Given what we now know about the opportunistic nature of food spoilage organisms, it is somewhat difficult to comprehend that processing plants and food service operations were once filled with food contact surfaces (e.g., wooden cutting boards, hard plastic sinks, and rubber conveyor belts) that greatly abetted their growth.
For even the most industrious sanitation crews of bygone times, cleaning and sanitizing a wide assortment of food contact surfaces were difficult, at best, to near impossible at worst.
Due to technological advances in hygienic food equipment design (clean in place), innovations in production equipment (i.e., the widespread implementation of stainless steel), and enhancements in preparation utensils, many contact surfaces are less prone to harbor potentially harmful food residues.
Nevertheless, the challenge of deterring the growth of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other spoilage organisms on food contact surfaces is more pressing than ever in a heightened food safety-minded environment. Contaminated equipment and utensils have been cited as one of the leading risk factors most responsible for foodborne illness outbreaks in the U.S.
Local public health officials and federal regulators emphasize the importance of cleaning and sanitizing contact surfaces to prevent foodborne disease, and verification of the concentration of widely used chemical sanitizers through requisite testing. In addition to food plants, food service operations, and restaurants, contaminated food contact surfaces have been identified in a broad spectrum of institutions that prepare and serve meals, such as hospitals, military bases, long-term care facilities, supermarket delis, and schools.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the meat and poultry oversight branch of USDA, states that the proper sanitization of contact surfaces is a fundamental and important task for food establishments. When performed correctly, according to FSIS, the sanitization of food contact surfaces: 1) decreases the chance of spreading foodborne illness from a food handler to a consumer; and 2) reduces the likelihood of contaminating previously safe food by destroying microorganisms found in food processing, preparation, and storage areas.
Gone in 30 Seconds
In accordance with sanitation standard operating procedures exercised across the food industry, food chemical sanitizers are used in tandem with detergents and water to kill potentially harmful microbes on food contact surfaces.
A food product contact surface is defined as a surface in direct contact with food residue, or where food residue can drip, drain, diffuse, or be drawn. Among the most frequently referenced contact surfaces in peer-reviewed scientific literature are cutting boards, knives, prep tables, sinks, scales, slicers, mixing bowls, food containers, and thermometers.
Food-grade chemical sanitizers from reputable suppliers, such as Ecolab, Inc., Birko Chemical Corp., ChemStation International, Diversey, and Zep Manufacturing, are approved by FDA for use in food facilities.
FDA-sanctioned sanitizers must destroy 99.999 percent of harmful bacteria within 30 seconds of a single application, be stable under a myriad of environmental conditions, and have low toxicity. Chemical sanitizers, which are registered through EPA, are reviewed for concentration efficacy, safety data, and product labeling information prior to being approved.
Noting it is difficult to overstate the importance of chemical sanitizers, Mark Carter, executive vice president of corporate development of Matrix Sciences, a full-service food testing and consulting laboratory that provides companies with analytical and business-based solutions, says the effective control of spoilage organisms is a “hidden gem” in strong and sustainable sanitation programs.
“The value of effective sanitizer use can sometimes get lost or overlooked in sanitation programs,” Carter proclaims. “It is inherently obvious, however, that chemical sanitizers—when applied at appropriate concentrations—are highly beneficial in helping industry stakeholders safeguard food products from disease-causing microorganisms.”
Scores of chemical sanitizers are utilized in food establishments. When choosing one for a particular food environment, users must weigh a host of considerations. Chief among them are the effectiveness at reducing microbial contamination in specific conditions, ease of application, need for rinsing, toxic/irritating properties, and compatibility with available water. The following section provides a brief synopsis of some of the most commonly used food-grade sanitizers.