When transitioning to ready-to-eat foods, operators must examine equipment for harborage points that could contain liquid. 

With the ever-growing demand for ready-to-eat (R.-T.-E.) foods, some processors are faced with the decision of converting their raw, par-baked or ready-to-cook (R.-T.-C.) process to R.-T.-E. This could be a daunting choice, and knowing where to start is the first major challenge.

A good first step is conducting a product risk assessment to determine if the existing microbial kill or reduction step will adequately eliminate the pathogen of concern. AIB International has published a number of calculators that can help. Once the process is validated, the risks for post-process contamination need to be examined. Various tools are available to help. Looking at the separation of raw and R.-T.-E. from building and equipment perspectives is a good starting point, especially if the current process requires a new or modified kill step. From here, the equipment located downstream from the oven needs to be assessed for potential microbial contamination.

Disassembling for deep or detailed clean is likely required to eliminate microbes from harborage points such as overlapping surfaces or sandwiches. Inspection will verify if harborage points contain liquid that may also be contaminated. Other potential sources of contamination that did not present a high risk for the raw products — but will for the new R.-T.-E. products — must be considered.

Using checklists from the Grocery Manufacturers Association or other sources will help assess the equipment and infrastructure. During this phase of the transformation process, the team should swab to confirm that potential niches were cleaned and spoilage and harmful pathogens were eliminated. In most cases, the number of environmental samples taken and the sampling frequency will need to be increased in the new R.-T.-E. area.

The facility already may have an environmental monitoring program for pathogens, but it will need to be reassessed to verify the effectiveness of the new barriers and controls. The question is, can the raw production area be separated from the new R.-T.-E. side of the plant?

In many bakeries and snack plants with linear processing lines, the natural separation provided by the oven or the fryer will provide the demarcation needed to separate the raw and R.-T.-E. sides. Depending on the product risk, it may not be necessary to have the two areas physically separated by walls. The key point will be to look at the product’s traffic pattern in implementing a separation between the raw and R.-T.-E. areas.

Employee practices are the next consideration. Shoe and boot sanitizers or sanitizing stations may be needed when moving between the raw and the R.-T.-E. sides. Transport equipment, forklifts and carts also will need to be evaluated. Having dedicated vehicles for each area is certainly the best option, but if this is not possible, then a cleaning and verification program can be implemented.

Taking time to explain the reasons for the new practices is certainly a significant part of the project. Presenting those changes in a classroom might be the first step, but observing their practices and coaching them on the floor is equally, if not more, important.

Transforming a raw process to R.-T.-E. might not take place overnight, but there are many aspects to consider. The formation of a strong plan that includes options for the different aspects of the transformation will be essential for success.