In recent years, the focus on the environmental quality of the food production landscape has increased. Although far from being a new problem, high-profile cases resulting in sickness and death traced back to the manufacturing process have caused the industry to reassess contamination control strategies, an issue currently under discussion in the Senate and inherently linked to food safety.
Some level of contamination control naturally already exists and, given the diversity in environmental production types, varies appropriately. But due to the frequency and severity of contamination occurrences—and the associated regulatory intervention—the procedures often used fall short of reasonable expectations. This article aims to highlight some of the issues and challenges involved with current techniques while considering the use of hydrogen peroxide vapor (HPV), a well documented and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved technology, as a means of elevating the cleaning and sanitizing processes in both wet and dry environments.
The challenge of room and space contamination control is not new. Many other industries outside of food production have realized the benefits of improving environmental quality with a view to minimizing contamination risk. Among others, these include pharmaceutical production, research laboratories, and health care. Although each application comes with a unique set of challenges and expectations specific to the sector, various terminologies are casually used to describe the contamination control process. The most basic of these is “to clean,” but others include words and phrases such as sanitize, decontaminate, remove airborne pathogens, deep clean, and sterilize. All of these ultimately share a common end goal: to offer a high level of bioburden reduction in a safe, consistent, and operationally effective manner.
Traditional approaches to cleaning concentrate efforts on equipment pieces and food contact surfaces; the general environment is somewhat of an afterthought. These efforts often adopt a “manual” or “spray and pray” type of approach that allows for a confirmation of success (or failure) at a point location using visual verification or swab testing when the process is complete. Even if you overlook the issue of using the human eye to confirm the removal of unwanted microorganisms, this approach is limited because, outside the tested area, you will find no indication of achievement; this represents the minimal accountability level. Take, for example, a targeted alcohol sprayer. The motivation of the individual operating the system is crucial for ensuring efficacy through suitable distribution and sufficient contact time. Under ideal circumstances, such technologies work, but ideal circumstances do not represent everyday challenges.
Fully Automated Execution
Some will argue that well-written protocols like hazard analysis and critical control points address many concerns, including issues of repetition—a key flaw in manually controlled processes. Even with well-written sanitation standard operating procedures, however, two individuals will execute a task with different performance standards. Consequently, removing the human element from a process and its subsequent automation is attractive, and efforts have been made within the food production environment to achieve this goal. Chlorine dioxide liquid “foggers” have been widely used. Unfortunately, in addition to the long-term material compatibility associated with all chlorine-based agents and the relatively inconsistent levels of bioburden reduction (due in part to the line-of-sight limitation), the process is messy. Before operations can be resumed, every surface must be wiped down, a step that allows for potential recontamination. Such issues do not exist with the HPV decontamination process, which allows for a fully automated execution. A generator, which may be pumped in from an external location if desired, is typically placed inside the target area and fully controlled from a control panel at a remote location. The process is applied daily in areas ranging from small single rooms to entire buildings of around 3,500,000 cubic feet, large enough to accommodate most production facilities. Most importantly, however, the process can be fully validated and demonstrates repeatability in accordance with FDA regulations.