The lowdown on environmental risk assessments

February 21, 2018

The environmental risk assessment is getting a lot of buzz in the food and agriculture industries. What is it, though?

“An environmental risk assessment is, in general terms, an evaluation of a food storage, processing or packaging environment to pinpoint any areas where there may be a risk to food safety,” said Neogen’s Matthew Sawyer. “This evaluation can take many forms, but will contain similar information, like the number of years an environment has been in use and its general amount of wear-and-tear.”

Individual environmental risk assessments are important, because each food product has its own unique needs in regards to sanitation conditions. For example, raw food facilities will have sanitary design parameters that look very different from facilities that make ready-to-eat foods.

“In fact, the type of food product is the biggest factor impacting the methods and frequency of a facility’s cleaning process,” said Sawyer.

From the old…

As technology has developed to help facilities protect food in new ways, so have environmental risk assessments.

“In the early twentieth century, the auto industry famously adopted the moving assembly line — and so did the food processing industry, changing the way food safety functioned in the processing environment,” said Sawyer.

Changing technology over time means that some facilities today are left with a medley of equipment originating from different generations. This can be the most challenging situation to plan an environmental risk assessment for. Older facilities, for example, often have aging floors and walls and ceilings that have become pitted from exposure to cleaning chemicals over time.

“Risk assessments can be powerful tools for providing clarity in these situations,” said Sawyer. “They help facilities plan their cleaning strategies in a way that takes into account the likelihood of food contamination from these risk areas.”

…to the new

With increased availability of data analytics and modeling tools, food scientists, food safety experts and sanitarians can get a detailed view of risk areas (like known pathogen harborage niches and hard-to-clean areas) faster than ever before.

And with testing data from such technology feeding into a risk knowledge base, the daunting decision of where to focus cleaning efforts becomes much easier. A risk assessment puts data and numbers behind results, showing a clear plan of action for achieving valuable food safety improvements, and providing sanitation teams with clear targets to hit.

As we move forward, new tools are being introduced, such as genomic testing (including whole genome sequencing). Recent research in food genomic testing is decrypting food plant microbiomes, which can help prevent foodborne illness outbreaks and improve food quality.

Other developments include plant mapping and cloud-based systems that aggregate sanitation data from multiple plants, allowing easier analysis. Overall, the future is bright when it comes to environmental risk assessments, where technology is continuing to help the food manufacturing industry keep consumers safe, happy and healthy.

Neogen offers a wide variety of food safety products, including rapid tests for pathogen detection and more.

Category: Food Safety