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Food Safety
Small steps to improve plant hygiene

March 3, 2004
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HACCP has become a buzzword for product marketers around the world. It is amazing how many items used in food plants to help assure sanitation or worker hygiene are advertised using the term. There are HACCP hand towel dispensers, HACCP soaps, HACCP clothing and even HACCP tags on the bars used to control odor on urinals. I applaud the industry and its vendors for emphasizing food safety, but turning HACCP into a marketing buzzword dilutes the importance of this food safety program.

While the push to develop systems to help assure safety and sanitation is commendable, workers are less likely to skimp on hygienic procedures if these systems can also be used to make their jobs easier. If a task is easy or makes the individual feel good when he or she does it, there is a much greater chance that it will be done properly. Consider something simple like water temperature. If workers in a cool environment such as a meat plant have warm water each time they go to wash up, they will probably look forward to the wash.

Hand washing is one operation that is essential for reducing the potential of cross-contamination. Give some thought, though, to where the hand washing stations are located and how convenient the system is for workers. Many plants fail to account for growth when they install plumbing, so as staff increases, the number of sinks may not. Processors should also install numerous sinks at the entrance to the plant. A multiple handwash station encourages people to use the facility since it is both on the way into the plant and can accommodate many workers.

Automatic hand washing facilities, where workers place their hands into a chamber, are efficient and comfortable and have been shown to be effective in keeping hands clean. Of course, after washing, hands must be dried. Electric dryers are not effective for several reasons. Workers often are unwilling to stand in front of them long enough for proper drying and the systems often do not have sufficient air velocity and temperature to dry hands quickly.

One option is single-use towels. A new product on the market dispenses towels when the user waves his or her hand in front of an electric eye. There is no touching and no potential for cross-contamination with this system. Users report that dispensers paid for themselves within three months because fewer towels were used.

Hand washing is, however, just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to safety solutions. Clothing, for example, is another simple but effective area that can be better managed to increase plant hygiene.

Today, fewer operations allow staff to work on the production floor in street clothes. Plant management is supplying smocks, full uniforms, lab coats or coveralls. It not only assures that all staff members are wearing clean clothes to help minimize potential contamination, but can also impart a sense of team unity.

Keep in mind that uniforms should possess certain qualities such as no pockets above the waste and no buttons that can pop off. Clothing should be secured with snaps or ties. Some plants issue different color uniforms or smocks to staff depending upon where they work. Those working with fully cooked or ready-to-eat products might be asked to wear white, whereas those on the raw side of the plant might be wearing blue or green.

While there are several good HACCP products that can improve plant safety, make sure you don't get too caught up in the marketing hype. There are many simple safety systems that can also be utilized to make it easier for workers to perform their jobs in a safe and hygienic manner-and pay dividends in the long run.

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