The Impact of Swab-a-Thons

With U.S. FDA food processing plant inspections becoming more intensive and far-reaching, a new practice for conducting environmental testing has emerged – the ‘swab-a-thon’.

What is a ‘swab-a-thon’? In his presentation at Sprague’s Innovation in Pest Management Conference in Boise, Idaho, Dr. David Acheson, founder and CEO of The Acheson Group and former chief medical officer at the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, shared his insights on how this practice will impact the food processing industry.

“The ‘swab-a-thon’ is a relatively new term in the food industry. It’s when a regulatory agency, typically the FDA, arrives at your plant and take samples from equipment, floors and surfaces,” said Acheson.

In the past, the agency would usually collect product samples for laboratory testing of finished product, but inspectors are now turning to more extensive environmental testing – like the ‘swab-a-thon’ – to determine if there is a threat. Experts feel environmental testing is more likely to detect a problem and make it a more effective inspection tool for the agency. 

Acheson says ‘swab-a-thons’ can be announced or unannounced, and it can be triggered because your food was linked to an outbreak or be simply done at random. He explained they could also be triggered because the food your plant makes is considered a high-risk commodity.

“It can last one day, three days or as long as a week, depending on the size and complexity of the plant,” said Acheson. “Typically they take 100 swabs but I have seen as many as 300 taken. It is a very intensive and comprehensive process.” 

The samples are then analyzed for listeria or salmonella, or both, and if either is found they will genetically type it using whole genome sequencing. That genetic data information is then entered into the FDA’s national database, GenomeTrakr.

“They look to see if they have seen the strain before and if it links back to an ongoing outbreak of salmonella or listeria in food or a food plant,” said Acheson. “If a match is found it will inevitably lead to some sort of a product recall.”

Acheson reminded the food industry professionals in attendance at the conference that even if the samples collected aren’t linked to anything, it doesn’t mean they go away. 

“The results remain in the database and if down the road – one, two, five or 10 years – there is an outbreak or illness that matches the bacteria type that was in your plant, they’ll likely be back,” added Acheson.

The key takeaway message from Acheson in regard to preparing and dealing with a ‘swab-a-thon’ is to build as good an environmental control program as they can.

“It’s not always that simple but it comes down to keeping pests out of the places that really matter in your plant,” added Acheson.

Want to ensure your food processing facility can stand up to a ‘swab-a-thon’? Our risk assessment inspectors and analysts at Sprague have the technology and expertise to create a pest-free environment that reduces your risk.


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