At a recent industry meeting of food safety and quality professionals, I asked the audience for a show of hands when I enthusiastically inquired to see how many of them had aspirations of following a career path in sanitation. The question was followed by silence and soon laughter after none of them raised their hands.

I quickly regained my composure from this embarrassing moment and passionately defended the virtue, benefits and value of sanitation. I’ll admit that I am very passionate when it comes to sanitation and everything for which it stands. I am proud of what proper sanitation practices have provided to public health, food safety and the quality of life in today’s society.

Good sanitation practices have brought clean water — produced from waste treatment systems that do not pollute the environment with pathogenic bacteria — and food processing that enables production in a safe pathogen-free environment. This leads to a safe food supply for everyone, a benefit not only to the U.S. but also to the world, where proper sanitation practices have improved the standard of living and life expectancy.

According to WaterAid, an international nongovernmental organization dedicated to transforming lives by improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation in the world’s poorest communities, nearly 40% of the world’s population lacks access to even basic sanitation. Furthermore, the organization stated, “Inadequate sanitation may be the biggest killer of children under the age of five, and yet it remains the most neglected of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) sectors. Every year, 9.7 million children die before reaching their fifth birthday. The existing evidence points to poor sanitation being a major factor in approximately 2.4 million child deaths annually.”

The sanitation we talk about in the Western world is a refinement and evolution of what is referenced above. It starts with clean water and separated waste water systems and evolves to proper sanitation in our food plants, grocery stores and homes.

Much of the success and refinement in sanitation comes from dedicated people consistently following procedures while always looking for continuous improvement. These professionals include sanitation employees, supervisors, managers and quality professionals such as those public health officials and sanitarian health inspectors who train employees at food service outlets on making food safe.

We rely on these individuals to help us live longer and happier lives, free from food-borne illnesses. It is important as an industry that we do our part to protect our consumer base.

When I was global director of product protection, sanitation and hygienic design at Kraft Foods, I insisted on visiting plants during cleaning to observe the process and converse with the individuals managing and doing the work. It was a key to success as well as a learning experience. It made me realize and remember the value and dedication of the folks who do the work every day.

Here are a few suggestions that will support recognition of those who help us start the day with clean process equipment and a clean environment.

• Initiate a mindset in your facility and company that sanitation is the first thing done to prepare for making food . It sets the table rather than clears it. It starts the production run in the right way.

• Given that sanitation is the first thing done, join in the growing celebration of January as sanitation month and recognize sanitation employees for their hard work.

• When operations, sanitation and quality visitors come to the plant from your headquarters, introduce them to the sanitation leaders during their working hours.

• Visit the plant during clean-up, and learn what your sanitation folks do to get the job done.

• Finally, provide your sanitation crew the recognition they deserve, and make everyone in the company aware of their value.

Then give a hug to all involved in sanitation — well maybe not, but a thank you is certainly in order! We should take the time to recognize the folks who do the work on a daily basis. This allows processing plants, restaurants and other food preparation sites to start the day with clean equipment, a clean environment and ultimately safe food for you and your families.

Thank you, sanitation employees!

Joe Stout was director of global product protection, sanitation and hygienic design at Kraft Foods, where he worked for 28 years until his retirement in March. Mr. Stout recently formed a consulting business, Commercial Food Sanitation LLC, to provide sanitation and hygienic design consulting for the food industry.