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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, August/September 2013

RFID Sanitation Monitoring Meets Demands of Digitized World

by James Topper

Safety and Sanitation

For those of us old enough to remember when they were initially available, those first clunky mobile phones were mind-blowingly amazing. They were absolutely magical—you could actually make a call from the middle of a field a mile from your house without a mile-long phone cord. The technology was immediately a must-have for those with the means. But looking back at those days now, sitting with our do-everything smartphones in our pockets, the technology of the first mobile phones seems stone-age primitive. If you asked it a question, it responded with a stony silence.

Parallels can be drawn to a similar technological revolution that has occurred with the adenosine triphosphate (ATP) sanitation monitoring systems designed for use in the food industry. When they first became available in the 1990s they were simply astonishing. In just seconds, ATP systems could determine if food contact surfaces were microscopically clean. They provided an instant solution to verify the effectiveness of critical sanitation protocols needed to help ensure the safety and quality of food products. However, nowadays the methodology used in the early ATP systems seems pretty primitive.

The earliest ATP units were bulky and big, and while certainly not bad when compared to other alternatives for monitoring surface cleanliness, including growing cultures, their features were limited compared to today’s options.

Rob Soule, sanitation product manager, Neogen Corp., sees the evolution as being, “all about the information” the ATP systems provide. Where in the past the immediate pass/fail determination for a site was enough, today’s more sophisticated managers want to look at trends and deeply analyze their test results to better understand the effectiveness of their sanitation efforts. They also want to improve sampling programs to ensure that sites provide a representative sampling of the facility and get the attention each one deserves.

“RFID technology has many uses and we applied it to sanitation monitoring to help our customers develop their sanitation monitoring programs. We didn’t invent RFID technology,” states Soule. “We simply took this terrific technology that’s been used in everything from inventory tracking to cattle identification to toll booth access and figured out a way to automate some of the things that our customers were telling us take up too much of their time.”

Easing Test Plan Creation

As in the early days of ATP system usage, each facility is still required to develop a sanitation monitoring program that is unique to that facility. Whether the program is part of the operation’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) program, sanitation standard operating procedures (SSOP), Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) compliance, or similar sanitation monitoring initiative, the goal is the same: Identify critical control points in the facility that are the toughest to sanitize effectively, and the likeliest to pose risks of contamination to that facility’s food products.

Once the higher-risk points are identified, a daily test plan can be developed to monitor the effectiveness of the facility’s sanitation program by testing any or all of the points. Because most facilities have more critical control points than can be realistically tested on a daily basis, in the past supervisors had no other choice but to take the time to attempt to tailor daily test plans to best ensure the overall cleanliness of the facility.

With today’s ATP sanitation monitoring systems, all a supervisor has to do is identify test sites just once as either being mandatory, meaning they are tested every day, or as being of lower risk, which means the sites are among those that are tested on a random basis. With this information, a test plan can be automatically created on a daily basis—completely eliminating the supervisor’s once daily responsibility.

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The addition of an objective for a specific test site displayed in a line graph (e.g., 195 relative light units in orange above) provides an easy comparison between actual test site results and the cleanliness objective for the site.

RFID Improves Daily Testing

The newest advancement in ATP sanitation monitoring is the use of RFID technology, which typically involves two components: An antenna and RFID tags. The tags are passive, which means they give off no signal on their own. They simply reflect the RFID signal back to the instrument with their specific code, which is linked to the appropriate test site grouping. To keep from being a potential point of contamination, the RFID tags, which are about the size of a quarter, have been inserted into a 6-inch by 6-inch, brightly colored sign.

The user simply swipes the instrument near the tag and the site group is read automatically. From there, the instrument picks test sites within the site group automatically at random. And if the facility has chosen to designate some test sites as mandatory, meaning they’re “hot spots” or sites that need to be tested each time, those are presented first and appear in red on the instrument’s display.

“The RFID technology is the ‘wow’ factor of the newest ATP systems. We’ve tried to move the design of the day’s test plan from the manager’s computer to the instrument,” says Soule. “In the past, you would have to create a daily test plan on a computer and upload it to the instrument, then toggle and scroll, and toggle and scroll some more to get to the appropriate test site before you could test the site—for every site you tested. We’ve eliminated all that. With just one swipe, the instrument can be ready to test.”

Analyzing and Interpreting Test Data

Not only have the latest ATP sanitation monitoring systems greatly improved upon the creation of test plans and the actual testing, but the analyzing of the collected data has seen numerous advancements since ATP technology was first used.

“We are in the information age and it’s really about how or what we do with the information that is important. Whether that information is used to comply with the seemingly endless global food safety regulatory initiatives, or simply finding a way to better produce your products,” says Soule. “The goal is to make sense of the data that is collected. Data collected through an ATP program is meaningless unless it can be interpreted, and used to help modify sanitation programs to produce unerringly effective results—the ultimate goal of sanitation efforts.”

The newest ATP sanitation monitoring systems can easily produce results that display:

  • Results by test sites,
  • Results by test site groups,
  • Results ranked by highest percentage of fails,
  • Results by date ranges, and
  • Trends by monthly averages.

“We’ve even been able to automate the selection of which test sites should or should not be designated as mandatory,” says Soule. “The software has a filter for the manager to enter some predetermined criteria, such as a test site failing more than 20 percent of the time in the past 60 days, and then highlights those test sites that have met the criteria in red and places a check-mark in the ‘mandatory’ column. The other side of that is a facility for removing test sites that have met certain criteria, such as having passed each time in the past 90 days, from the mandatory designation.

“I have worked with sanitation supervisors who thought some areas in their facilities were the highest risk control points, but repeatedly testing showed otherwise,” Soule adds. “Seeing test site results presented in a concise manner can make it very easy to see which test sites are actually giving the sanitation crews the most trouble. Many times, it’s not as obvious as some may think. With the latest generation of software, a supervisor can easily adapt his facility’s sanitation plan, if it is ever needed, to reflect those evolving test results. It may be what he thought should be a mandatory daily test site can be tested on a random basis, or vice versa.”

With the new systems, performance objectives for sanitation can be established, and then results can be tracked against that objective. A manager could learn from the data that a certain test site needs more focus. By implementing a performance improvement objective, the software tracks that test site and compares it to the designated goal—such as reducing ATP test scores to less than 150, and plots it in the graph.

“The newest generation of sanitation monitoring systems makes data collection and interpretation easier than it’s ever been for sanitation supervisors,” comments Soule. “Like I’ve been telling my older friends and relatives who have been slow to switch to the newest smartphone technology, food operations using the older ATP systems are missing out on some pretty amazing stuff. The world has changed and ATP systems have changed too.”


Topper is a market development manager for Neogen Corp., specializing in sanitation monitoring solutions. He has worked with companies, both large and small, on developing, implementing, and maintaining sanitation monitoring programs with very diverse protocols. Topper can be reached at 517-372-9200 or jtopper@neogen.

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