Sanitation made simple

by Joe Stout
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During a Christmas past, one of my daughters received a knitting kit with several rolls of yarn and needles accompanied with knitting directions. This daughter was actually quite intrigued by the thought of making herself an attractive scarf for the approaching cold, windy months in Chicago. Shortly after opening, she began reading the directions but looked irritated and puzzled by them. 

A few weeks later, I was working with a customer who had ordered a new production line. The customer specified labeling certain products without the “may contain” statement if they didn’t contain allergens but were made in a facility that worked with allergenic ingredients in other products. This required the baker to perform an allergen clean following each line changeover. The first question for me was where to start? How about giving good directions for cleaning with clear guidance and communicating them during training sessions using effective techniques? I thought of my daughter, her knitting directions, her puzzled look and the frustration poor directions caused.

Cleaning any production line is a difficult chore, but cleaning it to an allergen-free level is a difficult chore times five. This is especially true for a bakery line that has a large footprint and hard-to-clean processes and equipment such as mixers, lane dividers, bucket elevators, ovens, conveyors and packaging conveyors. Additionally, there is environmental cleaning that needs to occur to ensure the prevention of cross contamination. Unlabeled nut ingredients make up about 95% of allergic reactions with consumers and are the most life-threatening, so perfection in cleaning is critical.

The first step with this sanitation challenge is to define the sweet spot — the combination of cleaning methods and tools to ensure a scientifically valid, effective and efficient cleaning process. In this case, it would require wet cleaning, dry cleaning and most likely a modification of both on some equipment. Assembled into a fully descriptive document, this is called a Sanitation Standard Operating Procedure (SSOP).

An SSOP is an accurate, clear and detailed standard process for the effective cleaning of each unit of food processing equipment (e.g. mixers and scales) and infrastructure (e.g. walls and floor drains). An effective SSOP is created using systematic, repeatable cleaning principles. It must be validated initially for effectiveness, and then the results are verified with each use to prove the SSOP was followed. The SSOP must be well-documented as the legal record of cleaning.

A well-written binder of SSOPs is the foundation for every effective and efficient sustainable sanitation program. It helps with planning a cleaning event and predicts the time needed to clean, the number of people required, and tools, utilities and total downtime involved for sanitation, maintenance, pre-op and so forth. A plan and procedure are needed to train employees effectively. If a plant needs to be clean, it starts with SSOPs so the cleaning process can be both effective and efficient.

The goal of the cleaning is to transition a plant from a soiled state to a clean state and thus enable production to start. As we do this, experience tells us there are no varied levels of clean. When asked if the plant is clean, we should never say, “Well, almost, except for …” This is unacceptable. Clean is clean, and there is no in-between. If your company and plant are going to win every day for food safety, the facility needs to be clean — period. Well-defined SSOPs and employees who understand and execute them perfectly pave the way for food safety. 

When creating an effective and efficient SSOP, it’s important to keep a few key points in mind.

Determine your end goal. What are you trying to accomplish? In this situation, it is to remove product residue, any flavor residues and all allergenic proteins to a non-detectable level as measured by an allergen test kit specific for the allergens of concern.   

Determine the most effective and efficient method for cleaning. The optimal way to begin is from scratch, using best industry practices. Observe practices and behaviors during cleaning. Look at methods used on an existing line during cleaning of a similar process and product to understand practices. This will give you an understanding of how it is currently done and the level of effectiveness and efficiency.

Engage sanitation employees in the process because they know everyday challenges. Find out what works well to solve current problems. Talk to the maintenance and personnel safety departments. What are their concerns with the methods used, watch-outs and hazards related to this task? Have there been any recordable personnel safety accidents?

Ensure all company and regulatory requirements are met. At times, facilities are good at incorporating plant and corporate policies into programs; however, regulatory requirements can get overlooked. Things like using approved sanitation or maintenance chemicals of the correct pH or monitoring the BOD of wastewater discharges can help avoid issues later on. 

Once you have completed preparations, you are ready to work on writing the SSOP. 

When writing the SSOP, know your audience. Visual aids can help shorten it and speed learning. A picture is worth 1,000 words. Re-read the SSOP as you write it to ensure it is understandable, and see if you could follow it. Explain scientific details simply so non-scientists can understand them. Keep it in accord with your audience’s capability. If poorly explained, it won’t be understood, and if not understood, it will not be used. 

The last tip is something we should practice routinely: Don’t assume you can leave out a small and obvious step or instruction. If it needs to happen, include the obvious. If not, although obvious, some may not know enough to include it, while others may follow the SSOP to the “T” and not include the obvious. 

In the end, you should have an SSOP for every cleaning task in your binder along with an index. While this may seem daunting, I would encourage you to set a goal for completion and take it one step at a time.

Your sanitation department may have diligent workers, but without the proper SSOPs and training, they may be working hard but cleaning ineffectively. It is like the old days when driving to a new location. You could take a map and call ahead for directions and, more often than not, still get lost. GPS units changed that, and well-thought-out SSOPs can avoid procedural errors. 

On the day after Christmas, my daughter was still pleased with her knitting gift but not with her knitting progress. As an accomplished learner, she figured out a solution through a YouTube video, which provided short but good directions. In a short lesson, she was on her way to perfect stitches for her scarf. It’s all about good directions and clear guidance communicated effectively, whether learning to knit or cleaning a bakery. In both cases, good direction and guidance saves time and frustration and makes for good attire and safe food.

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