What’s more powerful for food safety: a sanitizer or effective sanitation procedures? 

“No magic chemical will ever replace consistent and accurate implementation of good manufacturing practices (GMPs) and sanitation standard operating procedures (SSOPs),” says Jonathan A. Campbell, Ph.D., extension meat specialist and assistant professor of Animal Science at Penn State University, University Park, Pa.

It seems clear that there are no shortcuts for an effective sanitation program.

Just over a year ago, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service requested that raw ground chicken and turkey producers reassess their Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plans because of Salmonella outbreaks associated with these products.

For its part, the FSIS has increased the Salmonella verification sampling program to now include raw comminuted poultry products besides ground products, expanded the sample size for laboratory analysis from 25 grams to 325 grams, evaluated the prevalence of Salmonella in not-ready-to-eat comminuted poultry products through sampling and will use this information to create new performance standards. 

In 2011, the USDA FSIS also implemented new performance standards for Campylobacter and Salmonella for poultry.

“The vast majority of processing plants were already meeting the new performance standards when they were implemented,” says Rafael Rivera, manager of Food Safety & Production Programs for USPOULTRY, based in Tucker, Ga. “The challenge is to maintain the standards, since it doesn’t require much to be out of compliance.”

Rivera notes that plants are always re-evaluating the best interventions to implement, such as antimicrobials, pre- and post- chill methods, and equipment to apply these chemicals.

“They also evaluate their preventive maintenance programs to keep equipment working at optimal conditions and make any modifications to the process where needed,” he says.

An ongoing challenge is certainly the ability to effectively sanitize equipment.

“Equipment should be easy to break apart, clean and reassemble in a short amount of time,” he says. “Employee safety is also a big factor. The cleaning and operation of any piece of equipment has to have employee safety in mind.”

In addition, the chemicals used by processing plants need to be easy to mix and use, while not causing a negative impact on the wastewater treatment process, he says.

Back to basics

“There are always challenges with sanitation but the focus should be more about what’s the standard sanitation operating procedures — are they being followed?” says Wes Osburn, Ph.D., associate professor of meat science at Texas A&M University, in College Station, Texas.  “Sanitizers don’t work if their environment is not clean, as well. Equipment needs to be cleaned first, then sanitizers can be used on the floors and walls.”

Osburn says that training personnel well is always a priority, especially considering the high turnover rates for this area.

Accordingly, proper sanitary equipment design goes hand in hand with good manufacturing practices.

“For the ease of cleaning, there should be no corners, bolts and nuts and niche places that meat can get in and not be cleaned out, causing biofilms to form,” he says. “Food equipment companies have gotten the message and are putting out products that have well rounded, smooth corners, if processors can afford them.”

Osburn adds “hard-to-clean places will be hard to sanitize.”

The sanitizers themselves have to be mixed properly so their concentration will actually kill pathogens, otherwise they will not be effective.

“Also the industry is looking at the viscosity of the sanitizers, whether they are in sprays or foams,” he says. “Will it stick to the surface longer — about 30 to 60 minutes — before running off?”

In addition, new sanitizers will be able break through biofilms, says Osburn.

Application systems always need to have the right flow and amount, but most importantly need to be easy for employees to use.

“They have to create the right concentration and pressure force,” he says. “Any time you mix one ingredient with another there could be an error or chemical waste, which can be prevented with good controls and metering systems.”

Sanitizing the sanitizers

In addition to plants following proper sanitation procedures, new antimicrobials in processing are available to meat and poultry processors to create a cleaner environment. One such example is hypobromous acid,

But “something as simple as alternating sanitizer active compounds at regular intervals can have a dramatic impact on the role of resistance by pathogens,” Campbell says.

Also beef cattle hide washing prior to evisceration is still one of the newer pre-chill methods of interventions, he says.

“Bacteriophage types specific to certain pathogens, for example, Salmonella, E. coliand Listeria, are also growing in popularity and effectiveness,” says Campbell. “One limitation to this technology is that there aren’t phages commercially available for all pathogens. Also, to my knowledge, they aren’t being utilized in the processing environment.”

Lauric arginate sprays are now a fairly common use of an antilisterial spray for ready-to-eat products, as well.

According to Campbell, as our society seeks to be more green, total utilities consumed during sanitation will have to be addressed, especially water, water reuse and wastewater concerns.

“Although mathematically impossible, chasing infinity — zero tolerance for adulterants — is a difficult and increasingly costly task for meat and poultry processors alike,” says Campbell. “However, as pathogen testing increases in sensitivity and specificity, adulterated meat products by USDA definition will be the result.”