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 Microorganisms and Food Safety

 Microorganisms and Food Safety
September 10
11:50 2018

A microorganism is a living organism that is so tiny it can only be seen with the aid of a microscope. Microorganisms are everywhere. You may not see, taste, or smell them, but they hide on your body, in the air, on kitchen counters and utensils and in food – just to name a few. The main groups of microorganisms are bacteria, fungi, parasites (protozoa) and viruses. Microorganisms can be both our friends and foe. In this week’s article, we examine the good and the bad side of microorganisms and regulations governing their import into the country. Microorganisms may be classified into three groups according to their activity

  • Beneficial microorganisms: used in the food industry, agriculture, medicine and other industries
  • Spoilage microorganisms: cause food to spoil but are not harmful to humans
  • Pathogenic microorganisms: disease-causing microbes

Microorganisms are used for various purposes, such as preparation of curd, bread, cake; production of alcohol; cleaning up of the environment and preparation of medicines. In agriculture, microorganisms are used to increase soil fertility by nitrogen fixation. The bacterium lactobacillus helps in the formation of curd. The fungi yeast is used for the commercial production of alcohol and wine. Streptomycin, tetracycline and erythromycin are some of the commonly used antibiotics; these are made from fungi and bacteria. Several diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis, smallpox and hepatitis can be prevented by vaccination.

On the other hand, microorganisms are also pathogens – they cause diseases to human beings, animals and plants. They are also responsible for food spoilage thereby causing intoxication and diseases. Microbial contamination of food products takes places usually on the way from the field to the processing plant, or during processing, storage, transport and distribution or before consumption.

Harmful microorganisms can be transmitted over long distances via trade of food products and this is a major concern for food safety.

Of all the microorganisms, bacteria, molds and yeasts are the greatest threat to the safety of our foods. Bacteria are single-celled, living organisms that can grow quickly at favourable temperatures. Some bacteria are useful. We use them to make foods like cheese, buttermilk, sauerkraut, pickles and yogurt. Other bacteria are infectious disease-causing agents called pathogens. Some bacteria are not infectious on their own, but when they multiply they eject toxins that poison humans when the food is eaten. Bacteria grow fastest in the temperature range between 5°C and 57°C.The most important tool you have to prevent foodborne illness is good personal hygiene.

Personal hygiene is the way a person maintains their health, appearance and cleanliness. Not only can you become the victim of illness, but you can also be the carrier! A cough or sneeze can transmit thousands of microorganisms that may cause disease.

Avoiding food borne pathogens:

  • Don’t leave foods that need to be chilled sitting out. Refrigerate and freeze necessary foods right away
  • Do use a meat thermometer to make sure your food is cooked thoroughly
  • Do wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with warm, soapy water before and after handling any raw meats, fruits and vegetables
  • Do wash utensils and disinfect surfaces before and after use
  • Don’t defrost food on the kitchen counter. Instead, use the refrigerator, cold running water or the microwave oven.
  • Don’t let food marinate at room temperature for too long
  • Keep marinating food refrigerated
  • Don’t over pack the refrigerator

Apart from being a food safety concern, we have discussed that microorganisms can also be beneficial and are used in the food, agricultural and medical industries. However, these microorganisms can also be a biosecurity risk – if unwanted pathogenic and aggressive strains arrive into Fiji, they can negatively impact our environment and biodiversity and cause devastation to our agricultural and horticultural industries. Biosecurity procedures must be followed when importing microorganisms for industrial use – these are provided below.


Viable microorganisms that can be imported into Fiji subject to approval include:

  • Fungi
  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Protozoa

Unicellular algae Products containing microorganisms can be imported for:

  • The isolation and enrichment of microorganisms, for example, meat or dairy samples for food safety
  • Laboratory research, diagnostic and analytical purposes (including equipment calibration and
  • method validation)
  • Environmental use such as bio-insecticides
  • Bio-remedial works (for example biodegrading enzymes, biological cleaners, biological controls and industrial waste cleaners)
  • Use as probiotics and starter cultures for yoghurt and cheese production
  • Use as veterinary medicines and supplements Guidelines for the commercial importation of microorganisms:
  • Provide a list of microorganisms you intend to import to the Biosecurity Authority of Fiji (BAF)
  • BAF Microbiologist and the Veterinary Team will verify the list of microorganisms
  • The list must be accompanied by a formal letter under your company letterhead addressed to the BAF CEO stating the use, storage and disposal of the microbes/microbial sample(s)
  • Once your request is approved, you must apply for an import permit and pay the applicable fees. The import permit will stipulate the requirements under which the microbes/microbe sample(s) can be brought into Fiji
  • It is your responsibility to meet all the requirements/conditions of the import permit
  • The consignment will be inspected once it arrives into Fiji. There are fees and charges applicable for inspection and biosecurity clearance
  • Any violation of the import permit conditions will result in the microbes being destroyed at your cost

Document requirements for microorganisms to be brought into Fiji: The consignment must be clearly labelled and identify all the microbes, the intended use and carrier. To demonstrate compliance with this requirement, importers must present the following on a Manufacturer’s declaration:

  • The product description (e.g. live starter culture, enzyme, etc.)
  • A detailed description of the microorganism/starter culture (genus and species)
  • A written declaration indicating that the microorganism(s) is not considered to be pathogenic for livestock and plants
  • A statement that the product is not on a whole seed/grain or animal derived carrier (other than lactose)
  • A statement that the product is not a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)





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