Food safety is, without question, the No. 1 concern of the food processing industry. Each year, processors spend millions of dollars for the controls, manpower, facilities upgrades and equipment to assure their food operations are cleaner than Martha Stewart's kitchen.
Why then do companies frequently fall short at the most important interface in the food safety scene - the hands of their plant workers?
"The idea behind HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) programs is to identify areas where bacteria can get into food," says Hillard Witt, president of Best Sanitizers (www.bestsanitizers.com), Penn Valley, Calif. "And employee hygiene may be the biggest area of risk when it comes to product contamination."
An estimated 30 percent of all food contamination might be traced to human hygiene practices, Witt estimates - roughly the same as the risk stemming from improperly cleaned equipment.
"Look at the many thousands of dollars plants spend on equipment cleaning each year, yet often plants are not nearly as concerned with the personal hygiene of their plant personnel," says Witt.
Disparity between philosophy and practice - sanitizing hands twice in the plant and not at all in the restroom, for example - is common and the most important reason rigorous training and control measures must be put in place. Corporate and plant operations leadership have to close the "cultural gap” and change the mindset that keeps contamination risk at the human/food interface at such high levels. That means taking steps to build awareness and inculcate plant personnel - and not just line workers - into a culture of hygiene that makes best practice a habit.
"Face it: If you only get 20- to 30-percent compliance among doctors and nurses, obviously it's important to have programs in place to make compliance easier among plant personnel,” says Witt. "We recommend a total cultural change. I compare entering the food processing area to scrubbing before surgery to diminish the chance of contamination and infection. That's what we preach to the food industry."
Employee hygiene and sanitation is not just a simple game of hairnets and hand washing. It's a "total package" of principles, practices, training and enforcement that encompasses everything from soaps and sanitizers to uniforms, footwear, cleaning dispensers, clean rooms and entryways.
Processing plants have to take hygiene practices into their own hands before they can expect the soaps and sanitizers to transfer to the hands of plant personnel. Fortunately, the basic steps and formal processes required to keep food safe from human error are not difficult. Better products, training and services to facilitate such practices and insurance measures are more accessible each year.
Where do you start?
"The first thing you need to define is what is ‘compliance' to your plant hygiene standards and the repercussions of non-compliance," says Tom Boufford, manager of technical support for Ecolab (www.ecolab.com), Minneapolis, which offers complete programs along with hand soaps, footwear cleaners, and hand and glove sanitizers. "After that, you must follow with training."
Don't assume people know what needs to be done. Merely placing a bottle or dispenser of antimicrobial soap in the men's room does not guarantee plant personnel will use it - or use it effectively. Most employees want to do the job right, however. Management's responsibility is to provide appropriate training and to put in place enforcement and accountability measures to ensure standards and good intentions translate into effective hygiene practice. Work on ways to make it easy to comply, and put in measures to make non-compliance difficult if not impossible.
Clothing is a prime source of contamination. The best way to diminish the risk of contamination from clothing worn at your processing facility is to provide uniforms, gloves, boots, etc., and to make sure those uniforms and safety garments never leave the plant.
Cintas Corp. (www.cintas.com), the Cincinnati-based garment and facility service provider, offers customers a complete HACCP-directed employee hygiene program. It's a one-stop service with all products: bouffant, gloves, shoe covers, shoes, anti-fatigue mats, beard covers and more. Its garment-cleaning service employs a validated six-log microbe-reduction wash formula.
The program also includes a restroom-cleaning service centered around the Ultra-Clean Machine, which is half shop-vac and half power wash. It also can be used in production areas. "It cleans all surfaces thoroughly, sucks up the water and flushes it down the drain," says Cintas representative Jan Eudy, noting the importance of restroom cleaning and maintenance in any employee hygiene program. The program also includes Sanis hand-washing soaps plus an alcohol-based hand-washing agent.