A software tool is being developed to help people use risk-based microbiological criteria and case-by-case checking in food safety.
The National Food Institute of Denmark hopes it will help interested parties, such as industrial and governmental food safety managers.
Microbiological criteria (MCs) define what levels of bacteria are acceptable in food products and offer a tool for control.
“Risk based” means that the standards are associated with the number of people expected to get ill from these levels of bacteria.
The tool comes after a study which compared the effect of setting an MC with the “case by case” risk assessment approach applied in Denmark.
The advantage of MC is that it applies the well-known terminology and methods and is probably easiest to communicate, but the advantage of case-by-case is that it requires less parameters to define the criterion and that the uncertainty is probably smaller, said the researchers.
Online tool development
Jens Kirk Andersen, from the National Food Institute, said the first version of the online tool has been tested.
“We are working on it further to make it user-friendly and we hope it will be available in the first half of 2014,” he told FoodQualityNews.com.
“You type in results from a quantitative analysis and type in the information on a representative baseline and then calculate results that give you the resulting risk compared to the baseline used.”
The researchers studied the potential for setting risk based microbiological criteria on Campylobacter in chicken meat through the impact that specific microbiological criteria would have in different Nordic countries.
As an alternative approach for risk based microbiological criteria, the “case-by-case” risk assessment methodology was used, based on data sets collected and 2008 EU baseline survey figures.
The study confirmed that the risk of campylobacteriosis from broiler meat produced in the Nordic countries is low compared to most other European countries.
Microbial criteria are based around how many samples to collect and the level of microorganisms deemed acceptable.
There is an “m” with the contamination figure you want to achieve (such as 100 cfu/g) and an “m” with the highest one that is acceptable (such as 1000 cfu/g), explained Andersen.
The "c" value is how many samples you will accept to be between the two parameters, before you take action which could be heat treatment, withdrawal and product recalls.
Practical and possible
Microbiological criteria are often set from a decision on what is practical and possible, to improve food hygiene and safety without putting too heavy a burden on industry. But the effect on public health of using the criterion is not known.
Risk based microbiological criteria are relating the level of microorganisms to a level of risk, and the decision can be based on the expected public health risk, said Andersen.
“Also for the risk based microbiological criteria, the risk managers need to consider the practicalities of setting the acceptable level of risk: We need to eat, and there is a limit to the amount of batches of a food that can be removed from the market or redirected for heat treatment,” he said.
“But by applying the risk based approach it is possible to remove the most risky batches and find the optimal balance between public health risk and societal costs.”
Campylobacter in broiler meat was chosen for its significance for public health, because the prevalence is high so that quantitative results may be achieved even if limited number of samples are collected and tested, and because a risk assessment model is available.
In the future, the same approach can be applied to other pathogens and food products, for example for Salmonella on pork.
Andersen said the case-by-case risk assessment is less straightforward for Salmonella because of differences in the pathogenicity of different strains and antibiotic resistance pattern.
“Establishment of Risk based microbiological criteria in the Nordic countries: A case study on Campylobacter in broiler meat”
Authors: Maarten Nauta, Roland Lindqvist, Franklin Georgsson, Helga Hogåsen, Sebastian Hielm, Pirkko Tuominen, Jukka Ranta, Hanne Rosenquist, Jens Kirk Andersen