Old “Star Trek” fans marvel at how so many of the gadgets and ideas shown on the original show have come into being. One of these is the cell phone, which has now evolved into the smartphone. These devices are found and seen everywhere, even in the hands of very young children. Many people seem to feel naked if they don’t have their phone in hand, which has presented a challenge to food processors all over the world. What do we do with cell phones in our food plants?

With many people so resistant to detach from their phones, the question now is, “What kind of policy should we set up in our plant?” Should cell phones be allowed in the plant? Should they be banned entirely? Should they be allowed in locker rooms, or should they stay in the worker’s vehicle? Food plant managers should think hard on what kind of policy they are going to set up.

The policy should be very simple: No cell phones in the food plant, in the warehouse, on loading docks or elsewhere. Let’s look at why this policy should exist:

1. Cell phones are not sanitary—A person’s cell phone goes everywhere with him or her. This includes the bathroom and dining areas, and it generally rests in back pants pockets or purses. It is, therefore, exposed to everything. There is no way to properly sanitize a cell phone, so it should never go into the plant.

2. Regulatory compliance—The Preventive Controls regulation found in 21 CFR Part 117. (b) under cleanliness states that “All persons working in direct contact with food, food-contact surfaces, and food-packaging materials must conform to hygienic practices while on duty to the extent necessary to protect against allergen cross-contact and against contamination of food. The methods for maintaining cleanliness include storing clothing or other personal belongings in areas other than where food is exposed or where equipment or utensils are washed.” The bottom line is that personal items should never be allowed into a food plant.

3. Cameras—Food processors should establish and maintain strict policies against allowing devices with cameras in their plants. Think back to the recent past and the animal abuse scandal at a slaughter house in Chino, CA. Someone took videos of downer cattle being moved with forklifts to the slaughter. This is not to excuse the operation, which was guilty of blatant abuse, but one wonders, “How and why did someone allow a camera to be brought into their plant?” The author recently worked with a processor that established a no cell phone policy after finding videos of its production operations on the internet. In this case, it was proud employees sharing their experiences, but the bottom line is photographs taken in a plant could create serious problems for a processor. They might reveal trade secrets or, even worse, taken out of context could result in regulatory problems. Some of you may recall a court case from years past in which the Food Lion supermarket chain filed suit against the media for using photographs taken illegally in one of its stores. Food Lion won the suit. The bottom line is photographs could damage both the company and the individual taking them.

Ideally, the policies should apply across the board, that is, to management and staff. Some processors do allow management to bring their cell phones into plants, but is this a good idea? Managers must set an example, so if the workforce sees managers using phones, they will wonder, “Why them and not us?” Other companies have banned cell phones across the board, but do allow managers to carry radios or walkie-talkies. These kinds of communication devices are generally larger and, even though they cannot be properly sanitized, are used only when needed. Other operations simply state that no communication devices whatsoever may be used in plants.

The real challenge, however, is working with employees and management to explain the policy and why compliance is so important. Because cell phones and cell phone usage have evolved to the point where they are literally an extension of people, management needs to clearly explain the elements noted above and make it clear why the company set such a policy.

The company also must be sure that management follows the policy and enforces it throughout the operation. Persons who fail to follow the policy should be warned and, if they continue to violate the policy, either be disciplined or dismissed. The reality of the situation is that someone may have to be fired to let people know that management is serious about such a policy. Since parents rely so heavily on phones to stay in touch with children, plant management needs to develop mechanisms to ensure that family can reach working parents quickly and easily if there is an emergency. This may actually entail bringing back live operators so children will not have to play multiple choice with an electronic system.

So, food processors, think carefully about how you intend to handle cell phones in your operations. They could pose a potential cross-contamination issue, but the real issue is most likely the camera. Hopefully, this piece will provide some food for thought.