Tag Archives: hygiene

Getting a Handle on Cleanliness

Hand hygiene is a crucial aspect of food production and processing. How can food companies reduce the risks associated with human error in hand hygiene?

Ensuring that employees maintain a proactive and responsible attitude to hand cleanliness is worth a great deal to companies in food processing and production. This can be in regards to financial aspects- a contamination of food materials could cripple a company financially, as well as the damage to reputation that may result from poor cleanliness. In addition poor hand hygiene is a significant factor in individual illness; with employee illness hampering productivity. The costs associated with employee illness and the absences associated with such are also surprisingly high. While the vast majority of food production companies have in place a proactive approach to hand hygiene, ensuring employees themselves actually abide by hand hygiene practices can be more difficult.

CDCKeepCalm_WashyouhandsYou’d be forgiven for thinking that workers handling food would be proactive in terms of ensuring hand hygiene, deeming hand washing initiatives and education campaigns unnecessary. Yet research from the Environmental Health Specialists Network (ESH-Net), the collaborative forum of environmental health specialists associated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), questions whether sufficient hand hygiene compliance is as widespread as one may have thought. ESH-Net found in one study that 12 percent of food workers had been into work despite suffering from a sickness bug and/or diarrhea1. Illnesses such as these can spread through a working environment very quickly and one sick employee can spiral into many more ill workers in a short period of time.

Other studies focusing on the economic cost of workplace absence due to sickness in the United Kingdom demonstrate the financial issues associated with avoidable illnesses. A report carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in conjunction with Simplyhealth found that the average cost of employee absence is £673 per employee, per year, with two-thirds of cases involving short-term (fewer than 7 day) absences2. The British Health and Safety Executive (HSE) put the annual cost of employee illness at more than £12billion3.

The potential for the spread of infection from an ill employee coming into work is high. It is also exacerbated by the fact that a large minority of workers do not practice adequate hand hygiene. The ESH-Net found that the average worker in facilities where food is handled will carry out an activity which would require hand washing before and after nine times an hour. The same ESH-Net report discovered that only 27 percent of workers fulfilled their hand hygiene obligations in carrying out these activities. It is also true that in many cases the quality of hand washing is insufficient and not enough to properly kill germs4. The guidelines for proper hand washing recommend the use of hot water and soap and for the whole process to take at least 20 to 25 seconds. One recommendation is that a sufficient hand washing session should take the same amount of time as singing the Happy Birthday song twice. Despite this it is clear that many people do not wash their hands for anywhere near as long as these guidelines. A report from Michigan State University found the average time spent washing hands was barely 6 seconds5.

Another piece of research suggested that 95 percent of people do not wash their hands to an adequate standard6. In addition to insufficient time spent washing hands, the efficacy of hand washing techniques employed by many people can be questionable. The Michigan State University report detailed how more than a third of people did not use soap when washing their hands, with 1 in 10 not washing their hands at all.

Although these data outline public hand hygiene practices, not specifically the practices of food workers, the findings still paint a worrying picture of ignorance of the dangers of the spread of germs or a lack of concern afforded to hand hygiene. This is especially clear when we consider how data indicating that in the food industry 89 percent of instances where workers were the source of food contamination, such contamination originated from the spread of germs directly from the hands of workers to the food itself.7  

Feb2015_FoodHandleMany food facilities do attempt to tackle the issue of hand hygiene amongst its workforce, with measures including hand washing ‘stations’ situated before entrances to production areas. Other measures include minimising direct hand contact with raw food by using utensils and wearing disposable gloves. However the latter measure, disposable gloves, can cause more problems than it solves with people forgetting that some germs can be spread on the gloves just the same as on bare hands. The frequency to which hands should be cleaned, and the number of different situations that warrant hand washing can also be underestimated. Workers should clean their hands whenever it is required, not merely at regular intervals.

The installation of full-compliance, non-optional hand hygiene measures has been a success for many food companies. The most significant benefit of products which provide this service is clear- they cannot be missed or bypassed, therefore helping to ensure far greater levels of hand hygiene.

Some criticize hand sanitizers, arguing that it discourages thorough hand washing. It may be argued that points such as these misunderstand the role hand sanitizers play in hand hygiene. A proactive and effective approach to hand hygiene should combine comprehensive hand washing with sanitizing. This is why hand sanitizing products in places such as corridors can be useful as they act as a clean barrier in places where hand washing is not feasible. Hand sanitizers are most effective as an addition to hand washing, and should never be regarded as a stand-alone alternative. Using sanitizers alone is insufficient but in conjunction with thorough hand washing, it makes for is an effective hand hygiene regimen. Full-compliance products are already available. Their specific function varies from specialist hygienic door handles which dispense gel upon grip, to badges and other technology that reminds workers to wash their hands and notes when they do not, as well as simple products such as specialist self-cleaning sticker material.

Any company that includes aspects of work where food is handled face a difficult task in ensuring proper hand hygiene. Human error on the part of the worker, such as forgetting to wash hands before entering sensitive areas, or failing to wash hands to an adequate standard can result in serious consequences. This is why full-compliance products are becoming far more popular. To continue to make progress in fighting contamination in the food industry there must be a culture change amongst hygiene managers in addition to food workers as a whole towards ensuring, rather than merely encouraging hand hygiene. When hand hygiene is made compulsory the risks of human error become far less significant.

References:

  1. http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/ehsnet/plain_language/food-workers-working-when-sick.pdf
  2. CIPD Absence Management Report 2011, http://www.cipd.co.uk/hr-resources/survey-reports/absence-management-2011.aspx
  3. hse.gov.uk June 2011
  4. http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/ehsnet/plain_language/food-worker-handwashing-food-preparation.pdf
  5. http://msutoday.msu.edu/_/pdf/assets/2013/hand-washing-study-1.pdf http://www.wgtacc.com/wash-hands-after-bathroom.html
  6. http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/ehsnet/plain_language/food-worker-handwashing-food-preparation.pdf

Developing an Effective Environmental Monitoring, Sampling and Testing Program

As the food industry is moving toward a more preventive food safety strategy, environmental monitoring is playing an increasingly critical role in testing. Hazard analysis is shifting the focus from finished product testing to proactively testing the environment and the processing as critical control points to continuously monitor and reduce risk. Today many facilities are adding or strengthening their environmental monitoring programs to enhance their food safety risk reduction efforts.

In a recent webinar, Ann Draughon, Emeritus Professor of Food Microbiology and Toxicology, University of Tennessee spoke about Developing an Effective Environmental Monitoring, Sampling and Testing (EMS) Program. We present some excerpts from her presentation.

What do you need to get started with an EMS program?

“You need to first identify the right team; think about what kind of food you are processing (raw products or ready-to-eat products) and if it has had any food safety outbreak associated with it; determine critical or hygiene zones in your facility; determine sample locations; finalize which indicator tests will be done, and in which zones; determine which pathogens you will test for; choose the right test methods; set a baseline, and link that with your sampling plan, and establish testing frequency once you have finalized the number of samples and zones,” explains Draughon.

To establish critical hygiene zones, she advises to:

  • Survey entire facility and have a map of that facility;
  • Study that map and identify traffic patterns to divide the facility into critical hygiene zones, GMP zones, and non-processing zones;
  • Put in place barriers between these zones and dedicate equipment to the critical hygiene zone, and restrict access between zones; and
  • Establish strict cleaning, sanitation and monitoring plans for these diff zones.

Sampling of zones should be based on risk of contamination and/ or transmission of pathogens to food from environment, says Draughon. The sampling should also take into account potential sources of product contamination by whatever means during food processing (see image 1 for examples of 4 zone and 3-zone hygiene systems).

Selecting the right assays for your EMS program

There are many options, and it can be confusing to select the right assay for your needs. Draughon advises that companies need to look their monitoring needs and consider both indicator bacteria and pathogenic bacteria to select the right assay.

For monitoring with indicator bacteria, most companies look at ATP for environmental sanitation, often before start-up to make sure facility is clean before processing begins. Protein assays are also used to pick up any allergen on equipment.

APC or total viable count is a simple assay offering many choices, which tests for the number of live bacteria on your equipment or in your environment that can grow under air or oxygen at room temperature.

Yeast/ mold count assays are good for two purposes: 1. Mold frequently is the cause of spoilage in food, so it’s useful to understand if there are any present to determine shelf life, and 2. It also helps us understand the number of particulates in the air.

We can also select specific microbial groups as indicators, such as total Enterobacteriacae, fecal coliform or E.coli or Listeria species.

Sample collection and prep

When we collect a sample, we have to clearly document the sample including information such as when it was taken, from where, by whom, what happened to that sample etc. Use clean SOPs to reduce error. Use the assays previously selected and do it as quickly as feasible. If you are working with an outside company, decide how they are going to handle the sample. Finally, always keep in mind plant safety and leave nothing behind after sampling, and avoid cross-contamination.

For characterizing pathogens, you may want to genetically fingerprint any pathogenic isolates from your facilities. This will allow you to see if you have a constant harborage of a particular pathogen or if it changes. Draughon recommends using a contract lab for characterizing pathogens, as they would be better suited, and have better resources to do this. Destroy the isolates after characterization – you don’t want any chance of the pathogen spreading into the product or the environment.

Written SOPs for EMS programs

It’s critical to have clear written SOPs for EMS programs which include the following:

  • Frequency of sampling;
  • When, where , how and duration of sampling;
  • Procedure for recording data and coding;
  • Sample number, size or volume;
  • Specific sampling and analysis validated protocols;
  • Monitoring of incubators and use of equipment;
  • Handling and shipping of samples; and
  • Alert and action levels and appropriate response to deviations from alert or action levels.

It’s also important that we train and validate the personnel performing EMS. Each individual doing this needs to demonstrate proficiency of doing this. They need to understand proper recording of EMS program data, alert and action levels, and zero tolerance levels. The personnel should be comfortable and qualified for sampling protocol, and using all the equipment.

In summary, sampling plans should be adaptable, which highest risk sites being tested initially. Establish a baseline and modify sampling plan as needed. Establish your sampling and testing criteria and sample as needed with each zone to fully assess the environmental program.

Click here for more information 3M Food Safety global educational webinar series in collaboration with Dr. Ann Draughon, on Environmental Monitoring and Sampling (EMS) Programs.

Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B
Retail Food Safety Forum

Food Spoilage and Food Loss in Retail Environments

By Dan Okenu, Ph.D.
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Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B

It can be frustrating to consumers to discover some rotten fruits or not-so-fresh vegetables in their grocery packs in spite of due diligence at the stores. It also leaves a bad taste in the mouth while in your favorite restaurant, you’re served cold food, observe that the taste is just not right, the color of your favorite menu is not the same again or become suspicious that the food texture has been compromised and it doesn’t feel crispy or crunchy any more.

These are the tell-tale signs of food spoilage that customers are confronted with on a daily basis. In foodservice and retail environments, food spoilage constitutes a major food safety and food quality hazard with far reaching regulatory implications as well as being an economic burden with considerable food loss and profit loss. Food manufacturers and processors have achieved a high level of food preservation through several advanced technologies including heat treatment, temperature and water control, pasteurization and canning, specialized packaging like reduced oxygen packaging, fermentation and antimicrobial preservatives. However, food spoilage remains a major challenge in retail and food service. This is mostly as a result of the many food processing and preparation activities, food storage practices, repackaging and food portioning that are required in retail.

In addition, the modern consumers’ preference for fresh foods and the backlash on the use of unnatural preservatives leave foods more vulnerable to spoilage resulting in substantial food loss. Here, we discuss some of the challenges of food spoilage and how to minimize its impact on food safety, quality assurance and profitability in retail food operations.

Spoiled ApplesThe most important proactive measure against food spoilage is a tight managerial control on Supplier Food Safety and Quality Assurance. The condition of the food items upon delivery to the retail units will impact the overall shelf life, taste, texture, structural integrity and pathogen level during storage and food preparation activities. Food transportation best practices, cold chain requirements, temperature monitoring system, freeze-thaw detection, appropriate packaging, adulteration prevention and food tracking should be addressed at the supplier level to ensure that deliveries are wholesome safe quality foods. Integrated pest management at suppliers’ facilities and delivery trucks are also essential. Random testing of food products for pathogen content and quality control will assist in compliance with FDA/USDA regulations and internal corporate standards.Thus, a comprehensive evaluation and verification of the supplier food safety and quality assurance programs will help to ensure compliance with all relevant federal/State/local regulations (see previous blog on Supplier Qualification and Compliance using GFSI Benchmarking).

After suppliers deliver safe quality foods, in-store food safety and quality assurance control measures must be activated immediately to maintain safe quality food status until food is served to the customer.

At the retail units, appropriate food handling and storage practices to eliminate cross-contamination is key.

The use of rapid cleanliness monitoring test swabs to validate clean and sanitary food contact surfaces will enable timely corrective actions that would eliminate potentially hazardous food cross-contamination.

Proper hand hygiene by all foodservice employees should be mandatory.

Keeping cold food cold and warm food warm is a food safety mantra that ensures foods don’t get to the temperature danger zone. Temperature monitoring systems for freezers and refrigerators using wireless technologies will ensure a better food storage control even during non-business hours.

Emergency preparedness training for natural disasters and power outages should be in place to avoid surprises.

Compliance with FDA regulations for safe refrigerated storage, hot holding, cooling and reheating of food within the time and temperature criteria will help eliminate spoilage organisms and preserve the taste, texture and overall quality of food throughout its shelf life, especially for meat and poultry products.

Proper management of products’ shelf life, expiration dates and observing the principle of first in first out (FIFO) should be encouraged. In fact, the food code requires a system for identifying the date or day by which food must be consumed, sold or discarded. Product date marking enables compliance with this food code requirement to date mark all prepared food products, and to demonstrate a procedure that ensures proper discarding of food products on or before the date of expiration. Local health inspectors reference these product date marking labels and enforce them, in addition to food prep activities that may lead to cross-contamination, adulteration or spoilage. Inventory control, forecasting and Lean Six Sigma are important tools for managing food supplies, storage, preparation, stock replenishing and elimination of excess food items that may get past their shelf life.

Raw proteins (meat, sea food and poultry) are arguably the largest cross-contamination sources for pathogens in foodservice. Any novel pathogen reduction or elimination process like the potential production of pathogen-free chicken would be a welcome relief, and will not only save money and labor; it would protect the public health as well.

Produce (fruits and vegetables) remains the largest source of foodborne illness outbreaks in United States, because it’s a ready-to-eat food that doesn’t get the benefit of cooking at high sterilizing temperatures. An effective pathogen kill step for produce using consumer-friendly natural washes like electrolyzed water may serve as a gate keeper in case the safety system fails at the plant level. Ice-cold electrolyzed water is also known to refresh produce and may extend their shelf life as well.

GMO-food products could be engineered to resist pests and spoilage organisms with improved shelf life, but its general acceptability and the FDA labeling disclosure requirements are still contentious issues.

While industry is racing to develop several promising anti-spoilage technologies, active managerial control of the various components of an effective food safety and quality assurance system remains the best practice against food spoilage and associated food losses in retail food operations.