Despite recently published data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that estimate the number of food-borne illnesses in the US is dramatically lower than reported in 1999, food manufacturers must remain vigilant in regards to food safety and sanitation. Recent CDC estimates reported 48 million Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year from food-borne illness. The agency said the new figures are more accurate than previous estimates because it used better data. (In 1999, CDC estimated that every year 76 million people fell ill, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.)

Sanitation is one of the main tools food manufacturers employ to ensure food safety, and it is a subject that gained prominence in the baking and snack industry because food safety and recall issues led to many eye-grabbing headlines in recent years. Food processors have leaned on equipment manufacturers to rethink designs to allow easier access and sanitation.

Joe Stout, who founded Commercial Food Sanitation LLC this past year after 28 years with Kraft Foods, most recently as the director of global product protection, sanitation and hygienic design, cares passionately about sanitation and sanitary design.Baking & Snackasked him about the key issues relating to sanitation and where the industry currently stands on these matters, including what can be done to increase efforts to ensure food safety through better sanitation.

Baking & Snack: On a 1-to-10 scale, with 10 being the best, how would you rate the baking and snack industry's improvement when it comes to sanitation, first, and the sanitary design of equipment? And why?

Joe Stout:My preference is not to use a scale rating. I think evaluations should be more in line with continuous improvement for sanitation or sanitary design. Having been exposed to meat, dairy and low-moisture baked products and snacks in my career, I cannot help but compare progress in the food industry by segments in both sanitation and sanitary design. So in the past 18 months to two years, I think the baking and snack industry has made great progress compared with the other categories. It’s a jumpstart, and we all know that the way to win is to start with enthusiasm, temper it with good technical and business knowledge, and you will have better and better designs. It’s a long race and with the continuous improvement model the learning never ends, we just get better and better. Dairy and meat are clearly ahead in sanitation and designs because they got a head start, but the baking and snack industry is on a roll and gaining enthusiasm. I would like to add that this is not only about sanitation and sanitary design, it is about running a plant in an effective and efficient way to deliver competitively priced products that are food safe and satisfy customers and consumers. When a plant runs well, all are happy!

What are the areas where the industry needs to improve the most?

Great question, that is difficult to answer specifically. For context on this question, think of the best car available for purchase in 1981 — just 30 years ago — and then the best car available today. Likewise, the question of the best sanitation program in 1980 would be dramatically different than the best sanitation program in 2011. Because it takes time to evolve with equipment and facility designs between manufacture and installation, one would need to think of the best sanitation programs and equipment that meets and ever changing definition of what is the best sanitation or best design. Without being too specific on types of equipment, I would say accessibility of equipment is an improvement area that will facilitate so many areas including cleaning, inspections, sampling and even pre-op inspections. The processing industry encourages equipment suppliers and manufacturers to make contact surfaces accessible so we can get in there to clean and visually look, see and sample. If you clean it with a scrub brush, typically, you then need to sample [that surface] to make sure it is clean.

Does that also apply to how engineers lay out lines?

The layout of a line is so important. Engineers can be heroes in sanitary design with the right layout. Minimizing conveyors, having adequate space, allowing for good separation between lines — all important stuff. We need to avoid difficult to clean designs. For example, with some installations, you see lines elevated 20 ft from the floor without platforms. To clean these, you need a high lift and clearance to move around, which is infrequently available because equipment is usually in the way. In these cases, it is really difficult to get elevation to see what is going on in that line and/or to get the access to clean, and when you do clean, all of the equipment below is impacted from the cleaning, whether wet or dry cleaning techniques are used.

OEMs speak about changes to equipment design to make sanitation easier and quicker. What have been the greatest advances in this area for bakery equipment?

I like to hear the OEMs talk about sanitation and making it faster and easier. I then know they understand the challenges and opportunities. I think many OEMs have recognized that sanitary design is important, and that is the first step in this process. As I walked the floor at the 2010 IBIE show in Las Vegas, it was amazing how many OEMs were talking about the sanitary design of their equipment relative to what we are doing with the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s “Equipment Principles of Design.” Some of the advances are in the areas of accessibility and ease of disassembly to gain access for cleaning. A few companies have done well in terms of reducing the amount of time needed to clean a piece of equipment because of accessibility. One OEM that makes dough handling equipment has done a tremendous job in redesigning its equipment and rethinking what it does with the end user in mind. This makes me very excited about the potential of the industry and where we are going.

What tricks of the trade can sanitation workers use to expedite cleaning of equipment, or is it wrong to consider taking any shortcuts when dealing with sanitation?

If one truly takes a shortcut and eliminates a cleaning step or shortens it to render it ineffective, that could result in a quality or food safety issue to the peril of the company. We do not like shortcuts. On the other hand, many improvements can be made that enhance sanitation, which allows cleaning to be completed faster. In all functions in a manufacturing environment, it’s incumbent upon the leaders and employees to improve the operation — better quality, better performance — and it’s the same way in sanitation. It is our reponsibility as good company stewards to look for ways to do a better job and to do it more effectively and efficiently.

There are many ways the industry has changed the sanitation process over the years. Part of it was driven by a desire to do it faster — not a shortcut — but with the intent of reducing the time it takes to clean a production line. Let’s face it. When you do sanitation, you are not making food, which generates revenue. The idea of all plants is to make product and generate revenue — otherwise, the plant would close. Sanitary design is a facilitator of more efficient cleaning. If equipment is easy to clean because of ease of disassembly or accessibility, it helps us shorten the time for cleaning. With a better design, we can really fine-tune a process and make champions of our production and quality departments. This approach marries effectiveness and efficiency.

The industry has also done Kaizen events to facilitate more efficient changeovers. The goal with Kaizen events is to be both effective and efficient in sanitation. So in summary on this one — no shortcuts, but take the time to ensure a both effective and efficient process. This is our goal!

How can bakeries use fewer chemicals or cleaning solvents during sanitation?

Bakeries typically don’t use a lot of chemicals for cleaning compared with other food industry segments. Bakery costs for sanitation chemicals are probably about one-tenth of what they might be for a meat or dairy plant. However, it is so important that bakeries clean by dry methods. As soon as you introduce water, you have an increased risk of pathogen growth and other microbial activity. A bakery is better off if it is kept as dry as possible.

What are the nastiest or worst areas to clean in a bakery? What are the most time-intensive?

I would say the most difficult areas to clean in a bakery, and by the way very important areas to clean, are those used to load out food waste that typically goes to animal feed. There is typically a significant amount of damaged material that goes out for animal food. These areas seem to be an afterthought and oftentimes could be an area for pathogen entry into the plant. These areas are typically located near the trash dock, and if not maintained properly, they are potential areas by which microbial activity could enter the bakery.

As for the most time-intensive cleaning in a bakery, I would say allergen changeovers. This is one reason we encourage better designs in a bakery. To clean for an allergen changeover effectively and efficiently, we need accessibility and easily cleaned contact surfaces. When you have an allergen changeover in a bakery, in most cases you start at the mixing department and work your way through from the mixers to dough dumps, laminators, through ovens, a series of conveyors, bucket elevators and finally to packaging equipment. It takes significant time because of the expansive areas to be cleaned and the level of difficulty.

How can bakers and snack producers reduce or eliminate wet cleaning in favor of dry cleaning?

One of the things we push for is better designs so we can do a more thorough job of cleaning without the use of water. If you think about laminators and packaging belts, the best design is an easily cleaned belt. I’m a big fan of single-filament, positive-drive belts, which if installed correctly are very cleanable. They don’t fray like some multilayer, multi-component belts do. This is a great innovation that can be applied to bakeries that allows flexibility for removal belts because they are positive-drive. It is a great improvement for bakeries to use this type of belt versus layered belts, modular belts or even cotton belts. They are much more easily cleaned, and therefore, you can clean effectively without wet cleaning. Some bakeries must do wet cleaning in some areas because of access challenges for difficult to clean areas. This is where better designs can help.

How does sustainability, if at all, dovetail into sanitation and sanitary design?

Sanitation itself is not a sustainability friendly function. Sustainability considers everything from the electricity and chemicals used in a plant to even the building and its effective use. When cleaning is in process, we have lights on and use chemicals, water and energy to clean. The most sanitation sustainable building and process would be one that didn’t require cleaning, because time, water and energy would not be needed. If we analyze how we clean and the time it takes to clean a plant, and we use the minimal time possible to clean effectively, we could add more production capacity and, therefore, can minimize the need to add a new line or a new plant, which takes natural resources and open green space. These are goals some companies have that relate to optimal sanitary design of equipment and facilities which will maximize production up time, through sanitation effectiveness and efficiency, and therefore, minimize the need for a new line or plant. Besides being sustainable, it’s a good way to do business.

In recent years, many bakeries have begun producing more products using whole-wheat, whole-grain and specialty flours. What, if any, sanitation challenges do bakeries need to be concerned about when working with these flours as opposed to dealing mostly with enriched white flour?

One of the tools in place in bakeries to control foreign material in the flour stream is flour sifters, which do an excellent job of sifting out foreign material of all sorts. With the traditional enriched white flour, it can be sifted through a fine screen — typically 30 mesh nylon screen — because the particle sizes are small. This is an excellent device to alert a facility if foreign material such as glass, insect, gasket pieces from rail cars, etc. could have entered the flour stream. It sets up an early alert so corrective actions can be initiated to remediate the root cause. The challenge with whole-wheat, whole-grain and specialty flours is the particle size is larger than what will fit through a traditional enriched white flour screen. Therefore, larger screen sizes especially with the whole-grain ingredients are used that may not remove some of the material typically removed with the traditional enriched white flour equipment. Also, there is the possibility that some of the ingredients because of the larger size are added directly to the mixers without sifting. When using larger particle size flour, programs should be established to monitor for potential foreign material contaminants with suppliers and internal to the plant monitoring procedures to ensure quality and food safety.

Some flours, such as soy flour if introduced into a system, contain allergens. Once multiple allergens are introduced into a dry handling system used for flours, there needs to be a validation of cleaning procedures as the line changes from one allergen to another or to a non-allergen-containing ingredient. You have to prove that you can clean it, or you will have a proliferation of cross-contact labeling, or worse yet, an unlabeled allergen in finished product.

What impact will the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act that was passed by Congress and signed by President Obama have on bakeries’ sanitation procedures and practices?

Great question, but it will take time to sort out all of the specific details, and we will need to understand how the FDA will promulgate and finalize legislation required by the Food Safety Modernization Act. It is safe to say that if it seems like a good sanitation and design idea today, it will be a better idea in the near future and, in fact, may become mandatory. The act may require that records be available to support compliance. In addition, the act includes allergen controls, so we may see more scrutiny on Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs) used for allergen-related cleaning — especially changeovers.

What are the biggest challenges the industry faces in the year ahead?

I’ve been excited about how the industry has moved forward in the past two years in the area of sanitary design. People are paying attention to the details and are seeing and learning from recalls, and the OEMs are getting engaged with their customers to be part of the solution. Overall, there is a greater awareness about food safety and sanitary design than I have seen in 30 years. The biggest challenge to the baking and snack industry going forward is to keep and, in fact, accelerate the current momentum and to do it for the pure sake of continuous improvement versus as a reaction to the latest recall. It needs to be an ongoing program within the industry that the industry works toward versus a reaction to the latest recall or FDA activity. It needs to come from within all of us in the industry.

If the industry could accomplish only one thing to improve sanitation and food safety, what would it be and why?

From a tactical perspective, if we could make equipment more accessible for cleaning that would solve half of our challenges. When we fill out the Grocery Manufacturers Association design checklist for the 10 principles of sanitary design for equipment, many of the issues are related to the lack of easy access to clean the clean the equipment. So if we are able, as an industry to make equipment and product contact surfaces more accessible, that would be a significant equipment improvement.

From a strategic perspective, I would like to have all industry participants become familiar with and understand the principles of facility and equipment design and fully take advantage of the learnings as they design buildings and equipment. After all, to make safe food, we start with a recipe, and the first ingredient is a clean plant and clean equipment, which is not guaranteed unless we have good designs. When there is industry understanding and full use of the principles, there will be contagious enthusiasm for continuous improvement in sanitary design.

Read more about how to comply with the new Food Safety Modernization Act