Seafood is an important source of food around the world and represents the fastest growing sector in the food industry. However, as the demand for seafood continues to grow, so too do concerns about the safety of seafood as it makes its way through global supply chains to retailers and restaurateurs. Especially in emerging economies, seafood harvesting and processing practices may not always meet the quality and hygienic standards necessary to ensure the safety of seafood and seafood products.
For these reasons, seafood production and processing facilities should have in place formal control plans that help to ensure the quality and safety of the seafood products they produce. Control plans developed according to the hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) principles may prove the most efficient and effective route to achieve these goals.
HACCP is a management tool that serves to identify, evaluate and control food safety hazards and that encourages safe food practices. It involves the systematic analysis and control of biological, chemical and physical hazards throughout the entire food processing and consumption cycle, from raw material procurement and handling, through manufacturing and distributions, and ending with the consumption of the finished food product. HACCP principles have been successfully applied in food processing plants, retail food stores, and food service operation.
In this article, we’ll provide a summary of the process for developing an HACCP plan specific to the needs of seafood production, and discuss the seven principles that must be embodied in all HACCP plans.
Seafood safety risks
Fish and seafood products present a number of potential safety risks to consumers. The combination of proteins and continuous exposure to water makes seafood an ideal environments for microbial growth and the spread of parasites. Seafood may also contain a wide range of chemical contaminants, such as antibiotics or heavy metals. Additionally bones, shells or other physical structures that come naturally with the animal must be properly removed to make it marketable and reduce the potential risk of harm.
As the demand for seafood continues to grow worldwide, so too do concerns about the quality and safety of the seafood that makes its way through global supply chains. Processing plants often fail to implement necessary hygiene protocols or to maintain environmental conditions appropriate for the handling of fresh seafood. In other cases, workers have not been properly trained to minimise risks of contamination.
In addition, poor traceability practices and even outright fraud have contributed to the complex challenge of producing seafood and seafood products that are free of potentially harmful contaminants. According to one study conducted in 2013, one-third of more than 1000 seafood samples analysed in the U.S. were found to have been mislabelled. In addition to putting the health and safety of consumers at risk, seafood fraud undermines efforts to promote sustainable seafood wild capture and aquaculture practices.
An effective HACCP plan can help seafood manufacturers and producers reduce risks associated with unsafe or mislabelled seafood. Based on the classic management systems approach embodied in standards like ISO 9001 (quality management), a HACCP plan represents a preventative approach to food safety that identifies potential hazards and establishes controls to minimise food safety risks. While regulatory approaches to food safety may differ from one nation to another, HACCP concepts are universally-applicable and endorsed by most national regulators as well as the Codex Alimentarius.
Developing an HACCP plan for seafood safety: preliminary tasks
In the development of a HACCP plan, five preliminary tasks need to be accomplished before the application of the HACCP principles to a specific product and process. The five preliminary tasks are as follows:
Assemble the HACCP team
The HACCP team should consist primarily of individuals who have specific knowledge and expertise appropriate to the product and process. The team should include individuals with expertise in engineering, production, sanitation, quality assurance, and food microbiology. The HACCP team should also include local personnel who are involved in the operation as they are more familiar with the variability and limitations of the operation. The team may need assistance from outside experts, but a plan developed totally by outside sources may be erroneous and incomplete, and lack the internal support necessary for successful implementation.
Describe the food and its distribution
This task consists of a general description of the food, ingredients, and processing methods. It should include a description of the method of distribution used, and whether the food is to be distributed frozen, refrigerated, or at ambient temperature.
Describe the intended use and consumers of the food
This task involves a description of the normal, expected use of the food, and the intended consumer. The intended consumers could be the general public or a particular segment of the population (e.g., infants, immune-compromised individuals, the elderly, etc.).
Develop a flow diagram which describes the process
At a minimum, an effective flow diagram provides a clear outline of all of the steps in the process which are directly under the control of the food facility. The flow diagram can also include steps in the food processing chain that take place before or after the processing that occurs at the food facility.
Verify the flow diagram
The HACCP team should perform an on-site review of the operation to verify the accuracy and completeness of the flow diagram. Modifications should be made to the flow diagram as necessary, and documented.
Applying HACCP principles to the process
After these five preliminary tasks have been completed, the following seven principles of HACCP are applied in connection with a specific product and process.
Conduct a hazard analysis
The purpose of the hazard analysis is to develop a list of hazards which are of such significance that they are reasonably likely to cause injury or illness if not effectively controlled. Within the scope of the hazard analysis, it is important to consider from farm to fork - the ingredients and raw materials, product storage and distribution, and final preparation and use by the consumer. For example, the cooling chain and process hygiene needs to be analysed thoroughly due to possible microbial growth that can lead to food poisoning in humans. Procurement and processing also needs to be analysed for chemicals as unallowed substances may be used during the processing.
Determine the critical control point
A critical control point (CCP) is defined as a step at which some form of control can be applied, and when the application of control is essential to prevent or eliminate a food safety hazard, or to reduce the hazard to an acceptable level. Complete and accurate identification of all CCPs is an essential task in controlling food safety hazards, and the information developed during the hazard analysis can assist the HACCP team in identifying CCPs throughout the seafood production process.
Establish critical limits
A critical limit is a maximum and/or minimum value to which a biological, chemical or physical parameter must be controlled at a CCP to prevent, eliminate or reduce to an acceptable level the occurrence of a food safety hazard. A critical limit is used to distinguish between safe and unsafe operating conditions at an individual CCP, and each CCP will have one or more control measures to assure that the identified hazards are prevented, eliminated or reduced to acceptable levels. Critical limits for seafood production are usually more stringent than other food groups and can be based upon a variety of factors; critical limits and criteria for food safety may be derived from regulatory standards and guidelines, literature surveys, experimental results, and experts.
Establish monitoring procedures
Monitoring consists of a planned sequence of observations or measurements to assess whether a CCP is under control. Monitoring performs three main functions. First, it facilitates tracking of the operation. If monitoring indicates that there is a trend towards loss of control, then action can be taken to bring the process back into control. Second, monitoring is used to determine when a deviation occurs at a CCP and there is loss of control, allowing an appropriate corrective action to be taken. Third, monitoring provides written documentation for use in verification.
Establish corrective actions
Where there is a deviation from the established critical limits, corrective actions are necessary. All corrective actions should: 1) determine and correct the cause of non-compliance; 2) determine the disposition of non-compliant product; and 3) record the corrective actions that have been taken. Specific corrective actions should be developed for each CCP in advance, and included in the HACCP plan. As a minimum, the HACCP plan should specify what corrective action is to be taken when a deviation occurs, who is responsible for implementing the corrective actions, and that a record of the corrective actions taken is maintained.
Establish verification procedures
Verification includes those activities (other than monitoring), that determine the validity of the HACCP plan, and that the system is operating according to the plan. An important aspect of verification is evaluating whether the facility's system is functioning according to its HACCP plan. An effective system should require minimal end-product testing, since sufficient, validated safeguards have already been built into the process. Therefore, seafood processing facilities should frequently review their HACCP plans, verify that the HACCP plan is being followed, and review CCP monitoring and corrective action records.
Establish record-keeping and documentation procedures
Generally, the records maintained for the HACCP System should include:
1) the HACCP plan itself;
2) a summary of the hazard analysis, including the rationale for determining hazards and control measures;
3) support documentation, such as validation records; and
4) other records generated during the operation of the plan.
More detailed documentation could include a list of ingredients for which critical limits have been established, processing, storage and distribution records, employee training records as they pertain to the HACCP plan, and independent, third-party verification of the plan’s adequacy.
Other key points
As the previous discussion illustrates, an effective HACCP plan requires extensive planning, with implementation taking place over a period of several months or even longer. Further, it typically requires the involvement of staff from throughout an organisation, as well as representatives from key supply chain partners. Accordingly, the successful implementation of an HACCP plan depends on a strong organisational commitment to the importance of producing safe seafood, from top management on down.
Due to the technical nature of the information required for hazard analysis, it is recommended that experts who are knowledgeable in the food process should either participate in or verify the completeness of the hazard analysis and the HACCP plan. Such individuals should possess the technical knowledge and experience to correctly conduct a hazard analysis and identify potential hazards that must be controlled, recommend necessary controls and procedures for monitoring and verification, provide additional technical expertise where required, and validate the HACCP plan itself.
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 Study cited in “Seafood Fraud: Stopping Bait and Switch,” a web posting by the non-profit organization, Oceana. Available here (as of 9 October 2016)