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: Guidelines and Best Practices

While the FDA does not currently have any standard set rules to follow when it comes to implementing a color-coding program, there are some common best practices that you can follow to get the most out of color-coding the facility.

Here are some ideas to help you design an effective color-coding program:

Keep your color-coding system simple– Limiting the number of colors you use will go a long way in simplifying the process. Too many times, people get bogged down with the idea that every line and every single process has to have a different color. This is not the case. Try to have a different color only when cross-contamination is a concern at a critical control point in the process. Those points where control is not needed could potentially use the same color since cross-contamination is not a threat. The more colors in the mix, the more confusing it becomes, and the less effective it will be.

Pick logical colors for each area-Making the transition to a color-coding system needs to be as seamless as possible. In order to keep confusion low, when stepping into this system, try to pick colors that make the most sense in each area. For example, certain colors might make sense for certain areas in your food processing facility, such as red for raw meat, or yellow for wheat. Do what is most logical for your facility. Also, make sure that it makes sense to both managers and employees. If everyone is on the same page, the transition will run more smoothly.

Color-coded cheese processing facility

Avoid complicated color assignments-Having customized tools, like a different colored handle than the broom, might seem like a great idea to help differentiate zones. However, it does lead to confusion.  If you mix and match handles and brushes the end result might be chaos. Say you have a red broom with a green handle (Merry Christmas?). Now, you have the problem of trying to figure out if it goes in the green zone or the red zone. Save everyone the confusion, and stick to one color per zone. Instant recognition is the key to keeping confusion to a minimum. You should be able to look quickly and determine which zone is which.

Roll out the color-coding program all at one time– This goes back to avoiding confusion. If you try to incorporate the new system in with the old one, people are just going to be confused. It’s best to start the program all at once. It might be more difficult in the beginning, but it will be worth it in the end. Also, having a definite end date to the old program and a definite start date for the new system will make the transition even smoother.

Good communication is key– Having everyone on the same page will help with starting your color-coding program. A good practice is to first discuss the changes with shift managers, then roll it out to the employees. The managers should have a good understanding of the new system so they can address any questions or concerns the employees might have. Offering a cheat sheet to employees that explains the color zones will be tremendously helpful in overall adoption of the program.

Reinforce the color-coding with good signage-When starting a color-coding program, you don’t want any ambiguity in how it’s perceived. Make it absolutely clear what the program is, and when it is starting. The best thing to do is label every point in the process, in multiple languages if necessary.

Be sure your tools and storage areas match– Be sure the tools are stored in the same area where they are used to avoid confusion, cross-contamination, and equipment loss.  If the red tools are stored on a red bracket or red shelf, it is easy to see exactly where that tool should go when it isn’t in use. Having an organized storage area will be very helpful in maintaining the integrity of the color-coding system.

Follow through– Utilize the same documentation at the point of use, with the purchasing department and with the quality manager so everyone is on the same page. Making sure all loose ends are tied up will help exponentially to the success of the color-coding program. If the program is successful, your facility will be much safer.

To help organize your color-coding program, check out our worksheet!

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.