When an Avian influenza (AI) outbreak in early spring quarantined poultry farms on the eastern seaboard, a collective shudder was felt by processors, breeders and regulators.

A worker sanitizes the tires of a poultry transport truck on the Delmarva Peninsula. Virkon disinfectant can prevent the spread of Avian influenza, but only if workers are properly trained in its application. Source: DuPont.

To better guard against infestations, food companies are beginning to record activity levels in plants’ hot spots, then using the data to conduct spatial analyses and devise more targeted insect- and pest-control programs. Source: Orkin Pest Control.

The last major AI outbreak in the U.S. turned into a decade-long eradication effort. The cost of government control efforts exceeded $60 million, while indirect costs to industry were pegged at $349 million. “Ultimately, the processors have the most at stake in a situation like this,” suggests Garrett Forsythe, business development manager for DuPont Chemical Solutions Enterprise in Wilmington, Del.

Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley was the hardest hit area in this year’s outbreak. More than 4.4 million turkeys and chickens on 182 farms had been depopulated by late May, and mandatory pre-slaughter testing of all herds had been ordered by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

One of the most effective control strategies involves the disinfectant Virkon, one of the few FDA-approved sanitizers for combating viral infections such as AI and hoof-and-mouth disease. The active ingredient in Virkon is DuPont’s Oxone monopersuflate, which is why DuPont donated 25,000 gallons of Virkon to the poultry operations on Delaware’s Delmarva Peninsula.

But chemicals are useless unless all workers understand how the virus is spread and what must be done to combat it. Besides sanitizing broiler houses and the cages and trucks that move from farm to farm, workers must adhere to a strict regimen that includes clothing isolation and footbaths. It extends beyond the Tyvec suits and rubber gloves used by employees who apply the sanitizing agent to include every worker and staffer, Forsythe emphasizes. “Employee education is one of the most important aspects in preventing the spread of the AI virus,” he says.

Routine sanitation procedures are part of the drill in food safety training sessions, such as this one from Silliker Inc

Show and tell

Whether the mission is disinfecting against a virus or ensuring that soil and microbial contamination have been removed from food contact surfaces, processors invest significant time and effort in teaching and reinforcing the sanitation message to employees. Complicating the challenge are high turnover rates in many segments of the industry and the increasing likelihood that the language spoken by supervisors is not the first language of line operators.

Spanish is more likely to be spoken than English in the breakrooms of many plants, and many other languages can be part of the mix. Training specialist Michael Doyle recalls working with a vegetable processor near Vancouver, B.C., with a sizable number of eastern Europeans, Pakistanis and East Asians in a seasonal workforce of 600. Bilingual signage and instructional manuals fall short of what is needed in those instances. Doyle advocates creating “the visual factory,” a picture- and symbol-based approach to employee training and instruction.

If language is a barrier, visual instructions can be an affordable, effective solution, he suggests. “One food client relied on quality-assurance personnel in white lab coats to come into the plant to discuss food safety and hygiene,” Doyle recalls. “They were like people from Mars, quoting from the food code. Nobody understood them.”

A digital camera and a $300 color inkjet printer are all that is needed to produce signs that convey expected behavior, says the founder of Doyle Training Co. “Don’t explain it, show it,” he advises.

The multicultural makeup of the manufacturing workforce defies bilingual oral and written sanitation training. Homewood, Ill.-based Silliker Inc. offered a “Heart of HACCP” training video in Korean, Cantonese and Vietnamese, and the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF) offers food safety certification exams in five languages, including Chinese and Japanese. Most training materials stick to English and Spanish, but the quality of the Spanish versions are uneven at best, according to Jeff Tenut, vice president of product development at the NRAEF in Chicago.

Dialectical differences can wreak havoc on translations. Entomologist Frank Meek of Orkin Pest Control recalls a Spanish instructional poster used in South Florida that, when used in southern California, became, “Put a bomb in the bucket.” Add to that the many industry-coined terms and phrases, and the likelihood of miscommunication becomes even greater.

Workers at Buckhead Beef Co. key in an identification number when they dispense hand cleaners and sanitizers. The system helps the company track employee compliance with personal hygiene requirements. Source: Zep Manufacturing Co.

Ask the experts

Rather than ask plant managers and supervisors to train and motivate employees in sanitation procedures, many processors turn to experts such as the American Institute of Baking, Silliker, Ecolab, Steritech and others. Helping expand the specialists’ role in recent years is the U.S. Department of Labor’s Hazard Communications Standard, also known as the Right-to-Know Law. HazCom puts the liability squarely on employers’ shoulders to make sure employees receive periodic training on safe handling of chemicals, including the wide range of food-plant sanitizers.

Chlorine dioxide, acidic peroxygen, iodophors and quaternary disinfectants are part of the sanitizing arsenal from Atlanta’s Zep Manufacturing, for example, and the food-plant options are expanding. Chlorine’s days may be numbered as a sanitizing agent, notes Frank Pool, managing director of Zep’s food division, with an outright ban looming on the West Coast.

“The standard sanitizer used to be bleach, but it’s probably not the best to use,” says Pool. “Bleach at $1 a gallon is hard to beat on an economic basis, but it disintegrates if it is stored for any length of time, and the byproducts it produces are bad for the environment.” Chlorine dioxide, peracidic acid and peroxide are some of the chlorine alternatives, and a switch to any or all necessitates HazCom training.

Presenting information on chemicals and cleaning procedures to a group of 30 to 35 workers accomplishes little in itself, according to Allen Stahl, Silliker’s director of education. “Some companies believe, ‘If we tell them, they’ll do it,’ but that’s not always the case,” he says. “You have to move people from awareness to actually doing something with the knowledge. That’s accomplished with the WIIFM principle: what’s in it for me?”

Training by food-safety experts can be expensive, of course, and content can be generic. When executives at John Morrell and Co. in Cincinnati decided to institute a company-wide sanitation program as a fundamental step for improved HACCP-based food safety, they opted for internal training programs. Gene W. Bartholomew, corporate manager of HACCP and regulatory affairs, outlined that initiative at Food Engineering’s PlantTech 2001 conference.

The Smithfield Foods subsidiary operates seven plants, including units operating under the Iowa Quality Meats, Mohawk Packaging, Saratoga Specialties and Curly’s Foods names. A wiener recall would cost the firm $4.5 million, Bartholomew estimated, and the cost of a ham recall was pegged at $7 million. A HACCP plan could minimize any losses, and a comprehensive approach to sanitation, pest control and personal hygiene underpin HACCP.

On-the-job sanitation training is practiced by four out of five food companies, including Morrell, according to Bartholomew, but that approach yields little or no documentation. Documentation is fundamental to HACCP, so Morrell opted for internal training programs. “It began with an intensive, five-day train-the-trainer session in Cincinnati,” he said. Sessions began by focusing on adult learning concepts—how do you train adults?—and then segued to a HACCP primer, food hazard management, cross-contamination issues, document management and so on. “It cost $25,000 to $30,000 to train the first group, but it was well worth it,” Bartholomew said. “There was a high ROI.”

DIY training aids

Service companies are addressing the affordability issue with do-it-yourself training options. Ecolab, for instance, offers in-house training kits on food safety and HazCom, including student and leader workbooks and support materials. The HazCom package is geared toward sanitation workers and includes English and Spanish language videos detailing safe chemical handling, how to interpret a Material Safety Data Sheet and what to do in the event of an accident.

The food safety kit contains information for general staffers and supervisors alike. Materials range from sample GMP policies and HACCP decision trees to background on U.S. public health policy as it relates to food handling. The section on hand care suggests that 10-20 percent of food borne illnesses may be attributable to poor personal hygiene of food plant workers—a figure some sanitation experts view as conservative.

Employee hygiene may be the leading cause of food contamination, suggests Michael Milliorn, president of Daydots International in Fort Worth, Texas. Although his firm’s products are primarily geared toward foodservice firms, Milliorn gets involved with processors through food safety audits and training programs offered jointly with Steritech.

“It goes back to what your mother taught you in kindergarten,” says Milliorn. “All those bilingual posters and chemical cleaners are good, but hand washing is the number one food safety intervention.” He cites a recent study by the American Society for Microbiology that concluded 25 percent of female and 42 percent of male food industry workers still do not wash their hands before returning to work from the rest room.

Some processors are going to extraordinary lengths to win employee compliance with this fundamental sanitation step. Atlanta’s Buckhead Beef Co., a supplier of prime cuts to restaurants throughout the eastern United States, installed keypad controls on hand sanitizers throughout the plant. Workers key in part of their Social Security number to activate the dispenser each time they wash. Activation data is fed back to the payroll system, and employees found deficient in dispenser use are subject to financial reprisals.

Elkhorn, Wis.-based San Jamar recently introduced sensor-equipped paper towel dispensers to replace hand cranks that can be a source of cross contamination. The units also count the number of towels dispensed and correlate the data for supervisor retrieval via a palm pilot or other remote device. GoJo Industries Inc. of Akron, Ohio, offers the Signal dispenser. The unit beeps once, then twice 20 seconds later to signal users that they have washed their hands sufficiently.

Fifteen to 20 seconds is deemed the optimum scrubbing time for hand sanitizing, Milliorn explains, though no-tech timers can help employees self-monitor themselves just as effectively. “If you sing ‘Happy Birthday twice, that’s about 20 seconds,” he says.

Contour mapping and spatial analysis are being used by some food clients to quickly identify and address any infestation hot spots in their plants, according to Orkin’s Frank Meek, manager of technical services. Service technicians use hand-held computers and bar-code charts to track activity levels at various locations, then use the data to identify trends and problem areas. Though labor intensive and expensive to set up, spatial analysis enables processors to proactively manage pest control, says Meek, and it complements the movement away from sprays, poisons and other active ingredients and toward more strategic placement of materials.

Technology alone can’t control pests anymore than chemicals alone can sanitize a plant. They require active support and understanding of both managers and workers, and the kind of buy-in made possible by effective training.

Substandard sanitation as an exit strategy
After 18 years of inspecting Minnesota grade-A milk facilities, Dan Erickson of the state’s Department of Agriculture can determine pretty quickly how well a plant is executing its sanitation program.

“For the most part, the processors are excellent; they know what needs to be done, and they do what they claim they will do,” says Erickson, who recently received the annual Sanitarian Award from the International Association for Food Protection. “The ones who do a mediocre job in terms of sanitation are self-selecting, in that they’re out of the business pretty soon.”

The barriers to entry in food processing remain fairly low, and that can create problems when operators lack an understanding of the principles of sanitary processing and clean up. On-farm processing of milk is an example: a phenomenon that began in the Northeast, it now has made its way to the Midwest, as dairy farmers try to break out of the commodity business and into value-added consumer sales. A Minnesota farmer with 60 milking cows recently installed an Israeli-made line that pasteurizes and packages the milk from his cows and some of his neighbors.

“In that case, we have to start with the basics of effective and efficient sanitation,” Erickson says. “They don’t understand sanitation in the dairy sense of the word and that CIP doesn’t cover everything. They have to be taught that some equipment has to be disassembled and the gaskets manually cleaned.”

For more information:

Mike Milliorn, Daydots International, 800-321-3687, ext. 101
Cindy Loftus, Ecolab Inc., 651-293-2903
John Rogers, GoJo Industries, 330-255-6000
Frank Meek, Orkin Pest Control, 404-888-2898
Steve Lindsey, San Jamar, 800-248-9826
Allen Stahl, Silliker Inc., 708-957-7878, ext. 284
Frank Pool, Zep Manufacturing Co., 404-352-1680