In recent years, anti-microbial fabrics have added a new dimension to hygiene and safety. Garments can easily pick up food and contaminants. Unbeknownst to the wearer, they can accidentally transmit contaminants by touch or proximity to food and food contact areas.
The latest generation of antimicrobial fabrics has clear advantages over its predecessors.
The new BioSmart antimicrobial fabric (patent pending) from Milliken & Co. prompted the creation of a partnership with G&K Services (www.gkservices.com) of Minneapolis, to produce antimicrobially charged garments and towels. BioSmart fabric binds chlorine molecules to the surface of the fabric. Milliken claims the chlorine will continue to kill deadly bacteria and viruses, including salmonella and E. coli, with 99.9 percent effectiveness after the material has been washed with EPA-registered chlorine bleach.
The products are now part of G&K's ProSura Food Safety Solutions program, a closed-loop effort from G&K to provide documented employee hygiene practices within HACCP efforts.
The Chelsea, Mass.-based dairy processor H.P. Hood employs uniforms that employ another antimicrobial system on coveralls, hoods and other materials in its sterile filling applications. The uniforms, provided by Cintas, incorporate an antimicrobial material called the Integrity1800 fabric. Introduced in 2000, the durable, non-leaching material with its "aegis microbial shield" contains the antimicrobial agent Silano-quat.
The Silano-quat molecule is a quaternary ammonium compound that kills bacteria. "The material offers no avenue for resistance because it kills on contact," says Eudy. She claims the technology is more durable than leaching and migrating technologies, which require regeneration of their antimicrobial agents.
Other segments of food, including the meat industry, have adopted it as well. It has been employed in non-sterile applications too, including Subway restaurants.
The ready-to-eat industry is following suit, notes Eudy, with butcher coat-style frocks of Silano-quat.
"You have ready-to-eat situations where food is contacted after it has been processed," echoes Terri Bringgold, marketing services at Ecolab, which also works with Cintas in providing chemicals for uniform cleaning. "That provides an opportunity for contamination." The focus in RTE applications should be at a point after a product has delivered its "lethal" blow to microorganisms.
Footloose and germ-free
Foot traffic is a primary vector of food contaminants. Footwear contacts and carries just about every contaminant imaginable.
Boots should be sanitized. Many plants employ chemical foot baths and other footwear cleaning devices to kill shoe-carried microbes. These chemical baths can be tough on shoe material, however.
Cintas has designed footwear made of materials that resist this repeated exposure to the disinfectant chemical. The company also offers two types of disposable foot covers: a polypropylene plastic-type and a polyethylene style, a cloth-like, skid-resistant material.
Boufford recommends foot foaming systems over foot baths. "A foot bath can be a problem," he says, noting Ecolab offers foot cleaning agents in its EcoCare product line. "It's not that the concept is bad, but the maintenance of a foot bath is generally bad. The bath becomes a microbial soup. If it's not cleaned right, you have a source of contamination rather than a solution. That's why we prefer foot foamers."
Foot foaming systems offer distinctive advantages. They can be timed or set to operate with a photo cell or infrared beam. Furthermore, they can be set to always put out the proper concentration of sanitizing agent.
Hands-off systems for hands-on treatment
"You have many automated ways to handle cleaning and sanitizing measures today so your plant is less prone to human error," says Boufford. "Whenever you can, automate. It works better."
Plant personnel and visitors are least likely to skip critical sanitary and hygienic steps when a plant establishes formal dedicated entranceways that pose physical barriers to entry - such as interlocking doors - particularly if entry requires execution of prescribed hygiene measures.
Automatic dispensers minimize or eliminate human contact and also dispense the precise amounts needed for effective cleaning.
Meritech (www. meritech.com), makers of automated hygiene equipment, recently introduced a new version of its CleanTech automated hand-washing system, which uses a patented technology particularly well suited to point-of-entry and cleanroom hand cleaning. The system provides a cycle counter to verify hand washing frequency for HACCP and other programs.
The company also offers an automated Boot Washer series (MBW2) available in "soles only" and "soles/sides/tops" models. Ideally, these systems should be placed at entrances to production areas. They also may serve as allergen-control tools between processing operations.
"Automated dispensers help reduce worker exposure and ensure proper concentration," says Bringgold of Ecolab. Such systems can be as important as the cleaning agents they contain, provided the systems can stand up to the rigors of a factory environment.
"We're proponents of ‘no-touch' systems," says Witt, noting that Best Sanitizer's systems were first installed in restrooms but are now commonly found on factory floors. "Whenever you can install a no-touch or infrared-operated dispenser, the system will be easier to use and you will get better compliance and greater reduction of contamination."
Gloves may offer additional protection, provided training and common sense hold sway. But "Most workers don't change gloves frequently enough," says Ecolab's Boufford. "Processors should have training sessions on gloves. They are not fail-safe. You still can't grab product off the floor or touch a contaminated surface with them." See that your plant has appropriate - and, if necessary, different - cleaning agents and systems for both hand and glove cleaning.
Check the approval and review codes on hand products. Use only products approved by regulatory agencies. Soap and sanitizer dispensers can help to optimize cleaning effectiveness and minimize waste.
USDA E-2-rated solutions are highly recommended. These products remove debris and organic matter and kill microorganisms. They also require a rinse with potable water. E-3 solutions are detergent-free. They sanitize only. Quaternary ammonium is the principal sanitizing agent.
Though sanitary design and maintenance of equipment is an area of study all its own, it ties in directly to human hygiene and sanitation matters as well.
"One of the biggest factors in food safety is equipment cleanability," says Boufford, noting workers may be in frequent contact with the equipment. "Workers play a big role in potential cross contamination when they don't follow proper procedures or don't clean or maintain equipment properly."
The hygiene and sanitation of plant personnel cannot be maximized without rigorous standards, training, systems and enforcement procedures in place. In today's risk-heavy marketplace, lax hygienic practice can be an invitation to disaster.
Check with the companies referenced in this feature for training materials and programs that will help advance your employee hygiene programs and practices. Several offer low- or no-cost assistance in conjunction with product or program purchases.
Press respected and qualified vendors for assistance. Many of the top companies in this field are eager to provide counsel.
Take advantage of the available tools and counsel. Your employees' hygiene - like your product safety - is in your hands.
Note to Management
It's not just the employees who track in the lowly contaminants that can deliver a deadly blow to food safety. Management, visitors, equipment and service suppliers, vendors, inspectors, and maintenance personnel are more likely than mainstream plant personnel to track in soil or some microscopic intruder bent on raising havoc with your food products.
Ironically, executives visiting a plant can be some of the worst offenders, often ignoring fundamental precepts of hygiene that may be diligently practiced by plant workers.
Most importantly, management provides the leadership and role models critical to the kind of well-conceived and faithfully executed programs that protect your food supply from microbial intrusion.