Cross-contamination can occur at any point in the food production process, making it imperative for processing facilities to be proactive in preventing pathogens from entering and spreading throughout the facility. Often overlooked, cross-contamination from footwear can come from inside or outside the plant, increasing the need for facilities to implement a proper footwear cleaning and sanitization program. Whether a plant has a dedicated footwear program or not, footwear should be cleaned and sanitized before entering critical areas for maximum pathogen reduction.
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Successful footwear cleaning and sanitization programs are customized to a facility’s specific needs. When deciding on a footwear cleaning and sanitizing program, there are many things to consider such as: How many production employees work in the facility? Is there a dedicated footwear program with a properly selected tread pattern? What is the soil load? Is the facility wet or dry?
Depending on the size and type of facility, processors can choose from a variety of boot washers and scrubbers, foot baths, and footwear sanitizing units to use with cleaning and sanitizing chemicals to provide maximum pathogen reduction on footwear.
All employees, from management to line workers, will need to be educated that footwear is another vehicle for cross-contamination and, if not properly cleaned and sanitized, footwear can spread pathogens commonly responsible for food product recalls, such as Listeria Monocytogenes and Salmonella Enteritidis. According to the FDA recall list, in 2017 alone, Salmonella and Listeria have been the cause for at least 26 recalls, affecting food industry segments across the board, including dairy, produce, seasoning and ingredient, confectionary, snack, and pet food. It is not often simple to determine the exact moment or source when cross-contamination occurs in a facility. However, food plants can take proper measures to help reduce risks of cross-contamination from footwear by implementing programs throughout the entire facility and training employees on how to properly perform each step. The following actions can function as a facility checklist for starting or improving your current program.
Footwear cleaning and sanitizing equipment is a significant investment with great benefits when executed correctly. As such, the following factors should be evaluated: purchasing dedicated footwear, using current employee footwear, selecting proper tread patterns on footwear (open treads are more easily cleaned and sanitized), sufficient space for sanitary storage of dedicated footwear, dressing room design, traffic flow, access to emergency exits, and how the footwear systems will flow in conjunction with hand washing/sanitizing and gloving.
Building a Team
When planning or improving a footwear program, both management and production employees from the following departments should be involved so that all factors can be discussed during the pre-planning phase: quality assurance, food safety, sanitation, Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) coordinators, safety, and maintenance. Many companies offer trial equipment so that units can be evaluated onsite prior to purchase. This can be extremely helpful in building an effective program. During trial periods, test protocols can be set up with environmental monitoring using control and test groups with different footwear, tread patterns, and sanitizers. Both physical and microbial hazards should be identified. Procedures developed during the testing phase help a facility collect and evaluate the information needed to validate if, when properly implemented, the system will effectively control the identified hazards.
Footwear Cleaning Process Flow
Similar to an effective hand hygiene program, footwear should be cleaned prior to sanitization to remove any dirt or debris on the bottom or sides of the footwear. In the Guidance for Industry: Prevention of Salmonella Enteritidis in Shell Eggs During Production, Storage, and Transportation, the FDA states that footwear must be cleaned and all organic matter should be removed prior to sanitization. Sanitization is not effective if footwear is not first cleaned. To set up an effective process flow, check electrical, air, and water availability. Consider when and where footwear cleaning will occur; prior to, after, and/or during the shift. Facilities can use boot washers or boot scrubbers, depending if the facility or area is wet or dry. Wet units combine a cleaning chemical and water into a solution that is applied to footwear. Dry units can be run in facilities not wanting to increase moisture. When selecting a cleaner/scrubber, physical space and throughput (number of employees processed per minute) should be considered. Additionally, it is extremely important to select a unit with design features such as sanitary welds, stainless enclosures, and no paint. It is essential that the unit will not become a pathogen harborage site in and of itself. To prevent this, choose units with an open sanitary design that will not trap particles and debris; have solid tubing without hollow parts; and are easy to wash down, clean, and inspect.
Footwear Sanitization Process Flow
Once footwear is cleaned, food production workers can move on to a footwear sanitizing system for maximum pathogen reduction. Foot baths are commonly seen, but over the last few years the industry has been introduced to alternatives that provide a fresh spray of sanitizer to each employee, providing consistent, measurable results. Individual sanitizing units help address common issues production employees experience with foot baths, including constant maintenance, monitoring of sanitizer, lost efficacy, and inconsistent results. Footwear sanitizing units use compressed air to deliver the sanitizer, often alcohol-based, to the bottom of the footwear soles. This atomized spray guarantees a fresh application of sanitizer for each employee while minimizing chemical waste. It is an ideal solution for dry processing facilities.
Selecting a Sanitizer
When choosing a surface sanitizer for footwear sanitization, facilities should again consider their specific needs. Dry facilities often benefit from D2-rated, alcohol-based formulated surface sanitizers, which are ready-to-use, highly evaporative, do not require a rinse, and are EPA registered. These formulas are ideal for water-sensitive equipment and low-moisture environments, making for a useful product in all areas of the facility. Products commonly used in wet footwear sanitizing environments are quat and chlorine-based formulas. For an additional layer of protection, adding a mat with floor treatment powder next to the footwear sanitizing station provides a sure-footed surface when exiting. In addition, using a floor treatment with surfactants will help ensure the powder penetrates all cracks, crevices, and porous areas of the footwear.
Once a footwear cleaning and sanitization program is implemented, make sure best practices are understood and available for production workers. The FSMA Final Rule for Preventative Controls for Human Food guidelines have updated the current Good Manufacturing Practices, making it mandatory for employees who manufacture, process, pack, or hold food to be properly qualified and trained to perform their assigned duties. Employees should be properly trained and footwear cleaning and sanitizing units need to be conveniently placed to ensure employees use them before entering critical control points. In addition, make instructional posters and user manuals readily available when employees need to refer to them.
When selecting units and after the purchase, the units should have a sanitation standard operating procedure (SSOP) set up outlining daily, weekly, and monthly maintenance so that footwear equipment receives the care and attention as would any other piece of equipment in the plant. In the SSOP, develop pre-op, operational, and corrective action procedures. Setting up an SSOP outline in advance will result in less downtime. Make sure to also allocate staff time and resources for cleaning and sanitizing of the units.
How are the systems working? What are the results from micro testing? What can be improved in the process flow to ensure that the goal of maximum pathogen reduction with consistent results is occurring? Essentially, is the program operating according to the plan?