The Keys to Sanitation
By Lisa White
Challenges and misconceptions about proper sanitation can compromise food safety.
No one can easily dispute the importance of sanitation in a meat-processing plant. Still, because cleaning time takes away from production time, the challenge the industry constantly faces is how to effectively and efficiently accomplish this task.
According to Amber Waves, a USDA publication, innovation, along with diffusion of innovation through imitation, helps lower the cost of safe food and increase consumer choice. Yet, meat processors face special challenges that weaken their incentives to invest in food-safety improvements.
Even cautious processors are vulnerable when deviations from planned procedures, uncertainty regarding input contamination, equipment malfunction, personnel factors, pathogen grow-back and sampling variability occur, according to Amber Waves.
|Food safety ratings for cattle slaughter plants with buyer specifications are considerably higher than for other plants.|
|Process control method||Does customer impose standards1|
|Number of plants2||128||98|
|1. Question in survey asks, “Do some major customers of plant test product for pathogens or harmfulbacteria or require sanitation and product-handling practices that are more stringent than those demanded by FSIS?” |
2. 29 plants did not indicate whether customers impose standards.
Source: USDA Economic Research Service
Sanitation costs also have an effect. Recent research by the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) points to the impact market forces have had on food-safety process control performance in the meat and poultry industries. It shows that sanitation and process control costs raised meat and poultry prices by about 0.5 percent and the Pathogen Reduction Hazard Analysis regulation raised prices by about 1 percent. Additionally, it shows that plants that poorly perform sanitation and process controls are more likely to exit the meat and poultry industries.
But with today’s tough food-safety regulations and higher consumer expectations, experts say plants are making sanitation a priority.
How clean is clean?
John Marcy, extension food scientist at the University of Arkansas, says sanitation should not be a gray area. “When plants question how clean is clean enough, there is almost always an issue,” he says.
Some experts note the many misconceptions about plant sanitation. Liz Boyle, professor and extension specialist at Kansas State University, finds many people in the industry aren’t aware of the proper procedures.
“Plant operators need to know that just because something is scrubbed and rinsed off or cleaned with a mix of sanitation chemicals and soap does not mean it is sanitized,” she says.
To help allay the confusion, Boyle works with plant operators who are confused as to what cleaning and sanitizing entail. This includes educating plant operators about the dangers of over-cleaning. “It is all about using the right tools. If you scrub with scouring pads, there may be grooves left on surfaces that are not visible. Yet, these will promote the growth of pathogens,” she says.
Along with the right tools, using the right water temperature is critical. If the water is too hot, it will set the proteins, making it more of a challenge to clean the equipment thoroughly. “It’s important to use the right temperature out of the hoses, along with the right concentration of sanitizers to clean properly,” Boyle explains.
To help avoid microorganisms from building a tolerance to chemicals, a growing number of plants are now rotating sanitizers, which is a better practice than just using bleach.
“It is a practice that we recommend,” Boyle says. “Plants will use alternative cleaners over the weekend, which can help them get more control over the microbial population.”
Skip (Robert) Seward, Ph.D., vice president, regulatory affairs, at the Washington, D.C.-based American Meat Institute (AMI), says meat processors have a great appreciation for the need for robust sanitation programs. Yet, there is a wide range of establishments and physical designs of plants’ sanitation infrastructure. “There are differences in plant layouts, along with the access to the supplies and infrastructure to accomplish proper cleaning and sanitation,” he explains.
While the delivery of sanitation chemicals may be piped to a variety of locations within newer facilities to better facilitate good access to sanitation, older plants may have portable or central systems that need to be hooked up or brought to a different location, Seward says.
“Having the right cleaning and sanitation infrastructure relative to equipment, water pressure and location to chemicals within the processing area is important and helps facilitate getting those activities done properly,” he adds.
There also is the option of using contract cleaners as opposed to in-house staff. Seward says how plants assess their needs and their oversight on cleaning and sanitation is critically important when using a third party.
“Having a good working arrangement with a supplier of cleaning and sanitation chemicals is vitally important,” he says. “It is best to work with someone who is dedicated to performing this task at the plant.”
On the poultry side, plant sanitation takes a different spin than it does with beef and other meats, says Marcy.
“Unless the plant is processing cooked product, sanitation does not have a big impact on the poultry side,” he says. “It is more associated with the product and its shelf life, not the plant. Salmonella does not grow in a plant environment, so a lack of sanitation won’t be an issue. With beef slaughtering facilities, however, there is a risk of E. coli during dressing.”
Labor issues top the list of challenges in regard to plant sanitation.
“Because this task is typically accomplished during the night shift, finding the right people to clean is always a challenge,” Marcy says. Sanitation is typically not a priority because it doesn’t impact the bottom line. Instead, it is an added cost. Even though the goals are the same, the size of the plant determines how sanitation is approached.
“A small plant may hire teenagers to clean that have no experience or training,” Boyle explains. “They are given a task to do, and they do it but don’t understand why or the importance of following the correct steps. By contrast, larger plants typically have plant supervisors working with the cleaning crew, who have designated tasks. These are obvious cultural differences between plants.”
A legislative review in Kansas revealed that a labor shortage in meat plants was an issue. Boyle says the knowledge level is such that employees in these roles are working strictly for the paycheck, lacking the motivation to train in order to do the job right.
Proper sanitation, Marcy adds, requires the right resources and the right people to get the job done.
“Processors have to dedicate to this,” he explains. “These employees need to know that attention to detail and understanding what it takes to get the plant clean is important. There should be accurate procedures for sanitation and making sure the right resources are available to get the job done correctly.”
In addition, a lack of time from a production standpoint can have an effect on sanitation practices. “Time is a critical factor in cleaning, because production runs are long and there is never enough time to get it done correctly,” he adds.
There are equipment issues, as well. Marcy says many plants face obstacles when using high-pressure cleaning systems. Processors who have switched to high pressure to save labor are often disappointed. Booster pressure systems are another option, but Marcy says these units use more water.
“[The high-pressure] cleaning process doesn’t save labor, and it also has the potential to damage the equipment,” he explains. “It’s always a balance in using less water with more pressure. Although booster systems provide more cleaning with less equipment damage, water gets everywhere.”
Richard Lobb, director of communications at the National Chicken Council in Washington, D.C., notes that, where sanitation is concerned, water treatment and disposal is a challenge for poultry processors.
“It is the availability of water that determines a poultry plant’s location,” he says. “These facilities go through a lot of water for cleaning and sanitizing. The water used for processing carcasses is chlorinated as well as the water in the chill tanks. Plants use three to four shower heads to clean carcasses with chlorinated water. Plus, there is a lot of water constantly running into floor drains.”
Breaking down the equipment more frequently to clean in its nooks and crannies is a common challenge, Boyle says. “Part of this is the time commitment. After processing all day, [it can be a difficult endeavor] to spend the next few hours cleaning. And they may forget to break down the equipment, if there is a lack of knowledge,” she explains.
One of the biggest obstacles facing meat processors is evaluating the efficacy of their cleaning and sanitation programs. Seward explains that because of the high cost of microbiological testing, many companies may not be able to devote financial resources to these programs.
“To really substantiate that the potential harborages and niches are being sanitized appropriately, smaller plants may not have the financial resources to do a significant level of microbiological testing to verify that sanitation programs are achieving the desired results,” he says. “But the only way plants can really tell if they have an effective program is to verify it through microbiological testing.”
Looking ahead, many agree that there needs to be more consistency with meat processors’ sanitation programs. Seward says meat processors must work with and educate their crews, making sure sanitizers are used in the right concentrations.
“Knowing what chemical suppliers can and will do for you is vitally important to a program,” he says. “Working with equipment manufacturers to find out what is required to keep these units clean also is key.”
Manufacturers should make sure their sanitation procedures work and that those cleaning the equipment understand the instructions. There also are a number of resources to better educate sanitation personnel. Seward says AMI’s Listeria Workshop and the Beef Industry Food Safety Council’s Best Safety Practices are good places to start.
Boyle also encourages plant operators to attend sanitation refresher courses.
“If they haven’t been to one, they will learn new strategies for controlling pathogens,” she says. “We find that operators don’t want to attend our workshops because there are no new government regulations or cutting-edge innovations in this segment. Still, everyone can use a refresher. If you learn just one new thing from the session, you walk away making more money for your business.”