Ready to be Safe

By Tom Wray, associate editor

Makers of ready-to-eat products take action to ensure food safety.

Ready-to-eat (RTE) meals have always been popular. As people’s palates become more refined and their time gets more limited, consumers are turning to them more and more as a regular meal in addition to a quick meal on the run. With RTE meals becoming so much more of a fixture in homes, the safety of the products becomes even more important.
Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods Inc. has taken measures to ensure the safety of its RTE products. Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson, says that the company has a strong commitment to maintain the safety of the food it produces.
“Our Sentinel Site Program is recognized internationally as a model program for the control of Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat processing facilities,” he says.
Tyson designed and implemented this program in 1999. It involves a comprehensive system of sampling, requiring each facility producing RTE products to test every processing line each week for Listeria. Through the company’s laboratory information management system, each facility is independently alerted to which equipment or environmental sites must be sampled each week. Samples are collected on randomly selected days and times to ensure an unbiased and representative view of the operating conditions at the facility. Mickelson says these practices help Tyson ensure its RTE products provide the highest degree of consumer safety.
Mickelson says that the company was one of the pilot businesses to use the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“The HACCP approach ensures controls for product quality and safety are in place at all critical processes in our facilities,” he says. “Tyson Foods required facilities to implement HACCP in 1992, six years before USDA.” Mickelson adds that each facility has a HACCP coordinator and staff with responsibility for implementing food safety controls and monitoring the production process.
Other companies are also taking steps to ensure the safety of their products. Joe Dibennedetto, vice president of operations for Mountain States Rosen in New York City, says the company has made many changes in the past year.
“We have made so many changes in our Quality Management Systems this year it is hard to call out all of the changes,” he says. “What I can share is that we recently had our local District USDA inspector here for a tour, and he was very impressed with what we have already done and the programs we are in the process of implementing.”
The company this year started daily ATP testing as a part of its pre-operational testing for sanitation. Mountain States has also switched its ATP testing units. The new system helps the company to identify where there are sanitation weaknesses before they become major issues. An example is the establishment of a certain baseline load, and as that value increases the company can pinpoint where it needs additional cleaning to break the biofilms that tend to build on meat equipment.
“Most value-added items are really for the consumer’s convenience,” Dibennedetto says. “So the consumer wants a product that is already clean and ready to just either eat or prepare.”
This places a large part of the preparation on the manufacturer, and that means much higher levels of sanitation, he says. Plants in the United States have been under this pressure for many years, especially with the increased attention on food safety after recent recalls. With the increased sensitivity of the micro testing and the increased frequency, companies can now be cleaner than ever.
Increased employee hygiene and manufacturing processing has also become more important, going beyond just handwashing. Dibennedetto says Mountain States has employees using the handwashing station every 20 minutes and also cleaning the utensils.
Government supervision
The government doesn’t just stand by as companies take these measures to ensure food safety. Both Tyson and Mountain States say that the USDA inspects each company’s facilities on a regular basis. Mickelson says for the four Tyson plants that aren’t covered by the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration ensures the hygiene. Dibennedetto adds that the USDA is currently testing their facility for Salmonella to help establish an industry baseline.
“Because of the increased consumer illnesses this year and the largest recalls in history for E. coli O157:H7, our raw materials are under very strict scrutiny,” Dibennedetto says. “We ourselves have decided to do what is known as a positive release program for all of our ground veal and beef products.”
Being proactive
Being proactive in hygiene has led both Tyson and Mountain States to do much of the needed testing at their own facilities.
“Our Food Safety and Laboratory Services Network is recognized throughout the industry as a research leader in serological testing, food chemistry, microbiological testing and food-safety research,” Mickelson says. “Our award-winning network is composed of 18 company-owned and operated laboratories across the country, including a 25,000-square-foot food testing and research laboratory in Springdale, Ark., where the company is based.”
In addition to those facilities, Tyson also has 58 quality-assurance laboratories at its plants. Its plants receive routine internal quality assurance and food-safety assessments. The assessments are conducted by quality-control managers and focus on critical food-safety elements, sanitation performance, company policy adherence and regulatory compliance. This in addition to periodic independent third-party audits of their food-safety systems.
“These reviews, conducted by or on behalf of our customers, are performed by nationally recognized independent auditing firms,” Mickelson says.
Mountain States, a lamb producer, tests its carcasses for E. coli to verify that its primary ingredient is being handled in a safe and sanitary manner.
Areas of concern
“I think a major concern in the RTE arena is the number of immunocompromised individuals in the general population,” Dibennedetto says. “Most companies in their HACCP plans state that their products are for the ‘General Population.’ However, the general population is no longer able to take small amounts of microorganisms that the healthy general population could take.”
Kenneth Marsh, Ph.D of Central, S.C.-based Kenneth S. Marsh and Associates, says that the processer can take care of the hygiene of products going out the door. After that, consumers have a responsibility of handling it properly.  
“The processor doesn’t really have control over that except [informing] the consumers, and they’re increasingly doing that,” he says.
Processors are taking increasing action to ensure safety and counteract the perception the public has after recalls over the past year.
“[There has been] stricter adherence to good manufacturing practices and an overall move to best practices,” says Dibennedetto. “More frequent product and environmental testing validate [that] our programs are working.”
Processors like these are ready for the challenges in today’s marketplace. Effective and consistent monitoring of lines are done by companies to ensure the safest products for consumers.