It’s a fact of life: If you’re storing, holding or packing produce, you have a program for cleaning and sanitizing your facilities and any food contact surface.
But how often have you really taken a critical look at this program to make sure it is actually working? If your answer is, “Not recently,” you’re not alone.
Let’s start by setting the ground rules for the importance of having a sanitary facility. Yes, of course, it’s a part of adhering to regulatory and auditing requirements, but a sanitation program done well can help circumvent issues down the road for both the microbiological safety and overall quality of food.
If you are just going through the motions to meet auditing or regulatory demands, then it is probably a challenge for you to imagine spending any time or energy on ensuring sanitation becomes a cornerstone of your food safety programs.
Jacqui Gordon Nuñez
However, you are already spending tens of thousands of dollars in labor, cleaning and sanitation supplies and chemicals, so you should take that extra step to ensure these resources are doing the most to protect not only the products you pack, but your customers as well.
Here are a few things to consider to help you achieve these goals:
Before you can start to sanitize a surface, you need to clean it thoroughly. First and foremost, get fruit and any organic debris (such as leaves, decayed material or soil) off the packing line and any other surface you are about to clean.
The primary goal of cleaning is to remove sources of nutrients that bacteria can use as food for growth. When fruit remains on the line after sanitation, you’re not achieving this objective.
Train your sanitation crew so they know why it’s important to remove all fruit from any portion of the line. Even the best sanitizer cannot overcome this obstacle.
Are your food contact surfaces visibly clean? Cleaning and sanitizing are two separate activities with different goals. The objective of cleaning is to remove soil and food particulates.
The application of a sanitizer to a clean surface allows the sanitizer to kill target microorganisms. It’s important to recognize this process, because even the best sanitizers will not work to inactivate microorganisms on a visibly dirty surface.
Train your sanitation crew lead to make a visual observation after cleaning and before the sanitizer is applied, because this is the perfect time to reclean a surface if necessary.
Also, train your crew to always use detergents and sanitizers according to their labels. Consider product concentration, contact time, the need for rinsing and emergency protocols in case of accidental contamination. By taking this approach, you can get the most activity from your sanitizer for controlling microorganisms in the packing house.
Use tools to verify that surfaces are getting clean. Beyond a visual observation, many facilities are also incorporating a rapid tool, such as ATP swabs, to ensure that their sanitation program is effective.
ATP, which stands for adenosine triphosphate, is present in all living matter. ATP on a surface will be picked up by a swab and, when the swab tip is broken, will interact with luciferase — the same enzyme that makes fireflies glow. This will cause light to be generated, which intensifies with increasing amounts of ATP and can be read with a handheld meter.
This tool is a great way to make sure surfaces are clean, but timing is key when using ATP. Typically, we recommend using ATP after cleaning and before a sanitizer is applied. Again, this is the ideal timing for recleaning, rather than moving to the next step (applying the sanitizer) and having to backtrack when a reading comes back higher than expected.
If testing ATP after a sanitizer has been applied, it should be noted that sanitizers have been shown to have both a quenching (decreasing the ATP reading) as well as enhancing (increasing the ATP reading) effect.
Many times, this effect has been attributed to the inactive compounds in a sanitizer. Either way, this can dramatically skew your results, and is another good reason to time ATP monitoring to occur after cleaning and before application of the sanitizer.
Use preoperational inspections as a tool to verify the facility and surfaces are adequately cleaned on a regular basis. Preoperational inspections are a nice way to randomly check that your sanitation crews are achieving the goals of your Sanitation Standard Operation Procedures (SSOPs).
These inspections verify that surfaces are visibly clean with no food, soil or other visible residues and may be conducted on a weekly to monthly basis. It is also a good practice to document these types of checks when you conduct them.
In addition, be a part of your crew and review the sanitation shift every now and then. Commitment from upper management is part of a food safety culture in your facility and includes the provision of all the resources necessary (such as tools, chemicals, testing products and time) to run a successful cleaning and sanitation program.
Be aware of biofilm formation on your equipment; a surface that looks clean is not always clean. Biofilms form at a low rate but are harder to remove over time. They can contain spoilage bacteria, such as Pseudomonas, and pathogens, such as Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli O157:H7 or Salmonella, that can become residents in your facility.
Testing for microorganisms can be a great way to better understand which surfaces are harder to clean. ATP is a great tool, but it takes roughly 100,000 bacteria on a swab in order to get an elevated reading.
By swabbing for organisms such as total aerobic bacteria, coliforms, total Enterobacteriaceae, or generic Escherichia coli (E. coli), you will be able to establish baseline populations across the packing line and prioritize which surfaces need more focus and time in order to get them clean.
This will also allow you to see how these populations may change throughout time and adjust your sanitation program to return to its baseline performance.
Training and record keeping are essential, not only for the success of your program, but also for compliance with regulatory standards and third-party certifications.
Your training program doesn’t have to consist of long talks and boring presentations; it can include short educational videos, fun activities with your crew (such as using Glo-germ, “food safety goggles” or educational kits), invited speakers or pizza parties with discussions about testing results, resources needed and the status of the program.
Make sure you document every training meeting and take time to learn about all the resources available to you from Washington State University, Washington State Tree Fruit Association, Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, Good Fruit Grower and more.
Whatever approach you take, it’s important to be fully invested in your sanitation program. By taking the time to make sure your program is effective, you will be actively managing risks and helping to protect your brand. •
—by Faith Critzer, produce safety extension specialist at Washington State University; Jacqui Gordon Nuñez, director of training, education and member services for the Washington State Tree Fruit Association; and Ines Hanrahan, executive director of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission