The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has outlined a raft of key factors needed to assess the hazard posed by pathogens in composite foods after Brussels said it needed to develop harmonised risk-based rules for their import into the region.
The food safety watchdog said it had laid out a host of physico-chemical parameters for certain composite products containing no meat and/or less than 50% of animal origin material at risk from for the growth and/or survival of pathogenic microorganisms.
It also set out what it said were two complementary approaches to identify and profile microbiological hazards in different composite products.
The opinion found that Salmonella in bakery and cake products was the most frequently found hazard.
The European Union defines a composite food as one intended for human consumption that contains both processed products of animal and plant origin and includes those where the processing of a primary product is an integral part of the production of the final product.
EFSA explained that current regulations on composite foods were being reviews and said “there is a need for the European Commission to develop harmonised risk-based public health rules for import of those composite products for which controls are not currently prescribed”.
The main factors that affect the growth of microbial growth in composite products are water activity, pH, temperature and duration of storage. Other issues are processing along with the intensity and duration of other non-thermal physical processes applied during manufacture, said the EFSA panel on Biological Hazards.
The experts found that general foods with water activity below 0.88 or pH below 3.7 or those stored frozen “do not permit growth of or toxin formation by food-borne pathogenic bacteria”.
Two groups of pathogen types were evaluated; those who mere presence was likely to lead to illness and those where growth is necessary to cause harm. Considering the latter, this growth would occur only at pH above 4.3.
In the case of heat-treated food where recontamination was not a factor only spore-forming bacteria were considered – and therefore growth would only occur in foods with water activity above 0.92 or pH above 4.3, or stored at temperatures above 3°C.
The review gives examples of inactivation of biological hazards by heat treatments together with an assessment of which combination of factors could either reduce or worsen the risk.
The importance of determining at which steps of the food production chain treatments inactivating pathogens are applied is also highlighted.
The panel further states that the levels of the pathogens in foods, which may be reduced by good hygienic practices, are important in determining the risk for consumers.
The opinion reviews the quantitative microbiology models and databases that can be used to provide quantitative estimations of the impact of temperature, pH, water activity and their combinations on the survival and growth of the main bacterial pathogens.
Risk assessment of individual products must also take into account that the combination of ingredients can alter their overall physico-chemical parameters, said the BIOHAZ panel.
Identification and profiling microbiological hazards
The experts set out two approaches which they said were complementary.
The first is based on empirical data gathered from past outbreaks and concluded that “the most frequent hazard-composite product combinations are Salmonella in cakes and bakery products”.
It added that most of the data was lifted from European databases and cautioned “the distribution and prevalence of microbial pathogens in food, as well as sources and frequency of foodborne outbreaks, may differ from the ones related to potential exporting countries of composite products towards the EU”.
The second method uses three “decision tools” based on the impact on the pathogens of food composition and food processing.
These relate to; hazards not needing growth; those usually needing growth; and ones needing growth and toxin production to cause illness.
Each tool should be employed, leading to a three categories – low, medium and qualified presumption of risk. Low and medium risk relates to the expectation that consumer cooking should eliminate the hazard.
Low risk foods include bread, low moisture biscuits/cakes/chocolate, sweets, dry pasta and noodles, food supplements and unfilled gelatine capsules – as they generally don’t allow pathogen growth. However the risk can increase with pathogens that do not require growth to pose a health hazard.
Soup stocks, flavourings, meat extracts, meat concentrates, and sterilised heat-treated foods without possible recontamination are in general of low risk.
Higher risk or the qualified presumption of risk is when the pathogens have the potential to cause disease via consumption of the composite product by its very presence.
These can include high moisture biscuits/cakes/chocolate/confectionery, fresh pasta and noodles, and olives with fish.
To read the full EFSA opinion click HERE