Food safety: The well-dressed worker
Uniforms and other apparel accessories used in the food and beverage industries often differ from plant to plant dependent on the type of product being produced. The current Good Manufacturing Practices found in 21 CFR Part 110 provide this guidance: “Wearing outer garments suitable to the operation in a manner that protects against the contamination of food, food-contact surfaces, or food packaging materials.” The Codex Food Hygiene document contains similar language: “Wear suitable protective clothing, head covering and footwear.”
The key word in both documents is “suitable.” The point is to protect food and processing equipment, specifically food-contact surfaces and ingredients. What is suitable in one operation may not be suitable in another.
For example, in aseptic processing and filling, product is exposed during batching and in a fully enclosed system once it leaves the batching area. Therefore, the potential for contamination in batching is high, whereas it is minimal throughout the rest of the operation. So, should batchers wear one type of clothing and filler operators another? It is up to each plant.
Many processors find it easier to mandate that all processing workers wear hair restraints and uniforms. This is easier and less expensive than establishing rules for each plant area. In addition, these garments should be worn in the food-processing facility only and not worn in restrooms, lunchrooms or off-site. To ensure proper usage, processing facilities should provide hooks or hangers so workers can hang their work clothes before leaving the plant floor.
Ready-to-eat product processors often divide plants into raw and cooked/prepared sections and often mandate workers in each area wear different colored uniforms. When passing between the two areas, visitors will be asked to change garments and usually their boots.
To minimize the potential for cross-contamination, here are a few basic guidelines:
Be sure clothing is manufactured from materials not prone to shedding or coming apart. Synthetic fabrics are better than wool or cotton. Synthetics may be warmer, but they do not breathe as well as natural fibers.
Buttons are verboten. Instead use metal snaps, zippers with solid pulls, Velcro or hooks.
Garments should have no pockets on the outside. If pockets are necessary, they should be located below the waist on long smocks or coats. Some facilities now allow internal breast pockets on uniforms.
All garments must be clean and in good condition. If they become soiled, workers should change. If garments are damaged, they must be fixed or taken out of service.
Hair restraints are another essential. Properly worn hairnets (meaning all hair contained within the net) help ensure hair does not get into food. White hairnets are very visible, whereas black nets are harder to spot. Many operations also require that ears be completely covered. Workers with beards or moustaches should wear beard nets or snoods, and those with excessive arm hair should be directed to wear long-sleeve shirts with elastic wrist straps.
All clothes must be clean and in good repair. The laundry service, whether it is outsourced or maintained internally, must inspect uniforms for damage and remove them from service if necessary. Uniforms should be washed and dried under conditions that ensure microbiological cleanliness. A hot water wash that includes records of washing conditions and calibrated thermometers is desired. Processors should audit laundry facilities to ensure that clothes are not only being cleaned, but there is no source of cross-contamination.
Plants should develop a clothing policy and ensure the plan is maintained. Managers who fail to follow the policy set a bad example for workers and can undermine the policy. NP
This article first appeared in Food Engineering magazine, a sister publication and part of the BNP Media portfolio.
Richard Stier is a consulting food scientist who has helped food processors develop safety, quality and sanitation programs. He holds degrees in food science from Rutgers University and the University of California at Davis. For more information, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.