Tragedies involving foodborne illnesses have a way of galvanizing the industry. For the frozen foods segment, the Sara Lee Listeria event of 1998 was just such a watershed event.
Listeria outbreaks involving cheese were documented as early as 1985, but DNA footprinting of pathogenic strains was just maturing in the late '90s, giving epidemiological experts the ability to identify with certainty the source of food poisonings.
That tool helped public health officials link listeriosis cases that sickened 101 and killed 15 adults and six fetuses to Sara Lee’s Bil-Mar hot dog and deli meat plant in Zeeland, Mich. Post-crisis forensics pointed to an evaporator in a freezer as the culprit. When the evaporator was dismantled, components were dragged through the plant, spreading the deadly bacteria into processing areas where it could colonize on post-pasteurized product.
The tragedy triggered a series of Listeria-related recalls involving tens of millions of pounds of ready-to-eat meats. More significantly, it forced industry to adopt tougher product-hold policies and testing protocols and to reconsider the adequacy of sanitation practices that previously were considered strong enough in combating the invisible threat to justify longer product shelf lives. It also set the stage for sanitary designs of equipment that began with refrigeration equipment and continues today.
Premium Brands Holding knows something about Listeria, having incurred $1.1 million in lost sales and recall costs in 2008 in a false alarm involving its packaged sandwiches. That awareness is reflected in the construction of a $21.6 million frozen sandwich facility, which came on line in Columbus, Ohio, in late August 2014. The plant is operated by SK Food Group, a Seattle-based maker of breakfast sandwiches and wraps, according to Premium Brands, which acquired SK Food four years ago.
SK Foods built a 150,000-sq.-ft. sandwich assembly plant in Reno, Nev., in 2007, but every new facility is an opportunity for processors to up their game. “It was state of the art,” Steve Sposari, SK’s president and CEO, says of the USDA-inspected Reno plant. “In Columbus, equipment, QA procedures and sanitation practices have been taken to another level.” He was anticipating SQF Level 3 certification by the end of 2014.
“We’re a high-volume producer,” Sposari relates, and the company worked closely with its packaging supplier to boost efficiency and throughput to support the facility’s 18 production lines. Demonstrating continuous improvement in sanitary practices builds confidence in retail private-label customers and supports sales growth. “If our customers care enough to view the facility, we usually win the business,” he says.
Whether or not those customers have the expertise to critically judge a facility’s design is another matter. Curbing and controlling microscopic dangers is an evolving science, and some manufacturers are concluding that mainstream thinking is sometimes inadequate.
The American Meat Institute updated its 10 principles of sanitary design in 2014, leaving intact No. 5, which stipulates that hollow tubing used in frames and other areas is acceptable if it is hermetically sealed with sanitary welds. But at least one major meat company has concluded that microscopic cracks occur over time in hollow tubing, allowing water to enter and creating a breeding ground for bacteria, according to Darrin McCormies, senior vice president with Epstein Architectural/Engineering & Construction, Chicago.
It’s a danger the company will have to live with until it’s time to replace those frames, and it underscores the gaps in understanding. “We live, we experience things, and we make improvements,” McCormies summarizes.
Moment of truth
Both McCormies and Don Stroud, senior refrigeration engineer with Jacksonville, Fla.-based Stellar Inc., point to Bil-Mar as a watershed moment in frozen and refrigerated food production. Before then, Listeria “wasn’t on our radar screen,” McCormies admits. Today, “temperature control is a big issue,” with processors taking “a holistic approach” to managing the environment.
The raw/cooked segregation of product, personnel and equipment that now is common began in the wake of Bil-Mar. Evaporators now are built with hinged panels and fan covers that provide access for cleaning, and drip pans now are pitched to prevent standing water and are made with polished welds instead of seams.
UV lamps might be incorporated in air-handling units to keep coils clean, though that’s not common, allows Stroud, a former engineer with Oscar Mayer.
Resources are limited, and some approaches once considered best practices have been deemed overkill by some. HEPA filtration of outside air was popular early this century, but the pathogens of concern are not airborne, Stroud points out. Consequently, many processors have reverted to 95 percent particle filtration instead, freeing capital for food defenses that are more effective.
For example, metal corrosion poses a bigger threat than airborne bacteria, so stainless steel components and coatings on insulated refrigeration pipes are more likely to lower the risk profile than HEPA filters. Stroud cites the reactive gel developed for the U.S. Navy for mission-critical equipment as a corrosion-defense tactic that “has gained traction” in recent years. Gel manufacturer Polyguard refers to food and beverage processors as its second set of customers, after the navy.
The movement of people and equipment is more restricted in today’s refrigerated food environments, adds McCormies. Enforcement of clothing and personal protective equipment rules is much more rigorous. Protocols that would have been considered over the top in years past now are routine.
Heightened attention to food safety and microscopic threats hasn’t done much for frozen food sales. The category shrank 4 percent from 2008-2013, according to Mintel Group Ltd., and the market research firm forecasts another 5 percent decline by 2018.
“Refrigerated meals and side dishes improved their respective sales,” according to a Mintel report, but “not enough to offset sharp declines within the much larger frozen single-serve and multi-serve meal segments.”
Refrigerated entrees enjoy a quality perception over frozen, concedes Raminder Bindra, president and chief innovator at Strategic Fusions, but his product development team opted for the frozen format for Seven Spoons, a line of skillet meals introduced in 2013.
The line of ethnic dishes from India, Thailand, Morocco and Peru plays to the healthier eating trend. “Freezing is the best preservation method,” Bindra believes, and the frozen format delivers both good taste retention and 12 months of shelf life.
A chicken-or-egg conundrum is retarding a frozen-retail revival, he suggests. Three manufacturers dominate the category, and while those firms are spending heavily to rehabilitate frozen foods’ image, they are disinclined to address the lack of product innovation that often is blamed for the category’s ills. Innovation percolates upwards from companies like Bindra’s, but those organizations can’t get into the frozen locker.
“All the retailers say they need innovation, but nobody gives you a break,” grouses Bindra, a onetime marketer at Coca-Cola and Campbell Soup who relies on a network of copackers to produce Seven Spoons. Retailers get 40 percent margins and promotional support from their major suppliers, freezing out new concepts. “The supply chain is very bloated, and distribution cost has gone up significantly,” he says.
Fresh concepts may be frozen’s best bet to keep the department from turning into a dead zone. Entrepreneurs like Bindra may fret about the challenges to getting into the freezer case, but at least they’re confident in their manufacturing partners’ ability to deliver products free from invisible dangers.