The Food Safety Modernization Act and the Global Food Safety Initiative have changed the game for those in the food processing industry. With new regulatory hoops for food safety managers to jump through, sanitation is trending upward as a top concern.
The industry has responded with new sanitation technologies that not only help meet regulatory requirements—they also allow companies to better manage and monitor their sanitation routines. As part of a well-planned and executed sanitation program, new technologies can help companies control costs, improve food safety, and reduce worker safety risk.
In the midst of this crowded space, how do you decide which advancements provide a usable benefit and have a positive return on investment? Let’s examine seven technical trends that can help a modern food facility manage often-complex sanitation programs in the face of increasing regulatory challenges.
Trends Simplifying Sanitation
1. Automatic and centralized chemical dispensing. New options for dispensing sanitation chemicals deliver more accurate and consistent chemical solutions by monitoring and controlling product concentrations and rates. These integrated chemical handling systems help ensure concentrations are within acceptable and safe limits, reducing worker and food safety risk.
A centralized chemical handling system can save money by reducing chemical waste and labor costs through more efficient applications. Wall-mounted equipment saves usable storage space and can reduce accidents from chemical handling and mixing.
Transitioning to this system does take some up-front investment. New food processing facilities are increasingly fitted with chemical handling piping, so these plants often just require some forward-thinking and planning to install the computer-controlled system. Existing plants can also incorporate this technology, but be sure to conduct a thorough technical review to determine feasibility and evaluate costs versus long-term benefits.
2. Digital recordkeeping and chemical responsibility. In an age where chemicals must be managed and tracked down to the drop, the industry is moving rapidly toward digital recordkeeping and chemical tracking tools to maintain a safe and verified food supply.
Digital recordkeeping tools allow users to keep real-time reports on usage, ensuring no surprises when it comes time for an audit. In addition to meeting regulatory standards, keeping digital records allows the user to provide valuable information to the end-user as well. With consumer-driven scrutiny over chemical use in the food processing industry, digital records prove that all chemicals are being used responsibly and without worry of chemical residues.
Digital records have operational benefits as well. A digital chemical inventory system can keep real-time reports on chemical usage to spot inconsistencies that may signal procedural drift. Digital systems also can automate supply ordering for more efficient purchasing and cost management.
As part of digital recordkeeping, be sure to use calibrated and well-maintained instruments that accurately measure chemical traceability. These systems not only make the user’s job easier—they can trace back chemicals from suppliers and automatically document shifts in chemical regimens.
3. Advances in rapid micro-testing. Rapid microbial testing kits are growing in popularity in the food processing industry to screen for possible contamination in production environments. But it’s important to understand how to use these tests in conjunction with an effective sanitation program.
Think of these kits as tools to uncover red flags. By screening for different groups of bacteria, rapid tests indicate that something in the plant could be unsanitary. Use these results to step up sanitation in those areas. More thorough follow-up lab tests are needed to verify results and determine if deeper cleaning is warranted.
As with all new technologies, consulting with chemical and/or sanitation service suppliers can determine how these new sanitation options fit into a specific operation and food safety program.
4. Chain rail drives automatic cleaning solutions. Chain oil and lubricants can be an adulteration risk in animal processing plants using overhead rails to transport carcasses. It’s not uncommon for rail lubricants to drip onto conveyors and other food contact surfaces. Yet these areas are often difficult to access for cleaning. New chain rail drives with automatic cleaners solve these problems by delivering controlled cleaning directly to the rails that need cleaning.
Chain rail drive cleaners can be easily moved or permanently hard-mounted, depending on the need. Systems are programmable with specified cleaning regimens and wash cycles and can be integrated into centralized chemical handling for truly “hands free” operation.
5. Chemical misting regimens. There are many places in a plant that can probably be categorized as hard to access and difficult to disassemble. Take spiral freezers, for example. These multi-tiered units are difficult to maneuver for soaking and full cleaning which can over time cause microbial harborage and food product contamination. However, with the demands of a daily food production operation, a shutdown and disassembly of the spiral freezer can be costly and time-consuming. The fix?
Misting or fogging using specialized chemicals can be useful in controlling microbial growth in hard-to-clean areas. A high-quality, well-designed fogging system can help minimize the risks of microbial activity in between scheduled full disassembly and cleaning of a freezer.
Fogging produces a particle size in the range of 10 to 50 microns, which allows the particles to remain suspended in the air until they evaporate. Fogging can use a static system, built-in system, or a mobile unit. Under typical conditions, it takes about 15 to 30 minutes for the fog to disperse and an additional 45 to 60 minutes for the droplets to settle out of the air and onto the surfaces.
No-rinse sanitizing is becoming common in many food facilities. To minimize risk of chemical contamination, these systems must use precision blending and customized metering, combined with accurate and consistent chemical sprays. Make sure to partner with a chemical supplier or sanitation company to tailor a customized solution before beginning a chemical misting program.
6. Improved clean-in-place (CIP) options. CIP systems have been in the industry for a while and have proven to be extremely beneficial for sanitizing interior surfaces of equipment, such as tanks and pipes, which cannot be easily reached for cleaning. Even ground beef processing facilities now include modern CIP systems for sanitizing internal raw meat piping and holding equipment prior to packaging.
CIP continues to evolve across the food production industry, with a range of chemical cleaning and no-rinse sanitizing chemicals now available to support these systems.
The latest CIP systems allow chemical concentrations to be adjusted along with water temperature and flow rates inside the closed CIP system. Accurate and real-time monitoring of chemical cleaning conditions inside an operational CIP system makes it easy to validate and record each step in the process for audit purposes.
Newer CIP systems feature improved access and maintenance, and include rugged, chemically compatible metal alloys, gaskets, and seals.
However, no CIP system should ever be considered maintenance-free. For optimal function and food safety planning, establish a regular preventive maintenance program. Keeping the CIP system parts and electronics in proper working order will help ensure proper cleaning operations.
7. Boot scrubbing stations 2.0. Worker boots and shoes can be major sources of contamination, which is why many highly sensitive food facilities utilize a captive footwear policy to ensure workers are outfitted with top-quality, clean footwear.
Some plants previously used automatic boot scrubbers to maintain boot sanitation, but automatic stations proved difficult to clean and maintain. And the motorized scrubbers often were not effective or practical in day-to-day operations due to maintenance issues.
Though automatic boot scrubbing stations may have gotten a bad reputation in the past, their flaws have come under the microscope and led to improved boot scrubbing options. The latest models have seen some exciting improvements.
Newer footwear scrubbers on the market show better overall hygienic design, ruggedness, and much easier cleaning and maintenance. Adding them in to your higher-risk food production facilities may help enhance the value of a captive footwear program and help reduce risks from dirty footwear cross-contamination.
Weiland, a corporate microbiologist at Packers Sanitation Services, Inc., leads risk-reduction and root-cause investigative efforts in food manufacturing facilities across the country. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.