Safe Food on the Table Starts With Early Contamination Mitigation

A farm field planted with different crops. Growing capsicum peppers, leeks and eggplants. Agriculture, farmland. Growing organic vegetables on open ground. Food production. Agroindustry agribusiness.

By Larry Clarke, CEO of NanoGuard Technologies

Figuring out your mistakes before you go to market is a big deal. This is especially true in the food and feed industries. By mitigating cross-contamination and the spread of harmful pathogens, the food and feed industry can produce a better result for the farmer and for the consumer. Consumers want to trust the food that they get from their local grocer, while the farmer and the supplier want to have a loyal clientele.

But the food supply chain is chaotic. Products move around freely, inviting all sorts of potential problems. Without detection and early mitigation, cross-contamination can drastically affect the product, rendering it unusable to suppliers and consumers alike. Once products that are contaminated move to production, they are placed in the same processing equipment as other foods. If contaminated, they will effectively contaminate everything else.

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Early mitigation starts with the farmer. They are incentivized to produce and offer clean foods because the reputation of their distributors will directly impact their bottom line. This is true for everyone in the supply chain. But when discussing early mitigation, the best place to start is the source.

The benefits of early mitigation

To be sure, getting ahead of possible contamination issues is simply good business. People rightfully want their food to be clean and safe. Trust is everything. When someone has a bad experience with a food product, they are unlikely to go back to it. By detecting contaminants early and decontaminating or removing them from the supply chain, you can ensure that other food in the supply chain is clean as well.

Early mitigation is good for the environment. By catching contamination early, food waste can be minimized. When you think about mitigation, ultimately you are thinking about sustainability. Less waste equals less methane escaping landfills. Reduced waste is also good for revenue. When you can mitigate the amount of food waste that is produced, everyone in the supply chain gets a bigger payday. Less waste equals more money.

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The earlier you can catch contamination or pathogens, the less likely that the rest of the supply chain is affected. And the less the supply chain is affected, the more ROI farmers and suppliers will see with their food. Or, as the Food and Drug Administration said in 2012: “If every pathogen included in FDA-regulated foods could be eradicated, the food industry would save $6.32 billion annually.”

Yes, you read that right: $6.32 billion. One pathogen can ruin a whole supply chain. Early mitigation means you can find single links that need to be removed, as one single link can act as a multiplier across a supply chain. The more contamination exists, the more it multiplies, which means that food waste is multiplied as well.

This is especially true in the United States, where we have high expectations and strict government standards for our food. Under the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, companies face even more scrutiny, especially if they have had issues in the past. After all, an adage in the food safety industry is “the more you look, the more you’ll find.”

Early mitigation leads to fewer recalls. This is a good thing, considering how expensive recalls can be. It is estimated that the cost of a safety recall in the food industry averages out to $10 million. The ripple effects can spread even farther than that because if consumers get sick from contaminated food, they are likely to shun that brand moving forward.

Best practices for early mitigation

The reality is that contamination will happen. By catching it early, however, you can maintain the value of your product.

The best way to achieve early mitigation is through the sharing of knowledge. Save for a few huge brands, knowledge-sharing is commonplace in the food industry. It’s a good thing. If one company has an issue, it typically spills over to the rest of the industry. Sharing that information is critical.

To prevent contamination in the first place, you need to start right at the beginning when the crops are planted. Plenty of things can go wrong in the growing stage, so it is imperative that farmers use best growing practices for their crops. A common example: water shortages can cause kernels to crack, which can allow mold to infiltrate the seed and possibly end up contaminating a whole supply chain. Or, if it is exceptionally wet and warm, fungi can sprout and become hard to control. Because of these factors, proper water techniques have turned out to be one of the biggest keys to early mitigation.

Another crucial element of early mitigation is storage. Farmers should be aware of the spaces where they are storing their crops, as certain environments invite mold and fungi. Not only does this contaminate the crop, but it also reduces the weight of the crop, meaning lower ROI for everyone involved.

Farmers do incredible work and have a lot on their plates, and it’s up to the food industry to support them with the goal of early mitigation. There are factors that farmers simply can’t control. Even if a farmer notices a defect in their crop, they might not know how to best deal with it. This is where the rest of the industry comes in, helping to find mitigation strategies for everyone in the supply chain to employ. The better the crop, the better the result for everyone in the chain.

The field is not the only place to pay attention to possible contamination, however. It’s crucial to test products at each stage of the supply chain. Just because grain leaves the farm clean doesn’t mean it can’t get contaminated elsewhere along the way; dilution being the solution is out-of-date thinking. Thorough and frequent testing can reveal where contamination occurs to the great benefit of the supply chain later.

How can advanced technology help?

Through the use of genome sequencing, scientists have been able to figure out which bacteria make people the most ill. This sequencing, known as whole genome sequencing, can also provide answers as to why certain bacteria are more or less resistant to antibiotics. In being able to find this information, scientists can find trends in outbreaks and illnesses. In finding those trends, scientists can then get a better idea of what is contaminating food and where the contaminant originated from.

Elsewhere, artificial intelligence and blockchains are being used to track food right from its source. This is great for a couple of reasons: these technologies help products get to market that much sooner (which is a huge plus), but more importantly, they allow us to monitor and track contaminated food. That is huge for early detection and mitigation, and it means a safer end product for the consumer. These advancements are also great for everyone’s bottom line because they help to eliminate food waste.

There are even new technologies to help kill contaminants in food that are actively contaminated, such as a cold plasma technology that will kill pathogenic microorganisms on food or feed without affecting the quality of the product.

And the prices of these technologies are coming down. That means that even more businesses can now take advantage, making our food that much safer. Advanced technologies have proven their worth when it comes to ROI, but smaller companies are often priced out of these game-changing capabilities. We need these technologies to be accessible to as many suppliers as possible and implemented without major cost or change to the supply chain.

Making sure that the leaders of the food industry, and everyone else down through the supply chain, are educated on how to enhance food safety means that we can be in the driver’s seat of the evolution of improving the quality of our food and feed. By being proactive, we can have safer food and fewer recalls. As a result, consumers are more confident in the product, and everyone in the supply chain benefits.

Larry Clarke is the CEO of NanoGuard Technologies, a company that prevents food and feed waste and improves food safety by eradicating harmful pathogens and mycotoxins through its Airilization technology. He brings more than 30 years of experience in agribusiness, including global business management, trading, and international assignments.