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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, February/March 2013

Food Manufacturers Implement a Rainbow of Hues in their Color-Coding Programs

by Andy Teng

Scrub brushes with different color bristles enable food manufacturers to easily identify tools used for different allergens, applications, and areas of the plant.

Compare the operations of the safest food manufacturing and processing companies in the world, and you will find they have a lot in common. Model facilities boast rigorous operating procedures, well-trained employees, continuous improvement programs and, in many instances, lots of color.

That’s right, color–as in color coded utensils, storage containers, garment, sanitary products, signs, and cleaning tools. Implementing a well-delineated color-coded system is one of the most effective and straightforward ways of preventing cross contamination and maintaining good hygiene. However, despite its long use in food manufacturing, ease of adoption and relative low cost, there are no industry standards for using color and no regulatory statutes or guidance mandating the practice. In fact, the most successful practitioners of color coding seem to be those who develop their own home-grown plans built on common sense and a thorough understanding of their operations and workforce. Many of these programs have been in place for decades and were expanded over time as their facilities grew in complexity and size.

“There are many big companies that have established color coding proper, and they have always had some methods of control,” explained Bill Bremer, a principal and lead consultant within the food group at Kestrel Management, a consulting group. He pointed out that the industry is mostly self-managed when it comes to color coding because of the absence of regulatory requirements. Rather, the practice is driven by each company’s certification efforts, which often require the use of color in the plant. Bremers, who advises on HACCP best practices among other control and management techniques, said color coding is essential to passing a certifying audit.

Although it doesn’t mandate the use of color, one of the FDA’s HACCP guidance documents repeatedly recommends its use in the manufacture of refrigerated or frozen ready-to-eat (RF-RTE) foods. The document, entitled “Control of Listeria monocytogenes in Refrigerated or Frozen Ready-To-Eat Foods,” specifically calls for the use of color-coded smocks to restrict employee access to certain areas of the plant and to use color-coded containers to identify their functions by areas of the plant. Similarly, the FDA prescribes the use of colors for cleaning equipment and utensils to prevent contamination.

De facto standards

Color-coding practices can be as varied as the products for which they are implemented, and while neither industry bodies nor regulators have issued specific guidelines on color schemes, de facto standards exist. For instance, black is commonly used to indicate equipment or utensils that have floor contact while white denotes food contact. Grey is often used to mark trash content, and yellow is typically for an intermediate piece of equipment. Still, not all plants follow the same schemes, but as long as workers are adequately trained to understand their system, any configuration is acceptable, said Bremer.

What becomes troublesome, however, is when a manufacturer such as a confectionery company makes a wide range of products containing various allergens. Soy, peanuts, eggs, milk, and others may each require a distinctive color for storage, handling equipment, processing surface areas, and so forth. In fact, Bremer pointed out, he has come across large plants that have invested in hundreds of thousands of color-coded equipment to prevent cross contamination in the facility. Each work area may require numerous sets of utensil, cleaning equipment, signage, and so on multiplied by a factor of two to three; redundancy is a must-have for any operation. In such a scenario, the total number of color-coded items can add up quickly.

One distributor of these items pointed out that growing concerns about allergens have led to broader use of color coding. Dakonya Freis, MRO department manager for Nelson-Jameson, a distributor based in Marshfield, Wis., said many of her customers are adding new colors to their operations because the list of allergens they handle is growing. To address this trend, they are seeking unconventional hues to differentiate those additions. Typically, she added, the additions are product-specific rather than facility-wide. Even so, she said, the industry is more broadly implementing color coding in different operational areas.

“We’re seeing them really ramp that up and adding colors,” she said, qualifying that “color coding is as complex as you make it.” Freis said that some manufacturers simply need existing types of products in different colors while others are applying new rigor in how tightly they control work areas and want a bigger catalog of products. For instance, in the past a customer may have used standard white mops throughout the plant, but today the manufacturer may want different colors to ensure cleaning equipment don’t stray into the wrong areas. At the same time, customers are looking for color uniformity in items such as squeegees, which in the past might have had a blade that was a different hue than the handle. Color coding, she added, can reach into every aspects of an operation, from hair nets to lab coats to even gaskets.

“It comes back to the questions of ‘Is that product you are using going to pose any risk of cross contamination, is it cleanable, and does it meet the end user application requirements,” she pointed out.

Despite its long use in food manufacturing, ease of adoption and relative low cost, there are no industry standards for using color.

Regulatory pressures

What’s driving the greater rigor around color coding? Jay Cherwin, senior manager of segment strategy for Grainger, a Chicago-based supplier of color-coded products, believes regulations such as FSMA is in partly responsible. Although the act doesn’t specifically require color coding to improve products safety, it is having an effect in how manufacturers respond to the legislation.

“Food safety standards will be more demanding,” Cherwin said, adding that companies will increasingly turn to visual management as a way to protect food integrity. “It has a proven utility and it will be expanded in its current form.”

Some of that expansion is driven by large manufacturers broadening their programs, companies introducing color schemes to facilities they’ve acquired, and smaller producers who need certification to stay within the supply chain of some customers. Whatever the reason, food companies are turning to suppliers such as Grainger and others for tools that will enhance their color-coded programs. Additionally, they are seeking advice on what works best, Cherwin noted. For instance, a Grainger representative may walk a customer’s plant floor to identify deficiencies or make suggestions.

While food manufacturers ultimately make key decisions on how they implement color coding in their facilities, consultants and suppliers do provide valuable input that help strengthen their programs. Bob Serfas, the founder of R.S. Quality Products, a manufacturer and distributor of cleaning products and utensils based in Allentown, Pa., advises companies to simplify their approach and conduct extensive training to gain employee buy-in. Adhering to these two principles will increase the effectiveness of any color-coding program.

“I think it’s best to make the plan as simple as possible but still get the color coding you need,” he said. “A plan that is too complicated makes it almost impossible for the employees to learn. Training is key.”

A color-coded shadow board with cleaning tools supplied by Grainger.
A color-coded shadow board with cleaning tools supplied by Grainger.

He advises manufacturers to conduct a thorough walk-through of their facility to determine zones and the colors that will be used in each one. Color should be chosen based on the food processed in that area. For instance, a white brush would be a poor choice for an area that processes coconuts since a bristle that breaks off may be difficult to spot in the end product. Therefore a contrasting color such as green or red is more appropriate.

As food companies ratchet up their coding efforts, their needs for novel colors products are growing as well. That’s why R.S. Quality and other suppliers say they are constantly working with vendors as well as developing their own unique offerings to meet new demands. For instance, Serfas said his company has seen a surge of requests for products that are more durable. As a result, the company began making sanitary aluminum and stainless steel handles to replace weaker fiberglass versions. These may be attached to standard-thread mop heads. Additionally, he said food companies are requesting unusual hues such as orange, pink, and purple to expand their palette.

As food manufacturers face greater regulatory scrutiny under FSMA rules, they can take comfort knowing that an effective color-coding program may help prepare them for the forthcoming mandates. By implementing a comprehensive visual management program, they reduce the potential for cross-contamination and reap the benefits associated with good plant hygiene. For those behind the trends, they may have no choice but to play catch up. As Bremer pointed out, they will likely face growing calls from all sides to adopt color coding. “Plants that did not think about it before will get pressure from not only the regulators but also their customers,” he added.

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