Meat and poultry processors deal with some of the most challenging work environments in the food industry, enduring extreme temperatures and rigorous washdown procedures to ensure the continuing safety of their products. Yet, there’s a glaring lack of digital technology to help ensure effective sanitation programs, according to Jeremy Adler, PhD, senior RD&E program leader for food safety, Ecolab, St. Paul, Minn.

“It’s still common practice to manually measure, mix, titrate and record sanitation chemistries; visualize and record chemical usage on the outside of the container with a marker; and record sanitation activities on paper that’s stored in a manilla folder hidden in a QC office,” he said.

Sanitation reboot

Though not considered a food safety hazard, COVID-19 and its evolving variants continue to test the industry with a new set of sanitation vulnerabilities and requirements that must be addressed in a plant’s cleaning process. Historically, food manufacturers have focused on bacterial pathogens and spoilage organisms. Conversely, viruses are controlled through disinfection, which is a more stringent application of a hard surface antimicrobial.

To effectively address the SARS-CoV-2 virus inside and outside the production area, food manufacturers had to implement a disinfection step in their sanitation program. Many also heightened focus on hand hygiene for production and non-production staff, adding sanitizer and hand-washing stations with infographics illustrating proper hand-washing techniques.

These efforts included working closely with sanitation suppliers to ensure the appropriate products are selected within the guidelines and regulations of the regulatory landscape. Ecolab has worked to have products approved for placement on the Environmental Protection Agency “List N,” which are designated to target the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Optimizing limited resources

The hammer-blow of COVID-19 shifted organizations into high gear with great expediency, elevating critical planning for people, facilities and production inputs. Amid evolving restrictions, processors established best practices designed to keep their employees safe and product moving in response to supply chain shutdowns, consumer-driven panic buying and ongoing demands for safe, high-quality food.

After enforcing the immediate and critical guidelines, many were faced with the harder-to-answer questions of who, how and when the additional sanitation measures would take place. This answer differed depending on the organization and its production, current sanitation protocols, staff ratios (experienced/inexperienced), availability of training measures (in-person and pre-recorded online), mentorship and level of automation.

In response, some introduced a digital component to reduce the labor associated with chemical dilution, titration and dispensing; manual recording, storage and reporting of data; and chemical usage tracking and reordering. Others looked to temporary workers to keep lines running during staff shortages and all dealt with the necessity to identify any equipment, structures and utensils that may need extra attention to mitigate microbial and pest concerns during extended runs.

“With such a dramatic increase in the number of new entry-level workers, it is critical to provide them the training they need to apply the basic concepts of Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), pest management and other important aspects of food safety,” said Bonnie Biegel, director, quality assurance, AIB International, Manhattan, Kan.

The emphasis on food safety and defense and sanitation often begins pre-hire with screening methods emphasizing the importance of food safety and sanitation in the role, including communicating needs to entry-level, temporary and contract workers who could unknowingly introduce a new level of potential threat.

Once hired, employees might be assigned to shadow a more experienced employee in addition to a requirement of attending/logging online prerecorded or instructor-led training. For seasoned workers, this might include ongoing training to maintain compliance. Established employees could also have additional opportunities to upskill and take on new roles and responsibilities with ongoing assessment of new vulnerabilities to update the food defense plan.

Choosing to automate

But having open and available jobs does not necessarily mean they will be expediently filled. As the absence of a qualified sanitation workforce grows, many operations are turning to automation to implement reliable sanitary process cleaning solutions.

These include container washing and sanitizing equipment for commercial meat and poultry processing from Douglas Machines, Clearwater, Fla. Its equipment is helping processors increase productivity by reducing manpower for regular washing, decreasing energy, chemical and water costs, and increasing the shelf life for equipment, tools and utensils.

In addition, labor cost increases, demands for record keeping and repeatable sanitation results are also driving more investment in the automation of cleaning, observed Bryan Downer, vice president of sales and marketing, Sani-Matic, Sun Prairie, Wis.

This places equipment like cabinet washers, vat washers and tunnel washers in high demand. Sani-Matic, has seen more processors embrace automation in sanitation, particularly in clean out-of-place (COP) processes. COP, a method of cleaning items by removing the equipment from its operational area for cleaning, requires dismantling equipment before washing in a designated cleaning station using an automated system.

“Clean out of place can reduce the staffing needs while improving throughput and reliability during cleaning procedures,” Downer said.

Efficiencies of automation benefit organizations as they look to accommodate hard-to-fill sanitation positions and offer workers more personal space in accordance with social distancing measures.

A cleaning method like COP also reduces the consumption of water and energy, lowers repeated exposure to chemistry, eliminates CIP-related bottlenecks, improves quality control and reduces operational costs. All of these can be seen as benefits as organizations look to highlight in-house sustainability measures.

Sani-Matic has also witnessed an increased demand in centralized data recording and Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) dashboards regarding sanitation. OEE, a lean manufacturing tool and best practice, is used for measuring plant productivity and offers increased ability to have secure, real-time remote access and effectiveness. Centralized data recording places all records in one place to allow an employee/staff, with the right credentials, secure remote access to critical information in real time, a convenience for those working off-site.

Looking forward, predictions for ongoing labor shortages, labor cost increases, demands for recordkeeping and repeatable sanitation results will require increased investment in training, digitization and automation as the industry looks to elevate a cohesive culture of food safety. The building of such a culture is guided in part by the US Food and Drug Administration’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint, which centers around a food safety culture as one of its four core elements.

The food safety culture-building initiative will require communication not only up and down the chain of command but also across a food manufacturing organization, including multi-departmental input concerning sanitation practices in production and non-production areas. As the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) points out, this industry is a starting point for many new Americans and foreign workers. Thus, it’s critical that food safety and sanitation initiatives are also created and presented to employees throughout the organization in a way that improves comprehension and initiative.

“Two of the keys to ensuring a safe food supply are a strong food defense plan and support for a culture of food safety,” Biegel said. “Assessing new vulnerabilities and updating the food defense plan is critical to ensuring a safe food supply.”

Sanitation resources

AIB International continues to diversify its work in food safety/quality to provide training, inspections and consulting and certification services. The organization offers manufacturing facilities various courses to build employee understanding of how sanitation, pest management and key prerequisite programs can improve the ability to meet customer expectations for quality and food safety.

In June, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), a founding member of the national COVID-19 Community Corp., hosted the Science of Sanitation 2.0. The webinar offered an in-depth look at critical factors for effective sanitation, including an overview of equipment hygienic design and microbiological risk. Information included how to use hygienic design in the establishment of facility master sanitation schedules and validation of established frequencies for optimum hygienic control.

This year, the FDA proposed to establish additional traceability recordkeeping requirements for persons who manufacture, process, pack or hold foods the agency designated for inclusion on the Food Traceability List.

“The proposed rule, ‘Requirements for Additional Traceability Records for Certain Foods’ (Food Traceability Proposed Rule) is a key component of the FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint and would implement Section 204(d) of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA),” FDA said. “The proposed rule would create a standardized approach to traceability recordkeeping, paving the way for industry to adopt and leverage more digital, tech-enabled traceability systems both in the near term and the future.”