While many meat and poultry processing operators focus most of their attention and resources on production during each day’s shifts, none would diminish the importance of the sanitation shift. Without top-notch sanitation, it is impossible to produce products that are safe.

Frequently, efficient and skillful meat and poultry plant cleaning and sanitation are often neglected because it requires additional work and the positive effects of this work are not always immediately visible. But failures in meat-plant hygiene and sanitation can cause a company financial losses in both the short and long run. They can also result in products containing pathogens, product recalls and foodborne illnesses.

Building in importance

Proper cleaning and sanitation is becoming more important in modern meat and poultry processing as more perishable and sanitation-sensitive poultry and meat products enter the market, such as prepackaged portioned-chilled meat, vacuum-packed sliced sausage and ham products, as well as meat products in controlled atmosphere packages. The microbial load of such products must be extremely low to guarantee adequate shelf-life, avoid spoilage and control and eliminate pathogens.

According to Dr. Norman Marriott, retired professor of animal science at Virginia Polytechnic and State Univ. in Blacksburg, Va., and an expert in plant sanitation, plant cleaning and sanitation jobs are not highly sought after or glamorous. “Unfortunately, as a job, it’s at the bottom of the barrel – you know, cleaning up a meat or poultry plant after slaughter or processing work has gone on. But if you think about it, the opposite is true. It’s really the most important work of all because how can you produce safe food in an establishment if everything isn’t clean?” asks Marriott, who has written several textbooks about plant sanitation and cleaning, including Principles of Food Sanitation, now in its fifth edition.

Achieving good plant sanitation

Depending on the company and the volume and type of process and products, many companies rely on third-party companies to perform sanitation procedures. Others utilize in-house sanitation workers.

“There are advantages and disadvantages to both,” says Marriott, who worked for a company that operated 12 meat-processing plants before he came to Virginia Tech. One of those plants used an outside contractor, while cleaning and sanitation was done by employees in the others.

“When you have an outside contractor do the work, the contractor is responsible for the plant being clean, rather than the plant management,” Marriott says. “Also, the contracting companies are specialists; they should be proficient in getting a plant clean and sanitized. And the contractor is aware they have to do the job right. The major negative point about hiring a contractor is the cost. It’s going to cost more to do it that way than by using your own employees.”

Seltzer’s Smokehouse Meats, manufacturers of Lebanon bologna, one of a few unique sausages still made in the United States, with two plants in Palmyra and Lebanon, Pa., has always done its own sanitation and cleaning and continues to do so today. Ron Fouche, director of quality control for the company, says the main reason plant employees do the sanitation work is the control it gives the company over the process.

“We finish up the shift work at 3:30 p.m. and the plant cleaning and sanitation is done between 3:30 and 11 p.m.,” he says. Various phases of cleaning are carried out separately by different employees.

“For example, we don’t mix raw and ready-to-eat with the people who are cleaning up equipment,” he says. Part of the reason the cleaning is done “in-house” is to save money.

“Normally, it’s going to cost more to have outside contractors come in than to do it yourself,” he points out. He also notes the equipment and food-contact surfaces are inspected frequently as part of the in-house service.

“We have a three-prong inspection process after cleaning,” he says. “The cleaning is done, the supervisor checks it and then it is inspected. If the inspector wants the equipment torn apart, then that’s done.”

Tom Murray president of DCS Sanitation Management, has headed the company for the past 12 years. The Cincinnati-based company has provided sanitation and cleaning services for more than 25 years to companies throughout the US, including major beef, pork and poultry processors. It recruits people locally to work on its crews, which range from four or five people to several hundred.

“We go in at night after production ends for the day,” Murray says. “All but one of the plants we work in are USDA-inspected.” That’s what drives the need for contract sanitation services like ours. But we are seeing more inquiries for sanitation services from FDA-inspected plants, with efforts to improve FDA plants.”

Many of his employees are former QA people or government inspectors. USDA plants call on DCS and other sanitation contractors because in addition to USDA inspection, the plants also face third-party audits, as well as requirements from retail stores like Wal-Mart.

The advantage for a plant using a contractor, Murray believes, “is sanitation is all we focus on,” he says. “We’re always trying to improve. And it frees the plant workforce to make good products, instead of thinking about how they’re going to clean up afterwards. For employee safety and quality assurance, programs, for pre-op inspection, we offer a higher level of expertise.

“We also have a focus on food safety, on-site management, a trained workforce, employee safety and audit and review systems,” he adds. “The disadvantage to a plant of using us is they give up a little control,” he says. “But we provide well-trained, on-site managers at each meat plant location, we’re committed to food safety and we understand the work we do plays a major role in keeping our food supply safe and consumers healthy.”

Sanitation is certainly a critical issue for Devault Foods Inc., a Southeastern Pennsylvania-based supplier of portion-controlled meat products for foodservice. The company began in 1949 as a one-room butcher shop and is now one of the largest suppliers of portion-controlled meat products in the US.

Gary Habbersett, quality assurance administrator for the company, says Devault has always used an outside cleaning service, and continues to do so. “We have a 114,000-sq.-ft. facility housing ultra-modern equipment, including the latest food-safety devices. We’re processing more than 2 million lbs. of beef products every week, for national accounts, corporate distributors, hotels and restaurants, so every ounce must be prepared in the most sanitary environment we can come up with,” he says.

It’s not that he thinks employees wouldn’t do a good job sanitizing. “This way, our employees can concentrate on product production for the most part, including food safety,” he says. “By having outside people come in and do sanitation, that’s all they do here. They can give their full attention to the process. Our own employees don’t have to worry about it.”

And because sanitation work is sometimes “undervalued” by companies, that’s another advantage to having “outsiders” do it,” he says.

“The contractor supplies the specialized chemicals and equipment to make sure the plant is completely sanitary, including the processing equipment, which plays such a major part in portion-control processing, as well as the critical food contact surfaces that are so important in this work,” Habbersett says. Portion-control products made at the plant include Philadelphia-style sandwich steaks, meatballs, including Mrs. DeFillippo’s brand, hamburgers and ground beef, steakwiches and a large variety of specialty products. Other benefits to using an outside contractor include minimizing exposure to accidents in a dangerous part of plant operations, sanitation costs become fixed and the responsibility for on-time startups for production is also outsourced.

In contrast, Economy Locker, maker of Country Brand smoked meats, including ham, bacon and bologna, does its own cleaning and sanitation. “Each department is responsible for its own sanitation and cleaning,” confirms Chet Ruth, one of the company’s owners. “We run our smokehouses all night, and people are then assigned to cleaning duties.”

Since there can be one, two or three shifts running at the plant, cleaning is assigned based on the number of shifts, which is unique to the company’s business.

“By doing it inside, we save money, of course,” Ruth says. “But there are other advantages. Our people know the equipment because they use it everyday, so it’s easier for them to clean. And during the slower times of the year, it does give employees something more to do on the job.”

Ruth says by-and-large, smaller companies tend to do sanitation and cleaning themselves, while bigger companies tend to contract the work out.