US Founding Father Benjamin Franklin famously said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” which could be the motto of the pending Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The coming regulations emphasize preventingfood safetyproblems rather than responding to them after the fact, heightening the importance of cleaning practices in food and beverageprocessing.

Article Index:

“With the pending FSMA, there is an increased focus on cleaning and sanitation from sectors in the food industry, such as produce processors,” says Elis Owens, senior chemist and microbiologist at Birko.

“The FSMA has been a game changer,” says Michael Motta, vice president of sales for the food division of Zep Inc. “The retailers are putting a tremendous amount of pressure, as is the government, on food and beverage processors, and the processors are putting added pressure on the chemical suppliers.” This is causing an increase in the services chemical suppliers provide to processors, everywhere from preparing them for audits to conducting ongoing employee training.

“FSMA and other food safety initiatives have increased the scrutiny auditors are placing on SSOPs [sanitation standard operating procedures] as part of food facility safety plans,” says Kristopher Olson, senior marketing manager for food and beverage at Ecolab. “In some cases, renewed validation efforts for cleaning programs have resulted in the need for different chemical programs or cleaning processes.” Thus, as the demand for chemicals that perform is on the rise, many issues are causing a reevaluation of traditional cleaning methods and procedures.

Traditional chemical cleaning

In some ways, chemical cleaning in food plants has not changed much in the last few decades.  Chemicals have long been used to disinfect and sanitize surfaces. According to FDA guidelines, disinfecting means destroying or inactivating various fungi and bacteria, but not necessarily the spores, on hard surfaces. Sanitizing is the act of reducing microorganisms to levels considered to be safe.

“Sanitation suppliers provide their food processing customers with two different types of chemicals,” says Adel Makdesi, corporate senior microbiologist at Zep Inc. “Cleaners and sanitizers as well as antimicrobial products are used directly on food products [such as fruits, vegetables, red meat, poultry and seafood] to reduce their microbial load.”

He adds food processors need to clean surfaces first with detergents, which work in varying ways and degrees. For example, some need more manual scrubbing than others. But once the equipment is visibly clean, there is the question of the equipment’s safety. 

“Is it sanitary enough?” Makdesi asks. “By that I mean, is it free of microbes, or is a minimum number left after cleaning?” Typically, sanitizers are used on the surfaces after cleaning to address these issues. In a food processing plant, many different types of microorganisms exist, Makdesi says, such as “Listeria, Salmonella and E. coli. These are the microbes of concern to most food processors and regulatory agencies these days.” The more microbes a sanitizer kills, the more desirable it is. However, he warns there is no such thing as the perfect sanitizer.

“The perfect sanitizer would be one that would kill all types of microorganisms with a minimum contact time and low concentration without harming food processing equipment,” Makdesi says. But today’s sanitizers are selective in the way they kill microorganisms. For instance, one sanitizer might kill Listeria, but not be strong enough to kill acid bacteria, which can spoil food products. So, for example, if a bakery uses only one type of sanitizer, such as quaternary ammonium compounds (quats) to kill bacteria, the facility may still have a problem with mold since quats can be selective in their effectiveness against it. In this case, the bakery would need to use a strong oxidizing sanitizer, like chlorine dioxide, to eliminate mold and its spores. 

“It would be even better for the bakery to utilize a sanitizer that kills a broad spectrum of microorganisms,” Makdesi explains. It would not only cut down on the steps involved to sanitize, it also would prevent the problem from occurring, i.e., having mold in the bakery.

“FSMA tells processors not to process food under any suspicious condition that would cause food adulteration or contamination,” he says. “If an inspector sees any type of suspicious condition, such as mildew, slime or a water leak, he or she can hold the food for further testing. Therefore, to better comply with FSMA, food processors should implement an effective sanitation program that will take care of not only food preprocessing equipment, but also the plant environmental surfaces.”

This is where a chemical company’s consultation service can be a boon to a processor. Consultants will come in and assess the type of chemical cleaning agents a plant might need in different areas. For instance, a processor might need to use one type of chemical to clean equipment, but another kind may be necessary to clean the ceiling. A complete program will integrate different products and procedures to work together to help a processor achieve its food safety goals and have better control over its operations.

It is also important to remember the steps involved in effective cleaning and sanitizing, which are: dry pick-up, pre-rinse, detergent application and manual scrubbing, post-rinse, inspection and sanitizing.

“If you have grease and/or organic soil on a surface,” Makdesi says, “a sanitizer will not penetrate it or kill the microbes that are hidden under and inside the soil and grease.” In other words, you cannot sanitize dirt. To kill the microbes, they should be exposed to the sanitizer, and to expose them, food residues must be removed before attempting to sanitize the surface.

The new climate of cleaning

New food safety programs are required to meet Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) standards as well as FSMA. Their preventative benchmarks are based on the long-standing Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), a systematic, science-based approach for seeking out and controlling food safety hazards. A key area in these guidelines is the call for putting in place sanitation controls, in addition to monitoring and verifying the prevention procedures.

“With FSMA, antimicrobial direct intervention programs are becoming standard operating procedures in several market segments including red meat, poultry, seafood and produce,” says Zep’s Motta. “Processors are implementing these antimicrobial programs to eliminate pathogens, extend shelf life and improve the quality of food. This chemical technology is applied directly to the product in a spray or immersion application.”

Birko is also seeing this growth in antimicrobial programs, which Owens says is coming from two areas: food safety concerns driven by FSMA and retailers’ demand for products with longer shelf lives.

“Most retailers today are pushing processors into these types of programs,” Motta says. “This is becoming so big that it’s not uncommon for processing companies to spend millions of dollars per year in antimicrobial treatments. It’s that important for them to spend that kind of money to put the program in place.” He gives a recent example of a third-generation produce farmer calling Zep to ask about implementing an antimicrobial program.

“He said, ‘I do business with Wal-Mart, and Wal-Mart is telling me it will pull our products if I don’t put an antimicrobial program in place,’” Motta recalls. After Birko gave the farmer a six-figure quote, he said he could not believe he was going to spend that money, but had to because he could not afford to lose the business.

Other issues processors are facing also are causing changes to cleaning procedures. First, there is an operational demand to reduce cleaning times to increase production time. But Owens warns processors must allow enough time for proper cleaning.

“Birko educates the management team to make sure they schedule an acceptable amount of cleaning time for both the chemicals and people to do a thorough job,” he explains. Birko also looks at a plant’s operations and suggests efficiency methods, such as employing a “clean as you go” process, with a few people cleaning during the day to reduce the amount of time needed for cleaning at night.

Owens says processors also want to reduce water usage during production and cleaning. To help save water, Birko assesses how it is being used in the facility and identifies possible ways to reuse or repurpose it. For instance, if a produce processor uses water to move fruit or vegetables around a facility, that water is relatively clean and can be used in another application, perhaps with some chemical treatment.

In addition, some processors need ways to reduce or eliminate sodium in their wastewater since they want to use it to irrigate fields. If the water has high levels of salt, it can reduce the quality of the land, so, to cut down on the amount of sodium used in cleaning, they are moving away from a sodium hydroxide-based chemistry to a potassium hydroxide-based chemistry.

“That does come at a cost because potassium-based chemistry is more expensive,” Owens warns. “But that is the path they need to go down if they’re looking to eliminate sodium.”

Birko also has seen a reduction in the use of sodium hypochlorite, or bleach, which has traditionally been added to cleaners because it helps strip the proteins from surfaces. But now, some processors are using hydrogen peroxide as an additive instead of bleach.

“It gives you a similar level of oxidation,” Owens says. “It’s not quite the same as the chlorine, but it’s a way to enhance the efficacy of cleaners.”

Currently, Owens says sodium reduction demands are more common in drought-prone areas, such as the Southwest, but it may become more widespread if the practice of using treated wastewater grows in popularity.

Trends and innovations

To keep up with processors’ needs, chemical companies are responding in a number of ways.

“Customers really want preventative maintenance programs, ongoing training and things that will keep them out of trouble,” says Motta. “Zep offers a full food safety program. We offer not only chemicals and equipment, but also service, including but not limited to, making recommendations based on best practices, audit preparation, HACCP support and many of the other GFSI requirements. All our reps, whom we call ‘Food Safety Consultants,’ have been through SQF [Safe Quality Food] training and are certified practitioners. During regular service visits, they walk the plant focused on identifying nonconformities and helping customers with corrective actions.”

In addition, chemical companies are increasingly partnering with processors to solve cleaning problems. For instance, Ecolab recently worked with Hormel Foods to develop the Advantis FC reduced-temperature cleaning program, which is designed to cut costs by using less energy to heat water and cool down refrigerated production areas after sanitizing.

“Advantis FC is an advanced self-foaming, chlorinated alkaline cleaner that allows reduced-temperature foam, spray and soak cleaning of the stainless steel processing equipment and environmental surfaces in processing plants,” says Ecolab’s Olson.

The Advantis FC cleaner provides operational efficiencies as well as sustainability benefits. For example, the lower-temperature cleaning process decreases the need for wiping condensate after sanitizing, which promotes food safety and reduces labor. Employee safety is also improved because lower-temperature water minimizes the potential for scalding injuries and reduces condensation, which affects visibility and the need to wipe down overhead and hard-to-reach spaces at potentially hazardous heights. Finally, it minimizes environmental implications because it has low phosphate levels. 

“We’re not only focused on evolving the cleaning chemistry to meet industry needs,” says Olson, “we are also focused on innovation around the entire cleaning process.” Ecolab provides monitoring and control of the chemistry and cleaning process, offering integrated solutions addressing sanitation, water and wastewater, and pest elimination.

“Water quality impacts cleaning and sanitizing efficiency; the cleaning process impacts boiler assets and efficiency; and process changes, cleaning chemistry, water volume and quality affect wastewater treatment,” he adds.

Processors also need methods to better manage the chemicals they use. “To further support our customers, we provide document control software that brings paper reports into the electronic world. Someday, when you walk into a QA manager’s office, you won’t see those three-ring binders anymore,” Motta says. Instead, all the information can be held in one place and stored either in the cloud or electronically at a processor’s location.

Some processors gain more control over their chemicals by employing automated systems to dispense the correct amount of chemicals. Sealed Air’s Diversey X-Controller food safety sanitation program tracks regulatory and company standards compliancy. The online alert system is used in circulation cleaning and features an electronic diagram that measures and monitors the volume of chemicals and water consumption.

“If you can measure it, you can improve it,” says Brad Polen, sector leader of processed foods at Sealed Air’s food care division.

On the horizon

As processors continue to feel pressure from both the government and retail sector, an emphasis on chemical cleaning to achieve food safety will remain. Owens expects a future increase in the sanitary design of plant equipment and facilities themselves.

“Equipment manufacturers are looking at how equipment is cleaned and identifying areas that are hard to clean, potentially could harbor bacteria or allow moisture to accumulate, creating a condition favorable for bacteria growth,” Owens says. Some processors are changing the types of materials they use in the plant, such as soft metals that are harder to clean. “Processors want equipment manufacturers to take ease of cleaning into consideration,” he adds.

Additionally, because processors are now applying antimicrobials onto food products, Owens says there could be an onslaught of more regulations and higher scrutiny of the chemicals used in this way, which could, in turn, spur a growth in greener chemistry.

Makdesi agrees, especially when it comes to the organic food industry, where chemical residues left on product is a concern. Zep’s Peroxy-Serve and Keeper product lines are peracetic acid- and chlorine dioxide-based sanitizers, respectively. The products readily kill microbes before breaking down into substances that are non-harmful to humans, such as water and carbon dioxide.

Hygiene starts at the door

With more food and beverage processors focused on reducing the risk of food contamination, some are taking extra preventative steps in one of the most critical places in the plant—the front door.

“The main point is the entryway,” says Michele Colbert, vice president of sales and marketing for Meritech. “Some packaging companies used to get away with using a gel hand sanitizer upon entry, but now, they can’t do that. Employees have to wash their hands with soap and water.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the recommended time for thorough hand washing is 20 seconds. It is also advised to scrub the backs of hands, between fingers and under the nails.

“Technically, it can be a 30- to 40-second process, with multiple steps,” Colbert says. “It’s pretty complex, and nobody does it that way.” In comparison, Meritech’s CleanTech automated hand washing systems control the hand washing process by having employees put their hands between two cylinders to start a wash/rinse cycle.

“In the 12-second hand washing cycle, the removal rate is 99.98 percent of all the dangerous pathogens in the food environment,” she says. “Plus, our systems remove 99.99 percent of norovirus, the number one cause of foodborne illness.” Every step is precisely measured, including the pre-rinse, soap and post-rinse using potable water.

“The results are guaranteed for every user, for every hand wash. The consistency is there,” Colbert says. The systems also provide another benefit that is growing in importance—water conservation.

“As water gets more and more valuable, the savings of water are huge,” she says. In fact, a new trend has emerged among California food and beverage processors, with them removing their large, circular sinks that accommodate multiple people.

“Our system gets it done more effectively, faster,” Colbert says.

The hand soap used in the CleanTech systems has a base of quaternary ammonium, a non-triclosan antimicrobial agent, with all fragrances, alcohols and dyes removed. Hand conditioners are added to the formula to keep the skin healthy. Meritech does not use, nor do they advise using, triclosans as an option for hand sanitizing because it has been banned in some countries and is currently under FDA review.

Regarding how hot the water should be, Colbert says studies show temperature has nothing to do with killing germs. However, Meritech recommends 105°F since it is more comfortable for people and helps remove debris, such as flour and dough.

Changes are also being made to policies regarding footwear. Michael Motta, vice president of sales for the food division of Zep, says the use of boot programs is increasing, with food processors making their employees change their shoes upon entering the plant.

“Before, most employees would come in wearing their street shoes and go right onto the production floor. They might step in a footbath with quaternary ammonium sanitizer or go through a doorway foamer,” he says. “With FSMA, there is much more emphasis on the integration of boot programs.”

“I get calls all the time from processors that are implementing a boot sanitization program for the first time, and they say, ‘My auditors are making me sanitize shoes and boots, but we have a dry environment and we want it to stay dry.’ There’s no way you can do both,” Colbert says, explaining you cannot have a boot scrubber or boot dip and step away without your boots being partially wet. So, processors are finding they have to start a whole “captive footwear” program that restricts shoes worn on the plant floor from being worn anywhere else, which can lead to a host of problems.

“One thing leads to another. They’ll say, ‘I’ve got to buy boots, so I have to build lockers and have a way to clean the boots.’ It’s a hot topic right now,” she says. “It’s hard for people to implement this when they’ve been dry all the time or letting people walk in wearing their street shoes.”


For more information:

Kristopher Olson, Ecolab,651-250-2680,,

Elis Owens, Birko Corporation, 303-289-1090,,

Mike Motta, Zep Inc., 803-732-4080,,

Adel Makdesi, Zep Inc., 404-603-7753,,

Brad Polen, Sealed Air Corporation, 201-791-7600,,

Michele Colbert, Meritech, Inc., 303-790-4670,