The CDC estimates that each year, roughly one in six Americans (48 million) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne illnesses. This often occurs because the human eye cannot see bacteria that can collect on food preparation, storage, and serving areas.
A food facility is any facility that prepares, stores, packages, or serves consumable food items, and can include restaurants, distribution centers, meat packaging plants, and more. These facilities have a responsibility to protect the people who consume their products. Proper sanitation prevents the spread of bacteria and reduces the chance that consumers will contract a potentially deadly or debilitating foodborne illnesses.
To Sanitize or Not?
Employees who are responsible for cleaning need to understand the difference between disinfecting and sanitizing, and how to properly sanitize surfaces. Disinfectants and sanitizers are not interchangeable and are intended for very different purposes. According to the U.S. EPA, disinfecting is intended to destroy or irreversibly inactivate all infectious fungi and bacteria, but disinfecting does not kill spores on hard or inanimate surfaces. Sanitizers are not meant to kill all microorganisms, but rather reduce the number of microorganisms to a safe level. In some cases, disinfectants can be used to inactivate viruses on surfaces, whereas sanitizers cannot be used to eliminate viruses.
Sanitizers have a lower level of antimicrobial efficacy than disinfectants, and they are safe for use on food surfaces. In general, any surface that comes in contact with food needs to be sanitized. Any sanitizer used needs to be approved for use on the surface and should not be corrosive. An exception to the use of sanitizers is if there is a concern that a surface may be contaminated with a virus, such as Norovirus. In this case, surfaces should be cleaned, rinsed, disinfected with a disinfectant that is registered with the EPA as being effective against the specific virus of concern, rinsed once more, and then sanitized as normal.
Although there are no regulatory requirements from the FDA regarding floors and other non-food contact surface sanitation, it is good practice for food facilities to have a microbial control process in place to reduce the risk of cross-contamination from such surfaces.
It is important for food facilities to use the appropriate antimicrobial agents. When disinfectants are used on surfaces where sanitizers should be used instead, food facilities run the risk of contaminating food with antimicrobial agents. It is also a violation of federal law to use antimicrobial agents in a manner that is inconsistent with their labels, a practice known as “off-label” use. This “off-label” use would include using disinfectant when a sanitizer should be utilized. Product labels provide directions for the type of surfaces a solution can be used on, as well as instructions for use.
Selecting a Sanitizer
When selecting a sanitizer, it’s important to choose a product that is EPA registered. Check the label to make sure the sanitizer is effective against the organisms of concern. It is also crucial that the sanitizer is compatible with the equipment being sanitized. For example, if a surface is aluminum or cast iron, a chlorine sanitizer may not be appropriate as it can cause corrosion.
It’s also recommended to select a simple and safe dosing system to use with the sanitizer to prevent employee contact with concentrated chemicals and ensure the sanitizer is correctly diluted each time. Working with knowledgeable chemical suppliers is valuable when selecting sanitizers because they can provide recommendations, clarify what the sanitizer will and will not do, and offer training.
Using a Sanitizer
Employees need to undergo training in order to avoid the consequences associated with improper sanitation. Improper sanitation can cause food processed or prepared within a facility to become contaminated with unwanted microorganisms. This could mean contact with spoilage organisms that cause food to have a shorter shelf life or flawed flavors and odors. Cross-contamination can also cause food to come into contact with pathogenic organisms that can result in illness and, in serious cases, death.
If it appears that a sanitizer is not working properly, it’s likely that the cleaning and rinsing process preceding the sanitation step was inadequate. Cleaning chemicals that are not rinsed off of a surface can inactivate some commonly used sanitizers. An employee who has not been properly trained may be tempted to use “extra” sanitizer to ensure bacteria are removed. Unfortunately, the use of extra sanitizer is wasteful, can be hazardous to use, damaging to waste or water systems, and can be a misuse of the sanitizer—which violates federal law. Sufficient cleaning combined with the recommended concentration of sanitizer will be effective in sanitizing the facility.
It’s also important to note that the frequency of surface sanitizing varies. According to the FDA’s Food Code, non-refrigerated surfaces must be cleaned and sanitized at least every four hours. More frequent cleaning and sanitizing may be needed depending on what food is being processed and if there are changeovers from one food to another. A food contact surface should be exposed to the sanitizer for at least 60 seconds (or whatever time is specified on the EPA-approved label) before being allowed to drain completely and air dry. Much of the equipment used during food processing and preparation is complex and may need to be disassembled for cleaning. Such equipment should be disassembled according to the manufacturer’s instructions then cleaned, rinsed, and sanitized. After the pieces have been allowed to air dry, equipment should be reassembled and re-sanitized after assembly. The equipment should completely air-dry before it is used to process food again.
Contaminated food can result in costly recalls, negative publicity, and lost business. It’s sometimes impossible for a business to fully recover from these consequences. Thus, it’s important for every food facility to maintain the highest cleaning and sanitation standards in order to preserve brand reputation. Understanding the difference between sanitizing and disinfecting, and best practices for selecting and using sanitizers, protects employees, customers, and brand reputation by reducing the risk of potentially deadly outbreaks.
Dr. Grinstead is a Senior Technology Fellow with Sealed Air’s Diversey Care division. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.