A number of industries clad their workers in uniforms for reasons ranging from identification to personal protection to, well, uniformity. In food processing, the reasons are more than superficial. Uniforms are a critical part of plant sanitation as well as some hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) programs.
Throughout the plant, painstaking care is taken to make sure there are no nooks or crannies in equipment and processing areas where food could collect and rot...and more importantly, where microbes could propagate. Plant personnel also are careful not to let even benign foreign objects fall into the process.
But as long as people must wear clothes to make food, pockets and sleeves make for insidiously handy collection points for food. A blood-soaked apron is a perfect breeding ground for listeria, salmonella, e. coli and other bugs. Even something as simple as a button can become a danger if it falls into a vat-plastic ones are especially difficult to find for downstream contaminant detectors tuned in to metals.
The solution is a uniform that takes such possibilities into account. Beyond those safety considerations, uniforms also quickly identify who is and who is not an employee, create a sense of trust and confidence for consumers, and remove from employees the responsibility for dressing properly for workand properly laundering their own work clothes.
Who does the laundry?
In an era of reduced headcounts and strategic outsourcing, more firms than ever are contracting for uniform services. The initial capital outlay for uniforms and washing machines is huge, and just as daunting is the ongoing responsibility of maintaining the clothes and keeping abreast of the latest sanitizing technologies.
"There are still companies that maintain on-premise laundries, but they're in the minority now," says Dan Ebel, national marketing manager of Cintas Corp., a Cincinnati-based uniform services company. He estimates 80 percent of companies in most industries outsource this function. "There is a clear trend toward using uniform services," he says.
There are no hard and fast requirements or regulations for food plant uniforms or how to make them sanitary, says Jenny Scott, senior director of food safety programs at the National Food Processors Assn. NFPA and several government agencies "simply recommend that companies adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices [GMP]; and with regard to garments, that means they must be clean and not contribute to the adulteration of the food," she says. Probably the strongest determinants are each company's own HACCP plan, GMPs or Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures.
Whoever is doing the laundry, "The microbicidal action of the normal laundering process is affected by several physical and chemical factors," says John Birckbichler, a scientist and technical support specialist with Ecolab Inc., Mendota Heights, Minn.
In part quoting Centers for Disease Control documents, he continues: "Although dilution is not a microbicidal mechanism, it is responsible for the removal of significant quantities of microorganisms. Soaps or detergents loosen soil and also have some microbicidal properties. Hot water provides an effective means of destroying microorganisms. Chlorine bleach provides an extra margin of safety.
"The last action performed during the washing process is the addition of a mild acid to neutralize any alkalinity in the water supply, soap or detergent. The rapid shift in pH from approximately 12 to 5 also may tend to inactivate some microorganisms. Regardless of whether hot or cold water is used for washing, the temperatures reached in drying and especially during ironing provide additional significant microbicidal action," Birckbichler concludes.
Aramark Uniform Services, another leading uniform supplier, based in Burbank, Calif., follows the key CDC recommendations in its "Standard Formula No. 4":
* Exposure to hot water temperature of greater than 160 degrees F for 25 minutes.
* Chlorine residual of 50-150 ppm achieved during the bleach cycle.
* A quick change in pH from 12 to 5.
* Further exposure to high temperatures (greater than 180 degrees F) during conditioning and finishing.
Cintas' processes are similar.
Expertise and economy
A big reason for turning to national uniform companies is the way they stay on top of sanitation recommendations and cleaning technologies. "A lot of our customers consider us a key part of their HACCP program," says Roland Dickens, food industry marketing manager for Aramark.
But the big uniform companies also make a compelling case for cost reduction.
"When we bought this [West Liberty, Iowa] plant from Louis Rich Foods seven years ago, they were washing their own uniforms," says Roger Brown, marketing vice president for ITGC (formerly Iowa Turkey Growers' Cooperative). "We did a cost analysis and found it would be much better to outsource it."
In fact, at the co-op's newest facility, in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, which performs only slicing of processed meats, there are several "hot zones" where personnel wear full encapsulation suits, meaning they're covered from head to toe. "We look at the uniforms as part of our overall plant safety program," continues Brown, who notes the plant does a great deal of co-packing. "In many cases, these are other companies' meat products that we're handling. Plus, it's been a great marketing tool for us to win contracts."
Does that sound like overkill? "In today's environment, I don't think you can go too far for safety," he counters.
Of course, it all depends upon regular changing of the clothing. Once again, there are no regulations, but plants and individual personnel should do what it takes to maintain product safety. "Almost all plants change uniforms at least daily. But if an employee gets soiled, perhaps that uniform should be changed immediately," says Bryan Colpo, testing services manager for Cintas. "I know some plants that require employees to change uniforms at every break,that means four uniforms per day."
So, what color will you choose for your uniforms? More than just a fashion statement, colors can keep employees from contaminating areas in which they don't normally work.
Emmber Foods, a Milwaukee meat processor, recently underwent a renovation to segregate raw and cooked meat areas. Separate employee entrances, lunchrooms and other facilities were built to safeguard against any cross-contamination. Yet, in addition to explicit prohibitions against crossing into other areas, employees and visitors wear color-coded uniforms. That way, nearly anyone can tell at a glance if someone from the raw meat area walks into the cooked meat area-or vice-versa.
Although their looks are improving, plant uniforms still are not much of a fashion statement. But the statement they make about your commitment to sanitation speaks volumes.