As food safety becomes an even greater national issue, hygiene is examined more closely in the meat and poultry processing industry.
In a market with increasing health concerns and higher media scrutiny on product recalls, hygiene has become an even higher priority for those in the industry.
Whether the products are case ready or ready-to-eat, maintaining hygiene requires vigilance and testing. Poultry products have always received higher scrutiny. And there are basics that any sector of the meat industry should follow.
Dr. Bob Delmore of California Polytechnic State University says that a processor needs to followgeneral sanitation principles. He adds that some pieces of equipment can be easier to clean, but the principles for cleaning all of them are the same. The steps for good sanitation are dry pickup and equipment disassembly, equipment pre-rinse, application of foaming detergent, hand scrubbing with green pads, equipment rinse, inspection and the application of sanitizer.
The chemicals used to clean are also pretty basic. “Any chemical company can help with this,” continues Delmore. “You need a foaming detergent — some use chlorinated foam — and a sanitizer — most use an acid rinse once a week to prevent build up. If you are cleaning floors or a smokehouse, generally plants use a more aggressive cleaner. There are no silver bullets, you need to disassemble equipment and hand scrub.”
Effectiveness of the cleansers will depend on the products produced by the facility, according to Dr. Dan White of Fieldale Farms Corp. Details such as whether the food was high fat or low fat, breaded or not, ready-to-cook or ready to eat, will all have an effect how well the chemicals work. The oxidation strength of different cleansers (such as ozone, peracetic acid, hydrogen peroxide and so on), also matters.
James Marsden, the Regent’s Distinguished Professor for Food Safety and Security at Kansas State University, points out that design should also be taken into account.
There also basics to watch out for while doing washdowns. Delmore recommends ensuring that employees are logged out and tagged out of the equipment and all electrical components are covered with plastic (after a wipe down with sanitizer). The machines should be disassembled as much as possible with none of the parts on the floor.
White points out that workers should be careful not to recontaminate other equipment with overspraying and watch for cross contamination from debris or the mist generated by a washdown.
The timing of the wash matters too. “It is not efficient to perform a total sanitation during a processing shift,” White says. “Equipment wash downs are dependant upon the complexity of the equipment and the process. Wash down procedures can be incorporated into a facility’s Performance Sanitation Standards.” Online belt washers can be put in to spray an oxidation agent when necessary, but not overall. Some areas on the line may require areas to be kept dry and cold to minimize any bacterial growth.
“The best time for a full equipment wash down is after all production ceases and all product and raw materials are removed from the processing area,” says Marsden.
How often depends on the products and processes of each processing plant. Delmore says that he generally recommends a full sanitation after two shifts, adding that there are some plants that have created systems that would allow for extended production runs and allow more production time between clean-ups.
Any in-shift cleaning would be more basic. “In most plants it is a continuous process of cleaning the room and employees, but not just spraying water around,” Delmore says. “All plants use a floor person to clean the floor during the shift. Employees are washing hands, tools, etc., as needed throughout the shift.” Experts agree that food would have to be removed from the area during any in-shift cleaning.
Hygiene also extends to the uniforms and apparel of workers. White says that uniforms are a way to prevent the cross contamination of products.
He goes on to explain that companies should ask themselves several questions: Does the vendor have a HACCP plan? Do they commingle franks and uniforms? Do the perform ATP or TPC count testing on the apparel? These questions should help form a processor’s decision on what services and uniforms to use.
Delmore says the general trend in the industry is the use of a captive uniform and boot system.
Testing the system
Testing still needs to be done to ensure that all of these measures work like they should. Time is often a major factor. This is where rapid testing becomes important.
“Rapid testing allows for faster turnover of product inventory, thus resulting in a reduction of inventory cost,” White says. “Also, rapid results allows for management of raw materials to be closer to Just-as-Needed, thus reducing cost.” He adds that use of any non-approved procedure would be wrong and would add unnecessarily to the cost.
Both White and Marsden agree that that polymerase chain reaction (PCR) genetic-based testing can provide quick and accurate results. It can detect the presence of E. coli 0157:H7 and Listeria monocytogenes and the pathogens that cause salmonella and campylobacter. Other options for rapid testing include preoperational testing for ATP residue and antibody antigen reaction (Elisha).
Each method has different benefits and drawbacks. The benefit of ATP is that it can give results in real time in order to expedite immediate action to correct the problem. It can also help measure the effectiveness of a company’s sanitation program. The drawback is that it is used at the beginning of the process and not with the finished product.
PCR and Elisha both can be used with the finished product and give results within hours. However, PCR can cost twice as much as Elisha. And Elisha can have false negatives.
“The best reason to employmicrobiological testing is to verify a safe food process,” Marsden says. “Microbiological alone does not guarantee that a food product is safe. Since pathogens are not uniformly distributed in a food product, asingle sample or even multiplesamples may not identify thepresence of a pathogen, even if it is present.”
Mardsen says that the optimum food safety system should use technologies to prevent contamination and interventions to eliminate biological hazards. Those steps can be constantly monitored during production to ensure control. The testing can help make sure that the measures work.
Marsden’s colleague at Kansas State University, Dr. Daniel Y.C. Fung, also says that the live load of pathogens is also important.
“We like to know if the bacteria is live or dead,” he says. “If you take a chicken and cook it, you kill salmonella, it’s safe to eat. But some of the systems can still find the DNA, even though it is already dead.” That viable cell count is a very important part of food microbiology.
Rapid testing as an area ofinterest is also growing, especially since it has helped find the causes of many pathogen related recalls in recent months. Marsden points out that the increase of E. coli 0157:H7 in ground beef products and outbreaks of E. coli related illnesses have brought the scrutiny on the industry and made food safety one of the most important issues in the U.S. and Canadian food industries.
“For microbiologists, we had already started to be very concerned anyway,” says Fung. “It does highlight the need to test faster. At least we know how to test rapidly compared to years ago. The government is doing a lot of good work in tracking things. The field of microbiology is moving very rapidly. If things happen, we can find out much quicker. Compared with the world, The United States still has the best food supply in the world, in terms of food safety and in general.”
White says that as the market offers more and more ready-to-eat products and relies more on “just in time” stock, rapid testing will become even more important on the future.
“For the protection of your own company,” says Fung. “If you don’t do it, you waste a lot of time. If someone gets sick it will be a big mess."
The right knowledge
Having all of the right chemicals and all the right testing will do no good without the right training. Companies need to be ready to invest in training to ensure that standards are kept.
As for how much money should be invested, that depends on the processor. “There is no magic number,” White says. “Training should be ongoing with continuous verification supported by certification programs. The amount of training should be reflective of the facility’s complexity and the facility’s product mix.”
Delmore explains that sanitation is not as easy as most people think. It is more than just spraying water. “Training needs to be conducted in the areas of application of chemicals, detailed cleaning procedures, sanitizer application and inspection,” he says.
Delmore adds that it is well understood that employees can be a source of potential contamination if they aren’t well trained in proper operational sanitation and personal hygiene. Many companies have training procedures that go on for several days and implant systems that identify new employees to provide more oversight for many items such as personal hygiene. This works for both the company’s employees and those of any contractors.
Some processors chose to outsource the in-depth sanitation procedures. Use of a contractor to provide cleaning and hygiene services does not remove the processor from responsibility, however.
“In my opinion, a company’s reputation and potential future can be correlated to the effectiveness of their sanitation program,” says White. “Contracting with a sanitation service does not mitigate a company’s responsibility, or transfer accountability. Even though contract workers are not on a facilities payroll, if tasks are being performed in the facility, the facilities management is responsible, and accountable, to verify proper procedures are being followed.”