As a commercial food service operator, you well know the risks that foodborne illness can pose to your customers and business. And, you certainly have the best of intentions when it comes to preventing outbreaks.
But you’re only human. Today’s deluge of food safety information and misinformation can lead to confusion and misconceptions. Misconceptions can lead to ineffective prevention, increased risk of a foodborne outbreak, and reputation-damaging inspection violations.
To optimize your own food safety practices, it’s important to recognize misconceptions associated with cleaning and sanitizing, and to understand the proper, proven steps to preventing foodborne illness. Here are six misconceptions, and the real truth about each.
Misconception No. 1: It is not necessary to clean food contact surfaces before sanitizing or disinfecting because sanitizers or disinfectants can handle cleaning too.
Effective cleaning is necessary before sanitizing or disinfecting. The generally recommended steps are clean, rinse, and sanitize. Ideally, the cleaning solution you use should be effective in removing the specific type of soil on the surface. Alkaline detergents work best on fat- and protein-based soils, while acid cleaners are effective on mineral-based soils. Fortunately, many of today’s cleaning solutions are formulated to remove a range of food soil types.
Why clean before sanitizing? Essentially, because you want to clear the surface of organic matter and any cleaner residues so sanitizers can do the work they’re designed to do: reduce pathogens. Sanitizing a dirty surface cannot effectively reduce the number of microbes.
Misconception No. 2: Hospital-grade disinfectants are always recommended as the most effective defense against pathogens on food contact surfaces.
In food service, the use of hospital-grade disinfectants is typically overkill. However, these powerful chemicals may be recommended to manage certain events, such as during a norovirus outbreak. In the event of an outbreak, be it bacterial or viral, refer to your sanitizer’s label; if the organism isn’t on the label, then a disinfectant with that claim set will be required. If disinfectants are used, refer to the product label for proper procedures—food contact surfaces might require a rinse step.
Misconception No. 3: Sanitizers and disinfectants are pretty much the same and can be used interchangeably.
It’s true that sanitizers and disinfectants have a similar purpose: to reduce the risk of microbial contamination of foods during preparation on kitchen surfaces. Generally speaking, sanitizers reduce the number of infectious microorganisms while disinfectants, with more concentrated chemistry, destroy or inactivate them. Sanitizers are more commonly used in food service in part because, when used properly according to the label, they effectively reduce pathogens yet may not require rinsing, as disinfectants do.
Sanitizers are required by EPA not only to kill 99.999 percent of illness-causing bacteria within 60 seconds on food contact surfaces, but also that they kill Staph. aureus and E. coli. Most also reduce other common foodborne pathogens, such as Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella enterica, Escherichia coli O157:H7, Campylobacter jejuni, Shigella flexneri, Shigella sonnei, Yersinia enterocolitica, and Cronobacter sakazakii. The product label will tell you which organisms your sanitizer is effective against.
Disinfectants destroy or irreversibly inactivate infectious bacteria, viruses, and fungi (but not necessarily their spores) on hard surfaces, usually within 10 minutes. Since disinfectants typically use a higher concentration of chemistry than sanitizers, they must be rinsed from food contact surfaces with potable water. The surfaces also must be treated with an EPA-approved food contact sanitizer following the directions on the product label. Refer to the product’s label for disinfecting and/or sanitizing claims.
All ingredients of both sanitizing and disinfecting products must be EPA approved and products must meet efficacy, toxicity, and stability requirements. For a no-rinse claim, ingredients must also meet EPA-determined food-contact limits at use-dilution levels.
To effectively control harmful microorganisms, the concentration of a sanitizer or disinfectant is critical. Using chemical concentration test strips appropriate for the particular chemistry is one way to verify that the concentration is at the optimal or required level.
Misconception No. 4: ATP (adenosine triphosphate) systems can be used to verify the efficacy of a sanitizer or disinfectant.
ATP testing systems verify the effectiveness of cleaning and soil removal, not the efficacy of sanitizers or disinfectants. Organisms, such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi and other cells such as those from foods or humans, contain ATP. ATP testing is based on the principle that, without biomass (including bacteria or soils) on surfaces after cleanup, microbial growth is limited. ATP systems do not verify the efficacy of sanitizers or disinfectants because their chemicals may disrupt the ATP reaction.
Misconception No. 5: When no rinsing is required after using a sanitizer, the remaining chemical residues can attract pathogens.
There is no compelling evidence that pathogens are attracted, or develop resistance, to chemical residues if cleaning is done effectively and sanitizers are used according to the instructions on the product label.
Misconception No. 6: Sanitizers must be certified by the National Science Foundation only.
Sanitizers must be EPA registered and have efficacy, toxicology, stability, and chemistry data to support the claims and directions for use on the approved label. Sanitizers are required to meet specific performance standards in order to make public health claims on their label. Specifically, all sanitizer ingredients must be approved by EPA for use on food contact surfaces. If the sanitizer has a no-rinse claim, its ingredients must also meet EPA-determined food-contact limits at use-dilution levels. Check the product label to verify EPA registration.
When effective cleaning and sanitizing protocols are developed and followed as part of a comprehensive food safety program, the safety of food service establishments and the delight of their guests are better assured.
Dr. Petran is the senior corporate scientist, food safety and public health at Ecolab. Reach her at ruth.petran@ecolab. Steep is director of RD&E foodservice at Ecolab. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.