One way employees and third-party vendors contribute directly to food safety comes in the form hygienic practices. Hands, face and hair all possess the potential to carry foreign matter and pathogens that can cross-contaminate processing and production areas, or food product directly.

“Best practices for employee sanitation specific to hands, face and hair include washing our hands before and after exiting the production floor, sanitizing our personal protective equipment (PPE) daily, wearing hairnets, beard nets, and face masks when conducting sanitation duties on the production floor, and any other required areas,” said Todd Mitchell, vice president of safety at PSSI, Kieler, Wis. “Specific protocols are put in place to avoid any cross-contamination, introduction of foreign materials, and for the safety and well-being of our team members which includes helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

General sanitation procedure and protocol standards stay consistent across the processing industry, and like many things it’s the details of day-to-day tasks that can make the difference. Plant and sanitation workers must pay attention to the little things to ensure their own personal hygiene and food safety.

“It’s not enough to simply write a policy and distribute it across the facility,” said Paul Barnhill, chief technology officer, Meritech Systems LLC, Golden, Colo. “To truly embody these best practices each day, each employee must first understand and take ownership for the role they play in upholding hygiene and protecting consumer safety. This 360-degree buy-in helps ensure that all team members regularly follow hygiene SOPs and remain aware of the risk that simple actions like scratching their head or rubbing their nose can pose in spreading dangerous pathogens and compromising food safety.”

Know the landscape

Companies like Meritech and PSSI understand and plan for the complexity meat and poultry processing facilities present. Many facilities slaughter, fabricate and cook for ready-to-eat (RTE) product all within the same complex, or even different sides of the same building. Sanitation and food safety in these situations can prove tricky.

Meritech boot washing and sanitation station.jpg“When we recommend equipment or perform a hygiene zone consultation, we keep the ‘3 Ps’ in mind: the people, the place and the product,” Barnhill said. “Each facility is unique with its own challenges, so by stepping back and asking, ‘How are people interacting with the facility? How is the facility designed? What product is being produced here?’ We’re able to identify areas where hygiene intervention steps are needed and provide tailored programs that are designed to truly overcome a facility’s unique hygiene challenges.”

PSSI takes each facility and specific area within a facility into consideration before designing or implementing a sanitation strategy. For instance, PSSI designs chemical scripts based on the types of debris, soils and equipment observed throughout the plant.

“If different processes (raw versus further processing versus RTE) are present on the same complex, we treat them as two different job sites, and everything is made and kept separate, including our team members, in order to prevent any opportunities for cross-contamination,” said Jake Watts, vice president of food safety at PSSI. “In RTE facilities, distinct protocols are administered, different PPE requirements, and color codes are used to distinguish from other sides of the facility. Finally, the overall cleaning frequencies of areas and equipment can vary depending on the type of facility, whether it’s a slaughter, further processing or RTE plant.”

Meritech provides the bulk of its services through automated hygiene equipment such as boot scrubbers and hand washing stations with controlled access product enhancements and resettable cycle counters to help team leaders ensure that each person washes their hands before entering production areas.

“We also offer hygiene zone consultations, facility site surveys and host safety days for ongoing employee hygiene training and education,” Barnhill said.

PSSI offers levels of support for both food and work safety catered to a plant’s needs. Team safety managers, as well as chemical solutions, operations and human resources representatives add to implementation and upkeep of sanitation programs.

“PSSI offers extensive support in audit preparedness; we conduct internal audits throughout the year to aid the facility on their certifications,” Watts said. “PSSI also offers our own chemistry, and each plant is assigned a chemical representative who designs chemical scripts to fit our customer’s needs. All accounts are serviced and documented multiple times throughout the year. These service reports are always reviewed with the customer and internal PSSI team to create an environment for continuous improvement.”

COVID conscious

When COVID-19 hit, processors suffered high numbers of cases, and the virus spread among workers faster than other industries. Facilities worked hard to deal with unknowns and adjust as new information came to light.

Sanitation and safety are always a top priority, but COVID-19 presented new challenges, and suppliers had to shift and adjust to serve their customers in the meatpacking industry.

“The biggest change in our approach post-COVID-19 is following the different customer location guidelines and putting together a proactive approach to customer responses and mitigation efforts,” Watts said. “In order to uphold a standard of safety for our customers and on-site crew members, approval request procedures have been put in place for a team member to visit a facility. We have also found that in order to continue to assist our partners at the same level as pre-COVID, we had to incorporate new technology and resources. The increase of video conferencing, conference calls, and remote desk audits are now part of our new normal.”

Barnhill referred again to the “3 Ps:” people, places and product, regarding adjustments and changes to sanitation protocols and procedures in response to the current pandemic. Processors must consider and weigh the risk factors in and related to those three areas and implement stricter standards in hygiene zones and on production floors.

“With the challenges presented by COVID-19 we have been working tirelessly alongside our customers to help them improve their hygiene programs and comply with safety measures recommended by the CDC and WHO,” Barnhill said.

Sanitation companies and equipment providers have worked tirelessly alongside their meat and poultry processing customers during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure food, worker and overall safety stay intact and continually improve, but it’s not necessarily unique to the current situation.

“We’ve been educating this industry on the importance of hygiene and helping each facility overcome their unique hygiene challenges for the last 30 years and will continue to do so during this pandemic and the years to come,” Barnhill added.