Microbial hotspots—problem areas or equipment that chronically harbor microbes—are often to blame when a food safety or food quality issue arises in a processing plant. That’s why it’s important for plant managers to address chronic contamination.

Take these five steps to develop an action plan to wipe out hotspots in your plant:

  1. Identify the source. 

Start with a root-cause analysis of the problem. Determine which microbes are present and the frequency and cause of chronic contamination. For cold processors, Listeria monocytogenes is top-of-mind and usually the chief pathogen of concern. Depending on the foodstuffs being processed, Pseudomonas and Lactobacillus spp. spoilage bacteria can also present challenges. Once you’ve determined the nature and cause of the hotspot(s), develop an action plan that includes the level of resources needed to mitigate the situation. At this stage, it’s important to get top management buy-in on resource requirements.

  1. Analyze risk points.

The most difficult-to-access areas and equipment present the greatest risk points for microbial hotspots. If you cannot see or reach an area, you likely cannot clean it consistently nor sanitize it properly. Areas that commonly harbor microbes include:

  • Cooling unit and freezer interiors.
  • Drive gears and sprockets that are not accessible for complete cleaning.
  • Hard-mounted flat scraper bars and product guide rails.
  • Gaskets and seals inside food contact equipment.
  • Deeply scratched plastics that contact food.
  • Equipment that cannot be disassembled efficiently for regular cleaning.

Equipment cleanability and hygienic design are important components of the risk assessment process. All replacement or new processing equipment added to your facility should feature modern, easy-to-clean designs for more effective sanitation and reduced food safety risks.

  1. Set up equipment cleaning protocols.

Sanitation needs depend on several factors, including equipment design and cleanability. Your equipment manufacturer can help determine how to fully disassemble all components for cleaning and advise on which chemicals can or cannot be used in equipment sanitation.

An enzymatic cleaning chemical is highly effective in removing buildups and associated microbial biofilms on equipment. For best results, work with a sanitation company and chemical supplier on the tools, chemicals and support materials to solve these issues. This includes field support from technical service personnel directly involved in the chemical supply and/or sanitation cleaning actions.

At times, customized solutions may be needed, such as automatic overhead chain drive cleaning units, specialized spray bars on conveyor belts or even developing modified, in-process cleaning procedures during extended food production runs. For efficient soaking, cleaning and organization of smaller equipment parts in processing environments, a clean-out-of-place (COP) tank is essential. Dedicated, labeled cleaning tools and gear, including material handling equipment and trash bins, are recommended for ready-to-eat (RTE) environments to help minimize microbial harborage and cross-contamination risks.

  1. Monitor results and adjust.

Often, deep cleaning and special chemicals are used to clean up a hotspot, followed bymaintenance staff involvement in repairs or modifications to prevent future recurrences. Review your master sanitation schedule (MSS) and determine if cleaning frequency needs to be increased or modified. Involve the quality assurance team to monitor hotspot areas and take investigative swab samples to verify there are no flare-ups.

Quality assurance tests and environmental monitoring programs must be performed by well-trained personnel. Conduct high-quality individualized training followed by periodic proficiency testing to document staff competency.

  1. Take a long-term approach.

Mitigating hotspots can be time consuming and costly. Once the problem is resolved, work with management to develop a plan to prevent the need for special sanitation measures. Consider facility repairs, new equipment, MSS revisions or changes in equipment teardown procedures. In the case of old or outdated equipment that is essentially uncleanable, the best long-term solution may be to replace that equipment.

Take a broad view of the hotspot situation and align with production goals to maximize long-term results and avoid risk due to chronic microbial contamination. Be aware of changes and how they will impact sanitation. Controlled change initiatives (e.g. facility repairs with concurrent operational and sanitation support, as well as vigilant swab monitoring) will help reduce food safety risks.