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Back to Basics: Sanitation Training and Education
A periodic review of sanitation fundamentals is critical to success
by Henry C. Carsberg, PS
After an extended holiday from my column, I would like to get back to basics and examine how to educate sanitation crews. If a sanitation crew knows both why they are doing the job and the importance of doing it correctly, they can take pride in the accomplishment of a job well done. I will use my sanitation handbook as a reference guide.
Sanitation training does not have to be difficult to teach or learn once you get the basics down. The basics are applicable to nearly all situations, and they work as well in a meat, produce, fruit, or vegetable plant. There are additions to the basics for the processing of pasteurized or cooked items. This extends to fats, oils and greases, proteins, and most importantly, bacteria.
The goal of every sanitation program is to rid the processing environment of bacteria and to prevent bacteria from entering the plant, whether it invades via people, insects/vermin, or equipment. One way to accomplish this is by using a hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) system for sanitation. Do not confuse this with the HACCP plan for food safety.
To meet our goal of eliminating pathogenic bacteria in the processing area, we will study the following: food plant sanitation, sanitation equipment, food pathogen microbiology, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) testing, cleaning chemistry, sanitizers, sanitation hazard analysis work points (SHAWP), cleaning chemistry, personnel, and zoning scheduling. I will present the material in a manner that is easy to understand. We will take our time and cover each area, starting with food plant sanitation. I will cover the remaining topics in subsequent articles. At the end of each column, I will provide questions so that you can determine what you have learned. I will supply the answers to the questions in my next column.
It is important that you periodically review these basics. Do not assume you already know them; even star athletes must train in the fundamentals of their chosen sport. Food plant sanitation is more important than a football game. After all, if a football player fouls up, he only disappoints the fans. If a plant’s sanitation program fails, hundreds of people can get sick or die.
Training sanitation personnel is essential because of the types of products processed and the complexity of processing equipment. Better training will directly reduce personnel turnover and, ultimately, positively affect the bottom line.
Background of Sanitation
In the past, companies did not think sanitation was important. It was a job that was hard, dirty, scheduled for the swing or graveyard shift, sometimes dangerous, and generally low-paying. It was an entry-level position with minimal training. Usually under the supervision of the production department, it took a back seat to production. When the number of recalls began to increase, however, things began to change. Companies placed sanitation under the auspices of the quality assurance department; it had become clear that sanitation had a direct effect on food safety and product quality.
We must pay even more attention to the quality of sanitation personnel. Training sanitation personnel is essential because of the types of products processed and the complexity of processing equipment. Better training will directly reduce personnel turnover and, ultimately, positively affect the bottom line.
Several factors contribute to a complete sanitation and food safety program. One is the type of food contact surface. There are many materials that constitute a food contact surface, including stainless steel, rubber, plastics, fiberglass, concrete, metal belts, soft metals, and, in rare cases, wood, such as that found in pallets.
Another piece of the puzzle is the soil that gets into places it does not belong. For instance, a ready-to-eat product running on a food processing line is considered food. When it falls on the floor, it is considered soil. Soil is food product or residue that does not belong on the contact surface. The most common soils are proteins, fats, oils, grease, carbohydrates, sugars and mineral deposits like calcium carbonates, and burned-on carbonaceous material from hot oil processing.
Biofilms are probably the most dangerous of soil loads because they are difficult to detect, and they are a harborage and food source for bacteria and molds. Synthetic conveyor belts are supportive of biofilm growth. Proteins adhere to the surface, and as the proteins unfold, they become attached to the surface. Once attached, they begin to build up a layer of film on the surface.
Porous or rough surfaces provide the most favorable surfaces for attachment. Higher surface tension can cause a more rapid attachment. Lower tension decreases attachment. A thorough knowledge of the type of organic challenge and properties of the contact surfaces is paramount to determining how best to remove and prevent biofilms.
Water in Cleaning and Sanitizing
Another thing to consider is water, a solvent that is a major ingredient in cleaning systems. You must test processing water every three months to ensure that there are no bacteria. Hot water greatly improves the cleaning sequence, and it will help remove soils prior to applying chemicals. The water temperature should not exceed 130°F, however, because temperatures that are too high increase soil adherence and will, in some cases, “cook” proteins and other ingredients to the contact surface.
Yet another thing to consider is agitation methods, of which there are three: hand detailing, high pressure, and chemical agitation. Steam cleaning is not widely used because it can bake the soil to the surface. Hand detailing is the gold standard because it allows you to inspect the surface to confirm visually that it is clean.
High-pressure agitation acts like a leaf blower, spreading organics from one place to another. I have seen soil stuck in acoustical ceiling tiles. I have also seen areas of the plant that required recleaning because the pressure spread soil to clean areas.
Chemical agitation refers to the ability of the cleaning product to stay on the surface in foam, allowing the chemical time to digest the organics. Adding a foaming agent to the chemical allows it to adhere to radii and the underside of tables, among other things.
Another thing to consider is rinsing sequences. There are two rinsing steps in the five-step sanitation program. The first rinse removes food product and prepares the surface for chemical application. The second and final rinse removes all chemicals and organics to prepare the surface for the sanitizer. This final rinse is vital, because chemical or residual organics on contact surfaces will prevent the sanitizer from reaching its full potential, resulting in high bacteria counts on start-up.
Lastly, you need to consider scheduling. Plan your work and work your plan. Time directly equates to money in the processing environment. Written cleaning procedures are necessary for each piece of equipment. Train, retrain, and cross train personnel in these procedures. As companies expand and trade globally, competition is keen. If we are to succeed in these widened markets, our food safety and sanitation programs must be the best that they can be.
Now for a few questions, the answers to which will appear in my next column:
- What department in the plant does sanitation answer to?
- Name four food contact surfaces.
- What is the definition of soil?
- What are two reasons biofilms are considered dangerous? ■
Carsberg is a sanitarian with more than 30 years’ experience in food plant sanitation. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.