Blog Directory - Blogged foodliterate: April 2008

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Organically Speaking - Part 1

There has been a dramatic increase in the last few years in both the quantity of organic foods purchased and press about organic foods. The word 'organic' has many definitions:
  • of or relating to living organisms
  • constitutional in the structure of something
  • belonging to the class of chemical compounds having a carbon basis

But most people, upon being presented with this word, would define it as food grown or raised without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or hormones. There are other more specific definitions used by the agencies that regulate the use of the word 'organic' on labels. In the US that agency is the USDA - so how do they define 'organic'? Well, "100% Organic" must contain only organically produced ingredients, "Organic" must contain 95% organically produced ingredients, and "Made with Organic Ingredients" must contain 70% organically produced ingredients. The salt & water used in these products is excluded from the quantities and only the first two designations may use the USDA Organic seal.

But what does the USDA mean by organically produced? Organically grown means a product was not grown or processed using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. That does not mean that naturally derived fertilizer and/or pesticides are not used - they are. The kicker is that neither the USDA nor FDA (or most of the farmers for that matter) test for organic pesticides. Some of the commonly used ones are:

  • Rotenone - insecticide extracted from the root of a tropical plant; it is a nerve toxin that is also used to kill mites on chickens and kill fish
  • Deguelin - a derivative of rotenone & naturally occurring insecticide; high doses are suspected of having negative effects on the heart, lungs, and nerves of humans
  • Pyrethrum/Pyrethrin - fungicide and likely human carcinogen derived from chrysanthemums
  • Azadirachtin - insecticide extracted from the seeds of the Neem tree that acts as an anti-feedant and growth inhibitor
  • Myristicin - a naturally occurring insecticide present in nutmeg oil; has possible neurotoxic effects on dopaminergic neurons

The Consumer's Union reported that 25% of organic fruits and veggies carried detectable levels of pesticides and 1/3 of that 25% had levels higher than conventional products. And organic products make up about 8% of the confirmed E.coli cases in the US, but are only 1% of the diet. Lesson here? Just because something is labeled organic doesn't mean it doesn't contain things you may not want to ingest. So whether you buy conventional or organic, give that food a good washing!

I've only scratched the surface of this topic, there's so much more to the organic world. So I will be "organically speaking" for a little while!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Random Thoughts: Grocery Store Layouts

Do you ever think about how your grocery store is laid out? I'm guessing you only notice when they move aisles on you. Did you ever wonder what the method to their madness was - or even if they had one?

Most stores have similar plans with produce, meat, bread, and dairy along the edges of the store (aka - the racetrack) or up against the walls. They also put the most commonly purchased items in the back corners so that you have to walk past the other items on your way to get what you want.

Unless pressed for time, most shoppers will follow the store's orientation; most new or newly remodeled stores are set up to the left, while older stores tend to be oriented to the right. The majority of the US population prefers to travel clock-wise, which is why the newer stores orient to the left with the produce section with its bright colors, fresh appearance, and appetizing odors.

There is an extremely low occurrence of people traveling up and down each aisle of the store. Most people will travel to select aisles or make a short excursion in to and out of an aisle. This is why end-caps are so important to stores. They serve as a 'welcome mat' to invite you to come in to the aisle and see what else is there. Often familiar brands or sale items are placed on the end-caps to increase traffic to particular parts of the store, even if those items are found in a different part of the store.

Believe it or not, quite a bit of research is conducted concerning shoppers behavior and how stores can redirect it to their benefit. If you have some spare time and this topic catches your fancy - here is a research paper on this very topic. So what are the keys to successfully navigating your store? Always go to the store with a list of items you are there to buy and never on an empty stomach - the stores are banking on impulse buys. They put the commissary (cooked, ready-to-eat items) and Starbucks there to entice you with appetizing sights and smells - its been proven to make you stay longer and spend more. And shop the edges of the store, you will save on your food bill and find some of the healthiest items in the store.

Happy shopping!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

GMPs and SSOPs

The government monitors the food supply and tells the food manufacturers what can be added (both intentional & unintentional) safely to food, but it is the responsibility of individual food manufacturers to produce safe food. The purpose of both government and self regulation is to reduce risk. I'm defining risk here to mean uncertainty, possible danger or loss; it is a way to judge the degree of hazard. What is important when looking at food safety is the magnitude of loss due to an event and how probable is its occurrence. We can't eliminate all risk but we can reduce and/or control it; risk-benefit decisions are made all the time. HACCP, the topic of last week's post, is one way to reduce risk, but there are other processes as well.

Two of the other programs food manufacturers have in place to assure food safety are current Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and Standard Sanitation Operating Procedures (SSOPs). They are considered pre-requisite programs for HACCP but are independent systems. If you are under mandatory HACCP then you are also under mandatory SSOP regulations. GMPs apply to all FDA regulated foods (since all USDA items are subject to HACCP, their GMPs are kind of intertwined in 9 CFR 416 - Sanitation Regulations). These three programs are all closely aligned and interrelated in most production facilities.

GMPs are outlined in 21 CFR 110 (the 21st title of the Code of Federal Regulations part 110). And it outlines what food companies 'shall' (must) and should have in place concerning a broad range of items including personnel, the facility, sanitation, equipment, processes and warehousing. GMPs originated in 1969 as part of the Federal Food, Drug, & Cosmetic Act and were modified in 1977 where they became section 110 of CFR title 21. They were revised in 1986 and were recently (2002) reviewed for another round of changes due to the availability of new tests and discovery of new issues. The review is specifically targeting risk-based preventative controls like those for allergens and pathogens. Although the report's findings were published in the Federal Register in 2005, none of the recommended changes have yet taken effect. This doesn't mean no one is doing anything about preventing new issues like allergens or pathogens, quite the contrary; the government is always behind the industry in these matters. They reviewed the statutes because they saw what changes the industry was making and wanted the CFR to reflect what was happening.

SSOPs are spelled out for USDA regulated companies, but not for FDA ones. They are essentially written procedures specific to a process that addresses things such as cleanliness, record-keeping, safety of the water & chemicals used, prevention of cross-contamination, etc. And like HACCP, the actual process of designing a SSOP program is very detailed and not especially exciting reading. For those so inclined, I offer you this link where you can find all the details of designing your own SSOP program. And like HACCP, the program must be tested & verified and if some part of the system fails, corrective action must be conducted to prevent the re-occurrence of the issue. Even companies for whom SSOPs are not mandatory, have programs in place - primarily because they also have non-mandatory HACCP programs in place and those programs need each other to be successful.

I hope this gives you either a new respect for the lengths companies go to provide you with safe food products or at least a new comfort level with the industry. I always tell my friends and family that we eat the same products as they, so food safety is in everyone's best interest! As I've stated before, this blog is for you to find out more about the foods you eat, the processes involved in their manufacture, or any other topic you've been wondering about. Send me an email with your topic and I shall respond.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Has What?

Last week I talked about food recalls and promised I'd explain some of the things food manufacturers do to protect the food supply. One of those things is call HACCP (pronounced hās•sip). HACCP is an acronym for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points and it is a food safety management system used by almost every part of the food industry.

HACCP was developed in the 1960s by the Pillsbury Company while they were working with NASA to make sure the food for space flights would be safe. It was later adopted in 1973 by the USDA for low-acid canned foods and the FDA jumped on the bandwagon in 1995 for seafood products. Over the years mandatory compliance of HACCP has spread to meat and poultry products, eggs, and juices. Although not mandatory for the rest of the industry (yet), most food companies voluntarily comply and have instituted HACCP programs for their businesses.

How does HACCP make food safer? Well, it is a preventative food safety system which companies use to identify where problems are most likely to occur and use that information to control and monitor those places to prevent issues. It is not a zero-risk system but it does try to reduce the possibility of a problem occurring. The process for creating a HACCP plan is time consuming and complicated, so I'll just give you an overview.

A manufacturer reviews their processes from receipt of the raw materials all the way to shipping the finished products. By going through a series of decision trees, process control points (PCPs), quality control points (QCPs) and critical control points (CCPs) are identified. The CCPs are clearly the most important of the three and are analyzed (hence the name) to determine how to control them, monitor them & verify that the process is working. How is control defined? Regulations state control means that companies "take all necessary actions to ensure and maintain compliance with the criteria established in the HACCP plan." Which essentially means that you test, evaluate, modify (if necessary) and validate your plan in a continuous process. If something fails, a corrective action plan is in place and gets implemented so that the issue does not re-occur.

What hazards are we trying to control? Those that cause foodbourne illness, disease or injury which are separated into 3 categories: biological, chemical and physical hazards. Biological hazards are those like bacteria, viruses, pathogens & their toxins, chemical hazards include pesticides, antibiotics, fertilizers, aflotoxins, or cleaning chemicals and physical hazards are those like glass, wood, metal, bone, or pits. Considering there are only three categories of hazards, they are pretty all-inclusive.

This isn't the most glamorous of topics I realize, but the safety of our food supply is important and I feel it is important that the consumers of those products have some awareness of what the industry does to protect them. For those who want to know more about the details of HACCP, follow this link. There are other aspects of food safety that are done concurrent with HACCP plans and I'll be talking about those next week.