Safety and sanitation regulations in food processing are very strict, perhaps because the stakes are very high. Ineffective safety and sanitation procedures can put consumers at risk as well as workers. Maintaining high safety and sanitation standards is an ongoing and sometimes arduous process, but lax standards can mean liability, recalls, and big losses, both to profitability and to public image. If you’re considering improvements or changes to your food processing facility, consider these common risks to food processing plants, and how you can minimize risk in food processing.
How to Minimize Risk in Food Processing
Thorough and effective sanitation procedures are vital to food processing at every level. The FDA lays out sanitation rules and guidelines across a number of documents for different industries and verticals, including the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA). Different facilities require different cleaning and sanitizing procedures, since they use different types of equipment and work with different foods. Finding the right procedure can be difficult, and some risks are especially hard to eliminate.
These are the most common sanitation risks in food processing to look out for:
- Drains: Drains are one of the most common harborages for pathogens, especially Listeria. Studies show that between 33 and 47% of drains in food processing plants carry Listeria. Cleaning drains is an unpleasant but essential task that must not be overlooked in cleaning procedures.
- Cleaning debris: “Cleaning” generally refers to removing debris, while “sanitizing” refers to destroying bacteria. For sanitizing chemicals to do their job, they must contact the equipment surface, which means debris must be cleaned first. It’s important to have the right tools for the job, including the right cleaning detergents to loosen materials, and the right brushes to scrape or brush away debris.
- Electronics: Electronics can make food processing equipment more efficient, but electronics are also harder to clean. Use electronics with the right IP certifications or hermetic sealing, so they can stand up to high-pressure cleaning and sanitizing.
- Vents: Vents are usually hard to reach, so they often go uncleaned. This allows both dust and bacteria to build up, which can be harmful to air quality as well as food safety, and can introduce risks of dust explosions where dust and powders are present.
- Color-coded cleaning tools: Cleaning tools used on floors or drains should be separate from cleaning tools used for equipment, even if the tools are the same. Color-coding is helpful for keeping tools separate, and is explained in 21 CFR 117.
- Good manufacturing practices: Good manufacturing practices (GMP) are an important part of sanitation and food safety. Using the proper steel grade, removing breakable burrs or openings in welded joints, and a number of other practices will prevent design flaws from creating safety hazards.
Sanitation is critical to minimize risk in food processing and protect consumers, but worker safety is also essential. Often, these two go hand-in-hand. When safety protocols protecting workers are lax, food safety standards fall behind as well. Food processors must adhere to OSHA regulations for worker safety, and additional safety measures can also help to reduce liability and minimize risk. The following are some of the most common risks to workers in food processing.
- Heights: If you have catwalks, ladders, or your staff are working at heights at any time, it is important to have proper railings, traction stickers, and fall protection systems. OSHA updated these rules in 2016 to better protect workers from falls.
- Slippery surfaces: Surfaces exposed to water, grease, blood, or other slippery substances can also present fall hazards in food processing plants. Use mats over these areas to prevent slips, and make sure mats are cleaned properly during sanitation procedures.
- Dust: Seemingly harmless dust can be dangerous for a number of reasons. Breathing in dust puts workers at health risks and dust residue from foods can invite pests. The most dangerous hazard, however, are dust fires and explosions. These can destroy entire facilities and kill workers. Make sure vents are cleared (see vents section above), bulk bags are emptied properly, and workers are well educated on dust and powder explosions and hazards.
- Removable safeguards: Safeguards might sometimes interfere with a worker’s task, so it can be tempting to remove these to make the task faster or easier. However, safeguards protecting workers from blades or other moving parts should not be removable. Emphasize that safety is the first priority, and safeguards should never be tampered with or removed. If the task is difficult, help employees find alternative ways of making it more efficient.
- Electrical hazards: Electrical wiring can be especially hazardous when working with high-powered equipment. Only a licensed electrician should alter, repair or install electrical components. It is also important to ensure wires are not damaged, especially those that might come into contact with liquids, and that outlets are securely grounded, especially in sandy soil conditions.
- Hazardous cleaning chemicals: Sometimes proper sanitation requires the use of cleaning elements that can be extremely hazardous to workers. For example, chlorine dioxide gas is sometimes used to disinfect enclosed spaces. However, this chemical is extremely toxic. Workers should understand how to handle these chemicals, how to use protective gear, and the consequences of exposure.
Traceability is another important aspect of food safety and an important part of minimizing risk in food processing. Effective traceability measures are not only required by FSMA, but also allow food processors to reduce the impact of contamination if it occurs. There are several essential features of an effective traceability system.
- Proper labeling: Labeling shows where ingredients came from, where they went and when. This is essential for detecting and recalling contaminated ingredients or products, and limiting the effects of a recall.
- Automated systems: Automated systems help to dispense ingredients precisely, not only eliminating waste but ensuring the right lots go into the right products.
- Integrating software: Integrating tracking software with your automated ingredient system will not only make labeling simpler and more accurate, but will also improve your record-keeping in case of an audit.
- Testing: A simulated recall will show whether your traceability measures are effective. Performing a simulated recall will show you any weaknesses in your traceability sequence, so you can fix them. If you need to perform a recall, your staff will be familiar with the procedures.
By minimizing risks in food processing, you can avoid or reduce the impact of potentially costly mistakes or problems. As your business expands, or as you add or change equipment at your facility, remember to reassess. With the right safety, sanitation and traceability procedures in place, you can protect yourself from liability and loss.