Tip of the Week: Stopping Hidden Danger In Its Tracks: Prevention Series

We're continuing our Hidden Dangers: Prevention series this week by turning our attention to spices and seasonings. Each product segment in the food industry faces unique risks and hazards related to the processes and equipment they use. We're highlighting some segment-specific hidden dangers and recommending prevention measures to stop them in their tracks. 

Hidden Danger: It is well documented that spices are highly susceptible to pathogens and that intervention, such as irradiation or ethylene oxide treatment, is necessary. Since treatment can happen before or after processing, the hidden danger resides in using shared equipment and utensils for both treated and untreated spices.

Solution: The ideal solution is to take a unified approach toward the timing of the treatment, either before or after processing. Where possible, this is the preferred approach. However, it may not always be feasible. In these circumstances, it is important to have a validated changeover process to manage a change from untreated spices to treated spices. The process should include cleaning and sanitizing of equipment and any food contact tools, such as scoops. It should also include measures taken to prevent contamination from personnel who may be working on one run to the next. This may include changing smocks or gloves, and, at a minimum washing hands. Finally, the changeover also needs to include the environment. Spices and seasonings are very dusty and untreated products can easily disperse pathogens into the environment, including equipment framework, floors, and walls.

Hidden Danger: Seasoning manufacturers handle a great variety of ingredients, many of which have multi-components. There is a danger of an allergen component going undetected.

Solution: There is a two part-process to this solution. The first part is to conduct a thorough review of the ingredient statement of any new material being approved. While there is a requirement for suppliers to use “plain language” for allergens, we are still finding an occasional ingredient legend, particularly related to the industrial supply chain, in which plain language is not used. For example, the term casein may appear instead of milk; or the term albumin may appear instead of egg.

Once all allergen components have been identified in a raw material, there is also a need to ensure that the material has not undergone any formula changes since the time of approval. While suppliers will generally notify their customers if they have changed their formula, as long as the correct ingredient statement is on the package at the time of delivery, they are not legally required to do so. One easy way to check ingredient declarations at the time of receipt is to make a copy of the original legend on a transparency or acetate sheet. This sheet can simply be overlaid to the case or bag when it arrives. A quick glance will tell the receiving personnel if the statements match or not, without the burden of reading each word within the statement.

Hidden Danger:  When a supplier provides a raw material to a customer and the raw material is identified as a source of contamination, the supplier becomes liable for all the product the customer made with the contaminated raw material. Given that spices and seasonings are often used at a small percentage in the customers’ formulas, larger lot sizes present an exponential financial risk.

Solution: Lot size determination is the responsibility of the manufacturer and there is latitude in how it is determined. In batch operations, a single batch may be a lot or a series of sequential batches of the same formula may be a lot. In a spice and seasoning operation, it is advised that individual batches be designated as a lot to reduce the potential financial risk if there is a recall.  It will not mitigate all risk, but can lessen the impact of some types of product contamination claims from customers.

Hidden Danger: Most spices tend to have a long shelf-life. This can often lead to a facility keeping inventory for an extended period of time, which can increase the risk of insect infestation, especially by Indian Meal Moths.

Solution: To avoid infestation by Indian Meal Moths in products susceptible to them, such as spices, the following measures are recommended:

  • Maintain inventories at levels which support frequent turns, preferably within 4 weeks.
  • Maintain in-house inspectors that can distinguish between Indian Meal Moth webbing and other webbing, such as spider webs.
  • Ensure that personnel responsible for cleaning racking systems or working directly with the spices are trained to report webbing, which is typically found in corners, such as the corner of a corrugated case or the corner of racking systems.
  • Promptly discard any materials found to contain Indian Meal Moths.
  • Install pheromone traps to monitor for activity.
  • Enlist the help of a pest management professional who specializes in the food industry.