Without effective cleaning and hygiene systems in place in food plants, equipment can become sources of contamination. Chemicals used for cleaning can also contaminate food if not effectively flushed through.

Adhering to best hygiene practices is one process that food plants cannot cut corners on. Across North America, standards were already very high pre-pandemic; however, the pressure of the global pandemic has changed the landscape for a number of food processors, with localized lockdowns and supply chain disruptions further complicating mandatory audits. Additionally, the pandemic has reinforced the importance of producers conveying confidence and having robust and proactive HACCP and hygiene protocols in place.

Health, safety, and well-being expectations have increased. During the pandemic, food consumption patterns and grocery shopping behaviors shifted. Although price remains king when it comes to what drives food purchasing, safety is an equally critical consideration. A 2020 report by Deloitte, called “The Future of Fresh,” summarizes this well; it describes food safety as multidimensional, including safety for self, for others, and for the workers who produce food, as well as safety in terms of packaging to prevent contamination.

Sesame Makes Allergen List

Producers have continued to demonstrate their resilience. Now, new regulations, including the recently passed U.S. bill, the “Food Allergen Safety Treatment Education and Research Act,” are placing production sanitation programs under renewed pressure.

For the global food allergen community, sesame has long been a concern. It is a common ingredient in many food types, especially Asian cuisine, dips, vegetable burgers, breadsticks, and burger buns, as well as a popular seasoning and flavoring in snacks, cereals, and chips. Affecting more than one million people in the United States according to Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, sesame must be clearly listed on food labels by January 1, 2023. Currently, labeling practices often involves listing sesame under generic labels such as “natural flavor” or “natural spices.”

All food and beverage manufacturers have a responsibility to identify allergens that are contained in their products. This responsibility extends to isolating them from other non-allergen products processed in the same facility. If a dedicated line for foods containing sesame cannot be allocated, for example on bakery lines, a common tactic might be to create planning production schedules to isolate products containing sesame. Ingredients should also be stored separately. Additionally, cleaning must go well beyond normal hygienic requirements, even where heat processing is involved, because allergens of any type can survive high temperatures.

Habit Forming

It’s human nature: We like things to be streamlined, efficient, faster, and better. Yet, taking hasty shortcuts is a risky strategy. Being careless with compliance can lead to more shortcuts, and that’s not a cycle any food business would or should encourage.

In the hospitality sectors, the pandemic journey has focused where possible on removing human touchpoints. Yet, cleaning food manufacturing and processing machinery is not a contactless task. Instead, smarter equipment design can enhance hygiene and safety measures.

Routine risk assessments and audits help to control the introduction of foreign material into products. External eyes provide a different perspective. Many internationally recognized audits follow set standards and provide a complete 360-degree review, and some audits can be performed virtually.

Hygiene protocols should be formalized and included in staff training, and every cleaning process should be verified and documented. As part of a validation process, regular tests, including swabs of critical control points, should be scheduled to ensure that these areas are hygienic and allergen free.

For in-process contaminant inspection equipment, look for smooth, crevice-free contact surfaces on conveyor, pipeline, and gravity systems. This is partly to ensure that no traces of product, allergens, or bacteria are left, and also to reduce the risk of cleaning agents not being fully rinsed away.

When developing an inspection system, take care to identify equipment with an ingress protection rating appropriate to the washdown regimen and water pressure being applied. Product residues, including allergens, can be especially troublesome in pipeline systems processing liquids, semi-liquids, and slurries. Pay special attention to the reject unit; ideally, it will be easy to roll out, dismantle, and clean working parts before securely reattaching the unit to pumps.

Good housekeeping is ultimately common sense. Most food processors are strong custodians of hygiene and safety practices; however, given the numerous critical control points in a manufacturing plant, I advise customers to revisit potential hygiene hazards regularly and systematically as part of a regular risk assessment and food safety program.

Di Girolamo is a director at Fortress Technology. Reach him at [email protected].

Hygiene Inspections for Food Plants
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