Discussing food borne illness and the resulting sicknesses is never the most fun thing to do, but that doesn't mean it’s still not important! Below we've outlined a few clues (with references to Sherlock Holmes) that may indicate the food you are producing, distributing, or eating has been contaminated by bacteria, pesticides, undeclared allergens, or foreign substances.
Your data logger or chart recorder is a clue machine!
Your data logger or chart recorder can be a simple tool to help determine if bacteria may have multiplied to unsafe levels in the food you are producing, storing, or eating. Many, many foods need to be refrigerated or frozen before cooking or eating these days, and if they aren't, or if they enter the Bacteria Danger Zone (40F to 140F), salmonella (or worse) can multiply within the food. Data loggers (and to a less extent, chart recorders) help provide documentation to show auditors, and they can also help you pinpoint where potential contamination may have spread. Temperature logs, alarms, and logging events need to be thoroughly reviewed for batches of product thought to be contaminated.
Animals, and animal waste are a speckled band.
If you find remains of animals, or the animals themselves, in or around your product, it’s time to do some investigating. Animal waste is bad news for food producers. When or if you see animals (that means bugs too!) in your facility, you need to address the issue immediately. Be sure to stop any processes that may have come into contact with those animals. Catching it early will help you avoid the dreaded ”food recall.
Missing documentation: your purloined letter.
Validate, Verify, Document. These three pillars of Quality Assurance excellence hold true for most industries, and the food industry is no exception. Lack of documentation for any given process (production, storage, distribution) is an invitation for a contamination check. When a process isn't documented, you can’t be 100% sure that something didn't go wrong, and thus it’s an early warning sign your food could be contaminated. And yes, "The Purloined Letter" is not Holmes, but it's still a detective story!
Look, smell, touch, taste, samples: Even Sherlock Holmes used forensic science.
While many types of food contamination cannot be physically seen, some can. Spoiled milk in your refrigerator, nuts (allergen) in your ice cream, and shards of metal in your broccoli don’t have to be found via the indirect methods of investigation outlined above. Looking, smelling, touching, and tasting (but maybe not swallowing) can directly alert you to the quality of your food. Taking regular samples, analyzing those samples, and then reporting on those samples is an easy but incredibly effective way to not show up on the FDA’s website. How do you take samples? That depends on your application. X-Ray Machines, High Speed imaging devices, or chemical analysis may work for some, but not others. The key is to know your product, how often to take samples, and then the most efficient (but safest) way to take and analyze those samples.