A sanitary processing environment is essential to food safety, and ensuring a sanitary plant means implementing cleaning standards as well as sanitation standards.
“Cleaning and sanitation are different because the cleaning steps address physical soils that are loose or adhering to a surface. Sanitation is directly related to microorganisms,” said Alan Parker, managing director of Parker Associates consulting organization.
Parker defines cleaning as “the complete removal of unwanted matter.” Removing these soils enables the sanitizers to work effectively. Thus, attaining a sanitary environment involves seven essential steps:
- Inspection, Identification, Equpment Breakdown
- Sweeping and Flushing
- Rinse/Air Dry
As stated in the publication “Sanitation, the Foundation of Food Safety,” developed by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), “There can be NO shortcuts in this process—each step must be done and done in the proper order.”
1. Inspection, Identification, and Equipment Breakdown
Prior to beginning the cleaning program, equipment should be broken down, and an inspection conducted to identify any areas needing particular attention and select the application methods and chemicals to be used. While a plant will generally have standards for selection, it is also important to determine if any extenuating conditions exist that may require extra cleaning or sanitation, different detergent or sanitizer, or other variation.
2. Sweeping, Scraping, and Flushing
The first step in the cleaning and sanitation is, then, the physical removal of gross solids and large particles. This could include the use of brooms and scrapers or simply physical lifting and disposing of items. The more food residues removed ahead of time, the cleaner the wash water will stay.
This is often followed by flushing or rinsing of the surfaces to remove as much of the solids and particles prior to cleaning as possible. Parker recommends that warm water, of 105° to 115°F be used for rinsing. “If the water is too hot, it can cause the soils to become more adherent,” he said.
The second step of cleaning is the application of a detergent. This may be applied manually, but a mechanical foamer is generally preferred, Parker said. “This gives a very good cling to the surface so the contact time can be enhanced,” he explained, adding that it is particularly effective on vertical surfaces. Manufacturer directions for dilution rates and contact time should be used, then physical cleaning conducted to scrub the surfaces.
If operating in a dry facility, equipment and components may instead be cleaned with alcohol or other solvents that evaporate over time.
Following washing, a potable-water rinse is conducted to ensure that all the detergent is removed. The rinse step is critical because detergent residues will neutralize many sanitizers. As Parker explained: Detergents are alkaline, whereas most sanitizers are acidic; detergents have a negative charge, while most sanitizers have a positive charge.
At this point, more and more companies are also conducting a validation step, Parker said. That is, using ATP testing in a system to measure the effectiveness. “If the ATP test comes in above the limit, then the equipment needs to be re-cleaned,” he said.
Once the surfaces are verified as “clean,” the sanitizing steps are begun. A variety of applications are used for sanitizing processing environments, from heat to chemical disinfectants. “In the food and beverage industry, there are probably four or five general categories of hard-surface sanitation that are used,” Parker said. The most common of these are chlorine-based, sodium hypochloride, commonly known as bleach.
Other common sanitizers include “quats,” or quaternary ammonium compounds; PAA—peroxyacetic (or peracetic) acid; chorine dioxide, similar to hydrogen peroxide; and iodine, in certain applications. “Each has different characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages that make it appropriate for different uses,” he explained. Some may be more corrosive, others more effective in hard water, and others more easily inactivated by organic soil.
Selection should, thus, be based on the materials to be treated and available time, e.g., whether or not the sanitizer is to be left overnight. “How it will be used governs your choice of the most effective sanitizer,” Parker said, adding that the sanitizer label should be consulted for selection of most applicable product. “There will be registration information showing what it has been tested on and what bacteria it is effective against.”
And, just as with detergents, sanitizers should be applied at the concentration and contact time recommended by the manufacturer.
6. Rinsing/Air Dry
Sanitizers come in two forms: leave on and rinse off. According to Food Industry Quality Control Systems by Mark Clute, QA Manager of Turtle Mountain, most food processors currently use leave-on sanitizers due to the “glove-like protection” they provide. These, he said, can be left on the surfaces for several hours and still maintain their effectiveness.
As with detergents, rinse-off sanitizers should be completely rinsed from surfaces prior to operational start-up, and label directions should be followed for dry time for leave-on sanitizers.
7. Validation and Verification
Validation should be conducted through both visual inspection and protein swabs. Additionally, MDA recommends that all cleaning and sanitizing procedures be regularly monitored for effectiveness, through pre-operational inspections or audits and microbial sampling of the environment and food-contact surfaces. Verification criteria should include that no visible residue be present and micro counts be within acceptable limits.
Conclusion. For an effective cleaning and sanitation program, these steps should be fully defined with your plant’s specifications, cleaning schedule, and assigned responsibilities detailed in written SSOPs. Then staff should be trained, not only on the SSOPs, but on chemical safety and effectiveness, and the importance of the final validation and corrective action for any remaining allergens, soils, or micros. “Those,” Parker said, “are the critical elements in having an effective sanitation program.”
The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.