Prioritizing Sanitization in Cold Food Processing

Maintaining a delicate balancing act requires robust standard operating procedures, comprehensive training programs, a dedicated staff, and a culture of prioritizing food safety.

Quality Stock Arts Adobe Stock 430823626
Quality Stock Arts AdobeStock_430823626

The basics of food sanitization are relatively clear cut on paper. But in practice, this critical process is anything but basic. It is arguably one of the most — if not “the most” — important elements in the cold process food chain. The CDC estimates that each year, roughly one in six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.

A successful sanitization process prevents contamination while averting product recalls and plant shutdowns. Yet for many producers, it is a constant struggle to balance production, equipment maintenance and sanitation. There are only so many hours in the day, and resources are often limited. Maintaining this delicate balancing act requires robust standard operating procedures, comprehensive training programs, a dedicated staff, and a culture of prioritizing food safety.

The balancing act

The No. 1 challenge food processing facilities face today is time and resources. Disruptions occur when production is running behind or equipment maintenance is required. The sad reality is that the time needed to remedy these issues will usually come out of the sanitization schedule.

Yet the sanitization process is fixed. If it requires six hours to complete, then the team will need six hours. Yet they may only have four hours due to unforeseen delays. In this instance, communication between the team leader and staff is vital. Not every task is critical. Rapid decisions need to be made on what tasks must be prioritized to remain compliant and what can be foregone until a later date.

Larger manufacturers often manage this balancing act better since they have more resources. Smaller producers can be more vulnerable. They often utilize producers to also conduct cleaning and sanitization, which can result in long hours, fatigue and poor decision making.

The dynamic nature of these operations underscores the need for detailed and comprehensive procedures.

A living process

The food manufacturing industry relies on quality tools such as Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and Sanitation Standard Operating Procedure (SSOPs). SSOPs provide a step-by-step description of cleaning and sanitizing procedures and clearly specifies:

  • What is to be cleaned.
  • How it is to be cleaned.
  • How often it is to be cleaned.

·       How these activities will be verified for auditing.

SSOPs can also include which personnel are responsible for performing each procedure, safe handling of chemicals and waste, and safety measures for protecting team members. They can also build in prioritization and critical tasks that need to be completed under any circumstance. They can be written for a specific piece of equipment, a particular zone or as a master plan for the whole facility. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) requires that each facility maintain daily records sufficient to document the implementation and monitoring of the SSOPs and any corrective action taken.

Nonetheless, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to sanitization for cold food processing. Each type of plant will have product-specific needs based on risk. Working in a refrigerated facility will require careful mitigation of condensation. A meat plant has a tremendous amount of water to deal with needed for cleaning, and the crew will require specialized gear and safety measures. Dairy plants have their own unique regulations and cleaning schedules for controlling pathogens. 

It is also important to recognize that no cleaning and sanitization program is static. It should be viewed as a living, breathing system. It requires constant recalculation of efficiency and effectiveness. At the end of every production day, there should be an evaluation of what went right, and what needs to be corrected. In the end, it is much more economical to fix problems immediately, than to wait until it becomes a crisis. Then once a new method is established, it should then be integrated into the SSOPs.

Steps toward sustainability

Traditional methods of sanitization in cold food processing are not typically considered environmentally friendly due to the significant amounts of expended energy and water. But new methods in wet sanitization and green chemicals are available that can clean as effectively and efficiently without damaging facility assets.

This is particularly important for plants looking to reach or maintain organic status, which requires products be kept from coming in contact with unapproved substances. Some commonly used sanitizers in food production (such as acetic acid, ethyl alcohol and isopropyl alcohol) are considered prohibited and require the intervening step of a potable water rinse between the use of the material and organic production. But this option increases both labor and water use. So careful consideration must be made in selecting the appropriate chemicals for organic processing to meet USDA-organic regulations.

Dry ice blasting is proving to be an effective solution for a wide range of applications, including cleaning, surface preparation and parts finishing. By harnessing the CO2 gas released from dry ice, this technique effectively cleans machinery and surfaces without leaving any residue behind. It is particularly effective for stubborn grease and encrusted residues.

Dry steam vapor technology also offers an alternative method to remove pathogenic bacteria, such as listeria, e-coli, salmonella and monocytogenes. Using a fraction of the water needed in traditional cleaning methods, it saves on water and chemicals. It is also safe for a variety of different surfaces — including stainless steel, aluminum, brass, and plastics — so it can be used on a variety of equipment, conveyor belts, floors, grated walkways and drains.

Moving toward more eco-friendly solutions can also help preserve employee health while saving   wear and tear on equipment.

The unsung hero of the food supply chain

It’s not a glamorous job by any means. It requires hard work. It can be dirty, wet and cold. Organic matter can be a breeding ground for bacteria. Not just anyone can step into the job without the proper training on process and regulations. Each level of staff needs to be fully trained to comply with the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). And the higher up the corporate chain, the more training is required. Industry standards and regulations for food and beverage facilities also continue to evolve. Therefore, training must be on-going to keep up with these changes to ensure compliance.

But comprehensive training is only the beginning of running a successful operation. Each team member must possess the right mindset and dedication to keeping the facility safe, clean and audit ready. More importantly, each one must understand the essential role they play in the protection of the global food supply.

A third-party sanitization partner can help fill in gaps with a team of reliable professionals and proven sanitation processes. These experts can also bring in technology solutions to improve recording and validation, scheduling and real-time communication across teams.

With the right people in place, an eye on continuous improvement and the willingness to embrace new and sustainable methods, facilities can realize the dream of better compliance, increased efficiency and safe food production.