Common Food Safety Problems

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Are you new (or newish?) to food safety? Would you benefit from an introduction to terms commonly used to discuss food safety? Or maybe you’re a more experienced food safety expert and would just like a quick review & reminder?

If so, you’ll enjoy reviewing this article, as we’ve prepared a quick review of some basic and common food safety problems. We’ve drawn the material from a helpful resource created by the US FDA to help introduce good manufacturing practices (GMP and/or cGMP) titled “Definitions of Food Safety Problems.”

And before you go, be sure to download our free 7 Basic Tools of Quality Guide from the bottom of this article.

Common Food Safety Problems

The US FDA has listed the following as common food safety problems:

Biofilm

This is a layer of slime on the surface caused by bacteria. Biofilm creates an environment that allows pathogens to multiply, obviously leading to food safety concerns.

Condensation on Pipes and other Equipment

This occurs when humid air contacts cold pipes in a food processing plant. The resulting condensation can then drip from the pipes into the food product, causing contamination.

Contamination by Reworked Product

Using product from one product line in another product line (reworking) can cause food contamination.

Contamination That Occurs During Processing

This is a “catch-all” category of food safety problems caused when food is contaminated during processing OTHER than causes that already appear on this list (such as not having an adequate glass cleanup policy).

Raw Material Contamination

This includes both (1) cases in which the raw materials arrive at the facility already contaminated and (2) cases in which the contamination occurs at the food-processing plant. This is a catch-all category for contamination of raw materials not caused by other factors that already appear on this list (such as using unpotable water during processing).


Inadequate Training of Employees

Inadequate training of employees can led to a variety of food safety problems. Food processing plants must train new employees on the minimum training requirements:

  • Food safety policies
  • Material covered in the plant’s written GMP policy
  • Personal hygiene
  • Plant sanitation policies and procedures
  • Product tampering awareness and consequences
  • Quality control policies

In addition to that initial training of new hires, provide employees in food processing quarterly refresher courses and additional training if any operational deficiencies are noted.

Remember that food safety/GMP training must be delivered to employees in a language that the employees understand, that training programs must be updated every year, and that employers must keep records of training.

Equipment that’s Hard to Clean

Equipment that’s not clean leads to food safety problems. Some equipment is difficult to clean, either because of its own intrinsic design or because of the way it was installed at the food-processing plant. Either way, this is a common cause of food safety problems and should of course be avoided.

Insufficient Cooling

It’s important to keep food ingredients and products at proper, cool temperatures during processing or storage or risk contamination. This is especially true of foods that are refrigerated or frozen.

Absent or Insufficient Policy for Glass Cleanup

Food processing plants must have a glass cleanup policy that includes:

  • Properly cleaning glass containers
  • Shielding in the event of glass breaking during production
  • Proper cleanup of glass in non-production areas (remember, don’t use glass in or near processing or storage areas)

If a food-processing plant does not have a glass cleanup policy, or if that glass cleanup policy is inadequate, food safety/contamination issues can result.

Food Products that are Labeled or Packaged Incorrectly

Products may in some cases (wrongly) be packaged in old packages or placed in the wrong packages. In other cases, a label may not identify the presence of an allergen when it should be labeled.

Failure to Develop a Crisis Management Protocol

The lack of written procedures for how to manage a crisis at the facility, or poor training on how to carry out those procedures, can lead to food safety problems.


Inadequate Equipment Knowledge by Employees

This could be considered part of the poor training category, and it includes employees who don’t know how to keep equipment clean and employees who don’t know how to prevent routine equipment maintenance tasks (such as lubrication of a machine) from causing food contamination.

Failure to Reconcile Equipment Parts after Repairs

After repair to equipment in a food processing plant, it’s important to reconcile equipment parts to make sure they’re all accounted for when the repair is complete. If a facility doesn’t have a parts reconciliation written procedure, and/or if employees who perform maintenance aren’t properly trained on the procedure, this can lead to food safety problems.

Lack of Knowledge of Welding Standards

A food processing facility must have written standards on how to conduct welding safely, employees who perform welding must receive adequate training on those standards, and of course the welding must be carried out according to those procedures. Failure at any level can lead to food safety problems.

Absence of a Protocol for Product Recovery

Not having a product recovery protocol, including no coding, traceability, or recall systems, can lead to food safety problems.

Failure to Perform Preventive Maintenance

When a machine breaks down or performs improperly, that can be a cause of food safety problems. Therefore, it’s better for a food processing plant to routinely perform preventive maintenance instead of simply reacting to maintenance problems.

See our article on preventive maintenance for more on this.

Poor Employee Hygiene

If employees at a food processing facility have poor hygiene, that can cause contamination in the food products. Be sure to properly train employees about the importance of proper hygiene; have written employee hygiene policies and procedures; and monitor/verify employee proper hygiene compliance to reduce this risk.

Inadequate Pest Control

Pests, obviously, can cause food contamination issues. It’s essential for a food processing facility to have a comprehensive and detailed pest management policy & program and to ensure it’s carried out properly (be sure to document this).

Inadequate Sanitation of Plant and/or Equipment

Poor sanitation policies and procedures at a food processing plant can lead to contamination and food safety problems (this is obviously one potential cause of the “contamination of raw materials” catch-all category already mentioned). Poor sanitation may result from poor (or absent) sanitation policies, poor sanitation procedures, and/or poor monitoring and verification that those policies and procedures are being enacted.

Improper Plant Design and Construction

Plant design and construction considerations can have a good or bad effect on food safety within a food processing facility, and some design and construction issues make food safety problems more likely. For example, floors with poor drainage and/or cross-over between the process flows of raw and finished products). It pays to have your food processing plant properly designed, built, and laid-out.

Post-Process Contamination at Manufacturing Plant

In some cases, a finished food product can be contaminated after it’s been processed. This can occur between the lethality treatment and packaging or post-packaging. This may be caused by other categories that already appear on this list (such as poor pest control), but this category is a “catch-all” for other causes that affect food post-production as well.

Dead-Ends in Plumbing Leading to Accumulation of Stagnant Water

Stagnant water in any area is a food hazard risk in a food processing facility. In particular, plumbing connections that don’t drain into other areas and therefore result in sitting water may harbor contaminants that ultimately create food safety problems.

Using Unpotable Water During Food Processing

It’s always important to use fresh, clean, sanitary, potable water for food processing. Failing to do so can obviously lead to food safety problems. At a minimum, be sure your water meets local health requirements (although that’s a floor and it’s certainly fine to exceed those requirements).

Additional Considerations: Lack of Allergen & Chemical Control Programs

The FDA notes that the lack of programs for allergen control and chemical control were mentioned by food safety experts in identifying common food safety problems as well.

Conclusion: A Summary of Common Food Safety Problems

Avoiding the common food safety problems listed above will help your food processing plant greatly improve quality and avoid contamination issues.

To improve your food safety metrics, consider implementing (or improving) your quality management system, complying with the ISO 9001 Quality Management System standard, and/or the ISO 22000 Food Management Safety standard.

To get you started on your quality improvement efforts, please feel free to download our free guide to the 7 basic tools of quality, below

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Free 7 Tools of Quality Guide Download

Get this free guide to the 7 Basic Tools of Quality, widely used in quality assurance (QA) and other continuous improvement processes.

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 25 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center and an Instructional Design certification from the Association of Talent Development (ATD), and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI/ASSP Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training. Jeff frequently writes for magazines related to safety, safety training, and training and frequently speaks at conferences on the same issues, including the Washington Governor's Safety and Health Conference, the Oregon Governor's Occupational Safety and Health Conference, the Wisconsin Safety Conference, the MSHA Training Resources Applied to Mining (TRAM) Conference, and others.

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