Preventive controls training initiative gains acceptance

Response to the Food Safety Preventive Controls Alliance’s mission to promote safe food production through industry-developed educational programs has been higher than expected and from unexpected areas. The organization (FSPCA) is training people throughout the world in proper food safety practices.

When the Bedford Park, Illinois, alliance, which is a part of the Illinois Institute of Technology, began operations in 2011, it focused on building a coalition of industry partners and developing a standardized core curriculum and technical educational materials covering food safety risk reduction preventive controls. The next step, which occurred in 2016, was training lead instructors to teach the industry.

This “training of the trainers” was initially focused on the United States. After experiencing high demand from international trading partners, FSPCA expanded overseas.

Initially, the alliance hoped to train around 8,000 people as Preventive Controls Qualified Individuals, who can implement or oversee the preparation and analyses of company food safety plans and validate preventive controls. To date, it has trained 29,000; about 7,000 of those are overseas. FSPCA has trained 1,110 lead instructors, with about 180 overseas.

“The whole effort has been better than we anticipated when we began,” said Robert Brackett, vice president and director of the Institute of Food Safety and Health (IFSH), a research institution within the Illinois Institute of Technology. “We have had a lot of interest from different sectors of the industry, some of which we didn’t anticipate.”

FSPCA has conducted four times more training than anticipated.

That interest has come from small and mid-sized companies that became involved with the alliance to learn how to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), but also from other allied industry people including auditors, consultants and those not directly involved in production. Those others include people that consult with many smaller companies.

The high involvement shows how industry members are taking FSMA seriously and want to learn as much as they can about the rules. That’s a positive trend ahead of an expected sea change in complying with forthcoming FDA rules, Brackett said.

The alliance uses a cascading, pyramid-like model that utilizes trainers at the top — a knowledge-based model compared to financial pyramid schemes, he said. There’s also a considerable change in how people are educated about food safety. In the past, the industry was used to regulatory agents telling them precisely what to do.

By design, FSMA rules are more flexible and don’t offer one-size-fits-all regulatory schemes. Former canned programs may have helped somewhat, but safety personnel desiring to produce safer products need to be taught how to think for themselves, Brackett said.

“It’s much simpler, especially for companies that don’t have large technical staffs that can put those plans together,” he said. “This provides a lot more flexibility in how they can go about it and how it would allow them to grow and become much more innovative.”

The industry has been instrumental in providing practical applications and knowledge, Brackett said.

As part of the training, industry-developed food examples used in the courses are based on specific types of foods. They include simple foods like black pepper and single- component bagged lettuces to multi-component foods. The more complex foods include those containing pasta with vegetables, sauce and cheeses, and more elaborate lettuce and vegetable mixes including proteins or sauce packets. Each offers different challenges on how to prevent microbial contamination.

The training curriculum included appropriate practices and technical resources developed specifically for major food commodities and sectors. That helped empower companies including those in fresh-cut processing, said Dinesh Babu, Earthbound Farm’s senior food scientist. The fresh fruit and vegetable training modules ensure the relevancy of the curriculum and Preventive Controls Qualified Individual training materials. The alliance’s work is helpful to the industry, Babu said.

The San Juan Bautista, California-based grower and packer of fresh, frozen, dried and packaged fruits and vegetables has been involved with the alliance since the beginning. Babu said the alliance helps the industry through regularly updated targeted preventive control training materials that keep common produce safety risk factors a top concern.

The newly established standards for growing, harvesting, packing and storing produce make produce processing companies’ needs considerably different from other food manufacturers, he said. It’s critical for the industry to implement the alliance-driven preventive control program that can build safety into the processing operations of fresh- cut fruits and vegetables, Babu said.

“The course used fresh-cut, industry-specific example plans along with the standardized curriculum to provide training participants with the skills and knowledge to design, implement, document and maintain a comprehensive food safety plan for a fresh-cut processor, to ensure the safe manufacturing, processing, packing and holding of fresh food products for human consumption,” he said.

Research, people needs

Top research needs include validating some of the processes. Legacy thermal processes and allergen testing systems need validation. New technologies, including high pressure or pulse lighting, must be validated to ensure safety, Brackett said.

In the human capital arena, the alliance benefits from a broad group of individuals who bring new ideas and fresh thoughts to the table. More than 50 people are actively involved in working groups and committees, and many contribute in other ways. Committee involvement includes experts from throughout the food industry, trade associations, regulatory agencies and academia. Committees and work groups include technical assistance and resource community content development, and an international subcommittee’s work group handles training content in multiple languages.

No formal membership is required. All that is needed is to become active and engaged in the alliance’s efforts. The alliance was set up as a community whose goal is to produce a safer food supply, Brackett said.

The alliance serves as a bridge between FDA and food companies. It helps with interpretation and communication of technical elements specified by FSMA regulations, Babu said. FSPCA also serves as a network hub for a comprehensive preventive controls knowledge base.

— Doug Ohlemeier, contributing writer

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