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Environmental Monitoring in Food Processing

Introduction: Environmental Monitoring Program

Environmental monitoring post image.png


As food processor’s grow and face increased scrutiny from auditors and inspectors, they begin to wonder about environmental monitoring and whether they should implement this type of program in their facility. This section aims to answer those questions.

What is environmental monitoring in food processing?

Environmental monitoring is a process used in facilities that produce ready-to-eat (RTE) foods that assesses how effectively the plant is being cleaned.

This typically means swabbing various surfaces (e.g. cutting blades, tables, conveyers) for pathogens and sending those samples out to a lab for analysis. 

The goal is to determine whether any pathogens (e.g. listeria, salmonella) are living in facility and to respond accordingly if a positive result is found. 

It’s important to recognize that a clean test result doesn’t confirm that your food is safe, rather it verifies that your cleaning processes are effective. 


Do I need an environmental monitoring program in my food facility?

Legally, the FDA leaves this decision up to the food processor. GFSI-aligned 3rd party audits typically require environmental monitoring programs to be in place for producers of ready-to-eat food that are exposed to the environment post-kill step.

An easy way to determine whether you need an environmental monitoring program is to answer the following questions (a “yes” would suggest that you may need one)

  1. Does your process have a kill-step (e.g. cooking)

  2. Is your product exposed to the environment after the kill step and before packaging?

  3. Is your product a collection of ready-to-eat products combined to produce a ready-to-eat food that doesn’t include a kill-step?

  4. If your product is refrigerated, is it one that is conducive to the growth of listeria monocytogenes (e.g. deli meat, raw cheese/milk, seafood, sprouts)

Because ready-to-eat foods are typically not processed by the consumer before consumption, it’s important to know that there’s no chance they might be contaminated by pathogens in an unclean facility.

While testing the product itself can may inform you about the safety of that sample, testing the facility verifies that your cleaning activities are working and that each batch is being produced in a pathogen-free environment.


Am I ready to implement an environmental monitoring program?

If you’ve already confirmed that you should have an environmental monitoring program, consider the following questions before diving into a plan:

  • Do you have a thorough sanitation program? Your environmental monitoring program is a test of your cleaning, so if you have doubts about the thoroughness of your sanitation practices, address those first.

  • Do you have the resources to enact it faithfully? Once you launch your program, it’s important to follow it. If you doubt your ability to adhere to the program you’ve created or respond appropriately to a test result, then you should address those gaps prior to implementing the program.


What pathogens should I test for in my environmental monitoring program?

The most common pathogens which can be found living in the nooks and crannies of a facility are

  • listeria monocytogenes

  • salmonella

  • E. coli.


You may test for these directly or indicator microorganisms that represent each pathogen.

Additionally, you may conduct environmental monitoring for specific allergens to confirm that there is no allergen residue in your space. This would only be a consideration if you were processing both allergen containing and non-allergen containing products on the same equipment.


What does an environmental monitoring program actually consist of?

Environmental monitoring program typically includes the following components:

  • A risk assessment of the hazards you’ve identified: Looking at your ingredients and the nature of your operation, you should be able to identify the specific pathogens that may exist in the environment. You may have started this in your hazard analysis.

  • Your methodology

    • A map of your facility separated into hygienic zones (e.g. Zone 1 is the highest risk part of the production process and Zone 4 is the office)

    • A process for exactly how you will collect your samples 

    • A description of how often you will conduct your environmental monitoring (see below)

    • A description of where you will swab. These should be the highest risk areas where bacteria may be hiding and could get into your product.

  • A description of how you will have the tests analyzed (most likely by an external party, but it also may be in an in-house lab). You must list the specific lab conducting the analysis and confirm they’re properly accredited.

  • Corrective Action procedures, i.e. how you will respond if you receive a positive result.


How often should I conduct environmental monitoring? 

The frequency of environmental monitoring is determined by your process and the hazards you identified in your hazard analysis.

Raw Foods Example: Let’s say your facility produces snack packages of raw carrots and ranch dressing. Since the product will be consumed raw, you’ll want to have extremely high standards of hygiene in your space. After conducting initial, pre-operation environmental monitoring, you may choose to conduct monitoring activities weekly in high risk zones (e.g. blades, conveyers, tables) and monthly in lower risk zones  (walls, floors, drains). Ultimately, the decision of “how often” is up to you — you simply have to be able to justify that your frequency of sampling and testing is sufficient to determine that your sanitation efforts are effective.

Still not sure? Consider researching industry standards for environmental monitoring in plants producing products similar to yours. Start with that and then you can use historical data from your own site once your program is operational.You may only have to conduct environmental monitoring one time, such as when you move into a new facility and after you’ve completed a deep clean. This result would just be to confirm that you’re starting with a clean, pathogen-free space.


What happens if a pathogen is discovered in the test result?


If you get a positive hit in your environmental monitoring you will enact the corrective actions you’ve outlined in your plan. Depending on the type of result received, this may include re-cleaning, re-testing, holding product, and possibly a product recall. Check out This article to learn about hygienic zoning in an EMP and developing corrective actions


 
Verification

If you are unsure whether corrective action is required, see Verification vs. Validation

What You Need To Know

  • Verification means confirming that other parts of the food safety plan have been undertaken as specified.

  • Verification can take the form of a supervisor regularly reviewing records and verifying them with a signature.


What is Verification?

Verification means the application of methods, procedures, tests and other evaluations, in addition to monitoring, to determine whether a control measure or combination of control measures is or has been operating as intended and to establish the validity of the food safety plan.

21 CFR 117(c)(1)(i)

Examples of Verification

Common examples of verification include:

  • Reviewing cooking records to confirm the required temperature and cook time was reached

  • Reviewing refrigeration records to confirm food was held sufficiently cold

  • Observation that employees are following good food-handling practices

  • Calibrating thermometers – this verifies that they are reading properly

  • Sampling your own product for pathogens to verify that your process was faithfully performed

  • Environmental monitoring – testing your production space for pathogens living on surfaces, in drains, etc.

  • Supplier Verification – reviewing a supplier’s records to confirm they are faithful to their food safety practices and claims.

When is Verification Required?

All records which monitor a preventive control must be verified within 7 days of their creation.

All corrective action records must be reviewed within 7 days of their creation.

Other verification records, such as instrument calibration, product testing, and environmental monitoring, must be verified “within a reasonable amount of time” as determined by the producer.

Who Conducts Verification?

All verification activities must be performed by a preventive controls qualified individual (PCQI).


What You Need to Do:

  • Verify that your preventive controls are being implemented and monitored. You can do this by checking that monitoring records were completed.

  • Verify that corrective actions are taken when necessary and that the right decisions are being made in relation to any process deviations.

  • You must keep your verification records on file (digital is fine)


 
 

This Article is For You if…

∆ You are developing a food safety plan or HACCP plan.

∆ You have implemented a preventive control or have identified a hazard that requires a preventive control

∆ You take any records as part of your food safety plan


Resources

Verification Log Template

Verification Log Template

FDA Regulation on Verification

FDA Regulation on Verification


More About Food Safety Plans

More Posts


Verification vs. Validation
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What You Need to Know:

Verification means conducting a review to confirm a process was performed correctly. Verification answers the question "How do you know it actually happened?"

Example: Reviewing production records to confirm that the product was heated to the temperature dictated in the recipe.

Validation refers to the requirement that a food processor use scientifically proven methods to control a hazard. Validation answers the question "How do you know it works?"

Example: Collecting scientific research, and conducting tests to prove that the cooking temperature in the recipe is effective in killing the harmful bacteria in the product.

Why Verification and Validation are Important:

Both verification and validation are required or else food-safe outcomes may not be achieved.


Validation Without Verification...

Hand washing with soap is a valid method for removing dirt/grime from hands. However, if verification does not occur and employees do not actually wash their hands, then it doesn't matter how scientifically-proven the strategy is.

Verification Without Validation...

Hand washing without soap is not a valid method for cleaning hands. Even if a manager verifies that hand washing is occurring as required, it doesn't matter because hand washing without soap is not a valid method for cleaning hands.


Verification

Verification means the application of methods, procedures, tests and other evaluations, in addition to monitoring, to determine whether a control measure or combination of control measures is or has been operating as intended and to establish the validity of the food safety plan.

21 CFR 117(c)(1)(i)

Examples of Verification

  • Reviewing cooking records to confirm the required temperature and cook time was reached

  • Reviewing refrigeration records to confirm food was held sufficiently cold

  • Observation that employees are following good food-handling practices

  • Calibrating thermometers - this verifies that they are reading properly

  • Sampling your own product for pathogens to verify that your process was faithfully performed

  • Environmental monitoring - testing your production space for pathogens living on surfaces, in drains, etc.

  • Supplier Verification - reviewing a supplier's records to confirm they are faithful to their food safety practices and claims.

When is Verification Required?

All records which monitor a preventive control must be verified within 7 days of their creation.

All corrective action records must be reviewed within 7 days of their creation.

Other verification records, such as instrument calibration, product testing, and environmental monitoring, must be verified "within a reasonable amount of time" as determined by the producer.

Who Conducts Verification?

All verification activities must be performed by a preventive controls qualified individual.

Examples of Verification

Example of Preventive Control Verification Required? Why? Verification Example
Cooking Chicken to a temp of 165ºF as a preventive control to reduce the hazard of Salmonella Bacteria Yes The cook step is a preventive control. Therefore, the production record containing the cook temp/time must be verified A manager reads the cook log and confirms that all chicken cooked that day was cooked to 165º
Fermentation and low pH are used as a method to prevent bacterial growth in pickled cucumbers stored at room temperature Yes Low pH is a preventive control applied to stop bacteria growth. Therefore, the pH records must be verified. A manager reviews the daily production records to confirm the pH was below the required threshold in all batches. If there is a deviation, the manger verifies that the appropriate corrective action was taken.
Preservatives are used to kill harmful bacteria in chicken meat so that it can be consumed raw Yes This is a preventive control and must be verified A manager confirms that the appropriate level of preservative was used to render the product safe. Additionally, in such a high-risk scenario, it may be advisable to test the chicken for pathogens.
Chlorine sanitizer used to sanitize dishes Possibly Depending on the nature of the product, it may not be a requirement to verify that the appropriate concentration of sanitizer was used. Manager verifies a record showing that the sanitizer was tested and the chemical concentration fell into the designated range.
Items containing peanuts are stored in different-colored containers from non-peanut products No There is no requirement to verify the implementation of storage practices to mitigate an allergen concern, although it may be a good idea. A manager may inspect storage spaces occasionally to confirm that practices are being followed to avoid allergen contact.

Validation:

Validation means obtaining and evaluating scientific and technical evidence that a control measure, combination of control measures, or the food safety plan as a whole, when properly implemented, is capable of effectively controlling the identified hazards.

21 CFR 117(c)(1)(i)

When is Validation Required?

You are required to validate every preventive control you are implementing. This means that if you use cooking as a means to kill bacteria, then you need to show that the time and temperature are a valid method for killing that bacteria type. This can often be achieved by referencing FDA guidance materials.

You are not required to validate the following types of preventive controls:

  • Sanitation Preventive Controls

  • Food Allergen Controls

  • Recall Plan

Who Conducts Validation?

All validation activities must be performed by a preventive controls qualified individual.

Examples of Validation

Example of Preventive Control Verification Required? Why? Verification Example
Cooking Chicken to a temp of 165ºF as a preventive control to reduce the hazard of Salmonella Bacteria Yes The cook step is a preventive control. Therefore, the production record containing the cook temp/time must be verified A manager reads the cook log and confirms that all chicken cooked that day was cooked to 165º
Fermentation and low pH are used as a method to prevent bacterial growth in pickled cucumbers stored at room temperature Yes Low pH is a preventive control applied to stop bacteria growth. Therefore, the pH records must be verified. A manager reviews the daily production records to confirm the pH was below the required threshold in all batches. If there is a deviation, the manger verifies that the appropriate corrective action was taken.
Preservatives are used to kill harmful bacteria in chicken meat so that it can be consumed raw Yes This is a preventive control and must be verified A manager confirms that the appropriate level of preservative was used to render the product safe. Additionally, in such a high-risk scenario, it may be advisable to test the chicken for pathogens.
Chlorine sanitizer used to sanitize dishes Possibly Depending on the nature of the product, it may not be a requirement to verify that the appropriate concentration of sanitizer was used. Manager verifies a record showing that the sanitizer was tested and the chemical concentration fell into the designated range.
Items containing peanuts are stored in different-colored containers from non-peanut products No There is no requirement to verify the implementation of storage practices to mitigate an allergen concern, although it may be a good idea. A manager may inspect storage spaces occasionally to confirm that practices are being followed to avoid allergen contact.