Safer Food through Research, Data Analysis

Angela Anandappa portrait
People

Safer Food through Research, Data Analysis

Interview with Angela Anandappa by Diana Marcum

Everyone has a relationship with food. 

The Alliance for Advanced Sanitation’s job is to improve sanitation methods through research and development, while working hand-in-hand with leading food companies. 

Angela Anandappa is director of the Alliance for Advanced Sanitation, a public-private partnership between the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and food companies that invested in the Alliance for Advanced Sanitation. Its vision is to create a safer food supply through advanced sanitation approaches and practices. 

Currently, 10 companies are a part of the Alliance: 3M; Cargill; Commercial Food Sanitation; ConAgra; Ecolab; Frontier Co-Op; Hershey’s; Kellogg’s; Neogen; and Nestle.

“This Alliance is about helping companies to work with the university, to access more research approaches dedicated to hygienic standards, methods and approaches. We’d like to be able to focus in on this part of manufacturing that is critical to food safety so that we can improve sanitation in a way that is meaningful to the industry,” she said. Anandappa is a research assistant professor with the university’s Department of Food Science and Technology.

 “Sanitation is one of the core activities to make sure manufacturing plants, transportation and equipment are clean to protect you. It ensures you’re not getting anything passed to someone who really does not need to be exposed to something bad for their health,” Anandappa said. “A pathogen or some sort of environmental bug, or even a chemical. We don’t want people to come into contact with anything that can be harmful to them.” 

Through the Alliance’s research with food industry companies, the scientists are establishing an environment in which people can have a more secure relationship with food. 

SANITATION FROM FIELD TO FACTORY

Sanitation in the food industry is the process companies go through to reduce or eliminate illness-causing pathogens, and ensure food is handled in a sanitary manner. Sanitation is a broad term used to describe managing the cleanliness of the food environment. Cleaning is an important part of the sanitation process. Once equipment is cleaned, sanitizers may be used as an added measure. For instance, if there were 10,000 bacterial cells, after the sanitation process the desired result would be zero bacterial cells. 

“This is a numbers game, but the goal is to reduce the number of potentially present bacterial cells and make that a minimum,” Anandappa explained. 

An example of reducing harmful bacteria is the pasteurization process of dairy products. In the mid-1800s, Louis Pasteur, a French scientist, researched germ theory and prevention of disease through the elimination of germs. The process of pasteurization, or heating of dairy products, reduces bacteria that cause serious diseases. Milk pasteurization became mandatory in the United States in the 1930s.

Anandappa said that from the field to the factory, all of the equipment used or that the dairy products come into contact with – from silos to tubes, to mixers and more – needs to be cleaned and sanitized to meet the food industry’s regulations.

“Any one of those pieces of equipment has to be cleaned at some point, with some frequency,” Anandappa said. “And that is one of the things in the food industry which has to be done on a very regular basis.”

Complex manufacturing systems are examples of where sanitation is needed most, she said. Like any equipment, materials can deteriorate or become damaged over time. Those damaged areas can collect food and bacteria that have the potential to grow. Anandappa explained that the challenge in sanitation is identifying those damaged areas before bacteria begin to grow, which is especially challenging in sophisticated, expensive equipment. Anandappa said solutions may be to better clean the equipment, work around the problem or replace the materials, but before any of this, sanitation workers must find and diagnose the problem. 

USING DATA TO DIAGNOSE PROBLEMS

The Alliance for Advanced Sanitation exists to help the food industry devise more thorough and safer sanitation processes through research and data collection and analysis. Anandappa said the researchers begin with a company’s sanitation processes and design improvements. Data on evidence of pathogens that is collected before, during and after the introduction of a new sanitation process provide a comprehensive understanding of the “before” and “after” processes, determining scientifically which process was better. The specific company evaluates the process to determine if it will work with the company’s equipment, in the company’s environment. 

However, bacteria is only part of the great world of sanitation, Anandappa said. The Alliance intends to help companies in testing improved methods for reducing water and energy use, using fewer chemicals and developing more efficient ways to perform sanitation processes. 

“It’s important for them to know that this is something that they can use, so they’re involved in designing the research project in the beginning, and that’s what we’re about,” Anandappa said. 

For more information, visit sanitationalliance.org.