Sanjay Gummalla

Vice President, American Frozen Food Institute

Why did you choose a career in food safety?

Complex and constantly changing food supply chains, consumer expectations, and technologies make food safety one of the most important elements in ensuring food manufacturing practices and infrastructure ultimately deliver safe and nutritious foods. It is this dynamic that makes for a challenge as well as an opportunity; technical and business challenges with the opportunity to educate, innovate, and elevate the industry’s capabilities. As a food scientist, I’m inimitably aware of the nature of foodborne pathogens, their persistence in food facilities and prevalence in foods, and consider food safety to be of considerable public health significance.

What are the main responsibilities in your role?

  • Lm strategy: Provide strategic leadership on and execute AFFI’s Listeria strategy: coordinate scientific research projects, build best practices, and keep abreast of Lmrelated science and new technologies.
  • Advocacy and policy: Constructive liaison between frozen food manufacturers and regulatory bodies on developing and applying practical policies towards Lm compliance issues as well other regulatory subjects. Building relationships across the gamut of academia, industry, and government to coordinate and lead these efforts.
  • Technical expertise and training: Establish and execute: educational programs through webinars, workshops, and individual coaching to address food safety and a host of other regulatory questions and situations.

What are the three biggest challenges you face on a daily basis?

  • Articulating the ambiguity between regulatory policy, manufacturing best practices, and consumer burden relative to the presence of Lm in frozen foods to all the varied stakeholders. Everyone agrees on public health goals, but challenges remain on how the frozen food industry will achieve these objectives. There is a paucity in the science needed to develop practical approaches to address the presence of Lm in food facilities and foods – not necessarily a daily challenge, but it is a constant struggle to act on scientific evidence, simply because it has not been collected.
  • State and local regulatory agencies considering frozen foods as a high-risk product category relative to Lm and consequently, testing frozen products – also not a daily issue, but a growing fear that some frozen products already in stores might be next, and that a positive Lm finding leads to a withdrawal from the market, ultimately harming the brand value and undermining consumer confidence in the safety of frozen foods.
  • Enhancing consumer compliance with application of cooking instructions and ensuring that susceptible populations are not exposed to foods potentially contaminated with Lm. Again, the daily impact is not obvious, but every day, consumers are making decisions about whether a frozen food is a ready-to-eat item or a not-ready-to-eat (NRTE) product. When a NRTE food is consumed without following the cooking instructions on its package, consumers are potentially at risk of exposure to food contaminated with Lm.

Is consumer education crucial to prevent Listeria monocytogenes and other pathogens in frozen foods? If so why?

Consumer behaviours are as fundamental to food safety as any other aspect of the food supply continuum. Risks associated with the presence of Listeria monocytogenes (Lm) in frozen foods can be addressed as many of frozen products bear validated cooking instructions on packaging to ensure the product is cooked and safe for consumption. Unfortunately, a good proportion of consumers either ignore these instructions completely or may not follow them accurately, thereby raising their risk of exposure to Lm. It doesn’t help that messaging the criticality of following cooking instructions are not consistent across the breadth of the frozen food category. AFFI is working with its members to initiate consumer labelling and education research to secure consistent messaging that can help consumers identify when and how frozen foods can be rendered safe for consumption by following cooking instructions.

What strategies can be used to battle food safety risks associated with frozen foods?

A holistic approach entails developing the science, enhancing food manufacturing practices, and improving consumer behaviours. On the science front; contamination of food, exposure to humans, pathogen virulence and growth factors, are a few among many areas that need to be better understood. Food facilities must elevate their manufacturing practices and implement the best food safety principles; sanitation controls, hygienic design of infrastructure and equipment, robust environmental programs that seek out and destroy Lm on a consistent basis, and freezer hygiene. Managing the post-lethality environment in frozen food facilities is dependent on not only the above areas but also a commitment to a food safety culture that recognizes the ubiquity of Lm, predisposition to Lm harbourage in facilities, and public health implications of contaminated frozen foods.

What do you hope delegates will walk away with from your session at American Food Sure 2019?

I hope my session, brings awareness of a key foodborne pathogen, namely Lm, highlights the public health relevance of Lm and the challenges in eliminating a ubiquitous pathogen such as Lm; AFFI’s holistic Lm strategy to address Lm in frozen foods; the need for advancing scientific understanding of Lm and application of novel disruptive technologies to manage the risks associated with foodborne pathogens; and the role of consumers in limiting the burden of foodborne disease, particularly listeriosis in our population.