The Impact of the swabathon on food safety

Mar 1, 2019, 08:38 AM by Fred Speer

To combat harmful pathogens – including Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes, both of which have been at the center of recent food recalls and outbreaks that have sickened consumers – the Food and Drug Administration and food plant managers are turning to “swabathons” to help establish a higher level of food safety.

What is a swabathon? It’s when a regulatory agency, usually the FDA or an independent laboratory, comes to your plant and takes multiple swab samples from equipment, floors, and surfaces. Hundreds of swab samples can be taken to identify areas vulnerable for transient contamination, or that might promote growth of harmful pathogens. 

A swabathon can take several days to complete. It can be announced or unannounced, and can be prompted if food products from the plant were linked to an outbreak, or can simply be done at random. Plants producing ready-to-eat and high-risk commodities, such as dairy products. are more likely to have a  swabathon done.

Why is a swabathon necessary? In the past, the FDA would collect product samples for laboratory testing of finished product, but inspectors are looking to be proactive and will use more comprehensive environmental testing (i.e., a swabathon) to determine if a threat is present.

Once harmful pathogens establish themselves in a piece of processing equipment, or on a food preparation surface, the potential exists for contamination of food products that come into contact with these areas as they make their way through the production process.

The ultimate goal is to be able to identify potential hazards sooner, and to offer an advanced level of protection for consumers.

What happens to the samples?

Following the FDA’s visit, the samples will be analyzed for listeria or salmonella. If either is present, the FDA will genetically type it, using a process called whole genome sequencing. The genetic data information is then entered into GenomeTrakr, the FDA’s national database,.

The FDA will determine if the strain has been seen before, and if it links back to an ongoing outbreak of Salmonella or Listeria in food or a food plant. If a match is found, it’s highly likely that a product recall will be issued. The test results remain in the FDA database for several years – even if the bacteria found isn’t matched to a current outbreak – and will be compared against future outbreaks or illnesses.

How to prepare for an inspection or swabathon

  • Make sure your food safety plan meets FDA’s regulatory requirements
    • Is your documentation well organized and accessible?
    • Are you documenting what you said you would do?
  • Do you have a culture of food safety?
  • Conduct practice inspections
  • Update your inspection manual
  • Who is going to be present during the inspection or swabathon?
    • Which employees will accompany the investigators?
    • Who is going to be on call to answer questions?
  • Swabathon specific actions
    • Decide your company policy on companion/sister/duplicate sampling
    • Do you have the resources lined up (personnel, equipment, lab availability)
    • Decide whether to hold product for zone 1 samples
  • During the Inspection/swabathon
    • Accompany the inspectors
    • Take immediate corrective actions
    • Take detailed notes
    • Mark records confidential, commercial proprietary information, or trade secret as appropriate

Inspectors are likely to ask plenty of specific questions, so be prepared to discuss your food safety plan, sanitation, and pest management protocols.

If you are looking for a pest management partner that understands your business, can help you prepare, and be present during a swabathon or inspection, call or text Clark Pest Control at (800) 936-3339.