good deal about a potential supplier, they may not always capture the full scope of risks associated with using that supplier’s materials in your facility.

To better comply with the enhanced FSMA standards, food manufactures need to conduct outward-facing “supplier verification activities” and should have the ability to document these activities and outcomes. Part of these activities should include either on-site vendor audits by qualified individuals from the receiving facility, including a review of relevant food safety records, or an in-depth review of an accredited third-party audit and any corrective actions. This allows the receiving plant assessor a chance to determine if the supplier has properly captured or mitigated the risks in their facility and whether they have sufficiently developed a culture of safety as well. Additional verification activities could also include sampling and testing of incoming raw materials to ensure that they meet the COAs, as well as the development of a comprehensive supplier questionnaire. This document can be tailored to your organization’s needs and may cover a variety of topics, such as key organizational contacts, certificates of insurance, allergens, kosher/halal certification, recall programs, HACCP and more.

Just as the quality of the supplier’s practices is of high importance, assessing the quality of their ingredients requires the same attention to detail. Their ingredients can carry risks associated with both the quality and safety of finished foods. An example could be spice and seasoning blends. These items are inherently contaminated with various microorganisms, given their cultivation and production as raw agricultural byproducts. Although these ingredients often make up a small percentage of the finished formulation, they’re often significant factors in limiting product quality and shelf life. Sourcing high-quality, treated raw materials is critical. Most spice and seasoning suppliers can provide ingredients that have been treated using various decontamination techniques, such as steam treatment, ethylene oxide treatment (ETO), gamma irradiation, etc., which help to reduce the microbial load in these raw materials. Manufacturers may request lot-specific COAs that should include (at minimum) aerobic plate counts (APC), yeast and mold counts and the exclusion of pathogens, including E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria spp.

As with dry spices, both raw and processed fruits and vegetables are another important areas for microbial intervention. Most suppliers take steps to decontaminate processed produce and can provide similar microbial COAs to those mentioned previously. One example of such treated fruits and vegetables is individually-quick frozen (IQF) products, which arrive frozen having already been treated with an antimicrobial wash, dip or spray post-processing. Such interventions should be supplier-verified, but may also be done “in-house” through a validated decontamination wash involving chlorine gas, variants of acetic acid or other such treatments. Do note that proper storage of IQF raw materials is critical. While these materials have been treated to reduce the microbial load, they are not sterile. So, extended storage at refrigerated temperatures (rather than frozen) may allow for the outgrowth of microbes, returning contamination to improper or unsuitable levels.

Foods that contain animal proteins (such as chicken, tuna, eggs and other sources) may provide additional areas of concern. Again, ensuring that quality ingredients are being sourced from suppliers that are meeting the industry’s standards for food safety and quality is imperative. Equally important is ensuring that these raw materials are properly handled, once delivered. Maintaining appropriate storage temperatures, minimizing cross-contamination and paying careful attention to “best before” dates should all be part of standard operating procedures.

Consumers continue to seek out convenient, “fresh” foods, driving growth in the ready-to-eat space. Naturally, producers are seeking to capture this growth, but product quality and food safety simply must be front and center when doing so, given the nature of how these products are formulated, processed and packaged. Although additional steps can be taken to increase the food safety and quality of your foods, starting off on the right foot with quality supplier and ingredients can dramatically increase one’s chances for success in this space.