Food Microbiology Testing in the Global Food Industry

As the global food chain grows more complex, food microbiology testing is increasing worldwide. An authoritative new market research report from Strategic Consulting details worldwide food microbiology testing.

Food microbiology testing varies extensively around the world. Diagnostic testing by food producers differs by geographic region, by the predominant organisms tested (Salmonella, Listeria, and Campylobacter, for example), and by the type of food product produced (meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables, or processed food). Technical differences in global testing practices also exist, such as the point in the food production chain at which samples are collected, and the test methods used for analysis.

The following data and charts from Food Micro, Eighth Edition: Microbiology Testing in the Global Food Industry (Food Micro—8) are drawn from in-depth interviews with quality and safety managers in food plants around the world. More than 450 food production facilities in 19 countries were surveyed, with more than 140 interviews conducted in Asia—in China, India, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. Many of the Asian surveys were conducted in face-to-face interviews in the native language, in order to provide insights into food testing practices that to date have been difficult to gather.

global food industry, food microbiology testing, food safety testing

Geographic Difference in Food Microbiology Testing

In general, microbiology test volumes are increasing globally—up 128% over the past 15 years. Pathogen testing is growing at an even faster rate, and represents an increasing percentage of total food micro testing. Fifteen years ago, pathogen testing represented 13.7% of microbiology testing, while in 2013, it will reach 23.2%.

The general increase in food microbiology testing as well as the more dramatic increase in pathogen-specific testing are not consistent across all the geographies analyzed: North America (NA), Europe (EU), Asia, or other countries of the world (ROW). In North America, pathogen testing has grown at greater than 10% for the past few years, while in Europe it has grown at half that rate.

In general, SCI research shows that these four geographic regions have different trends affecting growth in microbiology testing. These trends, combined with public perceptions within each region about food safety, influence testing in the region.

Variations by Food Segment

Microbiology testing by food segment (protein, dairy, fruit/vegetable, processed food) also varies around the globe. The protein segment, which includes beef, pork, chicken, fish and eggs, represents 27% of overall microbiology testing in the food industry, but more than 40% of total pathogen testing. The dairy segment, which includes fluid milk, cheese, and other dairy-based products, represents 23% of total testing but just 10% of pathogen testing.

As any examination of foodborne illness outbreaks demonstrates, problems can—and do—occur in all food segments. Over the past 20 years the protein segment has received the majority of publicity, and the regulations and pathogen testing levels in this segment reflect that fact. However, low levels of testing in some of the other food segments might not make sense given the increasing foodborne illness events in those segments over the past few years.

Where food samples are collected is another area of significant variation among geographic regions. Worldwide, 26% of all food microbiology samples are collected from raw materials and 25% are collected in process and in the production environment. The remaining 49% of tests are collected from end products prior to release.

Sample collection within geographic regions, particularly for pathogen tests, shows major differences. In North America, just 8% of samples for pathogen testing are collected from raw materials, while in-process/environmental sampling is much more aggressive at 44%. In contrast, in Asia just 8% of pathogen samples are collected from in-process/environmental sources, indicating that very different testing philosophies are at work.

While HACCP and other plant management strategies have been at the heart of food safety programs in North America for the past 20 years, it appears this is not yet the case in China, India, and other Asian countries interviewed. HACCP or “hazard analysis and critical control points” relies on system-wide measurement of potential food safety hazards rather than relying primarily on finished product inspection and testing to detect biological, chemical and physical contamination in food before it leaves the plant.

Ensuring Food Safety in Global Food Chain

If there were one overall conclusion about global food safety practices, it would be that microbiology testing is far from homogeneous. There are important variations by organism, by food segment, by geographic region, by where samples are collected, and by method used for analysis.

Given these inconsistencies, how do we consistently ensure safe food? The best way to start is to acknowledge and understand the variances, and use that knowledge to ensure that all inputs to the food chain are monitored through a well defined, consistent and clearly documented approach. The implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in the U.S. is a step in that direction.

Ultimately, the food industry is still responsible—and continues to be on the leading edge of important food safety practices and technologies. Certainly the majority of people around the world still rely on food producers to keep their products safe. Still, problems occur even at factories utilizing optimum food testing programs.

 

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