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Working at cross-purposes.

Cross-contamination is a concern in many plants, especially where meat is cooked. Here are some avoidance strategies.

Law enforcement isn't the only area where good detective skills and solid police work are essential. Those abilities also are indispensable when it comes to eliminating cross-contamination within food plants by dangerous food-borne pathogens.

Identifying all potential hiding places for pathogens like Listeria monocytogenes, rooting them out and preventing them from multiplying and migrating to finished product areas is becoming essential in today's climate of heightened food safety concerns.

Accomplishing that, however, is no small feat. It requires a thorough analysis of plant logistics and operations, identification of all possible contamination points and strict adherence to practices that limit the growth and spread of organisms that can turn food into a ticking time bomb.

Pathogen-proofing a plant requires attention to both structural and procedural detail. Plants that are able to physically separate areas where raw product-- usually the source of pathogens--is handled and those where products are further processed are ahead of the game. Even more important, however, is the human element: the ability to control how, when and where products, people and equipment that can be vehicles for organisms move through the plant. That becomes essential when it's cost prohibitive to sufficiently separate raw and processed areas.

Separation anxiety

"There's an increasing emphasis on being more vigilant than ever in this area," says Jim Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation, whose member meat processing plants face perhaps the biggest microbial-control challenge of any food processing sector. "Most of our ready-to-eat plants do, in fact, already have separation of raw and processed areas, but the issue of cross-contamination is still there because it can move from one area to another very easily. So every plant needs to have a control program that minimizes or eliminates that possibility."

Representative of what many plants are doing today, Empire Kosher Poultry, Mifflintown, Pa., ratcheted up its cross-contamination control effort earlier this year by reconfiguring some of the physical areas of its plant and instituting strict new procedures.

"We were finding microbes on maintenance tools, garments, shoes, hoses and in places you wouldn't even think to look, so we determined that the only way to prevent contamination was to do a total separation of raw and processed areas," says chief operating officer James Reed.

The increased separation involved such things as establishing separate lunch, break room and locker room areas for raw and processed product workers; instituting one-way traffic patterns where possible; installing foot baths, hand cleaning and drying devices at the entrance to the processing area; and requiring the use of gloves and face masks, Reed says.

"Basically, we've totally isolated the further processing and packaging areas from the raw product area," he says. "We now have a full clean-room environment for the finished goods area, and only those who are finished goods people can be in there."

The company has even gone as far as severely restricting materials that might harbor pathogens from the processing area. Wooden pallets, and even spices used in preparing the products, are now banned from the area. In fact, the company now uses only reusable and washable plastic pallets to move products internally, he says. As an added precaution against outside contamination, Empire also has discontinued public tours of the facility, Reed says.

In the eight months since the contamination control work was completed with expenditures of about $40,000 on capital equipment, Reed says the plant has virtually eliminated what had been a mounting problem.

"Our total plate counts now are zero or next to nothing, whereas before they were all over the map," he says. "The product that now comes out of our chillers is very clean."

Essential to Empire's successful effort was an ability to understand in detail all the angles and elements of the cross-contamination threats unique to its own facility. That's something experts say is crucial before any food plant embarks on a remedial control effort, large or small.

Track the trucks

"You don't want to get into any half-baked solutions where you may, for instance, do a lot of fancy work with employees' boots to prevent them from tracking contamination into a clean room, but at the same time you allow forklifts to run back and forth," says Alan Oser, director of technical services for Hatfield Quality Meats, Hatfield, Pa. "It's essential to know where your contamination sites are and then isolate them."

Understanding all the potential ways that pathogens can be transported throughout a plant also is critical, Oser says. Foot traffic and equipment are ready vehicles for transporting contamination directly to product. "You need to be aware of the tendency of this secondary chain contamination to go from equipment to employees and then to product, and of the actions that need to be taken to break that cycle."

Another often overlooked vehicle for pathogen transport is the air in the plant.

"Air quality becomes a large issue if you have a negative air flow that can bring pathogens into a clean area," he says. "If, say, there's a trash dock at the end of a hallway in the plant, that can be a potential problem. You need to determine the impact of the air flow. In the end it may be something as simple as keeping doors closed or using an alternate entrance."

Oser also recommends that plants follow Empire's example of maintaining strict separation of raw and processed areas. "A plant should mandate the use of different uniforms, coats and gloves for workers in these areas, something that can be aided by color-coding clothing to allow for immediate confirmation," he says.

Plants also should stay abreast of new contamination-control technology, Oser says. While many fixes are relatively simple, some plants may benefit from improved sanitizing equipment. Oser is a firm believer in the use of sanitizing foam on the floor of the entrances to finished product areas because of its certainty of application.

"We're experimenting with one of these units, which activate when the door opens," Oser says. "You have to walk across the foam, which then spreads it around the room. It's also good because, unlike foot baths--which can become quickly depleted in their sanitizing ability--every treatment is fresh."

Floor facts

A new set of "Guidelines to Prevent Post-Processing Contamination from Listeria Monocytogenes," published by the International Association of Milk, Food and Environmental Sanitarians, suggests clean and dry floors are preferred to the use of foot baths or foams. If foot baths are used, the guidelines--published in the August 1999 issue of Dairy, Food and Environmental Sanitation--state that they "must be properly maintained to prevent their becoming a source of contamination. Foot bath solutions should contain stronger concentrations of sanitizer than would be used on equipment."

The guidelines, authored by representatives of companies and associations such as Armour Swift-Eckrich, Campbell Soup Co. and the National Food Processors Association, offer a highly detailed contamination control checklist for processing operations. Among the guidelines' suggestions are keeping the flow of raw ingredients to the finished product linear, compartmentalizing operations to enhance separation of raw and processed product, and control of traffic flow between the two areas. The guidelines also emphasize regular and proper cleaning of everything from drains, floors and walls to waste containers, condensate drip pans and HVAC equipment.

Despite the best efforts at control, however, the guidelines suggest that a totally clean environment is unachievable. "Extensive efforts to control Listeria can reduce the amount and level of contamination, but cannot, given currently available technology, eradicate it from the processing environment,"

While that may be true, Oser says most food plant operators can significantly improve contamination control efforts with relatively simple procedures.

"Breaking the cycle of contamination isn't rocket science," he says. "The main need is to identify what the hazards are and then develop workable solutions. In many cases you can't rebuild a facility to have excellent product flow, so you have to work within the design constraints of the plant to minimize it."
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Author:Zind, Tom
Publication:Food Processing
Date:Oct 1, 1999
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