By: Irene Chan
When you open a can of creamed corn soup, your expectation is that you can consume it without fear of getting sick. We rely on commercially sterile foods, such as canned foods and other shelf-stable vacuum packaged foods, for everyday meals, as well as for emergency situations, such as natural disasters. In all of these situations, the safety of food is vital. The airtight, low-acid environment of many commercially-sterile foods is a prime target for the growth of bacteria that can produce a lethal toxin that causes botulism.
Fortunately, since FDA established low-acid canned food (LACF) and acidified food (AF) regulations in the 1970’s, the commercial processing of commercially sterile foods in the United States has become much safer. One of FDA’s requirements is that, with few exceptions, manufacturing supervisors at canneries must have taken an appropriate training course to understand how to make a safe commercially-sterile product. FDA must approve these so-called Better Process Control Schools (BPCS), which numerous large universities throughout the United States offer. These courses provide essential information about how to effectively control the risks associated with the manufacturing of commercially-sterile foods, and how to comply with U.S. law.
With the increasing globalization of the food supply, FDA has recognized that the need for BPCS training has gone beyond our shores. And until recently, it was a challenge for foreign manufacturers to send persons to attend BPCS in the United States because of travel and language barriers. But through FDA’s foreign offices, we have supported local universities throughout the world with the capability to host approved BPCS training courses right where they are needed.
China, where there are several hundred establishments registered with FDA to export canned foods to the United States, is a prime example of a robust food export market. In September 2011, through collaboration between FDA’s China Office and experts in FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), the first-ever, locally sponsored BPCS course in China was conducted at China Ocean University in Qingdao, Shandong Province. Attendees were able to obtain the content of the course in Mandarin Chinese from local food technology professors, while an FDA technical advisor was available for questions. This June, the university held its second course, with eager attendees coming from mainland China as well as Taiwan.
Closer to home, the Latin American region has established itself as the pantry for the United States, supplying a myriad of food products throughout the year. There are hundreds of food manufacturers in the region that would greatly benefit from the opportunity to send supervisors to a local, approved BPCS. The Latin America Office has identified three universities as having the knowledge base and infrastructure to conduct BPCS courses: Costa Rica’s Center for Food Technology Research (CITA), Guatemala’s Del Valle University, and Peru’s National Agrarian University- La Molina. In addition, FDA’s Latin America Office worked with the Inter-American Developmental Bank to obtain funding to provide the approved course materials for the universities in Guatemala and Peru to conduct their own BPCS. These universities will soon provide these courses at a low cost, with capable instructors who speak the local language and understand the local realities of the industry. In Peru, the university recently completed their first BPCS on August 17th, 2012. Representatives from FDA’s Latin America office, FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs, and CFSAN were present to answer questions and assist with the delivery of the class. In Costa Rica, CITA has scheduled their first BPCS for August 27-31, 2012, and expects attendees from the Caribbean and Central America region. These are pilot programs, and we have already heard from other countries and institutions that want to participate in similar efforts.
Indian manufacturers produce hundreds of different varieties of vacuum packed ready-to-eat dinner entrees that are imported into the United States. Before 2011, no in-country BPCS was available for these manufacturers. In March 2011, local faculty at Bhaskaracharya College of Applied Sciences in New Delhi taught a BPCS course for the first time. The course cost each student only about $200—this sum paid for instruction, catering for meals and course materials. Students came from throughout India to attend the course. A FDA technical advisor’s participation in the course allowed students to ask questions about process filings and engage in technical discussions with FDA. This year, the college held a second class in Sri Lanka for LACF and AF producers located in that country. A third class is planned for later this year.
The FDA overseas offices are proud to have helped stand up these important training events in various parts of the world, and to support local universities as they develop the capacity to put on these courses. And the next time we open that pouch of vacuum-packed curry lentils, we will know that the effort to keep our food safe is truly global.
Irene Chan is the Deputy Country Director of FDA’s China Office. Edmundo Garcia, Jr., Assistant Regional Director for FDA’s Latin America Office, Daniel Geffin, Food Technologist in FDA’s Office of Food Safety, Food Process Evaluation Team, CFSAN, and Bruce Ross, Country Director of FDA’s India Office, contributed to this post.