The federal government has made Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) the centerpiece of food-safety initiatives. The system is designed to identify, prioritize and control potential problems. Under HACCP, it is every manufacturer’s prerogative to rank the severity of the physical, chemical and microbial dangers in a process.
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While uniforms and garments are not likely the weakest link for a business in which food safety is imperative, operators should recognize the risks of improper care, cleaning and handling.
It is advisable to partner with a uniform supplier that can document the steps taken to minimize the hazards garments can present in a food-handling environment. While it is important to prioritize and manage the number of critical control points (CCPs) in an operation’s HACCP program, successful business operators work with qualified suppliers to help them manage, monitor and record identified CCPs such as uniforms and garments.
Employees should follow these guidelines to ensure food safety:
- Uniforms, aprons, and garments should be clean at the beginning of each shift and changed regularly when necessary.
- Uniforms or aprons should not be worn outside the food-preparation area.
- Avoid using handkerchiefs for wiping or blowing noses; use disposable tissues.
- Wear disposable gloves.
- Avoid wearing jewelry while handling or preparing food.
- Do not wear damaged or deteriorating uniforms, aprons or garments.
- No pockets above the waist and no buttons on the garments.
When looking at the role played by uniforms and garments in a plant’s HACCP program, customers should expect more than just clean garments. Uniform and work apparel companies must offer specialized HACCP-conscious uniform programs to companies whose success is dependent on food safety. Uniform companies should adopt an HACCP mentality so their customers have one less control point to address.
Uniform suppliers should include the following SSOPs in their HACCP program to ensure every step of their processes guards against cross-contamination.
Wash formulas and temperature: It is accepted and verified by many scientific evaluations that linens and garments processed in a well-engineered wash formula are hygienically clean upon completion of the washing process. Hygienically clean is defined as “a reduction in microbial counts to a level free of bacteria, viruses and other disease-producing organisms,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Soaps and detergents: These agents loosen soil and also have some microbicidal properties. Hot water provides an effective means of destroying microorganisms, and a temperature of at least 71° C (160° F) for a minimum of 25 minutes is commonly recommended for hot-water washing.
Drying: Regardless of whether hot or cold water is used for washing, the temperatures reached in drying, especially during steaming, provide an additional layer of antimicrobial protection. Once clean apparel passes through a steam tunnel, it is taken from the racks and sorted three times to ensure worn or deteriorating garments are removed from the supply chain. The drying process is highly effective at producing hygienically clean garments, but there is still a risk of cross-contamination during transportation to distribution centers or on the delivery trucks to final clients. This is why wrapping the clean garments in a polyurethane bag shortly after conditioning can virtually eliminate the risk of cross-contamination.
Transport and delivery: It’s important to know the safeguards uniform suppliers have in place to avoid cross-contamination during transport and delivery.
Some CCPs to be mindful of include:
- Garment material: Traditional materials used for aprons, like vinyl and polyurethane, have cleanability issues. The right materials can promote food and employee safety. A vinyl apron, for example, tends to stiffen after repeated sanitizing and exposure to cold temperatures. The plasticizers used to make vinyl what it is — a pliable material — will start to leach out. On occasion the material becomes hard and brittle, and it could start flecking into the food supply.
- Garment design: A line of work apparel must include various shirts, pants and smocks specifically designed for food-processing environments, all without buttons or pockets that could add potential for contamination. In addition, color-coded garments can help managers better identify workers and visitors who could be contaminating food products by being outside their designated work areas. Research indicates 100 percent spun-polyester garments provide higher levels of anti-microbial protection as compared with cotton.
- Carts/plastic tubs: Carts used to transport clean clothes should be either designated for carrying clean clothes only or equipped with a disposable plastic liner or a disposable nylon liner/cover to ensure clean clothes do not contact carts or soiled garments.
- Pest control: Each laundry-processing plant should have an effective pest-control program to minimize hazards.
- Gloves: Disposable gloves should be worn during the sorting of dirty garments, with all sorters wearing disposable gloves that are changed regularly. Gloves should also be worn by handlers of clean food apparel before being poly-wrapped.
- Cross-contamination on the service route: The process for servicing food accounts must be designed and executed to prevent cross-contamination. Cross-contamination can occur when dirty clothes are picked up and placed in the same cart in which clean garments are delivered. Dirty garments should be placed in a disposable plastic laundry bag within the delivery cart and stored in a specific location on the truck to avoid cross-contamination. The delivery person should wear disposable gloves when delivering clean garments and picking up dirty garments.
- Training: All vendor employees must be trained regularly and certified on basic food safety and preventing cross-contamination. Educational programs must include steps to avoid cross-contamination between different departments (meat, bakery) within the same plant or store on their route, as well as how to handle soiled and cleaned garments at the customer’s facility and on their trucks. Your uniform vendor should also be able to inform your employees in the proper handling and storage of clean and soiled garments.Employees of apparel companies should be trained on the company’s HACCP work-apparel cleaning procedures. All precision-washed garments must undergo a steam-tunnel conditioning process with temperatures exceeding 240° F to ensure bacteria elimination, as well as a set-steps quality inspection before the garments are returned to customers. The entire process must be documented, step by step, for compliance.
- Lockers: Lockers within the food plant should be cleaned regularly to avoid contamination. Lockers must be kept in a clean designated area, away from potential contaminants.
- Service trucks: These should be kept free of dust and dirt. Soiled and cleaned garments must be physically separated on trucks to prevent cross-contamination.
- Mats: Clean and change these on a regular schedule.
- Racks within plants: Storage racks must be cleaned regularly to avoid contamination. Lightweight shelves are the recommended alternative to wood and laminated material because they resist chipping and breaking while providing economical storage areas.
Dr. Baroudi is the president of Food Safety Institute (FSI), International, a Henderson, Nev.-based consulting company with offices in Newport Beach, Calif. FSI specializes in food-safety best practices and quality assurance throughout the food-supply chain.