Using Color-Coding for Food Safety and Organization

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of consulting with food processors to build and improve color-coding systems in their facilities. Color-coding can be approached in a variety of ways and works well with a number of related programs. One such program is a lean manufacturing practice called 5S, which I encountered often in a previous position working in the steel industry.

I’m starting to see 5S used more often in food processing. Although I am not an expert in this system developed by the Japanese, I do know that the 5 S’s are Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain. The aim is to eliminate waste, keep workspaces organized, and develop procedures that are consistently easy to follow. I can see why this set of guidelines is appealing to food processors. An organized processing facility is agreeable with inspection authorities, because it demonstrates that a food safety procedure is defined and in practice.

Color-coding for food safety

Color-coding is also commonly applied in conjunction with written food safety plans and HACCP programs to further enhance food safety. The purpose of HACCP and the CGMP regulations laid out in 21 CFR 110 is to identify and control hazards that could potentially impact the safety of food. Cleaning and food contact tools can potentially transfer hazards like pathogens and allergens throughout the facility, so it may be important to keep certain tools in designated areas. Color-coding supports this objective by clearly identifying where tools belong or what task they are designated to perform.
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Food Contact Tool Storage Best Practices

In many of my visits to food production plants, I see outstanding food safety procedures that can be shared as best practices. One of the easiest and most beneficial best practices to adopt is proper storage of food contact and cleaning tools. Selecting the right tools for specific tasks can mean a significant investment of time and other resources. A good storage plan for those tools will help to protect that investment and enhance food safety efforts.

Wall with Full Red Bracket color-coded food contact toolsThe way a food contact or cleaning tool is stored is almost as important as the tool itself. Implementing a hygienic tool storage system takes some time and effort, but will also provide many benefits once set up correctly. These benefits include better organization, prolonged life of tools, and maintaining the sanitary conditions of tools.

From an organizational perspective, having a storage plan ensures that tools are where you need them, when you need them. Production line supervisors are able to check defined tool locations at the conclusion of each shift. Showing a visual representation of the tools designated for the area enables each supervisor to quickly verify if tools are missing and identify the correct part number for any tools that need to be reordered. Also, tools go missing less often when a storage plan is specified.
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Being a Food Safety-Minded Consumer

As a consumer with a passion for food and cooking, I know a thing or two about food safety in the kitchen. In my time at Remco, I’ve learned a lot more and have become acutely aware of all the considerations for the safety of our food as it moves from farm to fork. I am amazed at how much food safety professionals need to know in order to perform their daunting jobs.

Lettuce greens and food safetyI try to be aware of basic food safety guidelines in my kitchen. I use a meat thermometer to be sure the food is within the safe range, but also because I prefer not to overcook it. I avoid the cans with dents at the grocery, because the good ones stack better in the pantry—but also because some dents may compromise the integrity of the product. I clean my grill tools before flipping food if they’ve come into contact with raw meat, and I always use a fresh plate to bring food back inside.

Now that I’ve worked closely within the food industry for over three years, I’m starting to think a little differently about my own food safety. My new awareness goes beyond my own kitchen. Lately, I’ve started to wonder about the food safety efforts at the facilities that produce the food I buy. And I’ll tell you, when I hear about a producer going above and beyond for food safety, it sticks with me.

A great example is Earthbound Farms—a California salad greens grower and packager. I read recently that they are BRC validated, which requires very rigorous third-party audits. As a consumer, the fact that they have pursued food safety validations above and beyond requirements tells me that they really care about the safety of their consumers. And they are very transparent about their food safety program. They’ve gained a loyal consumer in me.

With that being said, food safety in my kitchen now starts with getting to know a little bit more about where my food comes from—not just the temperature it arrives at when I’m done cooking it. I now seek information about the food safety programs of producers I purchase from, and I’m willing to spend a bit more if I know that they are diligent in their efforts.

CGMPs and HACCP: The Dukes of Hazards

In the past couple of blog entries, we’ve covered CGMPs or Current food Good Manufacturing Practices. These are procedures and standards set forth by the FDA to help assure safe, quality, consumable food.

salmonella biohazard food safety riskIn this article, we’ll be covering the different types of hazards that can occur in food processing, and also the controls that can be put in place to reduce the risk of those hazards. Many CGMPs exist to control these hazards, so naturally CGMPs can be used to support a HACCP plan.

So what constitutes a hazard? There are basically three types: biological, physical and chemical.

Let’s start with biological hazards. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has determined four levels of biohazards starting with Level One which includes bacteria and other microorganisms that can transmit from one person to another via contact or through the air like E. Coli. Each level is more hazardous than the previous, leading to Level Four which includes the most severe strains such as Ebola virus and Marburg virus.

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The Birth of Food Safety, the FDA and CGMPs

Remco Products Inc.

Lately, we’ve been talking about Current food Good Manufacturing Practices—CGMPs for short—because they are the set of regulations that apply to just about every food processor not regulated by the USDA. CGMPs have also been getting quite a bit of press lately since we may see an update as a result of FSMA. We released an earlier blog article and a white paper on the topic for those who want to learn more.

But did you know that many of the regulations that guide the production of today’s food were largely spawned by the works of investigative journalists? These journalists were referred to as “muckrakers,” and they exposed government and business corruption.

food safety and 1900s meatpackingOne of the most well-known of these journalists was Upton Sinclair, who spent seven weeks working undercover in the Chicago meatpacking district on a research mission to expose the injustices and hazardous working conditions faced by meat industry workers. In Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, his vivid descriptions of the unsanitary practices of the meatpacking industry captured the attention of the American public and President Theodore Roosevelt.

After reading The Jungle, Roosevelt sent a pair of advisors to assess the truthfulness of the novel’s depictions—and their report swayed the President to believe that Sinclair had provided an accurate representation. Shortly after Sinclair’s works became widespread, the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Meat Inspection Act were passed in 1906. The passage of these regulations marked a turning point in federal food safety and was the beginning of what we know today as the FDA.

Although Sinclair had hoped that his accounts would improve working conditions for America’s poor laborers, he ended up making a huge and lasting impact on food safety. He was later quoted as saying, “I aimed for the public’s heart, and by accident hit it in the stomach.”

The early regulations were more specific about the standards for pharmaceuticals and accurate product labeling, and policies regarding food were much more ambiguous. Over the next 30 years, gaps in the protections provided to consumers by these regulations were exposed by a new generation of investigative journalists. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, received enthusiastically by an American public that had witnessed one too many food and drug safety disasters. This was the first law that mandated legally enforceable food standards, and CGMPs for food were officially established later on in 1969.

No one can deny that we have come a long, long way for food safety since the days written about by Upton Sinclair. But we may soon see another era of modernization of our food safety regulations. Do you think that the updates proposed by FSMA go far enough in preventing the production of unsafe foods? Are there holes in today’s laws you think should be considered? Tell us your thoughts.

Five Things You Maybe Didn’t Know About HACCP

If you work in food processing, chances are you’re probably familiar with the concept of a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point or HACCP. Here’s a little about what we’ve learned about HACCP.

HACCP food safety sample verificationAs part of a HACCP Plan, a Hazard Analysis identifies “Critical Control Points” or CCPs — those points, steps or procedures in food manufacturing process at which control can be applied and as a result, a food safety hazard can be prevented, eliminated or reduced to an acceptable level. With CCPs identified, a HACCP Plan provides a series of procedures to control the process and sensitive points in the food chain, with the ultimate goal of producing foods that are safe for consumers’ health.

HACCP is a part of the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) proposed by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in 2011. While FSMA is fairly new, did you know the concept of HACCP has actually been around for some time? Here is the answer to that question along with some other interesting things about HACCP that many people may not be aware of.

1. HACCP is not a new system.

HACCP is a concept that’s been around since the 1960s. It was developed by the Pillsbury Company, the US Army Laboratories and NASA to help produce safe food for space missions. Today, HACCP is a recognized international standard for safe food production. It is endorsed by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and in the United States by the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods (NACMCF).

2. Not every hazard is a CCP.

As part of putting together a HACCP Plan, there’s a thought-process or Decision Matrix one can use to review each step in a food workflow process and determine the likelihood of hazards that could occur. Once a hazard is identified, then it is evaluated whether or not it is a CCP. Going through this evaluation, one will soon discover that not every hazard is a CCP. If a control measure is already in place to address the hazard, then chances are the hazard is not a CCP.

3. It takes a team to put together a HACCP Plan.

Through our experiences working with food processors, we’ve seen that some of the best HACCP Plans are the result of a team effort by the key individuals responsible for food safety within a food processing operation. The team may include managers from quality assurance, plant operations, engineering, maintenance, sanitation, and shipping & receiving. In addition, it’s often advised that someone who works on the line, such as a Line Supervisor and/or Machine Operator, provide input to the HACCP Plan to help assure alignment with day-to-day operations.

4. One person should be responsible for the HACCP Plan.

While it often takes a team to put together a well-structured HACCP Plan, we’ve also observed that maintaining the plan should ideally be the responsibility of just one person within a food processing organization. That person is usually the HACCP Coordinator. However, if there is no HACCP Coordinator, then the responsibility often falls to the Quality Manager, or even the company’s CEO.

5. Review the HACCP Plan regularly.

In a perfect world, anytime something changes within a food process, then the HACCP Coordinator should review the HACCP Plan and update it accordingly. At the very least, it’s suggested that a HACCP Plan be reviewed every 3 to 6 months.

How does your food processing facility deal with HACCP? If you have any additional tips or observations about putting together and maintaining a successful HACCP Plan, we’d love to hear them.

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?

10 Things To Know About Color-Coding: Communication is Key

Essential to an effective color-coding system is a well thought-through communication plan. With the proper communication channels in place, your color-coding system has the best chance for successful adoption—in turn helping you to mitigate the risk of cross-contamination. Communication should start at the top of the company, and go down to each and every employee. When all employees are knowledgeable about the new or changed program, the chances of success are even higher.

HACCP Plan for food safetyThe initial employee training communications must be clear and concise to ensure everyone is on the same page. When starting, or even revising, a color-coding system, employees must understand the reason for the change. Dealing with the threat of cross-contamination is serious, and the need to establish barriers to those threats is critical. The better every employee understands this, the more effective the color-coding system will be when put into practice.

Communicating with employees on how color-coding can help with tool storage is also very important. Establishing procedures for storage can help with tool inventory management. If employees are taught the proper procedures for tool storage right out of the gate, this will go a long way in preventing any loss of tools or time. One particular way to help encourage proper storage is to use custom shadow boards that integrate outlines of the tools so that there is no question where tools belong. Some facilities might use the 5S system to maximize organization. The use of color-coding is a great way to enhance the 5S philosophy. 5S is a Japanese workplace organizational system which uses five phases: sort, set in order, systematic cleaning (or shine), standardize and sustain. Along with using shadow boards, 5S helps encourage employees to properly store tools, maximizing their usable life.

Green color-coded wall bracket with rubber clips for sanitation Red color-coded wall bracket with rubber clips for sanitation Blue color-coded wall bracket with rubber clips for sanitation
Zone 1 Zone 2 Zone 3

Daily communication to employees is essential to the longevity of the program. Daily communication starts with good signage. Clearly written instructions, bilingual if necessary, are essential to providing employees with instructions on the color-coding program. It may even help to include visual or graphic representations on the signage for each zone; for example, a picture of a peanut on the sign designating the color of tools intended for use with peanuts. In addition to written instructions, daily verbal communication is also vital. Any changes or revisions to the color-coding plan must be clearly communicated to all employees, from the top down.

It is a best practice to include your color-coding program in your official regulatory documentation. Many regulatory bodies require documentation of certain procedures, and color-coding can become a great advantage for your operation. While color-coding is not required for compliance with any food safety regulations, it is looked upon with favor by auditors. Including your color-coding plan in the facility’s Preventive Control or Prerequisite Procedures, which includes GMPs, SOPs, CCPs, and Non-CCPs, will go a long way in ensuring company-wide adoption, consistency, and compliance of the program. For facilities that must comply with HACCP or HARPC regulations, including color-coding on those plans is, again, not required but, a best practice. HACCP, or Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points, is a food safety management system which helps to identify and control cross-contamination threats. Similarly, HARPC, also known as Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls, also requires identification and control of risks in food processing facilities.

Here are some important things to remember:

  • Start at the top and go down
    • Communicate with all levels of employees to ensure complete implementation
  • Have good signage
    • Signs should have written and visual cues to identify the zone and where the tools are approved for use
    • Include a printout that gives details for reordering of tools, such as vendor, item number, manufacturer, etc.
  • Keep up with training
    • Consistent training programs for all employees will improve adoption and ongoing use of the program
  • Include color-coding on regulatory plans
    • Color-coding is looked upon favorably by regulatory bodies

10 Things to Know About Color-Coding: Breaks Down Language Barriers

The environment in a food processing facility can be a chaotic place. This is compounded when you bring multiple languages into the mix. Trying to keep everything organized and streamlined can at times be a daunting task. Having a color-coding program in place can help eliminate some of the confusion that can arise from a language barrier.

Color-coded storage wall bracket with rubber clipsWhether you have one employee that speaks another language, or 500, color-coding can help to keep efficiency high. Because colors are universal, no matter what language someone speaks, they are going to be able to tell one color from another. Red is red, even if the word itself is different.

If red is for the raw zone, and someone, who speaks a language that the majority of employees do not, sees a red tool in the blue zone, which is for processed product, they know immediately that something is not right, and can then take appropriate actions. However, if no color-coding program is in place, and say, for instance, the method of communication is to have labels on the tools stating what zone they belong in, that employee might not know for sure if that tool is supposed to be there or not. With this kind of system, any time spent confused is a loss of work, or worse yet, a cross-contamination hazard. Better to have a proper system in place to begin with, so the problem can be fixed as soon as possible.

But, before you can go putting colors into a facility all willy-nilly, expecting employees to follow along, there must be good documentation and communication of zones. This goes for all people, no matter the language. There must be signage and internal communication that clearly states what these different colors mean, and what the appropriate steps are when something goes wrong, in different languages, if necessary. Once everyone is on the same page, your color-coding system will work that much easier.

What about those who can’t see colors, you might ask? Color blindness can affect about 8% of men and .05% of women. Depending on what kind of color blindness your employee has, choosing colors that have a high contrast might be a solution. Every situation is different, and the most important thing is to know your employees’ needs and how to best meet them.

Having a color-coding program in place can help to limit the language confusion found in food processing facilities. Less confusion means safer practices, and this means better food safety. This can add up to fewer recalls, which saves money.

If you would like to find out more about color-coding products, download our catalog for more information!

10 Things To Know About Color-Coding: Traceability

Recalls are serious business. No one wants to see a recall happen to their company, but it happens all too often. So, it goes without saying that food safety is important. From the field all the way to the table, keeping our food safe has to be a top priority. Knowing where food is coming from, and what happens to it on its way to you, can potentially prevent a catastrophic recall. This is known as traceability. Traceability means being able to verify where food has been every step of the way – to the field it came from, to the line it’s processed on, and what truck carried it. It’s a complex chain of custody, but necessary to monitor in order to protect food consumers.

Traceability food safety field to fork

Tracing the overall process is challenging, but it is as difficult, if not more difficult, to maintain that same control over your own facility, and it’s your responsibility. Many food processing facilities are large outfits with numerous people working on different shifts, and some are small, localized businesses with few staff members. Trying to keep track of food’s movements can prove difficult for big processors and mom-and-pop shops alike, and food safety is important in every single production facility.

Having color-coding in processing facilities can only enhance the level of traceability. Having a color-coding system helps to track tools within the facility, making it that much safer. If you use red for the raw meat zone, then you know that a red tool in the yellow zone, which is for processed food, is a contamination threat. You can then take steps to remove the potentially contaminated food from that area. This is much easier than trying to remove contaminated food after it has left the facility, which could cost millions of dollars.

The benefit of having tools that are completely color-coded is that they provide instant recognition. If you see just a glimpse of a tool, it is easier to know where it came from if it is in total color. To know in an instant the origination of a tool is vital to preventing lost time, production shutdown, and delays. Having tight traceability in food processing facilities can not only diminish the chance of a recall, but it also helps keep your facility on time with deadlines, helps the bottom line, and it looks good in the public and regulators eyes.

In order to effectively trace food through the system, though, there must be consistency between all levels of movement. From the farm to the table, everything should be documented for the highest level of traceability. With the technology we have at our disposal, there is no reason not to be able to considerably reduce the number of recalls we see. Food processors should urge their suppliers to practice the same level of consistency with food safety. You may not be able to control what happens outside your facility, but you can choose to use suppliers that do follow best practices.

To get started on your color-coding system, download our worksheet to help you get organized.