A clearly defined sanitation program is one of the most important steps of any food manufacturing facility. There are a number of ways that bacteria or other potentially threatening organisms can be introduced into any manufacturing environment, and it’s important that a sanitation program, one that employees are trained upon and knowledgeable of, exists and that records of these activities are kept.
A great first step is an environmental program for abatement. This includes things like hand washing prior to entering the facility, foot baths/doorway foamers/floor beads in areas where foot or forklift traffic is high and drain cleaning programs. All of these help prohibit potential contamination coming in from outside the plant or areas within the plant that may be hidden from view, i.e. cracks in flooring or foundation.
A drain cleaning program helps help prevent invasion of opportunistic organisms. Alongside regularly scheduled hand scrubbing, iodine blocks and quat rings are both recommended resources to help abate drain infestation. Regular swabs in all of these areas should also be done to further add confidence that a pathogenic-free environment exists.
Environmental monitoring is also an effective way of checking the cleanliness of your plant. This includes monitoring of the factory environment, water and air. Environmental monitoring is important because it helps to identify issues before the product can become contaminated. It provides data on sources of potential contamination, and is endorsed as the best method for control of pathogens.
There are a variety of sampling techniques that can be performed in order to confirm an effective sanitation program. The most common of these techniques are sponge sampling, culture swabs and ATP swabs. Sponge swabs are the most common sampling technique used to check for pathogens with the following benefits—pressure can be applied with the sponge to optimize recovery of organisms, sponges are capable of sampling large area and testing can be initiated in the sponge sampling bag. When a smaller area needs to be sampled, such as a nook or a crevice, use of a culture swab is more appropriate to check for microbial contamination. For immediate confirmation of cleaning effectiveness, ATP swabs are the most commonly used and trusted sampling tools. Benefits of using ATP swabs include immediate feedback (approximately 5 seconds), customizable to each facility, system sets an objective that’s recordable and traceable and test data can be easily trended. Other types of environmental monitoring that are less commonly used, but can still provide excellent feedback of a plants’ cleanliness are air sampling, residue sampling and water sampling.
The most crucial factors in any cleaning technique are the “4 Ts,”—time, temperature, turbulence (flow) and titration (chemical concentration). Cleaning-in-place (CIP), cleaning-out-of-place (COP) and manual cleaning/foam cleaning are all valid options for cleaning of filling systems, conveyor belts or any other food manufacturing equipment. Depending on the level of employee contact with the cleaning protocol and makeup of equipment, different chemicals are recommended for each of these different techniques. Personal protective equipment (PPE), such as waterproof suits, face shields, gloves and rubber boots are always a requirement, however some chemicals are safer for contact than others.
CIP presents advantages in regards to both safety and productivity in that it eliminates the need for operators to handle chemicals, enter vessels or other processing equipment and it reduces downtime associated with scheduled cleaning activities.
COP tanks are another valuable cleaning asset. In COP tanks, it is imperative to ensure that baskets are big enough to hold all parts, regardless of size, and that no material is resting on the bottom of the tank. This helps guarantee that all areas of equipment are cleaned thoroughly and no residue is left behind. Iodine-based sanitizers are an excellent tool in COP applications because of their blue color, which indicates that an adequate concentrate still exists and negates the need for employee interaction with chemical solutions for titration.
Manual cleaning requires the most employee interaction and is generally used where CIP is not a viable option. It can be performed using scrub pads or brushes etc., though materials that are absorbent in nature should be avoided. This technique requires chemicals that have been deemed safer for potential employee contact, yet PPE is still a mandatory requirement. Like COP applications, a thorough pre-rinse is perhaps the most important step, as it removes up to 90% of soils. Foam cleaning, another sub-set of manual cleaning, is a very useful technique for exterior surfaces and conveyor belts. It also requires a thorough pre-rinse. During foam cleaning, it’s important to maintain a foam of shaving cream-like consistency. Foam should never be applied to a hot surface or be allowed to dry. When using this technique, foam should be applied from bottom to top and rinsed from top to bottom. Contact time depends on the nature of the surface, 3-5 minutes for vertical surfaces and 5-10 minutes for horizontal surfaces, seeing that some surfaces shed foam more quickly than others. Foaming is an excellent tool used to clean quickly and safely in hard-to-reach places, and is very effective when used in conjunction with manual cleaning.
All types of cleaning can be audited and validated externally by operators and on-site support from your chemical representative. This is most easily done via titration of samples during each chemical step in comparison with system set points and actuals in regards to temperature, conductivity, flow and pH. When all is said and done, training is the most important aspect of any cleaning program, and helps further safety initiatives. Many chemical suppliers offer manuals and videos to aid this educational process and offer on-site services to ensure operators are aware of proper techniques, the “why” behind cleaning, as well as any dangers that may exist.
A comprehensive and effective cleaning and sanitation program is key to ensure the sustainable production of delicious, safe and reliable food products. Whether your organization is initially putting a cleaning and sanitation program in place, expanding its production capacity or switching from one chemistry to another, your chemical supplier must be involved in every step of the way and become, in a sense, a partner. Equally as important is that chemicals be applied according to the supplier’s instructions to ensure their optimal efficacy.
Furthermore, cleaning and sanitation must become everyone's job in your organization, not just those on the front lines. In fact, the best cleaning and sanitation programs are usually those that are perceived as organizational cultures instead of tasks that are simply assigned to a particular shift or department. Thus, everyone in the organization, from the upstairs offices to the floor, must espouse the fact that the success of any sanitation program ultimately depends on them. In addition, your organization’s cleaning and sanitation program must proactively and continuously be reviewed and revised to ensure its efficacy and address its eventual pitfalls.