A Perfect, Total Fit
By Tom Wray, Associate Editor
Uniform companies move beyond clothing workers to keeping them and the products safe.
The industry is never stagnant. As times and needs change, so does the meat industry. Of course, this means that the companies serving the industry must change and adapt themselves.
Uniform companies are among those that have changed and adapted with the times. Once simply producing clothing for use in the plant, they have expanded their role to include aiding producers in food and worker safety.
At first glance to the casual observer, the connection between uniforms and food safety can be lost, but uniform companies see it differently.
“It actually is a natural extension of our core business,” says Jan Eudy, corporate quality assurance manager for Cintas Corporation. “We provide safety solutions to thousands of customers everyday, and this was simply a matter of organizing those solutions around the issues facing food safety — specifically contamination control.”
Jim Holton, senior national account executive for Aramark, had a similar answer.
“We’ve done extensive research and have learned that food-processing plants consider uniforms a major part of their food-safety program,” he says. “This shows that some plants have more comprehensive programs than others and there is room for considerable growth in the industry.”
For years, uniform companies provided processors with uniforms and facilities service products to support their employee garment and hygiene programs, adds Scott Wallace, senior vice president of marketing for G&K Services.
“In that respect, we’ve always been involved with food safety,” Wallace explains.
Adam Siegel, manager of food industry programs for UniFirst Corp., says his company saw a need for mops, restroom supplies and other hygiene products.
“The same thing happened when we got into the food-processing business,” he continues. “It was customer-driven. They said it would be good if you could do this.”
First line of defense
Uniforms themselves can be one of the most basic ways of improving food safety.
“There is no assurance that the clothes worn to work are cleaned to the level of cleanliness required to handle food safely,” says Eudy. “The uniforms themselves create a commonality of purpose with the employees’ pride in their work and assure precise adherence to food-safety cleanliness specifications.”
G&K Services recently unveiled a line of uniforms that uses a new antimicrobial fabric made to kill common bacteria and viruses, a danger which Wallace says must not be overlooked.
“Uniforms can become a source of cross-contamination in food processing, foodservice or retail food preparation, so prevention is a critical strategy,” he explains. “For decades, we’ve provided customers in the food industry with uniforms that were free of buttons or external pockets.”
Another company, PolyConversions Inc., also has changed the fabric used in uniforms, especially in the cutting room.
“VR Protective Wear, in replacing vinyl PPE, offers a safer, more cost-effective alternative,” PolyConversions sales manager Scott Carlson says. He explains that vinyl sleeves and aprons can get stiff and brittle after near-constant contact with animal fats, fluids and cold environments. The materials react to the plasticizers in the vinyl, causing it to crake and fleck. VR Protective Wear uses an inert polyolefin film, with no plasticizers so it doesn’t break down.
Holton says that most food processors understand the need for uniforms to avoid cross-contamination, both to protect the food and the workers. “Out of the top 10 common food-handling practices causing food poisoning, both cross-contamination and infected persons can involve employee uniforms and garments,” he says.
Finding the best solution
There are many things processors must consider when looking at any company for a complete food-safety solution.
“Processors should think about the impact of their product decision,” says Loren Rivkin, vice president of marketing and metal mesh product manager at Niroflex USA. “Processors should think about the products that they buy to protect their workers. Would the buyer be willing to wear that personal protective equipement himself or herself to do the job?
“[Also], is the lowest priced item really the one that costs the least in the long run?” Rivkin asks. “Not always.”
Siegel says that a processor should consider all options — look at all of the companies in the market and find the best solution for its needs. Processors should also look at companies that can verify the process used. Flexibility is also an important factor. Siegel offers the example of a company using particular chemicals in its processes and its need for elastic wrists on the sleeves. UniFirst developed a garment that worked with those very specific needs after the request was made.
Wallace adds that “meat and poultry producers have particular challenges with mitigation the risk of E. coli and Salmonella, respectively. Working together, we help our meat and poultry customers better control cross-contamination at each stage of the production process, from the kill floor to packaging and QA.”
That risk is the most important aspect, Eudy says.
“Today’s producers need to consider ‘least risk’ when making major decisions that involve food safety,” she adds. “The entire industry is working diligently to improve practices and bring new technology to the market, but there will always be some risk. The meat and poultry producers should seek out vendors with successful track records who know the industry and who will not put their customers in harm’s way.”
Holton explains that uniforms play a role in a plant’s HACCP program, and that processors should expect more than just clean garments.
“Meat and poultry producers should look for uniform and work apparel companies who offer specialized, HACCP-conscious uniform programs to companies whose success is dependent on food safety,” he adds.
Carlson says processors need to take the approach of looking for products that protect the processed food from the apparel user, as well as protecting the apparel user from the processed food.
Though these companies have branched out into broader areas of food safety, they still have uniforms as their core product.
“Uniforms represent a significant portion of our nearly one billion dollars in revenues,” says Wallace. “G&K manufactures and sources uniforms to enhance our customers’ image and protect their brands and employees.”
At Cintas, Eudy explains, uniforms remain a large part of the business, representing approximately 50 percent of revenue. The remaining revenue comes from products and services that have been added to the line in response to the needs of customers.
Siegel of Unifirst says that uniforms are still the biggest portion by far at his company as well.
“We are a uniform company, the other services are to support our uniform business,” he says. “When we added the others, it was all to support uniforms.”
Companies must innovate to stay ahead of the market and biology. A couple of trends are the use of color-coding for uniforms within the processing facility, and the use of snaps as a fastener.
“Each department has a different colored smock so you can see where there’s a risk of cross-contamination,” says Siegel. “The cross-contamination protocols may have been violated because the guy is in the wrong department.”
Fabrics are important also. Many food-processing garments are now being produced in 100 percent spun polyester material, states Eudy. The fabric is lighter in weight and therefore more comfortable than cotton. It is also more durable than cotton.
PolyConversions’ disposable PolyWear Gowns have been designed and utilized as a replacement for imported disposable poly sleeves and aprons commonly used to protect laundered uniforms and smocks. One product, the PolyWear Gown, is a disposable one piece, full-frontal coverage item. It addresses the issue of the time it takes to source out and put on one pair of sleeves and one apron; with the PolyWear Gown, employees put on one item, which offers more frontal protection to the user.
G&K Services has been working on making the fabric itself more germ-resistant. “BioSmart is a new, patent-pending fabric technology created by Milliken,” says Wallace. “This technology actually bonds chlorine molecules to the fabric surface. The chlorine on the fabric continues killing germs throughout the workday. Chlorine kills common bacteria and viruses, including Salmonella, E. coli, staph and hepatitis.”
The fabric is recharged with each laundering.
UniFirst has a new product that combines food and fire safety. A food processor’s maintenance workers must be concerned with both food safety in work areas, Siegel explains, as well as their own safety while working on the equipment. The company has worked with new guidelines from the National Fire Protection Association to produce garments that can be used in a food environment. The garments are made with snap enclosures covered with fire-resistant material so it is compliant with both standards.
Cintas has come out with a microfiber cleaning system. New microfiber mops and wipers from the company use the high grade of microfibers and remove 99.98 percent of contaminants from the surface being cleaned. Eudy says the system would be an extremely useful addition to any food-safety program.
PolyConversions expanded its use of vinyl replacement material to rainwear. “VR RainWear, produced from our innovative VR material, [is] designed to replace heavier and more ridged PVC, neoprene rainwear at a significant cost savings.” Carlson states. The company also has released PolyWog Wipes — cleaning towels that have surfactants for bio-load cleaning and ammonia compounds for sanitizing.
Niroflex’s Rivkin says that his company is always looking for product improvements. Later this year, they plan to replace the fabric straps on metal mesh aprons with a new food-safe solution.
At G&K, “You can expect to see us expand our line of BioSmart items as we continue our rigorous joint product-development process with Milliken,” says Wallace.