Food processors are using new technologies for hand and boot sanitation to reduce the risk of cross-contamination, microbial bio-burden and unsafe personal sanitation.
In just October alone, Topps and Sam’s Choice’s frozen burgers were pulled off shelves due to a possible E. coli contamination; ConAgra Foods recalled its frozen pot pies for possible Salmonella contamination; and Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. recalled frozen ground beef patties made at a Wisconsin plant for a purported E. coli risk. Clearly, food safety matters. As consumers become all too familiar with — and wary of — meat and poultry recalls, food processors are using new technologies for hand and boot sanitation to reduce the risk of cross-contamination, microbial bio-burden and unsafe personal sanitation and safety.
Long gone, of course, are the days of letting employees wash their hands with just antimicrobial or bland soaps and dry their hands with cloth towels — likely carriers of bacteria. Even traditional open refillable soap dispensers have been pinpointed as another unsuspected source of contamination in recent studies. Meat and poultry plant employees now prevent hand and boot contamination with methods that range from simple to elaborate.
Meritech’s ProTech Series, for one, addresses how to clean a large amount of employees’ hands and boots quickly and efficiently. The ProTech is a high-volume, industrialized walk-through system that can be positioned at a company’s plant entrances. The machine utilizes a series of multiple spray nozzles in four panels to provide a highly thorough hand cleaning and sanitizing cycle for up to 30 employees per minute walking through the system.
The machine is available in a hands-only version, as well as hand and boot versions. The hand and boot version is equipped with control system that monitors the automatic solution’s concentration, and maintains a preset solution concentration in the sanitizing bath. According to Michele Colbert, director of sales for Golden, Colo.-based Meritech, the series receives positive feedback because of the time savings it creates for employees and its ease of use.
“It can be impossible to track thousands of employees’ sanitation requirements, so putting the ProTech at entrances not only kills pathogens but increases compliance by 300 percent,” she says. She notes that some plants also have turnstiles that won’t open until an employee washes his or her hands and boots in the system to guarantee compliance.
Meritech’s CleanTech series is a more compact application that is designed for use in small- to medium-sized operations. This freestanding, in-counter or wall-mounted equipment also sanitizes hands with individual nozzles, reducing pathogen transmission by 99.97 percent — and reducing water and soap consumption, wastewater and employee hand washing time. Colbert notes that Meritech is creating a number of new hand-washing models with smaller footprints.
Touch-free systems are becoming more prevalent in the processing environment as a means of reducing cross-contamination, says Bob Sherman, technical marketing manager for Zep Manufacturing Co., based in Atlanta.
“Whether you’re referring to hand or boot sanitation, anytime you can avoid actually touching the system, you are one step closer to minimizing this very important aspect of food safety,” he says.
Zep’s C4 (Cross Contamination Control Center) employs the timed application of thick, copious sanitizing foam, through which workers walk, ride forklifts or move carts from one part of the facility to another, thereby sanitizing the floor and contact surfaces of these items. The coupling of Zep’s Markstone Touch-Free Dispenser with Zep’s Alcohol Spray Sanitizer combats cross-contamination, as well.
“Boot and hand ‘dip’ stations have come a long way, but still have far to go,” says Sherman. “Any time actual ‘dipping’ is involved, the risk of contamination is increased. Direct application to the skin or boots without dipping or physically touching a dispenser should always be viewed as a better means of microbial control.”
Sherman notes that iodine solutions used in boot dip stations are becoming increasingly archaic. “While they still serve a purpose for smaller applications, they tend to be rather messy and expensive — both from a price standpoint as well as a maintenance issue.”
Indeed, labor still remains one of the most expensive aspects of running any business, and having to empty and clean those stations and trays, then refill with the appropriate dilution of an iodine compound is both time-consuming and costly.
“Generally speaking, tray-less systems for boot dip applications save both time and money, and ‘dip-free’ hand-sanitizing applications provide more reliable, consistent sanitization of hands and gloves,” says Sherman.
Motion-activated systems are rapidly replacing the hand- and foot-activated systems in food-processing facilities, says Jan Eudy, corporate quality assurance manager for Cincinnati-based Cintas, because they reduce the recontamination of hands after washing and drying.
According to Eudy, the latest innovations available to food processors are motion-activated soap dispensers, prepared sanitizers, motion-activated water dispensation at the correct temperature (110 F) for the correct duration, motion-activated paper-towel dispensers, and motion-activated point-of-use hand-sanitization stations with waterless sanitizers.
“However, no system provides an effective solution to limit contamination from hands unless the system is constantly monitored and serviced to provide the required delivery of soap, sanitizers and paper towels,” she says. Cintas provides services to its clients to make sure they are using their products properly and integrating them with Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) and Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs) at their facilities.
The motion-activated systems are an improvement, she says, over manually turning on and off water, dispensing soap and getting a paper or cloth towel or turning on an air dryer. In addition, foot bath solutions are more widely used today.
“However, the gross soil must still be removed from the boots using scraper mats prior to sanitizing,” says Eudy. “Eventually, the foot bath solutions will be replaced by antimicrobial scraper mats.”
This switch will help plant managers cut back on time spent monitoring the effectiveness of the foot bath solution, replacing the solution as needed, and reducing the mess and time required to replenish the foot bath sanitizing solutions.
“There is upcoming technology utilizing a durable antimicrobial that won’t wash out and does not need to be recharged,” says Eudy. “This will be incorporated in fabrics, wall coverings and floor mats that not only will reduce cross-contamination but will reduce the overall concentration of microorganisms in the food-processing facility.”
Another way to reduce cross-contamination from boots is through door foamers. Hydrite’s Central Doorway Foam Sanitizing System, for example, provides the same concentration of sanitizing solution at every hygienically sensitive doorway. The system’s solution comes from a central control system and is pumped throughout the plant by a header system at predetermined frequencies during the production day — eliminating the need to carry and distribute chemicals to every door foamer, says Randy Karcz, director of sales and marketing for Hydrite Chemical Co., based in Brookfield, Wis.
The system’s central timer control panel also reduces maintenance to localized panels. And its air-operated double diaphragm solution pump offers a consistent solution transfer with low maintenance and energy costs.
Back to basics
To prevent contamination at processing plants, even soap is being put under the microscope. According to a recent study by the University of Arizona’s microbiologist Dr. Charles P. Gerba, liquid hand soap collected from open refillable (or bulk) dispensing systems are actually a public health risk. He found unsafe levels of bacterial contamination in bulk systems, and none in soap from sealed (or bagged or cartridge) style dispensers.
GOJO Industries Inc., based in Akron, Ohio, is stressing its hygiene wipes and sanitation gels, such as Purell. The wipes are a quick and effective solution for when employees, such as delivery truck drivers and haulers, aren’t near a sink to wash up but are entering the processing area. Purell, known to soccer moms, clean freaks and plant employees alike, offers a high level of hand hygiene because it’s easy to use, has the advantages of chemical sanitizers, is mild and gentle to the skin, and fast-acting, notes Dan McElroy, market development director for GOJO.
“The current fad is to build equipment with sprays for sanitation,” he says. “Most of their sanitizing solutions aren’t designed to be skin-friendly or carry the brand impact of Purell, which people are most familiar with and use at home too.”
In general, he notes that the use of alcohol sanitizers drives employee compliance. The Journal of Food Protection, in fact, recently ran a study stating that the use of antimicrobial soap followed by a hand sanitizer was an effective strategy to reduce bacteria. This double hand-washing method was determined to be just as successful as wearing protective gloves.
“Technology is driven by need,” says McElroy. “The industry has realized simple solutions for hand hygiene are the best.”
He suggests that the food-processing industry will have more systems in the future that identify and monitor who has cleaned their hands and how. “There are so many detailed challenges in this industry, but this is an easy one,” he says.
Additional innovations are being made with alcohol and cloth-based sanitizers and powder floor sanitizers for dry areas. Today’s soaps are moving beyond antibacterial claims to shoot for E2 and E3 ratings (judged by the USDA for antimicrobial efficacy).
“Gel-based hand sanitizers have failed to meet antimicrobial requirements within 30 seconds and don’t pass the efficacy test,” says Mike Warner, corporate account coordinator for AFCO, based in Chambersburg, Pa. AFCO carries an E-3-rated hand sanitizer.
He agrees that automated hand-washing systems aren’t as reliable as someone washing their hands and getting underneath the cuticles and crevices, where most of the bacteria gather. Furthermore, AFCO’s touch-free dispensing apparatuses are operated by employee’s feet, forearms or infrared technology to prevent employee contamination.
Warner points out that door foamers have also benefited from remote controls, which maintain the cleaning solution and refresh automatically.
Innovative ingredients have been added to the cleaning solutions to create better foam and more environmentally friendly wastewater treatment, which breaks down in water and vinegar.
In addition, he points out that boot manufacturers are putting more open treads on their boots to prevent bacteria from being trapped in tight tread patterns.
Warner predicts plants will see more door foamers and boot washers instead of quad mats, foot baths or troughs to walk or drive through, and more hand sanitizers instead of hand dips with chlorine or iodine. But companies will also address ways to better wash and sanitize gloves and armguards and keep improving automated hand-washing technology.
“Probably, the biggest technology gap is getting people to use the technology properly or not avoid it,” he says. Scanners, for example, that employees touch after cleaning their hands could be a good way to monitor employee compliance.
It’s not just sanitizing solutions and equipment that’s becoming high-tech at plants. Even personal protective wear, such as aprons, sleeves, gowns, boots, gloves and shoe covers are being revamped to protect employees (and products) from chemicals and excessive splashes, meat residue and animal fats and fluids.
PolyConversions Protective Wear is made of a soft but anti-skid vinyl replacement (VR) that comes in a variety of colors for color-coding, which prevents cross-contamination between departments.
“Our materials are a lighter weight [and] offer a tremendous amount of strength and durability, but aren’t brittle,” says Scott Carlson, sales manager for the Rantoul, Ill.-based PolyConversions. “Some companies’ products degrade quickly when they come in contact with fats and fluids, or their vinyl gets hard and brittle.”
PolyConversions’ products are unique in that they are environmentally green. Carlson notes that they can be cleaned and re-used in a limited fashion and then disposed of safely. If they are incinerated, they produce carbon dioxide and water, instead of hydrochloric acid fumes. Or they can be recycled or put in landfills.
G&K Services’ and Milliken & Co., based in Spartanburg, S.C., have partnered together to create antimicrobial garments and towels. Its BioSmart application binds chlorine molecules to its fabrics for up to 12 weeks, killing any germs and bacteria that come in contact with the fabric. The BioSmart linens are available through G&K Services ProSura Food Safety Solutions program.
“Now towels are no longer a germ breeding ground, but germ killers,” says Stacy Rider, senior marketing manager for segment marketing, G&K Services, based in Minnetonka, Minn. Third-party testing has documented that the chlorine in BioSmart fabrics kills 99.9 percent of common bacteria and viruses, such as Salmonella, E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Hepatitis A, when laundered according to care instructions with EPA-registered chlorine bleach.
“The garments are returned with less than 10 colony forming units (CFUs) per square inch, which is pretty significant because when they reach us, they have well over a 1,000 CFUs per square inch,” says Rider. In addition, the fabrics are not irritating to human skin.