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Emily Newton

FDA Compliance

How Does Analytical Testing Improve Food Quality?

Technology and processes improve food quality and purchaser trust

Published: Monday, May 3, 2021 - 12:02

Food manufacturers must carry out numerous specific processes to check that the foods they produce and distribute are safe for consumers. Analytical testing plays a vital role in meeting that goal. Here’s a look at how such examinations raise food quality and purchaser trust.

Checking foods for pathogens

Food manufacturers engage in microbial testing to look for the presence of viral and bacterial pathogens. Such examinations analyze the food for contamination or possible spoilage.

“Ideally, we want a test method that does not waste time or resources generating false-positive results [i.e., good specificity] while being able to detect even a single viable pathogen in the sample [i.e., high sensitivity],” explains Thomas Jones, a Safe Food Alliance senior director.

A false positive could result in food getting rejected and discarded when there are no genuine issues with it. Conversely, false negatives may mean tainted items reach consumers and make them ill.

However, microbiological testing to find pathogens is not straightforward, and even the best-designed tests don’t find all potential issues. Some of the challenges include:
• Pathogens appear at levels that may be too low for testing to detect
• There is uneven pathogen distribution in foods, so tests may miss them
• Pathogens may enter dormancy, making them viable but undetectable
• Food processing may injure bacteria, complicating successful detection
• The sampled product’s composition could mask pathogens

Ensuring the effectiveness of pathogen testing and existing processing techniques

Despite the shortcomings mentioned above, there are some best practices for making sure a pathogen test works as well as expected and that the food manufacturing environment stays as contamination-free as possible.

For example, the people responsible should carefully evaluate all the available options, then select the most rigorous tests that provide the best opportunity for pathogen detection. They must also confirm the highest pathogen risks for a certain product, based on factors such as water activity or salt content.

Another tip to improve successful detection rates is to choose a sample size representative of the amount of product produced. Doing that increases the chances that the tested portion will contain any pathogens present.

Process validation is also crucial for keeping foods free of pathogens. More specifically, the kill step is a food-processing action meant to destroy them. During kill-step validation, research confirms how well the method rids the product of pathogenic microorganisms. Efficacy results come via logarithmic reductions, giving an exponential number to show how much the pathogen count decreased.

Outside of analytical testing for a product, another ideal approach is to conduct environmental testing in the areas associated with food production. If people catch abnormalities quickly, there’s a reduced likelihood of issues becoming so severe that they affect large batches of products.

Using fluorescence spectroscopy to uphold food quality standards

Fluorescence spectroscopy is another type of analytical testing increasingly used to maintain food quality standards. It uses a light beam to excite the electrons in the molecules of some compounds. That effect makes them produce light, which gets directed toward a filter and onto a detector. It’s then possible to identify the molecule in question or verify how it has changed. One major advantage of this method applied to food is that it’s nondestructive.

Although it’s an option for detecting pathogens, the potential applications of fluorescence spectroscopy are broader. In one case, using vitamin A as the chemical compound that emitted light allowed differentiating between eight different types of cheeses. That approach could check that the cheese is the kind stated on its label. Other use cases involve using this process to examine the tenderness and texture of meat and seafood.

Besides confirming a food’s authenticity, tenderness, or texture, fluorescence spectroscopy can examine meat for spoilage. For example, lipid and protein oxidation within the meat can negatively impact freshness.

However, scientists used thiobarbituric acid-reactive substances and fluorescence spectroscopy to gauge how processing techniques and storage affected meat freshness. The results showed that turkey samples had oxidative damage after just a week in storage due to the high-oxygen environment where workers packaged the product.

Reducing food fraud

A global survey of people involved in mitigating food fraud found that 97-percent of them wanted more guidance and information for preventing such events. Food fraud generally involves taking financially motivated actions without intending to harm food safety or public health.

For example, someone might use lower-priced ingredients without indicating it on the label or try to pass off low-priced and readily available fish as an expensive and rare type of seafood.

Efforts to crack down on food fraud directly connect to quality assurance (QA). When companies have well-functioning QA systems, they cut down on economic losses while upholding safety and earning stakeholder trust. Thus, taking food fraud seriously helps safeguard a business’s reputation.

Numerous options exist for applying analytical testing to a food fraud-reduction effort. Here are some of them.

Prioritizing portable methods

Many efforts to combat food fraud center on product-screening options that emphasize portability. Then, people could check for problems as soon as they encounter potentially problematic food, rather than sending it off to a laboratory.

One possible solution is ion mobility spectrometry. This is a nuclear-based option that border patrol personnel regularly use to detect drugs and explosives.

Researchers believe that they could adapt the method to find adulterated products, contamination, and mold. Initial strategies focused on analyzing vegetable oil and milk powder. Those products become subjected to adulteration at above-average rates in some areas of the world, making them worthy of closer scrutiny.

Generating unique seafood identifiers

A more recent endeavor involved using nuclear technology, including stable isotope analysis and microfluorescence, to create so-called isotopic-elemental fingerprints for seafood. Such an approach could confirm the origin of seafood. The technology would also give information about dietary and environmental conditions associated with how producers raised it.

It may be a while before people see real-world applications of this method. However, the project recently received a grant from the Australian government. Progress in this research could positively change how people go about conquering food fraud. If so, the public should gradually notice associated improvements in food quality.

Examining rice with handheld near-infrared spectrometers

Rice fraud is a pervasive problem in some markets. More specifically, those responsible aim to sell lower-quality types for varieties deemed premium options. Many of the current techniques to curb the problem require skilled technicians working in advanced laboratories.

However, a recent collaboration resulted in a two-stage process that people can perform without extensive knowledge or widely inaccessible tools. It requires using handheld, near-infrared spectrometers to compare samples with chemometric models.

Scientists tested their approach by gathering more than 3,500 samples across two years. Their work brought about several market-specific, portable methods that addressed the rice-related fraud concerns in numerous countries.

Analytical testing helps maintain high food-quality levels

As these examples show, there is no universal and best method for analyzing food and detecting quality issues within it. However, once food safety professionals stay abreast of the available and frequently used procedures, they’ll be in an excellent position to select the ones most appropriate for their needs.

Keeping food quality levels high bolsters public trust and helps companies avoid costly consequences, such as recalls. Thus, everyone benefits from accurate, advanced methods that detect abnormalities.


About The Author

Emily Newton’s picture

Emily Newton

Emily Newton is the editor-in-chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine exploring the innovations disrupting the scientific and industrial sectors.