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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, October/November 2009

Critical Sanitation Issues in Food Service

Proper design and material choices are key

by Charles Giambrone, MS

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series. Part two, which will appear in our December/January issue, will focus on the targets for pathogen and spoilage microbes in the food contact zones.

Since the first model was implemented back in 1993, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Code has continued to evolve. Each version of the Food Code has developed a more refined and seamless fabric of programs based on good manufacturing practices (GMP) and hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) that are consistent with GMP regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations.

The FDA estimates that 96% of states have adopted a version of the Food Code.1 The current version, enacted in 2005, has been adopted by nine states/territories. The 2005 version is now being incorporated into the highly successful ServSafe program, conducted by the National Restaurant Association (NRA). The Conference for Food Protection is the basis for Food Code review, with the NRA and all private and public stakeholders fully engaged in the code process.

The Food Code encompasses all the key segments of food service and food retail operations, from management and personnel through compliance and enforcement. Using the Food Code as a foundation, this article will address critical sanitation issues commonly found in food service operations.

Keep Microbes Far from Targets

Many food safety experts and knowledgeable sanitarians view prerequisite program controls as a multi-barrier system akin to a dartboard or archery board. Zone one—the bull’s eye—is the food contact zone. All hygiene control programs must prevent pathogens and spoilage microbes from compromising this critical zone.

The sound, proactive approach, however, is to establish and maintain microbial control outward from zone two, the indirect food contact areas, to zone three, the immediate environmental zones around the food processing area, to zone four, the general environs of the food plant. The objective of any good sanitation program is not only to focus on the bull’s eye, but also to assiduously control zones four and three, thereby minimizing the risk for zones two and one.

This two-part article will examine how a food service establishment should control the outer ranges of the target. Part one will examine the key environmental sanitation issues, including what the 2005 Food Code prescribes for zones three and four. Part two will focus on the targets for pathogen and spoilage microbes in the food contact zones.

Food Service Environmental Sanitation Issues

One can approach food service environmental sanitation issues from two perspectives: first, when designing a new food service facility to facilitate proper hygiene and sanitation, and second, when determining how to reconfigure/retrofit a facility to create a hygienic design that promotes sanitation efficiencies. Whatever your perspective, key regions or components must have certain materials and standards.

The first of these is product and worker flow design. Many environmental sanitation issues stem from inadequate or poor facility flow, whether it’s a large food plant or a basic kitchen. An example of a properly designed food service plant in the Maui Medical Center, in Kahulue, Hawaii.

At this facility, the serving area is segregated from the main kitchen to avoid cross contamination issues during processing and sanitation. In addition, the dish/tray washing area is separated from the main prep area and the serving area.

The butcher room, where raw meat-produce products are processed, is also isolated from the main kitchen. Finally, all critical refrigerators, freezers, and dry good storage are properly segregated. All areas flow into the processing kitchen, however. This type of workflow also isolates the sanitation of these areas, preventing cross contamination of raw areas from cook zones.

In chapter six of Essentials of Food Safety and Sanitation, David McSwane and colleagues describe how a properly designed food service facility should have “work centers” and provide specific criteria related to food safety and sanitation for each center.2 Work centers should have adequate work space with a logical flow of required equipment or tools that promote processing and sanitation efficiencies through best practices and safe cleanup. A food service worker should be able to process food items and conduct sanitation in the same work center without having to go through other areas of the facility, thereby avoiding cross contamination issues.

The Maui Medical Center food service kitchen has good traffic flow off central hallways that avoid critical areas, which is vital for preventing cross contamination during food processing/handling and sanitation.

A problematic work center area like tray assembly, which can be a critical control point for a food service cafeteria facility, highlights the importance of proper hygienic design (see left). A poorly designed work center leads to food safety and quality issues.

Dealing with Ceilings, Walls, and Floor Drains

In Principles of Food Sanitation, Norm Marriott notes that all the hygienic features of a food service kitchen design should be addressed in the planning phase to focus on surface “cleanability.”3 Although the National Sanitation Foundation, Underwriters Laboratories, and the Baking Industry Sanitation Standards Committee are all available to approve hygienic design standards for food service equipment, many times the shell structural features are planned without a careful consideration of hygienic design.

The chapter on physical facilities in the 2005 Food Code states that construction materials must be durable, non-absorbent, and “easily cleanable.”4 The two key criteria in this section of the Food Code are cleanability and functionality.

Many food processing and food service facilities use drop-ceiling tiles because of their utility and reasonable cost; however, these absorbent, porous materials are impossible to clean. Plastic, non-absorbent panels or food grade aluminum/ stainless steel are better choices.

Air vents must be accessible for frequent, easy sanitation. Preferably, the exterior housing should be removable to allow thorough cleaning and sanitizing. In addition, any vertical piping or drop-down utilities should be fully caulked with food plant-approved caulk.

Walls must be constructed of either nonporous, cleanable materials or porous materials that are readily sealed; otherwise, proper sanitation is an absolute nightmare. I favor DRP board (a.k.a. Dairy board) because it is nonporous and durable. All wall-to-ceiling junctions and wall-to-floor junctions should be coved to minimize microbial niches and prevent food, dirt, or debris accumulations. I strongly prefer a six-inch to one-foot wall base that is coved and constructed of nonporous tile or coated with epoxy.

Good, durable, food plant-approved caulking will still crack and require additional periodic maintenance in any active food service facility. As with ceilings, any protruding utilities—steam, water, and electrical pipes/conduits—must be properly sealed around junctions to permit proper sanitation and prevent contaminant niches. The only area of a food service or food plant facility where painted cinder block is appropriate is in dry storage areas.

Depending upon the facility size, design, and configuration, portable foamers, either handheld venturi type or hand pump foamers, should be used to clean ceilings and walls. Because they provide cleaning retention times that are adequate for loosening soil, foam cleaning systems are more effective in dosing cleaning chemistries and removing soil properly. With respect to sanitizers, pump-up sprayers are effective for dispensing diluted approved sanitizers. Proper, approved personal protective equipment must be worn with any environmental sanitation system.

Flooring Design

For floors, construction materials and hygienic drains should form a seamless, consistent hygienic bond. A properly sloped floor with hygienic drains must work with a nonporous, easily cleanable floor material.

Quarry, asphalt, ceramic, and terrazzo are all approved materials in the 2005 Food Code; however, I have seen issues with cleaning and sanitizing tile grout in a busy processing kitchen. All tile materials and grouting should be sealed with a low or anti-slip coating to foster proper floor sanitation. Tiled flooring is problematic in areas where any wet sanitation occurs, especially in washrooms.

Environmentally friendly enzymatic tile and grout floor cleaners—designated DfE by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—do an excellent job of removing soils and biofilms from floor tile and grout.

I prefer concrete flooring sealed with a non-slip epoxy coating, especially in high-traffic wet areas like washrooms; it is durable and negates the need for grout cleaning.

Floor and wall cleaning and sanitation should be completed before food handling/processing equipment is sanitized. Depending upon the facility size, a properly designed push floor scrubber can prevent aerosolizing soils and microbes. This method can be augmented with classic mop and bucket for inaccessible areas.

In addition, proper cleanup of food and dirt debris prior to floor and drain sanitation is critical to a successful environmental sanitation program. First, drain pre-cleanup must be done to avoid drain backups during floor sanitation. This includes proper use of floor squeegees for directing rinse water into drains. Furthermore, proper maintenance and storage of mops and squeegees is critical. Clean and inspect them regularly. Proper storage is important: They must be stored clean and off the floor on racks high enough to deter pests or immersed in a quaternary ammonium floor disinfectant.

According to chapter six of the 2005 Food Code, many food service establishments and food plants can use anti-slip fatigue mats of approved impervious plastic materials to prevent slip-fall issues and worker fatigue. A strict sanitation to clean and sanitize these floor mats after closing must be implemented, however; otherwise, they can be a niche for microbial and pest cross contamination. Carpeting materials are forbidden in food handling areas because they are microbial and pest niches and can be cross contamination sources in food handling areas.

Drain Sanitation

Any properly designed food handling or processing facility should feature stainless steel drains with removable baskets. Seals and caulking must be impervious to biofilm and pest infestation.

Many drains are carbon steel or mixed metal composition, which can make proper cleaner usage a challenge. For older drains made of softer metals, use a soft metal-safe cleaner. A proper color-coded brush program to segregate floor drain sanitation and general floor sanitation must be strictly enforced.

Drain access from any sink, pan washer, or other water-based utility must be hygienically designed to be cleanable and to prevent aerosolization of any sink or pan washer rinsate into the food preparation or handling areas.

Proper drain sanitation training is critical to control cross contamination of pathogenic bacteria like Listeria monocytogenes as well as to prevent insect larvae from hatching in drain niches. To control biofilm buildup, a quaternary ammonium or peracetic acid-based foaming sanitizer is strongly recommended as part of your after hours drain sanitation regimen.

The following cautionary tale underscores the need for proper environmental sanitation. Study results from Dawson and colleagues showed that Salmonella typhimurium remained viable on dry porous materials such as wood and carpet and on dry nonporous tile for up to four weeks.5 Other studies corroborate Dawson’s findings and the need for a consistent, stringent environmental sanitation program.

Personal Hygiene Sanitation Areas

The hygienic design and sanitization of employee restrooms and all hand washing sinks is the final critical component of your environmental sanitation program. Obviously, the sanitation requirements for toilets must be stringent. In addition, to facilitate thorough and efficient sanitation, these areas should share the same hygienic design features described for the ceilings, walls, and flooring in your food handling/processing area.

Hands-free toilets, paper towel dispensers, and knobless doors are strongly recommended; they prevent common cross contamination vectors while facilitating proper sanitation.

Hand wash sinks should be hands free, using either an actuated electronic eye or more conventional floor or leg pedal systems to prevent cross contamination and sanitation issues involving sink plumbing fixtures. Chapter five of the 2005 Food Code advocates a minimum water temperature of 100°F. To avoid scalding accidents, the code does not recommend using steam-boosted systems.

A common GMP violation in food service and food processing sanitation is the misuse of hand sinks for cleaning food products or food equipment. This creates tremendous cross contamination pressures on the food service operation and makes sanitizing these areas challenging.

A word about plumbing design issues that affect hygiene and sanitation in your facility. Marriott, McSwane and colleagues, and chapter five of the Food Code all stress the importance of backflow prevention for water utilities, as well as the prevention of cross connections between drain or waste water streams and potable water streams. Inspect your plumbing system; there should at least be an air gap. If not, double check valves, vacuum breakers, or other backflow prevention devices for all potable water sinks.

Charles Giambrone, MS, is senior technical support manager at Rochester Midland Corp. and is also a certified SQF consultant. Reach him at


  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Real progress in food code adoptions. FDA. Available at: Accessed October 23, 2009.
  2. McSwane D, Rue NR, Linton R. Essentials of Food Safety and Sanitation. 4th ed. Upper
    Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall; 1998.
  3. Marriott NG. Principles of Food Sanitation. 4th ed. Gaithersburg, Md.: Aspen Publishers Inc.; 1999.
  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food Code 2005. FDA. Washington, DC: FDA; 2007: 101-180. Available at: Accessed October 23, 2009.
  5. Dawson P, Han I, Cox M, et al. Residence time and food contact time effects on transfer of Salmonella typhimurium from tile, wood, and carpet: testing the five-second rule. J Appl Microbiol. 2007;102(4):945-953.



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