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Cleaning and Sanitation: The Building Blocks of Food Safety

Aging plants, increasing retailer pressure and new regulations can make keeping a facility up to par on cleaning procedures complex.

Sanitation managers should conduct visual verifications to ensure chemical sprays and foams are applied safely and properly. Photo courtesy of PSSI.
Sanitation managers should conduct visual verifications to ensure chemical sprays and foams are applied safely and properly. Photo courtesy of PSSI.

Each year, FDA releases information on food and beverage processing facilities’ violations cited during the agency’s routine visits. Some of the most commonly documented food safety problems in plants have involved sanitation monitoring, including checking food-contact surfaces and plant cleanliness.

Maintaining a clean and sanitary plant is essential in building and executing an effective food safety program. Facilities must be vigilant in combatting bacterial contamination and cross-contamination, not only to meet federal regulations and protect their brands and reputation, but also to protect their customers and consumers as well.

"Every year, it’s estimated that 1 in 6 Americans gets sick by eating contaminated food,” says Aaron Patch, marketing director for Remco Products, which provides color-coded cleaning tools. “Adequate cleaning and sanitizing of equipment are of great importance to public health, as these processes can eliminate or significantly minimize biological, chemical and physical hazards appropriate for food safety.”

The equipment, as well as the procedures used to clean and sanitize a food and beverage plant, are crucial. But due to aging facilities, increasing pressures from retailers and regulations on processors, knowing how to keep a facility up to snuff to protect reputations and consumers can be tricky.

“There is a new level of complexity around sanitization in today’s world of food processing requiring a much deeper level of knowledge and expertise to stay ahead,” says Ted Moffett, technical service director for PSSI, a contract sanitation service provider.

Fortunately, there is no dearth in the availability of new tools, products and expert advice to help facilities achieve the No. 1 goal in food and beverage production: to produce high-quality and safe products.

Coming clean

Before discussing cleaning and sanitation, each must be properly defined. Cleaning refers to the physical removal of food or other types of debris from a surface to control contamination.

“Cleaning largely removes extraneous material and allergens from a surface,” says Patch. “This can go a long way in reducing extraneous or foreign material recalls and allergen cross-contact-related recalls, especially in FDA-regulated products.”

A sanitized surface contains no risk of pathogens or contaminants because pathogens have been either eliminated or the microbial load has been reduced to safe levels. Sanitizing agents are usually an EPA-approved chemical used to ensure the safety of food products by achieving 5-log kill, or elimination of almost 100 percent of the organisms from a food-contact surface.

“Cleaning is a basic must-have, and equipment, tools and the processing environment need to be kept clean and in a good hygienic condition to allow for effective sanitation,” says Moffett. “The sanitation process is a prerequisite to a modern, compliant food safety program.”

Cleaning is a precursor to sanitation because a surface must be free of pathogens, allergens and contaminants to produce safe food.

“Surfaces must first be cleaned, or free of soil, and sanitized by either chemical or heat,” says Bryan Downer, vice president of sales and marketing for Sani-Matic, Inc., a manufacturer of sanitary process cleaning systems and solutions. “If soil is present on a surface, the chemical cannot reach the area covered by that soil and cannot be sanitized.”

If heat is applied to a soiled surface, the debris adhering might become more attached to the tool or equipment, making future cleaning more difficult. Generally, there are four factors that affect the cleaning and sanitation process: the time it takes to complete the process; the temperature of water to remove debris from surfaces; the chemistry of the detergents required to remove soil; and mechanical action of removal such as scrubbing and water pressure.

“If one of the factors is not within the optimal range — such as too little time to clean or insufficient water temperature or pressure — then the imbalance will affect the sanitation process and, potentially, risks for buildups can occur,” says Steve Weiland, corporate microbiologist for PSSI.

Finally, plants’ sanitation standard operating procedures (SSOP) cannot overlook allergen control. Because more consumers are avoiding certain ingredients for health or diet-related reasons as well as regulations on labeling products containing the “Big 8” allergens, processors should be aware of allergen contamination.

“The control of allergen risks is a challenging situation for food processing; dedicated lines of equipment and items that are ‘allergen-specific’ help reduce risks for other allergens to be mixed into foods,” says Weiland. “However, this is not always possible, and so a thorough cleaning process must be tested for allergen residue by the food QA (quality assurance) staff, and then final sanitizing and setup process can occur to produce foods.”

Best practices

The basics of a cleaning and sanitation process, as mentioned above, are time, action, chemicals and temperature, or TACT. However, Remco has added two other key factors that can influence the efficacy of a sanitation program: employees and resources.

“Trained personnel are more effective and efficient in cleaning tasks,” says Patch. “[And having] resources, proper cleaning tools, protective clothing, equipment, etc., are as necessary as the other requirements listed.”

Once a facility establishes the appropriate parameters for TACT, says Downer, these conditions must be reproduced consistently. “Minimizing the risk of human error is critical to ensure repeatable cleaning and sanitation results,” he says.

To have an effective cleaning and sanitation program, staff must be trained and monitored by qualified supervisors and managers. This entails regular assessments of workers to ensure they are following SSOPs.

The best management style, says PSSI’s Moffett, is a “boots on the ground” approach to verifying and inspecting procedures, chemicals and cleaning equipment, ensuring they are working well. If not or if there are any changes to the plant, revisions and updates to the SSOPs should be made.

Proper application of chemical sprays and foams in use should be visually verified by the sanitation management team. Plus, the chemicals must be appropriate, of the correct concentration and used in the proper sequence for each cleaning or sanitizing job performed. And don’t forget temperature verification. “The facility’s water temperature and pressure must be consistent and in optimal ranges,” he states.

Having the best cleaning and sanitizing tools can help employees do their jobs properly. Moffett says tools should be “of a rugged, hygienic design; easy to maintain and keep clean; and are safe to use.” To learn about other effective cleaning and sanitizing tools recommended by PSSI, please see Best tools to get the job done."

High-pressure water hoses are an essential element in a cleaning and sanitizing program. But what often might be overlooked is the care and storage of those hoses. Jennifer Wing, marketing manager for Hannay Reels, says hose reels should be used to keep hoses in good shape and ensure best results.

“One of the issues that facility workers regularly face is bent hoses,” says Wing. “Bent hoses are a seemingly small issue that can lead to serious food safety issues if not properly attended to. Bacteria can harvest and build up within the hose bend, allowing potentially harmful bacteria to contaminate all of the product that passes through the hose.”

Automation of cleaning

Consistency is important in effectively cleaning and sanitizing plants. However, people are human and mistakes will be made, which is why more processors and OEMs alike are increasing the level of automation in cleaning equipment and procedures.

“The best way to ensure consistent, reliable cleaning success is with automation,” says Trent Bullock, manager of engineering services for CSI, a provider of clean-in-place (CIP) equipment. “A well-automated CIP system that uses the right instrumentation can eliminate the guesswork and inconsistencies that come from human error.” Bullock says by programming pre-set temperatures, cycle times and chemical concentrations, both insufficient cleaning risks and cleaning costs can be reduced.

“Utilizing automated cleaning equipment will produce consistent results time after time,” says Darcel.

Schouler, marketing manager for Douglas Machines, a manufacturer of automated washing and sanitizing equipment, recommends equipping machines with data loggers to document wash and rinse times as well as monitor temperatures for each cleaning cycle.

“Automating the cleaning and sanitizing process is the most effective way to ensure repeatability and consistency,” says Sani-Matic’s Downer. “Automated clean-in-place systems are critical for cleaning and sanitizing food and beverage processes. The equipment should be sized and designed for the duty and should record all critical data.”

As for the parts and equipment that can’t be cleaned in place, he says clean-out-of-place (COP) systems, such as cabinet washers or tunnel washers, should be used to reproduce consistent results.

“These systems can reproduce exact cleaning scenarios and record the appropriate parameters for future reference and verification,” he says.

Effective training

One of the key components of a successful food safety program is training employees. Even for the most automated plants' operators must know the sanitation procedures and understand their importance.

“Operators must learn how to properly use the equipment, attend to alarms appropriately and understand the importance of leaving automated cleaning parameters unchanged,” says Downer.

Because not all cleaning steps will be automated for all plants, training staff on SSOPs is crucial. In the manufacturing environment, where throughput is king, the sanitation team can be overlooked, but the work is important and comes with risks.

“High noise levels, dangerous equipment, slippery floors and harmful chemicals create a vulnerable environment for employees where they are at higher risk of injuries,” says Moffett. “It requires a heightened level of attention and thorough training on procedures and protocols.”

An effective training program should consider different learning styles, with some workers responding to different types of training, including visual, verbal, text-based and hands-on teaching methods.

According to Moffet, “Videos and interactive learning tools of sanitation actions are helpful in training team members.” Bilingual training, continuing support and access to language translation are mandatory, he adds.

Sanitation crew members must not only understand how to follow cleaning best practices, but also should understand how their tasks protect the food supply and, ultimately, consumers.

“Cleaning and sanitation must be a people-based activity, and that is when it also becomes a managerial art,” says Patch. “A good written education, training and refresher program is a must for any effective sanitation program.”

Workers should be regularly evaluated and should always have access to SSOPs. “Additionally, sanitation crews must be retrained regularly,” he says. “Training should happen at least yearly, or whenever there is a significant change in the cleaning and sanitation program.”

Patch suggests breaking training programs into three groups: orientation and good manufacturing practices training; job-specific task training; and process-specific training, which are tasks related to a preventive control measure and must be documented properly.

“Proof of knowledge retention may be tested through quizzes, workshop participation or even through taking credible third-party courses,” states Patch. “Supervisors have to evaluate and report on whether employees are following the cleaning and sanitation tasks as designed.”

Environmental impact and other factors to consider

One final component to consider in developing and executing a cleaning and sanitation program is its impact on the environment and plant staff. Due to their objective of killing microorganisms, cleaning chemicals can be particularly harsh on people and the planet.

“The sanitation team and the chemical supply company must partner together,” says Weiland. “Storage, use and disposal of all chemicals must be reviewed with the facility and be in compliance with all local, state and federal laws.”

To ensure a plant’s cleaning and sanitation program won’t compromise its corporate social responsibility programs, a plant must partner and consult with public officials to minimize any risks to the plant’s surrounding community and its resources.

“Monitoring of facility water use and waste disposal, both by utilities and by regular facility testing programs, will ensure that safe practices are in place and full compliance with regulations are being met,” he says.

Some cleaning and sanitation solutions offer environmental friendly features. For instance, Douglas Machines’ equipment re-circulates detergent wash water in its systems to offer its customers water, detergent and energy savings, says Schouler.

Within plants, cost-benefit or risk-based evaluation of each cleaning and sanitation step should be done to ensure tasks of one department will not conflict with another. Plant and sanitation managers might ask for help from other departments to balance the cleaning needs with the environmentally friendly efforts of a plant.

“For example, a chemical used at a higher concentration on a surface may be effective in removing the contaminants, but it might damage the surface and increase effluent concentrations, which could be in violation of environmental waste effluent standards,” says Patch. “High discharges of water to flush out the effluent could lead to an operational wastage issue. Also, high concentration chemicals are usually corrosive and toxic and can be occupational health and safety hazards.”

Cooperation among all plant departments will result in an improved and more efficient cleaning and sanitation program.

“Sanitation is both an art and a science that requires specific microbiological, chemical, safety and technical design expertise to identify potential risks or hazards in each unique environment,” says Moffett. “From the facility to the equipment to the overall air and water quality, there are endless variables that can impact the effectiveness of sanitation.”


More cutting-edge technologies

Want to learn more from cleaning and sanitation suppliers like these? Then you’ll want to attend ProFood Tech, a biennial trade show for the food and beverage processing industry. Produced by three of the world’s trade show leaders, PACK EXPO, Anuga and the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), the three-day event will showcase cutting-edge crossover technologies and innovative solutions from 450 exhibitors.

More than just a trade show, ProFood Tech will feature world-class educational offerings, networking receptions and industry award ceremonies. The ProFood Tech Conference Program, produced by IDFA, will offer a wide range of educational experiences covering regulations and food safety, consumer trends and marketing, food processing advances and technology, as well as business and leadership development. ProFood Tech will take place in Chicago, Illinois, at McCormick Place March 26-28, 2019. Register now at

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