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Sanitation Basics in the Food Industry

Today I am writing an introduction to cleaning and sanitizing procedures. Twenty years ago, I believed most spoilage issues and contamination of food were due to poor cleaning and sanitizing. The food manufacturing environment is much more complex now with the concern of allergen cross-contact and the hunt for Listeria in growth niches. Here is a foundation on which to build your cleaning and sanitizing program.

What is soil?

Soil is very simply matter out of place. A lubricant on a gear is in the right place. If you get the lubricant on a food contact surface, like a conveyor belt, the lubricant has soiled the surface. When production shuts down, every particle of food on the equipment and floor is soil, and it is the job of the sanitation crew to remove the food, including any surface film from fat, protein, carbohydrate or mineral build-up. When soil is removed, the process is cleaning.

It is not possible or desirable to remove everything on a surface, down to the smallest bacterium or virus. If the surface is free of every living cell, the surface would be sterile. This is not a realistic goal in the food industry. At the microscopic level, cells adhere to the surface of the equipment and remain after cleaning. THIS IS NORMAL. The purpose of sanitizing is to kill cells which remain after cleaning. In this way, you see that it is not possible to clean and sanitize at the same time. Neither the work of cleaning nor the work of sanitizing would be efficient. It is a waste of resources to clean and sanitize in one step.

The sanitation crew members are your most valuable employees.

The work of sanitation starts your day. Production follows sanitation. Production does not start until sanitation has done their job correctly and completely. Some companies run sanitation during business hours, to emphasize that the work of sanitation parallels the work of upper management. Sanitation crews have a lot of turnover and require extensive training and monitoring. The crew must be supplied with the resources they need to do the job right. Sanitation crew members should earn some of the highest wages among a company’s workers.

There are four crucial factors for successful cleaning and sanitizing.

For successful cleaning and sanitizing, the factors are time, temperature, concentration, and energy. In general, the more, the better. However, you will use EPA-registered cleaning or sanitizing chemicals and follow the directions from the chemical supply company. It makes sense that cleaning at a higher temperature is better, but running the equipment at a higher temperature may cause damage, and workers cannot be exposed to excessive temperatures. With concentration, more is not better after a certain point. Using 5% bleach is not recommended due to its corrosive property. Energy can be supplied by manual scrubbing or by turbulence within equipment.

What are clean-in-place (CIP) and clean-out-of-place (COP) procedures?

CIP systems for cleaning are installed when a continuous loop of equipment, pumps, and pipes can be developed. CIP systems are designed with your chemical supply company to run at much higher temperatures, concentrations, and turbulence than can be achieved in a tank. COP cleaning can be done in an open tank with recirculating solution in which the disassembled parts sit, or COP cleaning can be done with manual scrubbing of parts in a bucket or tank.

With the concepts described here, I hope you can build a successful cleaning and sanitizing program. Other blog posts here at ConnectFood elaborate on the topic of cleaning and sanitizing.

The search for forms and checklists can be overwhelming, and the ConnectFood website has free resources. The folks at ConnectFood are here to help! Contact us.

Dr. Kathy Knutson has food safety expertise in microbiology, hazard analysis, and risk assessment. As a recovering academic, she resides in Green Bay home-of-the-Packers, Wisconsin with her brilliant husband and two handsome sons. Learn more about her consulting services at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kathyknutsonphd.

What is FDA Going to Look for When They Swab?

Swab samples taken by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are intended to find pathogens, if present: Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, or pathogenic Escherichia coli. These are three pathogens to put fear in the strongest food safety professional. I recently left a food facility where we discussed all three. If Salmonella is the old, and L. monocytogenes is the current, then pathogenic E. coli is the future.

Every Salmonella is pathogenic. Some Salmonella are associated with their source, like turtles and chickens. The majority of foodborne illness is caused by just ten out of thousands of serovars of Salmonella. When we come across a Salmonella that is not among the top ten, we take note. That was the case with the Valley Milk recall. Salmonella meleagridis was identified. This one is rare. What does that mean? It means it was unique to the product and environment. Since it is unique, it may be able to be traced to a source. All Salmonella patient isolates are tested by whole genome sequencing (WGS) and are in the PulseNet database. If there are any patient isolates of Salmonella meleagridis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will investigate the link between the patient and consumption of food with the contaminated milk product.

What is an isolate? In a sample of patient fecal matter, finished product, raw ingredient, or environmental swab there is a variety of microorganisms, mostly harmless. When the lab pulls out the pathogen from among millions of other cells, the pathogen is grown as a pure culture. This is the isolate. This is also why microbiological testing takes time. Our lab tests are designed to find one pathogenic cell among millions of harmless cells.

Salmonella is big deal. An estimated one million cases of salmonellosis occur every year in the United States. Where will FDA test your facility for Salmonella? FDA will sample dry ingredient storage, dry blending, and “dry” operations. Roasting and grinding of nuts are dry operations. Nut butters and oil-based products are made in a dry area, i.e. where there is no use of water. The facility I just left was a wet operation, except for one product where they had a dry seasoning. When FDA swabs, they could test that one area for Salmonella. For the most part, FDA is not currently focused on Salmonella. The exception to that is manufacturers of products in an industry where there have been recalls, like peanut butter.

Keep your ears open for recalls by your competitor. You can sign up for recall alerts.

Listeria is the current favorite of the FDA and CDC. For example, there was an FDA initiative to visit raw milk cheese plants for swabbing. Other foods are not immune. FDA is going to facilities and conducting intensive swabbing. When the FDA arrives with a handful of inspectors, over 100 environmental sites will be swabbed from zones 1, 2, 3 and 4 per day. Product samples will be taken. My advice is to hold all product made on those days until Listeria tests are negative. Negative results should be reported within days. If Listeria tests are presumptive, consider discarding the product. However, be prepared to wait weeks for FDA to communicate results. What do you do if you can’t hold your product? Discard it. Limit the runs on the days the FDA is swabbing. Document the disposition of the product, in case the results come back positive. Companies have decided to simply discard perishable finished product made during these inspections, rather than wait for results.

Why wait for the FDA to show up for swabbing? My advice is to conduct your own intensive swabbing exercise. Know the areas of your facility that are hot for Listeria. Do you have to test product? No. Do you have to test zone 1 for Listeria? No. For zone 1 food contact surfaces, I recommend Enterobacteriaceae counts. You could do coliform or E. coli testing instead of Enterobacteriaceae. Do you have to test for Listeria monocytogenes? No. You can test for Listeria genus. Of the 17 species of Listeria, only L. monocytogenes is pathogenic. Getting a positive Listeria genus test means the environment is conducive for L. monocytogenes.

There is a difference between Listeria genus and Listeria monocytogenes testing. First, you will get the Listeria genus results quicker. Second and if you stop testing at Listeria genus, you will not have direct documentation of the presence of L. monocytogenes, the pathogen. The key is in your corrective action. Your corrective action might be the same whether the test is a presumptive Listeria genus test or a positive L. monocytogenes test. In other words, treat the seriousness of a presumptive Listeria genus the same as a positive L. monocytogenes.

The FDA published the draft Listeria guidance in January 2017. The guidance is currently in its comment period. All draft guidance represents the FDA’s current thinking on a topic. While not mandated, FDA expects industry to conduct environmental monitoring for Listeria when ready-to-eat (RTE) foods are manufactured. There is even greater FDA scrutiny for RTE foods which can support the growth of Listeria. We are anticipating another FDA guidance document to further define RTE foods. In the meantime, refer to the Preventive Controls Hazard Guide; it is 185 pages. There are categories of food, their hazards, and examples of food in the category. This is FDA’s current thinking on hazards in food. If the food is categorized as RTE, the facility should have a Listeria environmental monitoring program.

Do you need help in designing your environmental monitoring program? I would love to help!

Every isolate of L. monocytogenes from a patient has been sequenced by WGS and is in the PulseNet database. This fact keeps food safety professionals up at night. The FDA can pull a food from the grocery shelf, isolate L. monocytogenes, inform the company to initiate a recall, and match the food isolate to a patient isolate. Check out my previous post, What I want all my students to know about Listeria.

Most E. coli are not pathogenic. We can test on-site at a food facility for Enterobacteriaceae, coliforms, or E. coli and not be in fear of growing billions of cells of pathogenic E. coli. For now, what you need to know is that patient isolates of pathogenic E. coli will be sequenced by WGS and be in the PulseNet database. In the same way that Salmonella or L. monocytogenes can be matched from food isolate to patient isolate, so will pathogenic E. coli be matched. The technology and laboratory expertise are there.

It is somewhat comforting to know that that while the number of recalls is increasing, the number of cases, i.e. patients, is decreasing. The food industry is making great strides in food safety. Because of greater surveillance and communication, the average number of cases (patients) per outbreak has decreased. The number of multi-state outbreaks has increased for the same reasons.

There is much to be hopeful about around food safety. Job security is one!

Dr. Kathy Knutson has food safety expertise in microbiology, hazard analysis, and risk assessment. As a recovering academic, she resides in Green Bay home-of-the-Packers, Wisconsin with her brilliant husband and two handsome sons. Learn more about her consulting services at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kathyknutsonphd.

What I want all my students to know about Listeria

The FDA guidance on Listeria is now out in draft form. I have known about Listeria since I was in grad school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1985. That is when I learned about Listeria, but farmers and vets had known much longer. I now know that many of the miscarriages in friends, aunts and grandmothers were caused by the presence of Listeria in raw milk and from exposure in the Wisconsin farm environment. When I teach the workshop on Preventive Controls for Human Food or in other work, this is what I tell my students.

Listeriosis is an infection by Listeria monocytogenes. There is a primary and potential secondary infection. We have all consumed Listeria. Most Listeria passes through us without causing an infection. When the primary infection develops, most of us experience flu-like symptoms and recover easily. You may have had listeriosis and not even known it.

Some of us cannot fight the primary infection, because the immune system is already weakened or compromised. This includes adults who are highly stressed, undergoing chemotherapy to fight cancer, with suppressed immune systems for bone marrow or organ transplant, or who have immune-suppressing conditions like HIV, auto-immune diseases, and pregnancy.

After Listeria colonizes the intestine, cells will transfer through the lining of the intestine and into the bloodstream. This is sepsis, and a healthy body may still fight off the infection. Once in the bloodstream, Listeria has access to all parts of the body. Listeria has the unique ability to cross membranes that other bacteria do not. Listeria can cross the barrier of the brain, the meninges. The infection is called meningitis and known as circling disease in cattle. Listeria can infect the eye and cause conjunctivitis. Listeria can cross the heart lining and cause endocarditis. Listeria can set up shop in the vagina, such that when an infant is born, the infant is exposed to the pathogen. Post-partum infant deaths may be caused by Listeria.

The most impressive feat of Listeria is its ability to cross the placental barrier. I am not aware of any other bacterium capable of this. Let me know, if you know of one. Depending on the age of the fetus, Listeria infection causes a miscarriage or death shortly after birth. This is heart-breaking, and most of us know a woman who has suffered a miscarriage. Not all miscarriages are due to Listeria.

When the CDC tracks a Listeria outbreak, the number of fetal deaths are counted along with the infant, child and adult deaths. The number of deaths from Listeria is staggering and can be as high as 40% in an outbreak. The average is 20% mortality rate from listeriosis. While the sheer number of Listeria cases, i.e. individuals, is nowhere near the annual one million cases of Salmonella, it is the number of deaths that makes Listeria a pathogen of concern.

If you need help understanding the FDA Listeria guidance or the requirements for your food safety plan, please contact the friendly folks at ConnectFood.

Dr. Kathy Knutson has food safety expertise in microbiology, hazard analysis, and risk assessment. As a recovering academic, she resides in Green Bay home-of-the-Packers, Wisconsin with her brilliant husband and two handsome sons. Learn more about her consulting services at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kathyknutsonphd.