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Food safety after an ammonia leak

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Individual food items are at high risk for ammonia contamination. Image supplied
Individual food items are at high risk for ammonia contamination. Image supplied

By Lizelle van der Berg, director – GCCA South Africa | All image credits supplied by GCCA

In preparing for an ammonia leak crisis, have you considered food safety?

What will happen to the thousands of tons of product that have or might have been exposed to ammonia? One GCCA South Africa member approached the GCCA scientific advisory council to find out more. Dr Michael Jahncke, chairman of the scientific advisory council and a fish products expert from the Virginia Tech University and Dr Faris Karim, ammonia contamination & food toxicology expert from the Kansas State University provided insight.

Currently, there is no literature or guidance regarding food safety products after an ammonia leak. When a leak happens, testing for ammonia and the PH of the contaminated product and comparing it to a control (product that was not affected by the leak) should give a good idea about the contamination levels. Smelling the contaminated product can also help determine if it is contaminated. According to our knowledge there is no place in South Africa offering the service of testing ammonia levels in food products.

Research done on what packaging best protects food from ammonia contamination shows that vacuum packaging is superior to other packaging types in this regard. Additionally, the lower the temperature of the food, the less likely it is to get contaminated by ammonia. If ammonia odors are present in the food, or if testing shows substantial contamination levels with ammonia, the products would be considered adulterated and unfit for sale.

From the FDA Investigations Operations Manual 2021:

  1. If products involved in an ammonia leak are to be salvaged or reconditioned, cover the following points:
  2. Cases of food should be removed from ammonia spill rooms as soon as possible.
  3. Food packages should be removed from master corrugated cases as soon as possible. Ammonia appears to be absorbed by the corrugated cases.
  4. Food products should be repacked into unaffected cases and moved to storage areas free of ammonia and other products.
  5. When sampling ammonia contaminated products use IOM Sample Schedule Chart 3 for guidance.

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The following barrier characteristics of packaging materials exposed to ammonia will help in deciding if food products may be salvaged or reconditioned:

  1. Kraft and other types of paper are very permeable.
  2. Plastic films (polyethylene, saran, cryovac, etc.) are relatively good barriers.
  3. Water glaze (ice) on food will absorb ammonia and the washing action by melting ice may eliminate ammonia.
  4. Waxed paper overwrap and waxed cardboard boxes are very permeable.
  5. Loose packed individually quick frozen (IQF) foods are more susceptible than block frozen foods.
  6. Glass, metal and heavy aluminum foil packages are excellent barriers.
Additional resources:

Lastly, simply an anecdote: This comes from a WHO report on food security awareness. This paragraph is illustrative of potential repercussions of ammonia leaks and food.

“In November 2002, an incident of apparent food poisoning sent 42 elementary school children and two adults to local hospitals. A total of 60 students and school employees suffered vomiting and nausea from ammonia contaminated food. The problem was an ammonia leak that began one year earlier in a cold storage warehouse used to store food for the school lunch program. Two state officials faced charges of reckless conduct for ignoring prior complaints about tainted food from the facility, and the victims’ families settled a civil lawsuit in August 2004.”

It is of upmost importance that you include the aspect of food safety in your emergency plan to ensure that you are prepared and know which steps to follow in case of an ammonia leak.

Goods are labelled in a cold storage facility in the US. Image supplied
Goods are labelled in a cold storage facility in the US. Image supplied

The scientific advisory council is an eminent group of food scientists, logistics, and packaging experts from around the world. The council provides cutting-edge research and advice to members of the Global Cold Chain Alliance. The group’s expertise includes: fish products, cool-climate fruit & produce, refrigerated transportation, poultry products, refrigeration engineering, supply chain management, meat science, food process engineering, ammonia contamination and food toxicology, food safety, logistics & operations management, agriculture economics, frozen food quality, packaging, microbiology, dairy products, postharvest technology and tropical fruit & produce.

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