Tried-and-true best practices hold strong for cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting food processing sites. Old-fashioned elbow grease is still a critical component for cleaning dirt and debris from surfaces. Brushes, squeegees, brooms and other hand tools are as relevant now as ever before. And hand hygiene practices “will never go out of style,” said April Zeman-Lowe, sales director, food and beverage division, Best Sanitizers.

“Hand hygiene is critical,” she said, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced and, in many cases, elevated companies’ sanitation best practices, from the products they use to how they’re applied — and the way processes are taught to team members.

Importantly, the pandemic also prompted organizations to reconnect with what cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting actually mean. The terms and processes are not interchangeable. When team members charged with creating a safe and healthy environment for food processing inadvertently use sanitizers or disinfectants to clean, they’re basically covering up the grime.

Illustration: © Alex Eben Meyer

“Cleaning is the removal of soil, and it’s a very important step in the overall process of sanitizing or disinfecting a surface,” said Reid Rabon, senior global product manager with robotics for Tennant Co. “Sanitization is a regulated, efficacy clean, and disinfection is used to destroy additional organisms including bacteria and viruses.”

Without cleaning first, sanitizers and disinfectants won’t work as well. “Organic matter has a negative influence on efficacy,” said Amit Kheradia, education and technical support manager for Remco. Cleaning parameters such as TACT are timeless, he said, and Remco likes to add a couple letters (E and R) to the acronym for the protocol developed in the 1960s:

  • Time of contact required for a detergent solution to loosen soil from a surface
  • Action in the form of mechanical agitation using cleaning tools to loosen soil from a surface
  • Chemical concentration and optimum pH of detergent
  • Temperature of detergent solution to properly dissolve soil
  • Employees conducting the cleaning — educated, trained and competent to follow procedures
  • Resources: potable water, cleaning tools and equipment, chemicals and instructions

With a global focus on minimizing the spread of COVID-19, organizations during the last year have revisited time-tested procedures and are reinforcing hygienic behaviors. “The aspect of disinfecting that has really changed is not necessarily inside the plant, but in areas like offices and places where non-processing happens,” said Carol Jones, manager, AFCO Quality Action Team. She helped develop a program for the company’s own offices. Developing it involved a top-to-bottom evaluation of cleaning, sanitization and disinfecting processes with an emphasis on hygiene.

“We looked at where hand sanitizer units should be placed, how to clean high-contact areas and deep cleaning areas like air units and ductwork,” Jones said of a few key touchpoints in the program.

There are also tests to determine whether surfaces are actually cleaned, sanitized and disinfected. And, air quality became an additional area of focus for several companies.

Basically, this holistic approach speaks to the buzzword Hygiene Theater, which infamously gained momentum during the pandemic. “That means following COVID-19 guidelines where there is no risk-based threat of the coronavirus,” Kheradia said.

Perhaps a silver lining of the pandemic is a renewed energy, innovation and additional resources allocated to cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting. Here are five ways food processing companies can rethink, refresh and refocus the processes that help keep facilities safe for producing food.

1. Explain the Why — Again

Buy-in is the basis of an effective cleaning, sanitization and disinfecting program. Basically, it goes back to elbow grease. If the people charged with implementing a program aren’t all in, the results will reflect that. And getting people on board requires explaining why these protocols are essential.

COVID-19 has made that easier.

“Team members doing the sanitation activities first need to be explained why cleaning and sanitation is important before training them on the details of standard operating procedures,” Kheradia said. “The objective should be to create a sanitary condition for the production of safe and quality food.”

Refocus: Norovirus is the No. 1 leading cause of foodborne illness in the United States and world, Kheradia pointed out. Educating employees about this fact helps emphasize the message to stick to sanitation standard operating procedures (SSOPs).

2. Give the Team a Hand

“After all my years in this industry, I did not know how to wash my hands,” Jones said, relating that efforts to establish an in-office program included a deep-dive into hand-washing that identified the most commonly overlooked spots: thumbs, fingertips and in between fingers. And as for applying sanitizer, a dollop smeared on the palms doesn’t do much good. “You have to get the coverage, and you have to give it a minute to work,” she said.

Again, educating team members is key. “We have purses, bags, briefcases, computers and phones we touch,” Jones said. “Every time we wash our hands, we want to take them back to zero. Then we apply sanitizer and have clean hands.”

Meritech’s Will Eaton said there are 12 steps to handwashing if you’re doing it properly. “Most people do not follow those 12 steps every time because it’s human nature — we’re distracted, in a hurry, not paying attention,” he said.

While washing your hands, when was the last time you interlocked your fingers while rubbing the backs of fingers on your opposite palm? (Exactly.) Hand-washing signs in bathrooms are helpful reminders, Jones said. And so are hand-washing stations that remove the human error, said Eaton, Meritech’s vice president of sales and marketing. Placed in hygiene zones where employees pass from one zone to the next — such as into a food processing area — a hand (and shoe) washing station can accomplish those 12 steps and sanitize in 12 seconds, he said.

“Having the right hygienic protocols in place upon entry to remove harmful pathogens prior to employees coming into the plant is the best way to mitigate risk,” Eaton said.

Refocus: It’s fair to say that all of us are more attuned to thorough handwashing, but we’re also taking a closer look down — at shoes, Eaton said. Some plants focus on captive footwear that never leaves the facility. “This is very smart,” he said. But other facilities allow employees to wear their work shoes home. “That’s when outside elements come into play.”

Not to mention, our feet pick up dirt and debris by simply visiting the break room or a non-food processing area of a plant — no matter how clean the floors are. Footwear sanitization stations can help mitigate the risk of transferring harmful bacteria and microorganisms into places where food is handled.

Illustration: © Alex Eben Meyer

3. Know How Things Work

We’re talking about products designed for cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting — and reading the label will help you understand how it should be applied, how long it should sit and how effective it is when used properly.

“There is more recognition and awareness that certain products do not immediately sanitize a surface, and by spraying it on a surface, wiping it down and drying it off, you’re actually using the sanitizer as a cleaning product,” Rabon said.

This misstep often occurs when using disinfectants in floor scrubbers, he added, noting that there’s a false sense of security that comes with spraying down a soiled floor with a product designed to remove bacteria and viruses. Also, there’s a tendency to overuse high-foaming products that can damage floor scrubbers. He compared it to pouring Dawn dish soap into a dishwasher. “It will clean the dishes, but you’ll do damage to the pumps and seals eventually,” he said.

With the COVID-19 Hygiene Theater concept come some good and bad, Kheradia pointed out. A positive is practices such as employees not coming to work when they are sick, respiratory etiquette (masks) and hand washing. “Employees have become more aware of food safety practices,” he said. The downside was an overuse and misapplication of chemicals on surfaces or hands — or without cleaning surfaces or washing hands.

Review products currently in use. Are they allocated to the proper step in the clean, sanitize, disinfect sequence? Are you using the recommended equipment, if required, to apply the product? “We saw additional tools like handheld sprayers and insect foggers being used to apply and disinfect everything rather than having an understanding of what truly needed to be cleaned, sanitized or disinfected,” Rabon said.

Refocus: Evaluate your arsenal of products and carefully read labels, tuning in to application method and dwell time. It’s basic — but simply following the directions will give you the expected outcome. Products are designed specifically to clean, sanitize and disinfect. Select the right products for each step in the process. And look for new Environmental Protection Agency labeling that indicates effectiveness against COVID-19 for high-touch areas such as door knobs, push buttons, hand tools, sink faucets, etc., Kheradia said.

4. Tend to Your Tools

“Manual, mechanical cleaning using hand tools is here to stay,” Kheradia said, noting that not every surface can be addressed using automated cleaning such as Clean In Place (CIP) or Clean Out of Place (COP). “One should require hand tools like brushes of various types, brooms, squeegees, scrapers, etc., that need to be cleaned and sanitized before and after use.”

First, you need to assign the right tools for specific jobs. “The wrong use of tools or misallocation of tools can lead to product contamination,” Kheradia said. “The little things matter.”

Consider where clean tools are stored — and where you set dirty tools. Hygienically designed tools are less likely to carry contaminants and easier to clean. And, be sure to assign tools so you can get a 360-degree clean, paying attention to: high-level areas such as ceilings; low-level spaces such as floors and floor-junctions; details such as nooks and crannies, and inside pipes; and deep cleaning of surfaces.

Refocus: Color-code and isolate cleaning tools to specific areas, said Mike Dougherty of Perfex Corp. And, be sure to communicate the coding and set expectations with employees so everyone understands. Remember, cleaning tools need to be cleaned, too, Kheradia said.

5. Go Hands Off, But Stay Hands On

Robotic cleaning equipment can allow food processing plants to re-allocate labor, or to do more with less human resources. “We have seen a tremendous growth in floor cleaning robotics during the last few years, and especially now that it allows us to redirect labor that might have been used to focus on high-touch surface areas to other high-touch areas,” Rabon said.

On the other hand, some companies expanded staff to manage more rigorous cleaning and sanitation. For example, Best Sanitizers created new positions. “These employees’ only job function is to clean and sanitize areas which come into contact with personnel,” Bellucci said. “This includes our cafeterias, vending machines, windows, ledges, everything that is a touchpoint.”

Refocus: Evaluate the “who” of cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting processes — and determine if existing resources are adequate to properly execute SSOPs. “At the end of the day,” Jones said, “sanitization is a process, and when you do a process that is effective, you get the same results every time.”