Despite major advances in plant and equipment design aimed at minimizing places pathogenic and spoilage microorganisms can hide and breed, the sheer volume and speed of food production combined with the unpredictable element of human interactions still leaves room for improvement in reducing microbial presence. Stoking the push toward more effective sanitation is the forthcoming Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
The current approaches being used are broad and include everything from automating sample data collection in order to identify trends and take predictive action, to minimizing potential contact surfaces in heavily used equipment, to improving the fundamentals like handwashing.
“It is a holistic approach that needs to be taken to monitor and control what is going on in plants,” says Tom Dewey, global marketing manager, 3M Food Safety, St. Paul, Minn. “A key part is ‘are we being effective.’ A lot more attention is being paid to recalls now, and there are a lot better ways to test for and identify bugs than there were 10 years ago, as well as to identify problem areas of a plant.”
Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) standards are a key part of that process, combined with analyzing data from routine adenosine triphosphate (ATP) hygiene monitoring results and tests like chemical concentrations, pH, as well as time, temperature, and humidity measurements, according to Dewey. 3M’s approach is a data trending system called Clean-Trace that can help identify pass, fail, and caution areas in the master sanitation schedule. Clean-Trace software also can analyze test results and provide reports about the cleanliness of a production line over a given time, identify which areas fail sanitation standards most frequently, and which could be hot spots, like high humidity plants where raw meat is turned into cooked meat or other criteria.
“We try to be predictive where we can,” Dewey says. That includes monitoring the effectiveness of sanitizers. Some plants change out the wash chemicals because certain organisms become immune to them, he mentions. One example is a plant that makes dressings and sauces where chemicals are changed because the factory wants to assure the hard-to-reach areas are cleaned as effectively as possible. And while the evolution of the overall effectiveness of chemicals and sanitation has allowed that plant to reach 99.6 percent cleanliness, it still is striving to improve that number, Dewey says.
A lot of oversight is needed for certain industries, so the data collected daily can be used over time to map it to different crews and to look at the concentration of chemical sanitizers used. “Once you look at the data on a trend chart, you can see if you have issues with the weekend crew, for example, or an area where a specific piece of equipment is on the high end [toward possibly failing] but still passing. You can see problem areas,” Dewey explains. For instance, an old piece of equipment that may have micro cracks on it that might foster the growth of microorganisms.
Some of this testing data still is collected by hand, and some of that is merely collected but not turned into information that can be used effectively, he says. The 3M system uses ATP through a consumable test and then a luminometer to read the ATP. That data then is put into the master sanitation schedule.
Dewey says the information can be used effectively at audits and to help meet FSMA requirements. “Every piece of equipment cleaned needs to be signed off on by the people who cleaned it. They can’t start up again unless all of it is done,” he says, noting that some factories can have up to 90 individual sheets of paper printed every night from such testing. The testing also helps with hazard analysis and methodology for managing an adverse event.