Cleaning Up the Act

By Diane Strzelecki

Processors must use sanitizers correctly or they simply won’t work properly and will become a threat to food safety.

When writer G.K. Chesterton said, “I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean,” he likely did not have sanitation programs in mind. Then again, if the next guy lands in regulatory “hot water,” every processor is sure to feel the ripple effect, resulting in redoubled efforts to improve food safety.
Sanitizer usage has come to play a critical role in this ongoing quest. Generally, sanitizing products are selected based on their compatibility with processing equipment, water hardness, the application equipment available, site conditions, budget, etc. But other factors have come into play — the need for backup data regarding sanitizer effectiveness, the latest bug(s) in the news, and the move from intervention to prevention.
Proof is in the pudding
Right now, customers don’t seem to be asking for new developments or new technology, according to Phil Ellis, senior chemist at Atlanta-based Zep Manufacturing. “Customers are basically asking for more backup data, more efficacy data, up-to-date kill claims for some of the emerging pathogens, or just looking for the backup to show how effective the products are against Listeria, Salmonella, etc.” he says.
Ellis notes that such documentation not only satisfies the requirements of a plant’s HAACP program, but it also provides critical info for the government agencies monitoring the plant as well as their own customers.
“There’s been a lot more micro-testing in the last five years to support these requests,” Ellis adds.
Joseph G. Martorano, president of Niles, Ill.-based Medtrol, agrees.
“It’s not only important to the customer that you can prove that your product does what it’s supposed to do from an organism perspective, but also to stay within HAACP and EPA guidelines,” he says.  
One trend that Chris Celusta, manager of food processing sanitation with Spartan Chemical Company Inc., has noticed is how “the paperwork is getting more into the nuts and bolts.
“Quality is a more of a concern for customers, as they are expected to meet a lot more requirements and provide more documentation regarding their sanitation processes,” Celusta says. “That, in turn, places even more importance on verifying our own processes — which may require third-party audits — and providing additional documentation.”
Ginger Merritt, vice president of worldwide sales and marketing for AgION Technologies, says such documentation is “very expensive,” but “worth the time and expenditure necessary to get the regulatory approvals” and to carry EPA-approval on the label.
“When food processors began to show interest in AgION’s SilverClene24™, a disinfectant and virucide used mainly in hospitals, we began a series of testing by third-party laboratories for a wide range of bugs to show the product’s efficacy and safety in meat- and poultry-processing environments,” she says. “The attitude was, ‘If it’s used in hospitals, it must be good.’”
Bad vs. good attention
At the end of the day, it would seem that money is well-spent if it keeps the customer and the processing plant out of the news. Media scrutiny of foodborne related illness is always high — and businesses definitely don’t want that kind of attention.
“I think the bottom line is that the media has done a great job in educating [and perhaps scaring] you and me,” says Celusta. As a result, he says, sanitation procedures have gained more importance in the overall processing picture.
“I see that the majority of facilities are giving more attention to detail,” he says. “The consumer expects it.”
Celusta believes, for the majority of facilities, cleaning and sanitation processes need to be viewed as a continuous improvement program. “They need to provide ongoing feedback, make their program practical and safety-oriented, and perhaps go back to process training,” he says.
Bill Race, senior vice president at Alex C Fergusson Inc. (AFCO), notes that his company is experiencing “exploding” growth in poultry and meat interventions for the control of Salmonella and E. coli.
“The trick is finding something that meets the processors’ challenges now and in the future, while controlling these organisms to manageable levels,” he says. “Whether poultry processors seek Category 1 or meat processors fight to stay under the E. coli regulations, the same pressures and anxiety exist.”
But making the news is not all bad. One way to become a media darling is to join the ranks of companies using “green” products to clean and sanitize.
“Everybody is looking for something a little cleaner and safer,” Celusta says. “The good news is the ‘green,’ or biorenewable, products are much better cleaners that they were when first introduced.”
According to Merritt, demand has increased already.
“We definitely saw an increase in the number of inquiries from customers looking for natural, odorless point-of-use products to kill microorganisms,” she says. Merritt notes that AgION’s SilverClene24™ may be the only natural sanitizer on the market, which makes sense from a company whose mission and strategy is to provide environmentally friendly, engineered antimicrobial solutions.
“SilverClene24™ is a silver-based liquid that competes with the standard chemicals used in the sanitizing process,” she says. “It’s effective against a wide range of viruses, kills bacteria in 30 seconds, and has a 24-hour active surface time.”
The human factor
In-depth documentation and stellar products aside, industry reps note that the major roadblock to the effective use of sanitizers might just be the folks using them.
“What we have found is that the simpler we make it for workers, the more apt they are to follow the procedures,” says Martorano. “If something is cumbersome, time-consuming or complicated, human nature is such that people basically don’t want to do it. If you make sanitary cleaning simpler, employee compliance to sanitizing procedures becomes easier.”
Martorano points to Medtrol’s Sani-Sense™ saturated wipes as a way of providing frequent sanitizing throughout the day, noting that his food-processor customers use the wipes for conveyor belts, cutting boards, stainless-steel surfaces and more — saving time and money with an easy-to-use method.
“The demand is so great for the product that if the plant had to shut down the operation to do a massive cleaning, they won’t be hitting the numbers that they need to produce,” he says.  “The customer can use the Sani-Sense™ wipes multiple times throughout the day while processing instead of shutting down for 30 to 45 minutes during a shift.”
He estimates, for example, that a large chicken processor would have the potential to “lose” processing of 200,000 chickens in the time it takes to shut down the plant for a massive cleaning.
Easy-to-use sanitizers are important when plant personnel are already under the gun to make production targets. AFCO’s Race, for one, notes that automated equipment such as foot foamers and central sanitizing systems are another way to ensure convenience and effectiveness while removing the risk of having someone responsible for controlling these functions.
“Sanitizing wipes, ready-to-use spray bottles, drain rings, automated dosing and allocation equipment all balance product effectiveness with convenience for our customers,” he says. “Future regulations based on risk-based management will increase the need for greater control, convenience and effectiveness.”
Ellis adds that perspective is crucial.
“We always take a look at helping our customers reduce the labor aspect of their sanitation processes,” he says. “Our goal is to make their processes more efficient, so that they can get more benefit out of the sanitation program instead of looking at it as an expense.”
And making things easier might be a simple matter of minimizing the number of products in inventory, Celusta suggests. “The less sanitizing or cleaning items you have, the easier it is to train users, and the easier it is to inventory the products,” he says. “A lot of customers can survive with three to five products and have a very effective sanitation program.”
He points to the common use of chemical proportioners in large plants as a money and time saver as well.
“Years ago, it was … one squirt works well, two will work better, three will work even better,” he explains. “Plant personnel didn’t realize that a) they were killing the budget, b) the product wasn’t meant to be used [that way], and c) sometimes when you use too much, it takes forever to rinse it off, resulting in more downtime.”
An ounce of prevention
Bob Sherman, technical marketing manager for Zep Manufacturing, says his company’s mantra is, “intervention is the best prevention.”
“We find that if you can eliminate the source of the contamination from one area to another, you’re much more likely to have safe results at the end of the process,” he says. In other words, beyond product selection, every aspect of the sanitation program is essential, from personal hygiene, cart sanitizing systems, entryway foaming, boot dip stations, and more. His colleague, senior microbiologist Adel Makdesi, agrees.
“You can’t see microorganisms on a surface, but you still clean and sanitize the entire piece of equipment to eliminate potential risks,” he says. “The customer needs to think about the right sanitation program as an effective preventive measure against microbial contamination.”
Celusta notes that the best thing a processing plant can do is to thoroughly clean the surface. “If you don’t get rid of the film, the fats or the greases,” he says, “I don’t care how good your sanitizer is, it’s not going to take care of a problem or control a problem that could potentially create an outbreak.”
Diane Strzelecki is a freelance writer based in the Chicagoland area.