Apparel can be the first line of defense in maintaining food safety on the processing line.
What employees wear to work in the meat industry will never get reviewed by fashion magazines. It will, however, get plenty of attention from those whose goal is to increase food safety.
Apparel, from the uniforms worn every day to the aprons and gloves worn on the line, are a major part of the defense against contamination. And every piece has importance.
The full outfit
The first area of apparel many processors will evaluate are uniforms. The regular work of employees can have an effect on the ability of uniforms to maintain food safety.
“Whenever a garment worn by a food-processing employee is soiled from water or the food product, the garment becomes a nutritional source for microorganisms,” says Jan Eudy, corporate quality assurance manager for Cincinnati-based Cintas Corp. “It is imperative that garments are cleaned in a validated, robust linear process flow to assure the customer that the garments themselves will not cross-contaminate the food process.”
Cintas is one of the leading uniform suppliers in the country. Its biggest focus is on uniform rental. The company provides specialized garments such as flame-resistant garments to comply with NFPA 70E, cleanroom garments to comply with IEST-RP-CC003.3 and sterility to ANSI/AAMI/ISO 11137, food processing and foodservice garments, executive wear and industrial shirts and pants.
“The meat and poultry industries have typically more heavily soiled garments than other food-processing industries,” says Eudy.
Working against that fact are increasing pressures from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to document training, preventive and corrective maintenance, preventive and corrective action and incoming components. Compliance for these regulations are increasing the production costs for the food processor while the consumer demands lower prices every year, according to Eudy.
Cintas has been promoting its validated six-log microbe reducing wash process. The Cintas process reduces 99.9999 percent of pathogens on laundered garments, Eudy says.
Another company with a strong focus on uniforms is G&K Services of Minnetonka, Minn. Carter Bray, director of marketing for the company, describes G&K as a supplier or branded identity apparel and facilities services. The company’s flagship product is ProSuraTM and the related BioSmart TM technology.
ProSura is part of the company’s uniform rental program, where G&K supports a customer’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan. During the pickup, cleaning and delivery process, G&K segregates its food-industryies’ apparel from other industry garments, uses proprietary wash chemistry and applies rigorous SOPs to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. BioSmart, a patent-pending technology developed by Milliken, is designed to limit cross-contamination even more. Uniforms and wipe towels that use BioSmart actually kill pathogens. The fabric is “recharged” when processed with Environmental Protection Agency-registered chlorine bleach that can kill up to 99.9 percent of pathogens.
“BioSmart is a breakthrough technology that allows us to fully support the HACCP plans of our customers,” says Bray. “It will kill many of the viruses and bacteria that our food-processing and retail-food clients fight against.”
He goes on to say that G&K works with customers to identify unique requirements in order to customize a program best suited for an individual customer’s needs.
As for the uniforms themselves, he says G&K’s own research found that product design plays a large part of food safety. “Best Practice” design features include using snaps instead of buttons and keeping pockets either below the waist or on the inside of apparel, such as butcher’s aprons.
“If you’re able to bring those ideas into your operation, then I think you’ll have a better shot of maintaining food safety,” Bray says.
ARAMARK Uniform Services, based in Burbank Calif., is another supplier of uniforms and career apparel in the food industry.
“We believe a company’s uniform supplier should act as a consultant and a trusted partner in the food industry,” says Jim Holton, senior national account executive of food manufacturing and HACCP for ARAMARK. “We work closely with customers to help evaluate safety needs, as well as helping to identify and implement equipment and apparel that our customers’ safety personnel are confident will best support their individual HACCP programs.”
Holton says that apparel specifications such as fabric content, closure type and body and sleeve length all need to be considered to help reduce opportunities for food contamination and injuries.
Wilmington, Mass.-based UniFirst Corp. has also made cross-contamination a focus of the company's own work in uniforms. Like many other companies in the apparel sector, it has expanded to include facility services and overall food safety.
“If apparel has not been properly laundered and handled, people working with the food products can unknowingly transport bacteria or other contaminants into processing areas on their clothing.” says Adam Siegel, business development manager for UniFirst. “The contaminants, in turn, can then be transferred to work-surfaces, cutting boards, knives and other equipment and by the food handlers themselves ... increasing cross-contamination risks.”
Siegel explains that in order to ensure overall food-safety/HACCP compliance, it is recommended that careful records be kept to track the entire laundering and handling process of all textiles. This can help ensure that accurate processing controls are in place. Also, random bacterial strip testing should be part of this overall product protection process as an additional safety check, along with careful wrapping, sorting, and storing of textiles prior to return delivery to customers. All records of these safety measures should be readily available for any required reference.
“You should begin by identifying what suppliers can provide you with the uniforms that best minimize cross-contamination risks,” Siegel says. “Next you should access the level of quality of materials that go into the construction of the uniforms as well as the supplier’s track record with respect to customer service and support.”
Companies should keep in mind that whether the product is a skyscraper or workwear, many of the same general principals apply. The apparel needs to be made from quality materials (in this case high-end durable fabrics and components), and the processor must factor in wear and tear (know how long your materials will last and how they will endure the environment they’re expected to be worn and laundered in) and then reinforce accordingly (know stress points and factor in extra protection wherever necessary). Siegel urges those looking into a program to seek out uniform suppliers who embrace these basic principals and have a proven track record of doing so.
Gloves are also an important aspect of apparel.
The need for hygiene doesn’t change with the overall uniform either. UniFirst is one of several companies that have taken the steps from merely cleaning clothes to treating it like the part of food-safety control it is.
“A million people who wear our uniforms everyday,” says Siegel, by far the largest part of the company’s business.
Siegel says companies looking for new food safety solutions should look at all companies involved in the sector. Some of the most important things are the ability to verify actions and materials and flexibility.
Added safety, protection
Deerfield, Ill.-based Niroflex USA is a manufacturer of metal mesh gloves and garments used in the processor industry. According to Loren Rivkin, sales manager, the company’s approach to food safety has been to eliminate a longstanding problem in metal mesh gloves used on the cutting floor.
“The original style of metal mesh gloves have a fabric strap around the wrist. This style has been in use for more than 20 years in meat-processing plants,” he explains. “With food safety being paramount in processing plants, fabric straps on gloves create a hygiene risk because the fabric is difficult to keep clean.”
The company produces line of gloves and sleeves called Niroflex2000 that are all stainless steel with no fabric strap. Instead, it uses a steel clasp that clips into the mesh of the glove, removing the need for a fabric strap that tightens at the wrist.
Rivkin points out that metal mesh gloves are a required part of the apparel on the processing floor. Because of the knives used on the floor, there is no debate about the need for gloves. Just for the best way to make them.
The apparel needs don’t stop there. Different areas of a plant will need other items such as aprons, sleeves and more. That’s where companies such as PolyConversions come in.
The Rantoul, Ill.-based company is a manufacturer of protective sleeves, aprons, gowns, rainwear and boot and shoecovers. It also produces PolyWog Wipes, a pre-moistened towel containing surfactants and quaternary ammonia compounds. In addition, the company manufacturers PolyWear disposable gowns, an effective replacement for commonly used imported disposable poly sleeves and aprons.
Scott Carlson, sales manager for PolyConversions, explains that protective sleeves can have unique issues of their own.
“Vinyl protective apparel such as sleeves, aprons and coat aprons used within food-processing facilities have issues with length of use and potential of flecking material off of the apparel,” he says. “Vinyl material used for apparel is produced with softening agents called plasticizers. These give the apparel flexibility, but when the vinyl apparel comes in contact with fats and animal fluids in cold conditions, these plasticizers leach out of the apparel.” As that happens, the vinyl itself starts to crack and become brittle and the material starts to come off in small flecks. Those flecks can unknowingly be applied to the food being processed.
PolyConversions released VR, a polyolefin film product, a few years ago as a response to that problem. Not as thick as traditional vinyl gear, it lasts longer, is easier to clean, has no plasticizers to leach out and is more environmentally friendly.
Carlson also points out that disposable products are gaining interest because of the USDA’s concerns about cross-contamination. His own company produces disposable gowns for that very reason.