10 Things To Know About Color-Coding: Keep it Simple

The core piece of advice that Remco communicates to food facilities implementing a color-coding program is to keep it simple. A common paraphrase of Occam’s Razor, originally written in Latin, is “All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one.” A color-coding program that is overly complex could become problematic for your facility and end up requiring more time and effort than it should, as well as involving more risk for cross-contamination. Determining what works and what doesn’t is easier with a simple color-coding plan.

Red Vikan Brush Cleaning MachineryFood safety is a challenging endeavor in an industry with complex regulations, and color-coding is intended to simplify an element of it. Completely simplifying food safety is impossible, but color-coding can help, while supporting the overall goal of food safety regulations. Color-coding offers a method to intuitively keep tools organized and clearly communicate which tools belong in certain areas. Visual identification of equipment is quick when tools are color-coded.

The foremost principle to remember regarding the simplicity of a color-coding system is to limit the number of colors used to what is absolutely necessary. For example, many food production operations have determined that only two colors are necessary: one for “food contact” and another for “non-food contact.” A plan like this would ensure that tools used on the floor are easily identified as being different than those intended to be used on food and food contact surfaces. This type of simplistic plan is very easy to explain to employees and communicate throughout the facility.

In cases when more than two colors are necessary, it is advisable to choose colors based on functionality. For example, some food production facilities employ processes that involve cooking raw meat. The potential for cross-contamination between raw and processed zones is a hazard that absolutely must be managed. Typically, two different colors are designated for raw and processed zones, and a third color is chosen to identify equipment designated for non-food contact areas. This type of a plan integrates more colors, but remains intuitive and should only require basic training for employee adoption.

Color-coding can become a method to standardize processes within a plant or a group of plants. Some businesses choose to standardize processes in order to reduce waste and variation in the end product result. This type of standardization can be applied to cleaning tools and sanitation processes, and color-coding is a suitable fit for this type of model. An example of this is to apply the same color-coding model across all production lines that run the same process within a plant. It can be taken a step further and applied across all plants that run the same processes so that only one training program needs to be developed and administered.

Using a color-coding model that is not straightforward can create more of a need for specialized training. For example, a total color-coded red broom and handle is easier to identify than a specialized broom that mixes a green broom head with a red handle. A plan with combo color equipment will require more time and resources to train staff, especially if either color is used elsewhere in the plant. The whole premise of color-coding is to make tools easy to visually identify without the need for in-depth training. Using combo color tools robs a color-coding program of that intuitive simplicity, and in turn, requires more resources than necessary for your operation to implement and adopt. It also increases the risk of cross-contamination if employees do not understand the program.

When designing a color-coding program for your operation, remember that the ultimate end goal is to ensure the safety of the food produced in the facility. For each color that you integrate into your plan, ask yourself if it is a necessary step in the process in order to effectively mitigate risk. If a color designation does not serve the purpose of managing a significant food safety risk, it is always the best practice to opt for simplicity. A plan that is overly complex is difficult to communicate and understand. A simple plan is easily adopted and becomes an intuitive method for managing food safety risks.

To help plan out your color-coding system, check out our worksheet to help you get organized.

10 Things to Know About Color-Coding: Zones and Critical Control Points

Understanding Zones and Critical Control Points in Color-coding

Just about every food processor knows that complying with food safety regulations from the FDA and other regulatory bodies is a vital aspect to the success of their overall operation. Without achieving this compliance, it would be fairly difficult to run an effective food processing program. The list of recalled food products seems to grow every day, most being the result of some sort of cross-contamination, and those recalls can cost millions of dollars. The old adage, “better safe than sorry,” definitely comes into play when talking about protecting against recalls. Color-coding is one simple method to help keep your food processing operation as “safe” as possible.

One of the most important FDA-proposed rules is HACCP. Complying with HACCP regulations is an important part of any food processing operation, and knowing where the critical zones are and preventing cross-contamination from happening is an integral part of this compliance. Currently, there are HACCP procedures for dairy, juice, retail seafood, and retail and food service.

Let’s back up for a second, HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points. HACCP is a preventative approach to the identification, evaluation, and control of food safety hazards that may cause illness or injury when not properly controlled. Put simply, HACCP is designed to help control the threat of cross-contamination from biological, chemical, and physical agents. According to the FDA, “any action or activity that can be used to prevent, eliminate or reduce a significant hazard” is considered a control measure. Color-coding is an excellent example of a control measure.

Once potential food safety hazards are identified, critical control points can be documented. The FDA defines a critical control point in a food manufacturing process as “a step at which control can be applied and is essential to prevent or eliminate a food safety hazard or reduce it to an acceptable level.” Knowing where the critical control points exist in a food production process is essential to designing an effective HACCP plan.

Included in the many HACCP compliance resources available from the FDA is an example of a decision tree to help a food processing operation identify critical control points, seen below. Using a decision tree like this is not a mandatory part of the process, but it is valuable as a tool to facilitate the development of a thorough food safety program.

FDA Example of Decision Tree

Since color-coding is a control measure, color-coding zones often coincide with critical control points or groups of critical control points. For instance, a color zone may be assigned to an area where raw meat exists in a facility, since raw meat poses increased risks of bacterial contamination. There may be several critical control points that require other control measures within that one color zone, such as testing for contaminants or refrigeration of the raw meat prior to processing. Once the meat has been cooked, a different color may be assigned to the zone following the raw meat area to prevent bacterial cross-contamination into the finished product. For this purpose, color-coding is an excellent and simple way to visually confirm that equipment is in the appropriate critical zone in a food processing facility.

When color-coding is implemented, it is easily apparent which zones are which, and what they represent. Because of this instant recognition, separating contaminated food before it goes out to the public becomes easier. And we all know that internal recalls (or no recalls!) are less costly than public recalls.

To find out if color-coding is appropriate for your food processing facility, download our worksheet below.

10 Things to Know About Color-Coding: Preventing Cross-Contamination

Color-coding helps prevent cross-contamination in food processing facilities

In this third part of our color-coding series, we discuss how color-coding can help prevent cross-contamination in food processing facilities. Facilities with cross-contamination concerns should particularly consider color-coding their food processing plants to lower that risk. The threat of recalls is always prevalent, and food processing facilities should do what they can to prevent this from happening.

Prevent cross-contamination from biological hazardsColor-coding can help decrease the risk of contamination that leads to recalls. Food processors are regulated by the FDA to ensure that cross-contamination is controlled to keep consumers safe. One of the FDA’s rules includes HACCP, or Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, which imposes guidelines to help keep cross-contamination at a minimum, such as having a written safety plan.

Cross-contamination is prevented by keeping foods that transfer bacteria separate, or by keeping allergens separate. For example, we all know raw meat should never come into contact with processed meat, so you keep them separate. The simplest way to do this is to color-code the food processing facility. When a facility has a color-coded program in place, it makes it that much easier to distinguish between sections. For example, raw meat zones can be color-coded red, and the processed area green.

Sample Color-Coding Systems:

Preventing Functional Cross-Contamination:

Red: Raw Meat

Green: Processed or Cooked Meat

Preventing Departmental Cross-Contamination:

Blue: Seafood

Yellow: Chicken

Preventing Allergen Cross-Contamination:

White: Milk

Green: Soy

Yellow: Wheat

Color-coding makes it immediately apparent if there is a tool or piece of equipment in an incorrect zone, and the necessary steps can be taken to contain any contaminated food. Keeping zones separate is an extremely important food safety measure for preventing cross-contamination, and color-coding helps to do that. The next part in our series is how color-coding can help distinguish between critical zones and control points. For more information on color-coding, download our white paper below.