If nothing else, the events of the past 18 months have reinforced the importance of sanitation. Although sanitation has always been a cornerstone of meat and poultry processors’ everyday practices in environments that handle raw, in-process and cooked products, the priorities of personal hygiene and clean surfaces were elevated in almost every way in an era when viral transmission was top of mind.

Plexiglas partitions went up and were regularly cleaned in efforts to keep as much of a safe, sanitary distance as possible between workers. More surfaces were scrubbed more often. Training efforts on the importance of hand washing and general sanitation practices intensified. Especially in the early days and months of the pandemic, meat plants made national headlines both for outbreaks and closings and for details on how operators were trying to keep those facilities sanitary.

“When you think about food manufacturers and processors, they have always had very buttoned-up sanitation practices and HACCP procedures in place. But one of the things that was brought on during the pandemic was awareness – ‘Are we doing the right thing? What more should we be doing?’” said Paul Barnhill, chief technology officer for Meritech Systems LLC, Golden, Colo.

Even with a hyper-focus on sanitation and new cleaning measures put in place during the pandemic, other food safety risks did not recede, especially in light of increased purchases and consumption of perishable foods including animal protein in the past year.

Facing ongoing and often insidious risks from pathogens, viruses, allergens and other threats, manufacturers must continuously protect their surroundings, people and products through strong food safety programs that include regularly reviewed Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs). Those SSOPs are pivotal parts of food safety plans that help processors adhere to legislation like the US Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and standards from certification bodies like the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI).

A cleaner slate?

Meat and poultry facilities face a number of ongoing safety risks including those from pathogens, viruses and allergens. (Source: PSSI) 

Fortunately the global health crisis spurred processors and suppliers to reassess risks and SSOPs to safeguard people and products.

“Going forward, the potential for wearing masks may continue for a time to come, but I think it’s more about how plants can make sure that they are going through steps and procedures and asking, ‘How do we prevent contamination?’” Barnhill said.

He cited an example of recent improvements in sanitation that reflect such broader thinking and planning. “Footwear sanitation has always been a thing, especially in (plants with) raw meat. But one thing we see a lot of is what we call ‘splash and dash’ in which workers rub water on their hands and think they are good to go, and the same thing happens with boot dip baths. Do you have contact with the bath for a half a second? And was that at the right PPM?” he said. “The challenge and the questions are how many people have gone through it and if it is starting to degrade?”

To address any vulnerabilities in boot and sole sanitation, Meritech developed a technology that enables workers to clean their hands while sanitizing their footwear with more than 12 times the contact time for greater effectiveness. “You’re able to automate it and keep that foot bath flush and clear,” Barnhill noted.

Another area of sanitation that has gotten more exposure is the use of ultraviolet light technology. Germicidal ultraviolet UV-C rays have been shown to mitigate pathogens that cause foodborne illness, like E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and others. Sanitron units from Atlantic Ultraviolet Corp. of Hauppauge, NY, for example, are used to disinfect clean-in-place water for processing areas to help prevent cross-contamination.

Meanwhile, dry steam cleaning can be deployed in meat and poultry facilities as part of sanitation programs. This method, using hot, low-moisture dry steam for cleaning equipment and conveyors, is effective and fast, without some of the downtime needed for disassembly. Stamford, Conn.-based Goodway Technologies Corp., which provides an array of cleaning services for food plants, recently introduced a new steam chamber that quickly sanitizes and disinfects small parts and tools through heat transfer.

Recent marketable challenges also have accelerated interest in automation and robotics that alleviate labor issues while speeding and aiding sanitation. Many washers and washing systems are already capable of automatically dispensing sanitizers and disinfectants.

Innovations in this area continue. This year, the grand prize winner of the Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Prize was Human Dynamics, which has developed a robotic drone, or “drobot” that dispenses cleaning materials and disinfectants through the air in a plant. The drone uses visual detection technology to make sure each area is clean. “They have to sanitize every night, and it’s extremely labor intensive and expensive,” said Tom Okamoto, co-founder and Massachusetts Institute of Technology master’s degree student, in a recent article.

A stringent sanitation program is also more thorough. As part of its sanitation solutions, PSSI of Kieler, Wis., offers an eight-step sanitation process that covers several areas for effective in-plant cleaning. That process is customized for a plant’s operation and setup. In addition, PSSI designs solutions based on what’s happening in a plant with different types of debris, soils and equipment. What works in a ready-to-eat area won’t necessarily work in a raw material area.

Hands and footwear cleaning equipment, such as Meritech’s CleanTech automatic cleaning station, have been more commonplace in meat plants. (Source: Meritech) 

At Meritech, Barnhill said that creating hygiene zones covers more vulnerability in a thorough way.

“Every plant is different. You might have to develop supplementary hygiene zones – having a main hygiene zone and creating other zones for RTE or allergens,” he explained.

As they reevaluate plant sanitation efforts, processors can choose from more materials and equipment, as suppliers upgrade their offerings. Sanitation solution provider Birko, based in Henderson, Colo., recently introduced a new chlorinated foam cleaner called PoulChlor for poultry applications. The all-in-one solution includes detergents, chlorine and alkaline caustic for hard-to-clean areas.

“Choosing the right sanitation chemistry is a necessity in fostering Category 1 status for processors and preventing Salmonella growth,” said Brad Bray, senior formulation chemist with Birko.

The value of verification

In addition to new materials and technologies, processors can leverage technologies to ensure their sanitation efforts are going to plan.

“Data and documentation are the most critical components of managing a food safety program,” said Jake Watts, vice president of food safety for PSSI.

“PSSI provides audit-ready documentation of all sanitation efforts through Real-Time Performance Metrics (RPM) to efficiently collect, store, visualize and report on important sanitation data to keep our customers facilities cleaner and safer.”

According to Watts, the RPM sends alerts and notifications in real time so corrective actions can be taken as soon as possible.

“Our team focuses on documenting several key factors that can influence a successful cleaning process including time, water temperature, water pressure, chemical titrations and cleaning, and safety hazards,” he added. “We use data collected to monitor trends to help us identify areas to improve sanitation efficiencies and recognize hazards to prevent injuries for an overall safer and more efficient sanitation process.”

Finally, while the pandemic may be waning, it’s no time to waver on sanitation, Barnhill said.

“One of the challenges processors will face coming up is the fact that we’ve been inundated with ‘wash your hands and shoes’ and had peak compliance, but once things settle down, they may become a little more lax,” he said. “We have to keep the bar very high by creating a hygiene culture.”

In tandem with automated systems, training and onboarding help that food safety and hygiene culture stay top of mind.