ATP, protein and allergen testing in production facilities: Which should you use?

Any food producer could tell you that keeping facilities clean is paramount. A good sanitation standard operating procedure is essential to ensure that business can continue as usual. There are many tests and methods to verify cleanliness. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the options.

ATP testing

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a molecule responsible for transferring energy within a cell. If ATP is detected on a surface, something living or (previously living) is present as well.

“ATP sanitation verification systems measure the ATP collected from food contact surfaces or liquids as an indication of the cleanliness of the surface, or purity of the liquid,” said Neogen’s Erick Pardo. “They work by measuring the light created when ATP contacts a reagent in the system’s sampling devices. The higher the levels of food residue and microorganisms in a surface or water sample, the more ATP, and the more light produced.”

(Fun fact: The reaction that produces the light is based on similar chemistry to what causes fireflies to glow at night!)

A common misconception is that the results from ATP testing systems, which are read in relative light units on surface samples, should in some way correlate with a microbial total plate count of the same samples.

“The amount of ATP in microbial cells can vary dramatically, and a single colony-forming unit (CFU) can actually comprise one or many cells,” said Pardo. “Bacteria need food to grow, and therefore, there will never be an occasion where there is only microbial ATP on a surface. It is impossible to determine whether the RLU results are due to the presence of bacteria, yeast, mold or food residue. Most probably, it’s a combination of these things.”

Pardo sums up the importance of using an ATP sanitation verification system in two points.

  • The purpose of ATP testing is to achieve and defensively document effective cleaning by following the principle that if biomass is not present on surfaces after cleaning, there is not enough medium for microbial growth.
  • When properly used, sanitation verification systems allow for almost instantaneous detection and measurement of ATP on food contact surfaces, which provides an objective, actionable tool for the verification of a facility’s sanitation efforts.

Protein swabs and non-specific protein tests

Protein swabs determine cleanliness by detecting any protein left behind from previously processed food and liquids.

Pardo lists 4 advantages to this method of testing:

  • Most allergens are proteins.
  • Tests are relatively quick.
  • Tests are relatively cheap.
  • Tests are easy to use.

Protein swabs alone should not be used for allergen control, but in situations where no test kit is available to screen for a particular allergen, verification with a surrogate system such as general protein or ATP testing can be useful.

“These systems are ideal for food service applications and food processors who want an objective, inexpensive and quick method to gauge their sanitation levels but cannot justify a full ATP sanitation verification program,” said Pardo.

Allergen testing

Food manufacturers protect consumers with food allergies by labeling their products with a clear, concise list of ingredients. Testing for the presence of food allergens ensures food manufacturers that an unlabeled — and potentially dangerous — ingredient did not make its way into a food product. Specific protein testing is the only recognized method for identifying and controlling allergen risk in food manufacturing.

“A major reason for allergen testing is to protect a company from the staggering costs of a recall,” said Pardo. “If a product contains undeclared, potentially hazardous allergens, the company would contact their government agency and initiate a voluntary recall. Product recalls can cost food companies millions.”

Testing also can add to, and protect, a company’s reputation. Food allergen tests can detect target allergens in ingredients, liquids, clean-in-place rinses, finished foods and on environmental surfaces. Using the tests, producers can screen incoming ingredients and segregate any allergenic materials. They can also be used to validate and verify a facility’s cleaning programs.

Neogen offers products for ATP testing, protein testing and allergen testing. For more information, click here.

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