Dr Gary McMahon, Company Microbiologist at Moy Park, discusses the need for ongoing vigiliance in the poultry industry
A Lurgan native, Dr Gary McMahon had his first taste of Moy Park, a leading poultry producer, in 1988 when he took a summer job as an 18-year-old packing frozen coated chicken. While studying Applied Microbiology at Queen’s University Belfast, he worked holidays and weekends in the Moy Park Craigavon and Moira laboratories, across food and agricultural sampling. During this time, he completed his undergraduate dissertation on the application of novel products such as organic acids and trisodium phosphate to chicken carcasses. He continued working with the company, as well as several others, during his PhD in Food Science, researching biofi lms in the food processing environment.
Gary returned to Moy Park in July 1997 as a Trainee Technical Manager, initially based in the new laboratory at the Craigavon Technical Centre where he worked towards obtaining CLAS accreditation for the laboratory. “I realised that to progress my career in the direction I wanted, I had to seek out new experiences and so I successfully applied to move into Factory Technical within our Ready-to-Eat facility at Craigavon.” He remained there for four years, before moving to Factory Technical in the company’s primary processing facility at Dungannon where he took on a more customer-focused role. “I was promoted to Category Technical Manager for the Primary Division following a restructuring within our business, with technical responsibility for the four primary processing sites across GB and NI and all of their customers.”
As the company grew and further necessary restructuring took place, Gary was appointed Category Technical Manager for Innovation, with responsibility for the four group laboratories, R&D projects, and Consumer Relations. He was subsequently appointed Company Microbiologist where his primary role is to oversee the management of Group Laboratories and Consumer Relations, a combined team of over 30 colleagues. The three laboratories, at Ballymena and Craigavon in Northern Ireland and Anwick in Lincolnshire, are managed directly by Laboratory Managers who report directly to the Group Laboratory Manager. “Within each laboratory there is a team of qualifi ed and experienced Senior Laboratory Analysts and Laboratory Analysts. There is also a small central support team of Quality Compliance Manager, LIMS Manager and Laboratories Coordinator. The Consumer Relations team is much smaller, but we have recently embarked on an apprenticeship scheme to aid our Succession planning.”
Day-to-day, he says, he is called in to support site, new product development and customer-facing teams across the business with any microbiological queries, and this can include direct face-to-face interactions with customers, both existing and new. “I have a responsibility to ensure our routine testing meets all legal and customer requirements and any investigatory work is focussed and beneficial. I have led a major Innovate UK project on Campylobacter which has resulted in industry-leading whole genome sequencing data and peer-reviewed publications. I have also represented the business by presenting at conferences, both nationally and internationally.”
Gary enjoys the variety offered by the role and interacting with different colleagues and teams across the business. “The role allows you to keep abreast of technological advances, either within the realm of laboratory testing or within the factories themselves. There is great satisfaction in being part of a team that helps support the business to deliver favourable outcomes.” He also enjoys developing and maintaining relationships with customer contacts that he has built up over the years, sometimes through direct business dealings or in a social context at conferences. “More recently I helped lead the team as we embarked on our biggest Capex investment to date with the construction of a £1 million new laboratory facility at our Anwick site. This proved both exciting due to the scale of the investment and opportunities it provided, and challenging as this all took place during lockdown which impacted our initial timeline, but we still completed what we set out to achieve.”
‘Perfecting the art of spinning plates’ is how Gary phrases one of the key challenges of his job. “Prioritising: some days you can have requests for support from multiple parts of our business, with each request being a high priority for the individual or department making the request. It’s important to ensure you remain available and don’t build up a backlog of queries.” It’s vital, too, he says, to avoid being ‘too technical’ when providing support and guidance. “It’s always a challenge with microbiology to try and keep the message or advice
simple, without losing the necessary context and detail.”
On the subject of food safety technology, Moy Park utilises ELISA technology at the Craigavon laboratory to ensure the most rapid pathogen testing possible, and at the Anwick laboratory for allergen testing. “We use rapid and automated equipment for serology testing of our flocks. Currently in our new Anwick laboratory facility, we are undertaking a Polymerase Chain Reaction trial – it’s a molecular method using the genetics of the organism – which we hope to use for both agricultural and food samples.” Maintaining food safety within the poultry industry is a matter of constant vigilance, Gary states. “Whilst we are now at very low levels of Campylobacter, it still needs to be managed, and all the learnings and interventions installed over the last 10-12 years are still in place and monitored daily.” Salmonella in poultry is a global challenge and whilst the UK and Ireland are at comparatively very low levels, this is only through strict adherence to proven procedures and biosecurity measures at feed mills, breeder farms, hatcheries and broiler farms, he says. “Whilst not a food safety challenge, avian influenza is probably the biggest microbiological challenge to the poultry industry at the current time. It is becoming endemic within the wild bird population in the UK and we are now seeing a continuous threat throughout the year rather than the seasonal trends we were used to.”
Earlier this year, Gary won the safefood Food Safety Champion Award at the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Awards. His entry involved Micro Risk Assessments, particularly around developing teams and increasing due diligence. “The initiative is an all-inclusive microbiological risk assessment package which has enabled a reduction in testing, whilst creating a more precise, science-based verification and validation determination of shelf-life from both a quality and safety perspective. The package includes a detailed written procedure, reference database for both safety and quality related microorganisms, easy to complete MRA template, new Organoleptic procedure and a training presentation.”
The reason for the initiative, he tells us, is that too often, technical personnel within the food industry have limited or very top line knowledge of microbiological matters. “Often the terminology or lack of clarity around the complexity of relationships between the microbes and the impact on foodstuffs, scares individuals away from delving too deep into the topic.”
The micro risk assessment sought to address this by:
• Removing the fear colleagues may have when dealing with microbiological topics and utilise this knowledge in their daily role outside of completing risk assessments.
• Showing colleagues that they do not need to retreat behind the perceived security blanket of testing, providing a full understanding why they are testing, and getting them to question if there is a real benefit and what the results really mean. For example, in its simplest terms, testing for a pathogen and obtaining a negative result does not confi rm its absence in the batch of product, but simply its absence in the 10g or 25g sample tested.