In today’s ever-changing food safety environment, food manufacturers strive to meet current regulations while balancing downtime and production efficiencies. Despite the critical importance of cleaning production equipment, the task is often undervalued. In some cases, the hierarchy of cleaning processes that could be implemented is misunderstood. Regardless of the size of the production plant, routine cleaning is required and must be factored into the master cleaning schedule and daily housekeeping activities.
There are different levels of cleanliness that food manufacturers should be familiar with and strategically implement. The minimum standard for cleaning is “visually” clean; however, this is simply removing food and debris from a surface to the extent that the human eye can see it. As any microbiologist will attest, what cannot be seen can and will still hurt you. So, what’s the next step in the process after removing the visual debris? This is where sanitizing and disinfecting come in. Having a solid understanding of some general principles will better equip plants with the ability to attain a higher level of clean.
Like many terms used in the industry, plant personnel can easily confuse sanitizing with disinfecting. So, what is the difference between the two? According to the FDA, “Sanitize means to adequately treat food-contact surfaces by a process that is effective in destroying vegetative cells of microorganisms of public health significance, and in substantially reducing numbers of other undesirable microorganisms, but without adversely affecting the product or its safety for the consumer.” In simpler terms, many experts say sanitizing kills 99.9% of bacteria and helps reduce its numbers to safe levels, while disinfecting goes even further and kills more microorganisms (including certain viruses and molds).
Many factors influence an effective safety and sanitation program, with the best approach generally being more complex than simply grabbing a bottle of bleach. Because not all sanitizers and disinfectants are created equally, a good starting point is knowing what you’re trying to clean and the options available for doing so.
Define the Target
Give primary consideration to the types of bacteria and other microorganisms you are targeting; this will help you determine whether you need to sanitize or disinfect. This information is usually found in the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) or food safety plan with the ingredient and process hazard analysis.
Many facilities use adenosine triphosphate (ATP) swabbing to start a historical record of general cleaning and will then often base cleaning frequencies on this documentation, using total plate count for additional information. Since most sites will not conduct pathogen testing on a product contact surface, the microbiological swabbing programs for zones 2 and 3 are often included in the risk assessment when determining whether to sanitize or disinfect.
Biofilms from the microorganisms must also be considered because they can act like a shield preventing the removal of the bacteria from the surface and thus play a part in the frequency of cleaning and sanitizing. If the microbiological risks are uncertain, resources offering guidance are available through agencies such as USDA, FDA, universities, chemical supply companies, and private food safety consulting and training firms.
Assess Your Disinfecting Options
Sanitizing and disinfecting can be completed in numerous ways, including through the use of heat, pasteurization, pressure, or irradiation, to name just a few. Another—and more accessible —way to complete sanitizing and disinfection is through the use of chemicals. Multiple factors will contribute to the process of choosing the most suitable chemicals to apply.
In selecting the right chemical, first consider whether the proposed sanitizer or disinfecting agent is authorized for use in a food processing facility. Often, over-the-counter home use chemicals contain perfumes, dyes, and inert compounds that are not authorized for a food processor. In the United States, sanitizers and disinfectants are regulated by EPA and must meet its criteria for labeling, storage, use, and disposal. Always refer to the chemical label and safety data sheet (SDS) directions for this information.