With product recalls escalating, food companies are re-evaluating the most effective ways to provide sanitary conditions plantwide.

A few years ago, nobody knew what Listeria was," said Mike Sheahan, president of Oakley, Calif.-based Sheahan Food Safety and Sanitation Consulting. "Now, your ten-year-old is coming home from school and telling you exactly what it is." This is the state of food safety as recalls continue to change the face of the food industry. Companies are being forced to invest enormous amounts of time and money into sanitation programs. With federal regulators peeking over their shoulders, processors are realizing sanitation is as vital as production. To be successful at sanitation, companies must first gain an understanding of what it is. "Sanitation is an attitude, not a process," commented Sheahan. From the classroom to the production floor, there are simple steps companies can take for effective cleaning and sanitation.


Since 1998, Don Graham, president of Graham Sanitary Design Consulting, Ltd., estimates more than 3,000 people have passed through his training course on sanitary plant design. The former senior food technologist with A/E firm Sverdrup teaches an in-depth training course that provides general information on sanitation and regulations, illustrates good sanitary plant design, and explains the relationship between sanitation and sanitary design. "If you build, design and construct something so that it's cleanable, your sanitation program is going to be faster, easier and more efficient," Graham said.

Graham believes the lack of understanding of sanitary plant design begins at the college level. "Engineers do not get training in sanitary design in college," he said. "You've got engineers putting plants together who don't have a clue about sanitation."

Maribeth Cousin, professor of Food Microbiology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., agrees and, judging by the increased attendance in her food sanitation course, she believes that engineers are beginning to realize it as well. "Within the last six years, student engineers have started taking the class because it's being recommended by their faculty advisors," Cousin said. Although the course is not required, Cousin hopes more engineering students enroll. One problem Cousin has noticed is that students don't understand the nature of microorganisms, or how dirt and dust can infiltrate an operation.

But are engineers who have been formally schooled in sanitation really better prepared to address the issue than those who haven't? Not necessarily, warns Darryl Wernimont, director of business development for A/E firm Haskell Co., Jacksonville, Fla. "The problem is they don't get the hands-on experience," he said. Rather than blaming universities, Wernimont says that companies are looking to fill in the gaps by sending employees to training courses and seminars sponsored by industry associations such as the National Food Processors Association (NFPA) and the International Association of Food Industry Suppliers (IAFIS).

Is automation the answer?

According to the Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the seven problems areas in maintaining a sanitary food operation are rodents, birds, insects, bacteria, molds, chemical contaminants and ignorance/carelessness. Where does the solution to these problems lie, in automation or in the employees? Professionals argue that automation helps eliminate human error, but automation remains more limited in what it can do, so more emphasis has to be placed on the employee.

"Automation in sanitation has its place, but the well-trained human factor is always going to outweigh it," said Mike DeVries, plant manager at Michigan Turkey Producers, Wyoming, Mich. "Sanitation problems do not lie within the large chunks of meat, for example, but in the small cracks an crevices, and that is where human value is so critical," he continued.

Bill Vaughn, a principal with A/E firm Vaughn, Coltrane and Associates, Tucker, Ga., works primarily with meat and poultry companies, and his clients are incorporating automation into sanitation as much as possible. "They're looking at CIP systems or foam-in-place systems because good people in clean up are getting harder and harder to find." In meat and poultry, Vaughn believes companies are more concerned with employee turnover than employee emphasis.

Shelf life is another factor in the push towards automation. "Companies want to have a longer shelf life and that really points to less human contact with the product," observed Mike Steur, director of client development - food industry for A/E firm Hixson Inc., Cincinnati. "The more contact there is, the more opportunities there are for contamination."

But automation isn't always an option. A lot of equipment doesn't lend itself to CIP, and some prefer it that way. "CIP normally implies a closed system, and most systems are open," Graham explained, citing conveyors, cutters and slicers as examples. Then there are those machines where CIP may be the only way to truly clean it, such as piping systems, tanks or agitators. "It's hard to get at those things and CIP is the only effective way to that," said Darrin McCormies, senior vice president with Chicago-based A/E firm A. Epstein & Sons Int'l Inc.

"Still, there's a little bit of reluctance about automation because people have been burned before in the past," Sheahan said. "It's very hard to automate some things and have a comfort level knowing that it's clean."

Sheahan blames self-cleaning machines that aren't living up to their billing as one reason companies are reluctant about automation. So which does a company put its faith and future hopes in? A machine, or an employee? For now, Sheahan believes it's the employee. "Companies would rather put their time, money and effort into their employees than rely on a self-cleaning machine that they'll still have to put two employees on anyway."

Shifts in sanitation

Sanitation has become such an important part of processing that companies have begun moving it from third shift to first or second shift. "It makes more sense to go to first shift since you have all of your top maintenance people there," explained Graham, a former third-shifter himself. "Nobody wants to work third shift sanitation -- it's wet, hot, steamy. You get the lowest pay, you're laid off first and you get the least support from management," he continued.

"Moving sanitation from third shift is the result of increased HACCP activity," said Kurt Kaupisch, chief process engineer for Hixson. The idea is to make the operators responsible for their own sanitation, cleanup and maintenance identification. "Processors figure the best way to get rid of sanitary violations is to put their best people up against it," Kaupisch continued.

He noted that while the beverage industry adopted making the operator responsible for sanitation years ago, the cheese and meat industries are just beginning to follow suit. As a result of HACCP programs, the responsibility of the employees has changed. "There's much more of a burden to document that your sanitation procedures are effective," said McCormies.

The time that a processor decides to perform sanitation can vary from industry to industry, according to Todd McAloon of Cargill's Sunny Fresh Division, Monticello, Minn. Cargill is an international marketer, processor and distributor of agricultural and food products. "Beef and pork is performed primarily on third shift, but poultry is more second shift -- it's related to the best time to process the birds."

Michigan Turkey slaughters birds from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., and de-bones the meat from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. From 1:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., the company sanitizes. But what makes its process unique is the "pre-op" phase, where re-inspection, re-sanitization and some assembly is performed.

"Pre-op is usually a 15-30 minute process between sanitation and production where companies check specific pieces of equipment," explained DeVries. "We actually take an entire shift and go through pre-op on virtually every piece of equipment -- we feel it's the next step in the realm of sanitation."

HVAC and Listeria

Although not a recent trend, there is an increased emphasis on HVAC systems to combat microorganisms and therefore improve plant sanitation. "I've been beating the drums on HVAC for a long time," said Graham.

Michigan Turkey recently converted a potato manufacturing plant into a sanitary turkey operation. One of the keys to making the plant a USDA accepted one was the installation of HVAC systems. "HVAC was the number one factor from a design standpoint," admitted DeVries.

HVAC systems can also serve as the cure to poor site selection. Don Graham has worked with many companies over the years whose contamination problems started with their plant's location. "Companies look at a property and say 'It's cheap, let's buy it.' But they don't bother to look at what's across the fence." Graham recently worked with a plant that was downwind from a paper mill. The plant processed fatty products, and the fat was picking up various flavors and odors since fat is a flavor carrier.

"FDA has indicated that airborne contamination is suspected of being a big cause of pathogenic contamination in food plants," said Graham, who believes people must start looking at their existing plants because a lot of them don't have positive air pressure where they should have it and their filtration level is too low.

When someone walks in a door, the air blowing out is known as positive air pressure, so insects and dust can't get in. What determines how powerful the positive air pressure can be is the air handling system that is installed. "When companies put air handling systems in, they come with standard filters which get rid of 35 percent of everything in the air 50 microns or larger," said Graham. He notes that most bacteria is 5 microns or larger, and recommends special filters that will remove 95 percent of everything 5 microns or larger. "Most microbes don't float around by themselves, they're usually attached to a piece of dirt or dust which are normally larger than 5 microns."

"All of our rooms are air handled wherever product is exposed," DeVries stated. "You won't ever get a plant truly cleaned without proper air handling."

An emerging trend in air handling is the installation of HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters. "HEPA filters will catch the bigger microorganisms and bacteria, and you do a better job of keeping your indoor air quality at a higher level," McCormies said.

Bill Vaughn believes that the product being made should determine what kind of filtration system a company should use. "If you make raw product, you only need a standard dry type throw away filter or washable type filter," he said. "The ready-to-eat products and higher level of processing must all have very clean filtration systems, and most of those are some type of HEPA system."