Access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food is key to sustaining life and promoting good health. Unsafe food can cause hundreds of diseases. Food can become contaminated at any point during production, distribution and preparation, and everyone along the production chain, from producer to consumer, has a role to play in food safety.

Julie Miller Jones, PhD, distinguished scholar and professor emerita, foods and nutrition, St. Catherine University, said food safety for the grain industry is a farm-to-fork activity. For grain, it begins with using Good Agricultural Processes to minimize contamination during harvest, drying and transport to the mill.

“Proper sampling and testing of the grain as it enters the mill ensures that standards for heavy metals, agricultural chemicals and contaminants such as mycotoxins are observed,” she said.

Good manufacturing practices (GMPs) and HACCP plans should be in place to ensure that grain is not contaminated during the milling process, she added.

“Flour is derived from a grain that comes directly from the field and typically is not treated to kill bacteria,” said Leslie Smoot, PhD, senior adviser in the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Food Safety.

If an animal heeds the call of nature in the field, bacteria from the animal waste could contaminate the grain, which is then harvested and milled into flour.

Common “kill steps” applied during food preparation and/or processing include boiling, baking, roasting, microwaving and frying. But with raw dough, no kill step has been used. However, flour mills have taken steps to establish a safe flour supply.

Easing raw flour worries

Flour in the ready-to-eat category, most of which is heat-treated, has been available in the market for several years. Some products include Ardent Mill’s SafeGuard, introduced by ConAgra Mills in 2011. Honeyville’s TempSure all-purpose, ready-to-eat flour also goes through a proprietary process. Other products include Siemer Milling Co.’s heat-treated soft wheat flours and Bay State Milling’s SimplySafe products.

“The safety of our food products, employees, customers and consumers is a core value of Ardent Mills,” said Kent Juliot, vice-president of research, quality and technical solutions, Ardent Mills. “From the receipt of grain to flour production, labeling and shipping, our food safety and engineering experts are involved in every aspect of our operations to meet the highest standards.”

In addition to following GMPs, Ardent Mills employs operational programs, trains team members, monitors processes and maintains pristine manufacturing facilities, he added. To make its ready-to-eat product, Ardent Mills uses a patented SafeGuard treatment and delivery system that’s a comprehensive, integrated solution and extends flour food safety assurance from the plant to consumers. SafeGuard is a functional flour with up to a 5-log validated pathogen reduction that can be customized based on specific product requirements. It is made by a proprietary process that doesn’t alter gluten functionality.

Reuben McLean, senior director of quality and regulatory, Grain Craft, said food safety is paramount, and millers work diligently to produce safe flour.

Grain Craft has developed and implemented HACCP-based food-safety plans and procedures at each of its milling facilities to ensure compliance with Global Food Safety Initiatives (GFSI) and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

Grain Craft also works closely with its industry partners and leads process improvement discussions to champion the establishment of dedicated peanut transportation to abate the risk of cross-contact with wheat.

“As a leader in the industry, we have implemented procedures to mitigate the serious risk of peanut allergen cross-contact within the transportation of bulk agricultural commodities,” McLean said. “Furthermore, we support customer and consumer education and have adopted safe handling instructions on packaged products to promote awareness of the control measures that must be implemented within their processes to reduce misuse of raw flour.”


Protecting more of the process

Protecting the final product and ensuring its safety for consumption is an ongoing effort, and it begins with the design of a milling facility. Jennifer Robinson, vice-president of corporate quality, Bay State Milling, said the company is undergoing expansion efforts at its new Woodland, California, U.S., mill to further protect its product.

“Construction plans incorporate design elements to deliver a clean-room environment separate from the remainder of the facility,” Robinson said. “The clean room incorporates filtered air, positive pressure, dedicated equipment and a robust environmental program.”

Access is limited to specially trained associates who must pass through a changing and sanitizing area prior to entering the clean room.

When it comes to government regulations and enforcement, FSMA enables the FDA to focus more on preventing food safety problems rather than reacting to problems after they occur. However, with each step of the process being more closely scrutinized, there may be complications with FSMA requirements.

Jeff Gwirtz, a milling industry consultant and president of JAG Services Inc., said FSMA requirements are open-ended and may lead to significant challenges depending on the views of the inspection agent or agencies.

“This may be problematic if milling organizations are asked down the road to evaluate potential sources of biological and chemical contamination associated with air used for conveying, processing, handling and dust control that can contact food product,” Gwirtz said.

For example, compressed air used to reject product that may eventually be returned for processing has come under more scrutiny, he explained, suggesting that air used for gravity selectors and purifiers could also come under scrutiny, as well as suction systems where material collected is returned to the product stream via collection systems. It is also important to watch for air moving across product in spouts above purifiers or in sifter knees that could create a risk of microbiological or chemical contamination.

“Reliance on the notion that flour is a food product intended to pass through a kill step prior to use is likely to be eroded by unreasonable expectations,” he concluded. 

Microbial safety

Consumer demand for ready-to-bake products — and bad habits like eating raw cookie dough — call for higher microbial safety. As a rule, controlling hazards requires a value chain approach.

For instance, preventing mycotoxins starts with good agricultural practices, said Béatrice Condé-Petit, group expert and food safety officer at Bühler AG. Mycotoxins cannot be destroyed by baking, but mechanical cleaning and optical sorting of wheat contribute to significant mycotoxin reduction. Likewise, microbial safety requires protection of wheat from pests and hygienic handling to reduce the risk of bacteria introduction.

Keeping wheat dry during storage and transport is the most effective method of preventing bacteria growth. Furthermore, sanitary designed milling equipment is key to preventing the risk of contamination. Finally, heat treatment allows the reduction of bacteria by inactivation for ready-to-eat food applications. Condé-Petit suggested a need for efficient and cost-effective bacteria inactivation that might be achieved with non-thermal technologies.