Bakeries and snack manufacturing plants must ensure the foods they produce are safe for consumers. While much of that responsibility rests upon the sanitors who clean the equipment and manufacturing areas, the entire company has an obligation for food safety.

Joe Stout, founder and CEO of Commercial Food Sanitation LLC, Libertyville, IL, has more than 35 years of experience in quality and sanitation, including nearly 30 years at Kraft Foods, where he spend his final 10 years as global director of product protection, sanitation and hygienic design. Mr. Stout is committed to the improving quality, food safety and operational effectiveness by providing ongoing support and leadership in sanitation.

Baking & Snack: How can companies prepare for the level of perfection expected from their customers and consumers?

They need to step back; take a holistic look at their processes, facilities, equipment, employees and procedures; and honestly appraise where they need to improve. Once shortfalls are identified, they need to work on a continuous improvement basis to repair any shortfall. As an industry, we need to evaluate our processes, and instead of routinely doing things the same way, we should conscientiously evaluate where we can do better and practice continuously until we get it perfect and then keep practicing.

If we try this, I guarantee we will surpass our own expectations. The problem today is we are just keeping up with activity, and we don’t have or take the time to work on continuous improvement. We need to be honest with ourselves and get going if we are going to improve to the degree needed. We can no longer rely on the equalizer, aka the oven, to take care of all of our micro risks.

What equipment design changes over the past few years would you consider the most critical to improving food safety and why?

I consider accessibility to be most important to effective cleaning. There is the old saying, “If you can’t see it, you cannot reach it, clean it or sample it.” It is key to conceptualize the right equipment design. This is especially valid in baking and snack manufacturing where we use dry techniques to clean. Dry techniques count on hand cleaning, and in situations where you cannot see, touch or sample — or even complete thorough pre-op inspections — accessibility is a must have in new equipment designs. The benefit of accessibility to food safety in baking and snack processing is clearly with allergen cleaning and sampling.

How do clean-in-place (CIP) systems compare with worker-oriented sanitation?

CIP systems are really terrific. Think of them like a dishwasher at home. You put the dishes in and start the cycle, and an hour later, you have clean, sanitary and dry dishes. Unfortunately, these are not widely used in bakeries or snack plants. However, a similar approach is used for cleaning automated multiple scale systems in bakeries. In this case, scale parts and buckets are removed and placed into a cabinet washer. These are not truly CIP but are wet automated cleaning systems. Both a CIP system and a cabinet washer provide a validated, systematic, verified and routinely effective method of cleaning. Unfortunately, we find more variation of effectiveness and efficiency in cleaning with worker-oriented cleaning methods. This, in large part, is due to training issues and a lack of follow-up to drive perfection in cleaning.

What pathogens can exist in bakeries that many bakers may not be aware will live in these environments, and how can bakeries address those situations?

For many years, the oven has been accepted as the kill step in the baking process. In one of my experiences in the industry, when I was working in the dairy business, at an industry meeting, a long-term bakery sanitarian told me that he had something in bakery that I did not have in dairy. He called it the equalizer — meaning the oven.

It leveled the playing field and guaranteed safe products. Just because the oven is an official kill step does not mean the food would be considered safe and unadulterated because it went through the equalizer. Today, we need to think about the entire plant, including raw and ready-to-eat (RTE) areas.

How is the process for dealing with allergens different from that of avoiding pathogen contamination? In what ways do the two processes overlap?

In many ways, they would share common preventive controls such as separation (raw from RTE and allergen from non-allergen) and effective cleaning techniques that would remove each from being a contaminant. I think the real difference is that we have sanitizers that will kill pathogens on contact, while we have no such magic bullet to eliminate allergens.

When purchasing equipment, what should a plant seek in sanitary design?

Most important, as a plant starts to think of a redesign, is to be linked to engineering, quality, operations, sanitation and procurement. The best sanitary project development processes I have seen were generated by cross-functional teams. They all had input into the design and ownership of the finished product. Sanitation must clean it, quality needs to monitor it, operations must run it and procurement must buy it. To get the best design for food safety, productivity, quality, cleanability and price, they must agree on what is most important and work together strategically to get it.

What is the best advice you have ever given or heard about improving food safety?

Perhaps it would be to take a different approach to how we think about contact surfaces. We need to revere and respect product contact surfaces. Contact surfaces are more than a length of belt or a piece of stainless steel; they are, in fact, an intersect point that transfers our food to the dinner plates of our consumers. If we treat these surfaces with the respect due them and our consumers, we will be on our way to perfection in food safety. Consumers deserve it.