Compare the operations of the safest food manufacturing and processing companies in the world, and you will find they have a lot in common. Model facilities boast rigorous operating procedures, well-trained employees, continuous improvement programs and, in many instances, lots of color.
That’s right, color–as in color coded utensils, storage containers, garment, sanitary products, signs, and cleaning tools. Implementing a well-delineated color-coded system is one of the most effective and straightforward ways of preventing cross contamination and maintaining good hygiene. However, despite its long use in food manufacturing, ease of adoption and relative low cost, there are no industry standards for using color and no regulatory statutes or guidance mandating the practice. In fact, the most successful practitioners of color coding seem to be those who develop their own home-grown plans built on common sense and a thorough understanding of their operations and workforce. Many of these programs have been in place for decades and were expanded over time as their facilities grew in complexity and size.
“There are many big companies that have established color coding proper, and they have always had some methods of control,” explained Bill Bremer, a principal and lead consultant within the food group at Kestrel Management, a consulting group. He pointed out that the industry is mostly self-managed when it comes to color coding because of the absence of regulatory requirements. Rather, the practice is driven by each company’s certification efforts, which often require the use of color in the plant. Bremers, who advises on HACCP best practices among other control and management techniques, said color coding is essential to passing a certifying audit.
Although it doesn’t mandate the use of color, one of the FDA’s HACCP guidance documents repeatedly recommends its use in the manufacture of refrigerated or frozen ready-to-eat (RF-RTE) foods. The document, entitled “Control of Listeria monocytogenes in Refrigerated or Frozen Ready-To-Eat Foods,” specifically calls for the use of color-coded smocks to restrict employee access to certain areas of the plant and to use color-coded containers to identify their functions by areas of the plant. Similarly, the FDA prescribes the use of colors for cleaning equipment and utensils to prevent contamination.
De facto standards
Color-coding practices can be as varied as the products for which they are implemented, and while neither industry bodies nor regulators have issued specific guidelines on color schemes, de facto standards exist. For instance, black is commonly used to indicate equipment or utensils that have floor contact while white denotes food contact. Grey is often used to mark trash content, and yellow is typically for an intermediate piece of equipment. Still, not all plants follow the same schemes, but as long as workers are adequately trained to understand their system, any configuration is acceptable, said Bremer.
What becomes troublesome, however, is when a manufacturer such as a confectionery company makes a wide range of products containing various allergens. Soy, peanuts, eggs, milk, and others may each require a distinctive color for storage, handling equipment, processing surface areas, and so forth. In fact, Bremer pointed out, he has come across large plants that have invested in hundreds of thousands of color-coded equipment to prevent cross contamination in the facility. Each work area may require numerous sets of utensil, cleaning equipment, signage, and so on multiplied by a factor of two to three; redundancy is a must-have for any operation. In such a scenario, the total number of color-coded items can add up quickly.
One distributor of these items pointed out that growing concerns about allergens have led to broader use of color coding. Dakonya Freis, MRO department manager for Nelson-Jameson, a distributor based in Marshfield, Wis., said many of her customers are adding new colors to their operations because the list of allergens they handle is growing. To address this trend, they are seeking unconventional hues to differentiate those additions. Typically, she added, the additions are product-specific rather than facility-wide. Even so, she said, the industry is more broadly implementing color coding in different operational areas.