INSIDE THE PACKING HOUSE

EarthFresh built a new potato handling facility a year ago in Burlington, Ontario. New technologies protect workers from injury and food from tampering. Six new processing lines sourced from Weening Brothers Manufacturing have improved productivity. Worker Anthony Griffin keeps an eye on the fast-moving line. Photos by Glenn Lowson.
Food safety coordinator Colleen Wilcox takes a moment with workers on the potato grading line at EarthFresh, Burlington, Ontario.
Quality control technician Amir Mazidi regularly records temperatures in potato totes with a sensor. The acceptable range is between 40° and 50°F. If potatoes are too cold, they will suffer damage on the mechanical packing lines.
This one-year-old facility incorporates the latest in technology including six metal detectors. One more unit will arrive in 2016.
This semi-automatic vacuum palletizer was custom-made to swing in a six-foot radius with two working arms.” Robots are too expensive,” says EarthFresh’s plant manager Ashour Albazi,“so we designed a prototype based on the auto industry, but tested the head only.”  The size of the head is designed to pick up potato bags with capacity of 50 to 100 pounds. For a cost of $15,000, this is a good solution for slow output lines allowing a worker to move four masters per minute.

Making high grades in potato food safety 

Not everyone gets to start from scratch. A year ago, EarthFresh was fortunate in moving into a 60,000-square foot facility in Burlington, Ontario, leaving behind an outdated plant on the outskirts of Toronto. 

“This is the right size for today,” says Tom Hughes, president of EarthFresh. “It took years of planning from 2009 to 2015.”

The company hails back to 1963 when Tom’s father and David MacKay started the business under MacKay and Hughes. It’s evolved over the years – with both name and ownership changes -- until the present location in an industrial park. One thing hasn’t changed:  a legacy of food safety culture.

Hughes attributes this sensibility to the fact that the business has packed produce for Green Giant since 1998.  Green Giant’s exacting standards has kept EarthFresh ahead of other competitors. Some of the farmers who contract to EarthFresh were the first to be on the CanadaGAP food safety program. The plant itself subscribes to the Primus GFS program.

“Food security will be more important as we go forward,” says Hughes. “Preventing nails in our system is just the start.”

To that point, the new plant design accommodates six metal detectors on each of the packing lines.  This is more than a peace-of-mind investment, says Hughes, pointing out that the P.E.I. potato tamperings are still unsolved after more than a year.  

“This investment reflects that we live in a different world,” says Hughes. “We have to make sure that anyone who wants to do harm can’t do it in our facility.”

The metal detectors are just one part of a mindset that protects food safety. Anyone arriving at the warehouse must check in with the receptionist. The new plant was built so that truck drivers have access to a lounge only and are physically barred from entering the floor premises. Off-site human resources consultants vet any new employees, checking backgrounds and references.   Once hired, employees take health and food safety training. 

“Everyone has a role in food safety,” says Colleen Wilcox, food safety coordinator. Her own job starts with contracted farmers and extends to co-packers all over Canada where she regularly conducts audits. If she spots a worker chewing gum, she knows that more is required than asking for the gum to be removed.  It’s a case of going to the root problem and sending employees for a refresher training course.

Sanitation programs are one of the most important elements. It’s easier, perhaps, in a new building, but that doesn’t preclude that the city water must be tested every day and that equipment must be sanitized every day, all with appropriate records being maintained.

A recall team is in force in case of a mishap.  Every department has its assigned person with a backup, and cell phones on hand for around-the-clock coverage. 

Sustainability of a processing operation that uses a lot of water is a key next step. EarthFresh has identified a working group to integrate best management practices without an impact on quality or safety.

“Food safety programs make you a better manager,” says Hughes. “The hard work is worth it. We’re proud to bring our clients to see the plant.”

In the next decade, Hughes forecasts greater harmonization of food safety programs across North America: “The rules may be tougher, but we’ll be better.” 

Sidebar: The history -- and future -- of food safety

Every grower knows there is a roving pack of pathogens ready to contaminate produce. They are all deadly, but which one is the most frequent? Listeria monocytogenes, norovirus, E. coli 0157, Cyclospora, Clostridium perfringens and Salmonella have all been in the news. The answer is Salmonella.

In a recent government report, “An overview of foodborne outbreaks in Canada reported through Outbreak Summaries: 2008-2014,” Salmonella topped the list with the most frequency. That statistic aside, all of these pathogens can do grave harm. In that six-year time frame, there were 115 investigations, 3301 cases and 30 deaths.  

“In the future, expect to see smaller outbreaks but more of them,” predicts Jeff Farber, now director of the Centre for Research on Food Safety, University of Guelph. Before he took up the position six months ago, Farber had spent a decade as Health Canada’s director of the Bureau of Microbial Hazards. His expertise is so highly regarded that he was recently appointed as an expert advisor to the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. to help shape policies regarding Listeria, especially as it relates to ready-to-eat foods. He speaks with authority about history and the future.

Listeria hasn’t historically been associated with produce, says Farber, but he remembers a major outbreak related to coleslaw back in the 1980s. In Colorado, Listeria-tainted cantaloupe in 2011 killed more than 30 people and resulted in criminal charges. And this past year, Listeria was fingered as a culprit again in caramel-coated apples. More of these whodunit cases are being solved because of improved traceability and sensitive molecular typing methods.

That’s why the food safety science is ever evolving. Low-moisture foods are becoming an emerging issue.  Farber says, “We used to think that foods such as peanut butter, spices, seeds and nuts were unlikely to be microbial hazards. But now we know that they can contain pathogens. In fact, there have been a number of outbreaks involving peanut butter, and we’ve recently seen Salmonella in a wide variety of tree nuts, including a recent recall involving Macadamia nuts.” 

Researchers like Farber are also studying the microbiome of nuts to see how pathogens survive for so long under these conditions. Another area of research is the use of bacteriophages to detect such lethal pathogens as E. coli 0157 in spinach.

Until recently, laboratory-based methods such as cell culturing and immunoassays have been cumbersome in identifying food pathogens. They are not in real-time and difficult to use in-field. However, lab-on-a-chip biosensors could revolutionize food safety. If they can be miniaturized and automated, they may become the first line of defence on farms and in packing houses.

Let’s trust the science to find a better way forward on food safety. 

Publish date: 
Monday, February 1, 2016

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