Eating it raw: Don't neglect food safety of cereal-based goods at consumer level, warns researcher

By Hal Conick

- Last updated on GMT

Removing contaminants from grains and flour must be a priority for manufacturers at every level, said food engineer Andreia Bianchini at Process Expo
Removing contaminants from grains and flour must be a priority for manufacturers at every level, said food engineer Andreia Bianchini at Process Expo

Related tags Foodborne illness

Ridding grain-and flour-based product contaminants must be considered at every step of processing down to consumer level as consumers may misread labels and eat the product raw, says a food researcher.

Andreia Bianchini, a food engineer, microbiologist and research assistant professor​ at the University of Lincoln-Nebraska’s Food Science and Technology Department, said in her presentation at the 2015 Process Expo that there are 1bn cases of foodborne disease outbreaks each year. Approximately 9.4m of these cases take place in the US.

“Is there really a risk?”​ she asked during her Food Safety Considerations for Cereal Based Products​ presentation. “Historically, with flour and grain based products, people say they’re a safe product due to low moisture content. However, we have seen more recently, because of new trends on the market or consumer behavior, that’s not necessarily the case.”

Safety beyond ready-to-bake

Although manufacturers may do everything they can to release a safe product, sometimes the safety of ready-to-bake baked goods may have a failing point: The consumer.

“Consumers perhaps might not be following instructions on package,”​ Bianchini said. “That might be an issue. You’re putting liability of your company in the hands of the consumer.”

The industry has shifted and become more aware of this, she said. Even if a product is ready to cook, many now believe it should also be ready to eat for the consumer.

This line of thinking stems from an outbreak that occurred in 2009 due to raw cookie dough making people sick, as 94% of those who were made sick by the product consumed it raw. A recent survey noted by Bianchini found that 58% of people said they would eat raw cookie dough, 24% raw biscuits, 22% raw pie crust and 11% raw pizza crust, highlighting the danger of un-safe products at this end.

“That’s why we’re working so hard to reduce the microbial contamination in flour to make it more and more safe every day,”​ she said.

Removing contamination risk from grains

Although grains are usually thought of as relatively risk-free, Bianchini said the product often still comes with pathogens and micropathogens, as grains are raw agriculture. On top of this, there are new trends, such as sprouting grains, which may add safety issues for which processors are not ready.

Myriad issues can impact flour and grains, including the weather and wetness in the area it was grown and sourced, how it is cleaned and the milling process. On average, clean wheat samples had about 90% fewer microorganisms (or 1 log) than dirty samples did. However, she said the process can be better, as pasteurization of milk makes the final product in excess of 99.9% (5 logs) cleaner.

Each processor will have to be sure they are using the correct method of treating and milling the product. Bianchini even cited using radiation to rid flour of salmonella, but noted that consumers may wince at the thought.

The importance of extrusion

One process that is extremely important to the industry, Bianchini said, is extrusion. Looking into breakfast cereal, she and other researchers studied the process and found that at 80.1C with 28.1% moisture can see a 5 log reduction of salmonella. This means a 99.9%-plus elimination of the contaminant.

In ridding products of mycotoxins, she said extrusion can reduce as much as 93%, depending on the grain and method of extrusion. Processors must always be working and studying to ensure their method of reducing contaminants is working, she said.

“Take home that question: Was it a true reduction or a chemical convection,” ​Bianchini said, noting that a true reduction is needed to eliminate risk of foodborne disease. 

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