Cleaning and Sanitizing Basics for Food Plants

Food processing facilities turn out many products that nourish and feed our human communities; however, they also provide an attractive environment to encourage the growth of potentially harmful microbiological communities. How does your operation address these risks? Blue broom sweeping oats food processing food safetyThrough recent visits to production environments, we know how much effort goes into building sanitation programs that maintain hygienic conditions to protect the health of the intended human consumers. We’re also familiar with the complex codes and regulations, such as FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) and CFR Title 21: Food and Drugs, that exist to address the importance of proper food safety standards in food plants. Now more than ever, it’s important to know where to start when it comes to food safety.

Cleaning and sanitizing certainly go together, but are separate processes that achieve different outcomes. A GMP Training Module from the Cornell Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management offers great definitions of cleaning and sanitizing. Basically, cleaning involves the removal of dirt, residue and debris from the surface of bench tops, equipment, floors, and other surfaces in a food plant, and is performed prior to a sanitizing process. An effective sanitizing program is designed to reduce the number of pathogenic microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, yeasts and molds on a cleaned surface to acceptable levels through thermal or chemical means.

Cleaning and sanitizing procedures are unique to each food processing facility, and there’s no template. We have come to learn that building design, temperature, humidity, and oxygen content all factor in when considering a sanitation program. Also, the type of equipment present and the type of debris and microbiological risks involved will influence the program and affect the frequency and the type of cleaning and sanitizing procedures necessary. We’ve observed that many successful food processors designate a food safety team to determine the appropriate methods to maintain a hygienic environment for production. We’d like to hear about your sanitation program and experiences you’ve had at your facility.

The object of a cleaning process is to capture and remove food soils, and then wash them away. Thorough cleaning of an area supports the integrity of an effective sanitizing process, and cleaning comes before sanitizing in every program. A soap- or detergent-based cleaning compound helps to emulsify fats and suspend undesired particulates in order to properly remove them from the area being cleaned. Cleaning compounds can neutralize many sanitizing agents, so they also must be completely rinsed before proceeding. This kind of information is typically readily available from your chemical supplier, so it’s a good idea to work with one who can provide you the knowledge and documentation you need relative to chemicals used in your program.

An effective sanitizing procedure is another piece of the puzzle in maintaining a hygienic environment for food processing. Microbiological risks are not controlled through good cleaning procedures alone. Your facility’s food safety team may rely on a variety of methods to ensure that the overall sanitation program achieves the desired reduction of microbial populations.

Cleaning and sanitizing programs are a critical part of every food processing operation. Our experience has taught us that designating one employee to be responsible for the oversight of food safety efforts is a good approach, and supporting that person with a team is even better. We’d like to hear about your sanitation program and the ways your food operation is going above and beyond for food safety. If you’re a new employee at your plant, or you’re just starting to learn about cleaning and sanitizing, download our basic checklist of factors to consider for cleaning and sanitizing. And tell us about your experience with sanitation: what does the process look like at your facility? What methods have you found useful?