At present, bakers must implement their own safeguards by having programs in place that protect the quality and safety of their products and facilities.
When it comes to safety, bakers institute their own internal checks and balances. But, many advocate for an industry standard.
The New York Times featured a story on March 16, 2009 that explored standardization practices, in response to the recent salmonella outbreak from peanut butter produced by a Peanut Corporation of America plant in southwest Georgia. The job of monitoring food plants to ensure food safety, the article revealed, largely rests on bakeries themselves.
Commercial bakeries commonly rely on third-party audits, such as those conducted by AIB International, Manhattan, Kan. But bakers may follow other standards and practices as well, usually good manufacturing practices (GMPs), says Mark Jarvis, C.E.O., Steritech Food Safety, Charlotte, N.C.
GMPs call for the documentation of every aspect of the manufacturing process. If the documentation showing how the product was made and tested isn't in order, then the product does not meet the required specification and is considered adulterated.
Bakers or the customers they supply often request third-party audits to demonstrate they meet their essentially self-imposed practices and standards, Jarvis says.
Food companies also increasingly require their suppliers to undergo audits as a way to ensure safety and minimize liability, says Alana Elliott, founder and president, Nonuttin' Foods Inc., Vancouver Island, Canada. But these audits aren't standardized to a particular set of regulations that govern the entire baking industry, Jarvis says. “It's very confusing, with no one audit the same as the next,” he adds.
The lack of uniform standards coupled with growing food safety concerns have meant that many U.S. manufacturers of late have called for what Jarvis termed a harmonizing of disparate standards into one globally accepted benchmark manufacturing standard.
The Safe Quality Food (SQF) standard may be the answer, Jarvis says. The international standard, managed by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), is a HACCP-based food safety and quality risk management system. While HACCP is a food safety program, SQF is designed to manage both food safety and quality.
The SQF program is divided into three levels, the first of which is food safety fundamentals and GMPs. The second level is a HACCP food safety plan, where food safety hazards and critical control points are identified and their monitoring methods and corrective actions are established. The third level comprises food safety and quality management; here, auditors assess food safety and product quality risks, according to the FMI.
Steritech sees many bakers looking to implement under this standard as more retailers — notably Wal-Mart — require their suppliers certify their food management systems against the SQF standard requirements, Jarvis notes. “The SQF standard holds wholesale bakers to a much higher standard than they're used to,” Jarvis adds, whose company audits against that standard.
“This is like taking good manufacturing practices and ramping them up to a different level to require a higher level of compliance around food safety and quality practices,” Jarvis says. “It's going to require effort on the bakers' part to get quality assurance programs in line with these new standards.”
In Canada, the search for a standardization system is much the same, notes Elliott. Because the Canadian government doesn't mandate a particular standard or requirement wholesale bakers have to meet, bakeries hold themselves to the same patchwork of standards and regulations as their U.S. counterparts.
Like the U.S., Canada has recently experienced recalls from contaminated food that made it into the supply chain. Last summer, Canada saw a deadly outbreak of listeriosis linked to meat products produced in a Toronto plant.
“I think the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is scrambling to try to come up with more specifications,” Elliott says. “So far there are a lot of suggestions — like good manufacturing practices — but when it comes to specifics, unless we're certified by an outside body like AIB, we're creating our own protocols.”
One significant problem Elliott and bakeries like hers face is the lack of regulations and standards for those supplying the growing market for allergen-free or gluten-free bakery products. This particular gap in regulation is frustrating to bakers like Elliott who seek ways to assure retailers and consumers their products truly are free from particular ingredients, such as peanuts and dairy products, as well as substances like gluten.
These bakeries seek a method by which they can be assured their suppliers also meet mandatory standards “free-from regulations” governing special dietary needs and allergen-free products. “We service people with life threatening food allergies. How do you deal with that if there are no regulations?” Elliott asks. She founded Nonuttin' Foods five years ago after her child was diagnosed with food allergies and she had a hard time finding appropriate snacks. Today, her company makes peanut-free, nut-free, dairy-free, egg-free granola bars suitable for gluten-free diets.
At start up, Elliott cast around for “free-from” regulations her company could follow to assure customers the products wouldn't contain allergens and were gluten-free. She found no such regulations. In response, Elliott has cobbled together her own systems that — taken together — reassure both her customers and Elliott herself the product is truly free from unwanted ingredients.
Bakers who start companies in the “free-from” industry must take it upon themselves to acquire the knowledge and understanding of what's permissible and what is not, Elliott notes. In doing so, they become responsible for the food safety of their own products and facilities. Ahead of each shipment of raw materials sold to Nonuttin', suppliers email a certificate of analysis (COA) for specifications, such as moisture content, texture, enzyme activity and e. coli levels, for that particular shipment. Before Elliott signs on with a supplier, she requests a formal statement verifying the supplier doesn't use banned products in its facilities or on its lines and that it doesn't source products from companies that contain the allergens or non-tolerated foods.
The COA and the supplier statement can reassure bakers, but they're not ironclad guarantees, Elliott notes. “You need to ask for those things and vet your ingredients, but you also have to rely on honesty and integrity of suppliers,” she adds. “In the case of salmonella, like in the peanut butter case, a certificate of analysis wouldn't mention positive results. You're relying on the entire food chain down to the farmer. You can control what you can, but it doesn't always work, as has been demonstrated.”
She performs allergen testing on incoming ingredients, both internally and externally, by sending samples to outside labs. She also tests her own product at various stages; again via internal tests and external laboratory analysis. Internal testing has become easier in the five years Elliott has been in business, thanks to the advent of simpler and cheaper testing methods, she notes.
To further safeguard her company, Elliott never buys used equipment. This safeguards against allergens and non-tolerated substances that may have been used by its previous owners. She also regularly swabs equipment and other surfaces and sends swabs to a few laboratories that test for salmonella and e. coli.
The FullBloom Baking Co. Inc., Newark, Calif., also has a number of self-imposed regulations in place, including a policy against bringing glass items into the production facility, a daily equipment wash down, and the regularly scheduled thorough cleaning of equipment, says Fuqui Liu, the bakery's quality assurance director.
In addition, all workers must go through a sanitation room before entering the plant, she says. Workers must wash and sanitize their hands in the room, and their shoes are automatically cleaned as well.
“If you don't go through the wash station, you can't get into the plant — it's controlled by a turnstile — so everyone is forced to wash their hands,” Liu says.
Like Nonuttin', FullBloom's multi-pronged approach to safety assures executives and managers its products will meet any baking standards and regulations. Bakers should always reevaluate testing and look at adding to or changing safety precautions as needs arise, Jarvis says.
After all, assuring food is as safe as possible at individual wholesale bakeries is a journey, not a final destination, he reminds bakers.