Due to elevated awareness of global food-safety, a proactive approach to controlling hazards is a fundamental aspect of today’s food industry. This requires vigilant documentation and constant review of processes. Product safety in any food operation is paramount, but it must be acknowledged that this comes at a price, as regulatory compliance and sanitation steps ultimately impact the bottom line.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. While there currently is no established USDA or FDA guideline requiring food establishments (including processing plants, restaurants and retail meat, deli and bakery departments) to use laundry services, there is a universal expectation within the industry that a sanitized, safe work environment will be maintained.
Of the top 10 common food-handling practices that can cause food poisoning, both cross-contamination and infected persons can involve employee uniforms and garments.
Food processors need to adhere to strict food-safety and sanitation procedures in order to minimize the risk of customers contracting a foodborne illness. Outbreaks of foodborne illnesses have spawned lawsuits and liability claims, costing companies millions in settlements and even more in reputation damage.
These rules relate to handling of food items, but food handlers also must maintain a high standard of personal hygiene and cleanliness to avoid transferring harmful bacteria to foods. The following points apply to employees’ attire:
- Wear clean uniforms, aprons and garments at the beginning of each shift and change them regularly when necessary;
- Do not wear uniforms or aprons outside the food-preparation area;
- Avoid using handkerchiefs for wiping or blowing noses; use disposable tissues;
- Wear disposable gloves;
- Avoid wearing jewelry while handling or preparing food;
- Do not wear damaged or deteriorating uniforms, aprons or garments;
- Avoid garments that feature pockets above the waist or that have buttons.
Supplier safeguardsWhen looking at the role uniforms and garments play in a plant’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) program, food processors should expect more than just clean garments from a uniform supplier.
Uniform suppliers should include the following sanitation standard operating procedures (SSOPs) in their HACCP programs to ensure every step of their processes should guard against cross-contamination.
Wash formulas and temperature.
It is accepted and verified by many scientific evaluations that linen
and garments processed in a well-engineered wash formula are
hygienically clean upon completion of the washing process. Hygienically
clean is defined by CDC as “a reduction in microbial counts to a level
free of bacteria, viruses and other disease-producing organisms.”
Regardless of whether hot or cold water is used for washing, the temperatures reached in drying, especially during steaming, provide an additional layer of antimicrobial protection. Once clean apparel passes through a steam tunnel, it is taken from the racks and sorted three times to ensure worn or deteriorating garments are removed from the supply chain.
While this process is highly effective at producing hygienically clean garments, there is still a risk of cross-contamination after the garments are washed, cleaned and processed.
This is why the clean garments should be wrapped in a polyurethane bag shortly after conditioning to virtually eliminate the risk of cross contamination.
Garment material and design.The
right materials should promote both food and employee safety. A vinyl
apron, for example, tends to stiffen after repeated sanitizing and
exposure to cold temperatures. The plasticizers used to make vinyl - a
pliable material - will start to leach out. On occasion the material
becomes hard and brittle, and it could start flecking into the food
A line of work apparel must include various shirts, pants and smocks specifically designed for food-processing environments - all without buttons or pockets - which could add potential for contaminants. In addition, color-coded garments can help managers better identify workers and visitors who could be contaminating food products by being outside their designated work areas. Research indicates 100-percent spun-polyester garments provide higher levels of anti-microbial protection as compared to cotton because cotton creates more lint.
- Carts/plastic tubs. Carts used to transport clean clothes either should be designated for carrying clean clothes only, or be equipped with a disposable plastic liner or a disposable nylon liner/cover to ensure clean clothes do not contact carts or soiled garments.
- Pest control. Each laundry-processing plant should have an effective pest-control program in place to minimize possible hazards.
- Gloves. Disposable gloves should be worn during the sorting of dirty garments, with all sorters wearing disposable gloves that are changed regularly. Gloves should also be worn by handlers of clean food apparel before being poly-wrapped.
- Cross-contamination on the service route. The process for servicing food accounts must be designed and executed in a way that prevents cross-contamination. Cross-contamination can occur when dirty clothes are picked up and placed in the same cart in which clean garments are delivered. Dirty garments should be placed in a disposable plastic laundry bag within the delivery cart and should be stored in a specific location on the truck to avoid cross-contamination. The delivery person should wear disposable gloves when delivering clean garments and picking up dirty garments.
- Training. All vendor employees must be trained regularly and certified on basic food safety and preventing cross-contamination. Educational programs must include steps to avoid cross-contamination between different departments (meat, bakery, etc.) within the same plant or store on their route, as well as how to handle soiled and cleaned garments at the customer’s facility and on their trucks. Your uniform vendor should also be able to inform your employees in the proper handling and storage of clean and soiled garments. Employees of apparel companies should be trained on your company’s HACCP work-apparel cleaning procedures.
- Lockers. The lockers within the food plant should be cleaned on a regular basis to avoid contamination. Lockers must be kept in a clean designated area, away from any potential contamination.
- Service trucks. The service trucks should be kept free of dust and dirt to avoid contamination. Soiled and cleaned garments must be physically separated on trucks to prevent cross-contamination.
- Mats. Regularly scheduled cleaning and change out of mats at doorways and within the plant must be conducted to ensure they are safe and clean.
- Racks within plants. Storage racks must be cleaned regularly to avoid contamination. Using lightweight shelves is the recommended alternative to wood and laminated material because it is resistant to chipping and breaking while providing economical storage areas.
The assurance of safety comes from the process of identifying hazards, establishing controls for the identified hazards, monitoring controls and continuously verifying the system. Because the responsibility of HACCP falls on the individual processing plant, it leaves some feeling like they are drowning in paper. If food plants rely on trusted vendors to provide sanitary employee uniforms and garments, this can be a simple, but effective way to increase plant hygiene and reduce cross-contamination. There are many systems that can be implemented to make it easier for workers to perform their jobs in a safe, secure and sanitary manner - and pay dividends in the long run.
This article was adapted from the white paper, A Uniform Approach to HACCP, by Dr. Al Baroudi for ARAMARK Uniform Services. Dr. Baroudi is the president of Food Safety Institute International, a Henderson, Nev.-based consulting company that specializes in food-safety best practices and quality assurance. Contact him at (702)614-3007 or safefood4U@yahoo.com.
SIDEBAR: Can clothing battle bacteria?Clothing that repels germs and bacteria - like invisible biological suits of armor - might sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but according to G&K Service’s Director of Marketing Carter Bray, this concept indeed is real and in-use at food plants.
Last year, the Minnetonka, Minn., company launched BioSmart textile technology as part of its ProSura food safety initiative through a relationship with Spartanburg, S.C.-based Milliken & Co, a textile and chemical manufacturer.
Developed by Milliken, BioSmart is a textile treatment that - when laundered with an EPA registered chlorine bleach according to care instructions - binds chlorine to its surface. The chlorine bleach has been shown (in laboratory conditions using AATCC 100 test methods) to kill 99.9 percent of common bacteria and viruses - including Salmonella choleraesuis, E. Coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Hepatitis A - that might attach to the garment. Milliken’s patent-pending fabric and G&K’s expertise in wash chemistry and industrial laundry protocols both play key roles in delivering the efficacy of BioSmart, Bray says.
Bray adds that BioSmart lasts for the lifetime of the garment and that G&K reapplies chlorine bleach to “recharge” the system each time the clothing is laundered. Further, BioSmart garments are designed to fit right into food processors’ HACCP programs. “We tell people, don’t change your protocols. This is something that helps bridge gaps and, if your protocols aren’t being adhered to as much as you would like … this is an added layer of protection,” Bray says.
New BioSmart garments including chef coats, blue butcher coats, white wraps and black aprons will be added to the line this spring. Butcher coats, white pants, white shirts, bar towels and white aprons already are available.
SIDEBAR: Sanitation to fit the garmentIt’s one thing for a food processor to keep its plants and employees safe and sanitized - but once garments leave a facility, a supplier must ensure that laundering and delivery are handled properly.
Burbank, Calif.-based uniform supplier ARAMARK says it teamed up with Ecolab, St. Paul, Minn., to create 69 standard washing/sanitizing formulas, with specific applications tailored to the types of garment fabrics and kinds of soil to be removed. Ecolab provides HACCP-friendly standard procedures and standard formulas for garment cleaning. As part of ARAMARK’s HACCP plan, Ecolab conducts constant formula validation by titration for all processes.
This system makes the average life span of the garments about three years, with a built-in process to validate fabric deterioration and to remove any uniforms from circulation before they become a hazard due to color migration and material deterioration.