Let’s talk about food safety. I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t always a super engaging topic: while not getting food poisoning is pretty rad, behind the scenes is an endless sea of standardized procedures, forms, guidelines, and checklists. To spare you the gory details, I do a lot of paperwork and read a lot of technical documents written by and for nerds. That said, I’m a big nerd myself, and I actually enjoy this – but enough about me.
Broadly speaking, food safety standards can broken down into two categories: those imposed by the government and those driven by the food industry. Industry-driven standards are typically a lot more stringent than those mandated by the government, and although the Venn diagram of industry-driven and government-mandated food safety standards is moving steadily towards looking like one big circle, this is a fairly recent development. Before the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law in 2011, the last major overhaul to federal food safety laws in the US took place in 1938. In those 70+ years, the scope and scale of the food industry changed dramatically, and in response to every recall and illness that cropped up along the way, large players in the industry quietly revised their own standards to better protect consumers from hazards. After a particularly rough spate of foodborne illness outbreaks all over the world in the late 90’s, a bunch of manufacturers, distributors, and food scientists put their collective knowledge together to create a universal set of food safety standards, resulting in the establishment of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). And because there weren’t already enough acronyms in this story, the establishment of the GFSI gave way to the creation of a series of GFSI-compliant food safety management schemes, including Safe Quality Food (SQF), the standard we follow and get audited against at Portland Coffee Roasters. All of this is a long, roundabout way of saying that Portland Coffee Roasters is SQF-certified not because we have to be, but because we want to do everything within our power to keep you all safe and healthy.
The SQF Code for Food Manufacturing is a big, dense document that doesn’t make for particularly good light reading. It does, despite its dullness, present some fundamental truths: that saying you do something doesn’t mean much if you can’t back it up, that change can’t take place without everyone on board, and that a proactive approach to dealing with issues is usually better than a reactive one. That last point is the reason you see me jamming a swab into a pipe/scrubbing the floor with a sponge on a stick here:
To ensure the products we produce are safe, we have to ensure that the conditions they’re produced under are hygienic. In addition to a robust cleaning and sanitation program, we also monitor the condition of our production environment through a procedure (creatively) termed environmental monitoring. Every few weeks, I walk into our production room specifically looking for the grossest spot on the floor or the dirtiest piece of equipment I can find (a tough task – they keep everything pretty dang clean back there). Once I find it, I sample the spot with a sterile swab, pop it into a sterile bag, and send it off to a lab to see what kind of microorganisms are on it. The philosophy here is essentially that, if the dirtiest thing in the room doesn’t have any bacteria on it, the chances of there being bacteria on anything else are comparatively low. If the dirtiest thing in the room does have bacteria on it, I collect more swabs – the area around the original swab site, the second and third dirtiest thing in the room, and maybe some of the visibly really clean stuff too – to figure out how widespread the issue is. Before these samples even get sent off to the lab, we deep clean everything just to be on the safe side, then cross our fingers and wait for the next round of results. Luckily, this is all hypothetical – but we have documented escalation procedure if we ever need one! You can take comfort in knowing that we’ve considered every potential hazard in our operation, no matter how far-fetched or improbable: if it’s possible, we’ve got a plan for it.
Thanks for reading, and stay safe and caffeinated!