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The real alternative to chlorine-based cleaning: as the EU and US FDA increasingly limit the use of aggressive sanitising chemicals, and particularly those based on chlorine, the food processing industry has a pressing need to find effective alternatives.

PETER TOWNLEY, Managing Director of Steritrox Ltd has led a concerted effort to develop a sanitising system that doesn't rely on harmful and expensive chemicals but still delivers maximum killing power.

After a comprehensive research programme a solution is now commercially available that effectively uses ozone-based technology to sanitise any food processing plant in a fast, safe and controlled process.

In this article Peter explains in detail why he believes that there is now a real alternative to chlorine-based cleaning.

Hygiene managers in food processing plants are constantly battling to prevent a wide range of potentially harmful micro-organisms from contaminating products. A variety of chemicals have been traditionally used to systematically disinfect all aspects of the manufacturing environment from wails, floors, surfaces and equipment right through to the product itself.

The arsenal available to fight this battle has progressively changed over the years as new and more intensive chemicals are developed only to fall foul of the increasingly stringent environmental and health and safety legislation.

One of the biggest issues currently facing the industry is that most high care areas continue to rely on a range of chemicals, including various forms of chlorine (chlorine dioxide, sodium hypochlorite, etc), branded forms of quaternary ammonium compounds and even bromine or iodine based products, to maintain an acceptable hygiene regime. The long-term use of some of these products is now beginning to come under close scrutiny from the environmental lobby.

The sanitising power of these chemicals is not in dispute but the side-effects are now increasingly adjudged to be just too great.

When chlorine-based compounds, for example, combine with organic residues the result could potentially be extremely harmful to people. Indeed, research has shown that in certain extreme cases some of these chemicals can develop into carcinogenic and teratogenic compounds that could prove extremely harmful to unborn children for example.

Attempts have clearly been made to reduce these issues by using such compounds as PH-buffered chlorine dioxide systems, but these still rely on chlorine and therefore only reduce the immediate risk, not necessarily the long-term impact.

Potential side-effects and significant limitations mean that the use of these chemical-based antimicrobial and biocidal processes is being limited by the EU and US FDA and dramatically reducing the sanitising options available to the industry. The industry needs a viable alternative and there is one sanitising system that can no longer be ignored.

Advanced oxidation has over a long period consistently demonstrated the killing power needed to meet the industry's strict standards, but it has in the past been largely misunderstood and poorly implemented. Modern process techniques however have now made it possible to use basic forms of energy to turn molecular oxygen into highly reactive ozone, which in turn reacts with humidity to produce naturally occurring compounds including hydroperoxides, super oxide ions and hydroxyl free radicals.

These controllable compounds are all highly effective antimicrobial and biocidal agents, and will also efficiently destroy even extreme odours ultimately breaking down naturally to leave no detectable residues.

In itself advanced oxidation is not new technology and has been widely used in the past. However, the problem has always been managing the ozone system to deliver a controlled killing action that is compliant with the stringent operational environment that is essential in a modern food production factory.

After an intensive and lengthy research programme, Steritrox has developed a sophisticated sanitising system that addresses these issues head-on, providing the enhanced microbial killing power associated with advanced oxidation without the need for extended production down-time previously experienced with ozone-based fogging systems or the harmful side-effects of the aggressive chemical systems.

The process actively controls the production of an ozone based vapour that quickly permeates all elements within the production area with a highly efficient biocidal atmosphere.

The actual sanitising process is automatically managed by a fail-safe computerised controller and transforms naturally occurring elements contained in the air into a highly reactive vapour which is rich in free radicals (free radicals attack molecules by capturing electrons and permanently modifying chemical structures).

Once the sanitising programme is started and the operator leaves the room, the Steritrox vapour diffuses into every corner of the room, bathing all exposed surfaces and penetrating hidden areas and fabrics such as drains and air conditioning vents.

The atmosphere is sustained for a short period of time, typically less than one hour, during which time all bacteria are destroyed. The vapour in the atmosphere is then neutralised using a quenching agent. This process produces a further burst of free radicals which not only increases the killing potential but also uses up all the remaining Steritrox vapour.

This removal of any residual vapours makes it safe to enter the room within a few minutes of the process finishing. The only residuals following this process are water and fresh air.

This new system gives the operator complete control over the sanitising process and in most cases means the whole procedure takes less than an hour from start to finish.

Initial testing at both Campden and Chorleywood Food Research Association and Manchester University over a range of eight major organisms (Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pyogenes, Bacillus cereus, Staphylococcus epidermidis, Listeria monocytogenes, and Enterococcus faecalis) has been supported by extensive field trials of the Steritrox process carried out throughout 2004 and has clearly proven the system to be extremely effective, efficient and robust.

Understandably individual food processing companies are invariably reluctant to share data about their sanitising regimes publicly as any data is highly confidential and in most cases extremely sensitive. Therefore, the following trial data and live case study information is presented on a strictly un-attributable basis.

A major food processing company recently started using the Steritrox process to sanitise its production facility in the Midlands--the results speak for themselves.

In a production area some 1800 cubic metres in size full of production equipment the Steritrox process completed its sanitising cycle within an hour and consistently achieved a TVC kill rate in excess of log 3.

The trial company faced the same issues most large food processing business face; a potentially constant attack by a range of harmful micro-organisms that need to be continually eradicated and managed to maintain high levels of cleanliness within the factory environment.

Previous manual sanitising processes were labour intensive, expensive and largely indiscriminate. In addition constant changes in the acceptable practices enforced by its key customers meant that the company was regularly changing the chemicals used to sanitise its high care areas.

After researching a wide range of vapour-based options it was clear there were many products that would offer a high degree of de-contamination, but they were either highly toxic or needed unacceptably long periods of down-time after application before it was safe to re-enter the room.

Figure 1 below shows the actual sanitising results over the first five consecutive days of using the Steritrox process in their high care food preparation unit.


TVC swabs were taken at a number of high risk locations immediately before and after sanitising on each day and sent to an independent UKAS registered laboratory for processing.

The data clearly illustrates that on a day-to-day basis a high level of microbial eradication was achieved. More importantly however within five days of initial application of the Steritrox process the background micro count was dramatically improving as the penetrative action of the Steritrox vapour permeated into previously hard-to-get-to places and aggressively attacked the biofilm in the room itself.

Three instances of Listeria were found on the first three nights of treatment. All were eradicated on each occurrence and significantly the hitherto persistent infection did not reoccur on days four and five.

The Steritrox process provides a solution that delivers maximum killing power within a short period of time, allowing the factory to return to full production within an hour. At the end of the cycle there are no chemical residues to be disposed of or treated.

In addition to the extensive trials outlined the Steritrox process is now being used by several food processing companies in the UK as part of their 'business-as-usual' sanitising procedures.

So the solution is out there and being successfully implemented every day. The food industry now has available a sanitising system that provides complete peace of mind without any expensive or harmful side effects.

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Title Annotation:equipment & services
Comment:The real alternative to chlorine-based cleaning: as the EU and US FDA increasingly limit the use of aggressive sanitising chemicals, and particularly those based on chlorine, the food processing industry has a pressing need to find effective alternatives.(equipment & services)
Publication:Frozen & Chilled Foods
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2005
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