Q&A: 3 Ways to Know if the Facility Equipment is Really Clean and Food Safe

Question: I'm a sanitation manager. How do I know if my equipment is really clean and food safe?  

Answer: Sanitation managers don’t have an unlimited amount of time, money, or personnel, so planning is key. Sanitation efforts are typically manual labor, but they are necessary for food safety. So how do you verify that your sanitation practices are effective?

First, you need to take an internal look at your team. How well are they trained to conduct the cleaning tasks? If you haven’t already, review your Standard Sanitation Operating Procedures (SSOP). Do they incorporate the seven steps of sanitation for wet cleaning? These include:

  1. Inspection, identification, equipment breakdown
  2. Sweeping and flushing
  3. Washing and rinsing
  4. Sanitizing
  5. Rinsing/air drying
  6. Verification
  7. Validation

The sanitation team must know the exact steps to conduct to ensure the SSOP is followed and the required level of cleanliness achieved. If the team is not well trained and members don’t know their assigned responsibilities, it will show in the verification or validation process; or worse yet — in a customer complaint.

Effective sanitation is a balance between safety, effectiveness, and speed at which the team can complete a task. Improving SSOPs and providing continued training will help accomplish this.

Sanitation incorporates two basic steps: cleaning to remove visual soil, and sanitizing to reduce pathogenic, potential spoilage, and indicator bacteria to an acceptable level. There are three methods you might incorporate to ensure your sanitation practices are effective:

1. Visual Inspection. Visual inspection is a tried-and-true method that provides a big picture of whether or not the equipment is visually free of soil and food debris. Visual inspections also can help identify other issues, such as metal-to-metal wear or conveyor fatigue. But it has some downsides. If the equipment looks clean, it may still have significant bacteria presence that could be a food safety concern. You cannot tell if a sanitizer has reduced the microbial load by looking at the equipment. Visual inspections are also subjective, and variations can occur depending on the individual conducting the inspection.

2. Microbial Testing. This includes pathogen detection as well as indicator bacteria. The key advantage of microbiological testing is to measure the effectiveness of sanitation. You can vary your collection device, hydro swab, culture swab, etc., depending on where you are sampling. This allows you to evaluate the effectiveness of cleaning in niche or hard-to-inspect areas or areas where soil and food tend to accumulate, which could allow for the growth of bacteria. One of the limitations of microbial-testing programs is the turnaround time of the results. If you don’t have an on-site laboratory capable of conducting the tests, you’ll have to send samples to an off-site laboratory. At times, I’ve seen this type of testing incorporated into the environmental monitoring program. I suggest partnering with your quality assurance manager on the types of bacteria for which to test, the locations (based on risk to the product), and the frequency of testing.

3. ATP Testing. You may already be using or considering this type of testing. It is not a microbial test. Basically, it measures the amount of relative light units (RLU) based on the presence of adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP) — an energy-carrying molecule found in the cells of all living things. Results are usually available within seconds. The more bacteria, the higher amount of ATP, the higher RLU measurement. Baseline thresholds for what is clean or dirty, and the type of surface, should be established for this program to be effective. There are several manufactures of ATP swabs and devices. If you’re considering purchasing these, I would suggest that you create a plant trial-testing scenario and evaluate each one based on that trial and your testing needs. A recent improvement includes a rapid-test swab for Enterobacteriaceae. Results are typically available within an eight-hour shift. It is something worth investigating to determine if this would add value to your program.

Each method has pros and cons. Visual inspections provide a wide scale but rapid means in detecting accumulation of soil and food debris on equipment. Microbial testing can aid in niche or harborage area identification of pathogenic and indicator bacteria. ATP technology can provide quick results regarding the effectiveness of sanitation on a piece of equipment. So, how do you verify that your sanitation practices are effective?

For a thorough program you need to investigate all three methods and how each could provide you with the necessary tools and information to ensure your sanitation program is accomplishing its goal.