Data Management for Food Safety and Quality

How LIMS Technology Enables Food and Beverage Industries to Ensure Quality in their Products

‰Cage-free Eggs,‰ ‰No artificial colors or flavors added,‰ ‰Antibiotic-Free Chicken,‰ ‰Fair Trade Certified‰

These pronouncements of increased food quality are becoming a much more frequent sight in the aisles of supermarkets and the side panels of menus in restaurants across the country. These types of labels address social, ethical, human health and environmental practices in the food industry. While some of these quality assurance labels are driven by consumer demand, some are also becoming an intricate component of food safety requirements.

Assurances of Food Quality

General Mills is one of the many and most recent companies to sign onto the pledge to remove artificial colors and ingredients from all of its cereals (including the classics Twix, Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs) by 2017. Other companies have jumped on the bandwagon in eliminating artificial ingredients in the future including Panera, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. The removal of such artificial ingredients is dependent on the idea that consumers are becoming much more cognizant of the food that they‰’re eating and will be more apt to purchase a product with ingredients they deem recognizable and natural.

Whether for individual preference or to take part in consumer activism, consumers may choose a product based on the quality of life for that food product (cage-free eggs, grass-fed beef), the labor practices for farmers (Fair Trade Certified) or certain farming practices (USDA Organic Certified). Consumers may choose to purchase these products to ‰vote with their dollars‰ to advocate for certain socioeconomic considerations in the marketplace or simply because they think the quality of the food is better.

Antibiotics in Our Food Supply

Claims of ‰No Antibiotics Added‰ on meat and poultry packaging have increased significantly over the last couple of years as the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) have expressed concerns about the amount of antibiotics in the food system and ultimately its effect on human health. As consumers become more aware of the possible dangerous implications in increased antibiotic use, a rising demand for meat from animals not treated with antibiotics has grown.

The CDC states that antibiotic resistance is responsible for over 2 million illnesses and approximately 23,000 deaths each year. Antibiotics are routinely administered to fight infections and diseases caused by bacteria. Animals for food production are fed antibiotics in order to preemptively prevent disease outbreaks, treat animals that are currently sick, or to increase animals‰’ growth rate. When animals are routinely fed low doses of antibiotics, bacteria resistant to those antibiotics are able to multiply in the animal‰’s body over time. Overall the antibiotics become less effective or ineffective in treating those strains of resistant bacteria. When we eat meat from animals treated with antibiotics we may ingest those resistant bacteria, which could then make us sick without any antibiotics able to treat the illness.

Certain companies have made the pledge on their own accord to only use meat from animals that have not been treated with antibiotics. In 2014 Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods launched their own antibiotic-free brands of chicken. Chick-fil-A also promised in 2014 that they would begin only working with suppliers who did not administer antibiotics to their chicken. Chick-fil-A even created their own certification system No Antibiotics Ever with rules and standards suppliers are expected to adhere to in order to achieve the seal. The White House is encouraging producers to make the same pledge to phase out antibiotic use, with most recently Walmart requiring suppliers to report on antibiotic use and following usage guidelines set forth by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

USDA Process Verified Programs and ISO 9000

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) under the authority of the FDA oversees the labeling requirements for certain food products. Producers that label their food ‰No antibiotics added‰ must submit documentation demonstrating animals were raised without antibiotics. This documentation and verification can come through several different levels of certification. Adhering to Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) requirements may have a business value to some organizations, while others may choose to follow a less strenuous path, though they all still require audits and very through record keeping.

Companies receive verification through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and their Process Verified Programs that address a variety of process-based claims.

The USDA website describes the basics of the system.

The USDA Process Verified Program uses the International Organization for Standardization’s ISO 9000 series standards for documented quality management systems as a format for evaluating program documentation to ensure consistent auditing practices and promote international recognition of audit results. It provides companies that supply agricultural products or services the opportunity to assure customers of their ability to provide consistent quality products or services. It is limited to programs or portions of programs where specified process verified points are supported by a documented quality management system. The specified process verified points are identified by the supplier.


A group using the USDA Process Verified shield may determine which process verification points it uses in its own marketing, however everything must be documented and verified. Ultimately USDA seals are met with greater consumer confidence and many environmental and consumer rights groups warn against trusting ‰antibiotic-free‰ labels that are not verified by the USDA.

Regulatory Oversight on Antibiotics in the Feed Supply

On June 3rd 2015, the FDA issued a final rule on the administration of antibiotics in animal feed by requiring these drugs be approved by a veterinarian before they can be purchased and administered by animal producers. In the past animal producers could purchase feed containing antibiotics over the counter – without any sort of regulatory approval. This ruling was dependent on animal drug manufacturers‰’ voluntarily agreeing to market these drugs as only medically important (in treating or preventing disease) and no longer beneficial for production purposes (enhancing growth in animals).

The combination of voluntary pledges by companies to reduce or eliminate their use of antibiotics and the new regulatory requirements from the FDA addressing feed supply will help curb the use of antibiotics in our food system and ultimately improve food safety and food quality.

Food and beverage companies rely on thorough documentation of their processes and practices in order to guarantee food quality, whether through a third-party certifier or a government-sponsored label. As consumer demand (and government regulations) continue to address certain food quality and safety components in food processing, food and beverage companies will need to have sufficient data monitoring and tracking to meet these evolving demands and regulations.

Contributor Sara Velardi is a Ph.D. student in Environmental and Natural Resources Policy at State University of New York School of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF). Her research interests focus on genetically modified organisms (GMO) and food safety policy.