October 2021

· 12 min read

White Paper: Seven Steps to a Clean and Sanitized Food Processing Facility

Food preparation, handling and processing areas can easily become contamination risks if improperly cleaned and sanitized.
Female worker holding tablet at food factory - Steps to clean and sanitize food processing facility | NSF International

One mistake many food production companies, beverage manufacturers and foodservice operators make is assuming if a food contact surface is visibly clean, it is also sanitary. Bacteria such as Salmonella and Escherichia coli (E. coli) are resistant to soaps and detergents. Consequently, the threat of bacterial contamination has not been fully addressed regardless of how diligently a surface is cleaned.

Technically speaking, cleaning and sanitizing are not the same but, rather, two separate procedures. Cleaning helps increase the effectiveness of sanitation efforts by removing organic material such as dirt, soil and debris at a visible surface level. This organic matter can be a breeding ground for bacteria. Therefore, cleaning needs to always be done first. Subsequent sanitizing is what actually reduces the number of bacteria and other microorganisms to levels considered safe for human health.

This white paper summarizes step-by-step guidelines on how to clean and sanitize food contact surfaces and food processing and handling areas where the possibility of contamination could exist.

Before Taking the First Step: The Importance of Registered Cleaning and Sanitizing Products

Correctly performing almost any task requires having the right tools. But how does someone determine if those tools are safe?

There is no regulatory agency that governs the cleaning and sanitizing chemicals used by the food industry. To fill this void, the industry relies on NSF’s registration program for nonfood compounds which includes cleaning and sanitizing products.

As part of NSF’s registration process, products go through a formulation, label and traceability review. If necessary, testing is done for issues like scent. Registration guidelines do not allow a fragrance to mask an odor related to a food safety issue such as food spoilage. The end goal of registering a product is to assure end-users that a third party has verified it as being suitable for use by food and beverage companies and in commercial kitchens.

The Seven-Step Approach to Cleaning and Sanitizing

Regulatory bodies and food safety programs worldwide have their own slightly varied versions for properly cleaning and sanitizing food contact surfaces and equipment. This list provides a broad overview of the most commonly suggested steps among the different renditions.

Ideally speaking, processes and the chemical products used should be validated based on worst-case scenarios. Those doing the cleaning and sanitizing must also be properly trained and fully understand the reasons behind each task. While meant primarily for food or beverage production facilities, these procedures also apply to foodservice establishments.

  1. 1

    Remove Debris

    Using a lint-free cloth or wipe, physically remove soil deposits off of food contact surfaces. Soils include dirt, gross solids, mineral salts, large particles, proteins, lubricants and other residues. Soil removal can also include the use of scrapers, dry floor push mops, brushes for collecting soil and dust, dry or low moisture steaming, and vacuuming.

  2. 2

    Rinse All Residues

    When rinsing equipment during this step, use warm (less than 120° F/48.9° C) potable water. Anything warmer could cause soil and particles to become adherent to a surface and prevent removal. To avoid recontamination issues, using high-pressure hoses is discouraged since a high-pressure rinse could aerosolize soils and chemicals onto areas and equipment that have already been cleaned and sanitized. In addition, high-pressure methods could also possibly damage processing equipment.

    An exception to this step is if the area or equipment being cleaned needs to stay dry. Exposing dry food products to moisture can lead to mold and bacterial growth. Consequently, dry food processors have to apply interim dry-cleaning methods in-between any periodic wet cleaning. Instead of a rinse, thoroughly wipe down the equipment using pads, brushes or dry lint-free towels with a cleaning solution that is suitable to use on food contact surfaces. Use lint-free towels to dry all surfaces. Alcohol-based wipes and other solvents that dry quickly are also options as a rinse for dry areas.

  3. 3

    Apply Detergent and a Good Scrubbing

    At this point, it is essential to use chemical cleaners intended to remove fat and protein. In addition, ensure detergents are properly mixed by looking for dilution rates and contact times provided by the cleaning product manufacturer. If this information is not available, reach out to the manufacturer immediately. They should always be ready to help as not knowing dilution rates and contact times can be a food safety risk.

    Knowing the proper concentration amounts is important because over-diluted solutions may not be as effective and could even lead to bacterial tolerance. Conversely, high concentrations of detergent could lead to product adulteration and employee safety issues. End-users should also keep in mind that detergents can be affected by water pH and hardness levels.

    To make cleaning efforts productive, manual scrubbing of surfaces — especially with a registered foaming agent — is strongly recommended.

    This step generally does not apply to dry processing environments; however, special situations require a dry/low-moisture steam or a minimal amount of water with detergent, followed by a rinse and alcohol-based sanitizer. If this is the case, it is crucial that contact surfaces are moisture-free before production continues.

    When it’s time for equipment used in a dry area to receive a periodic cleaning, the equipment should be disassembled so all stationary parts can be cleaned and sanitized. All removable parts should be taken to a separate cleaning area where detergent and a potable water rinse can be applied. Once parts are clean and dry, they should be returned to the equipment area on a clean, dry cart for sanitizing and reassembly.

  4. 4

    Give a Thorough Rinse

    Before proceeding to the sanitizing stage, do a final rinse with potable water to completely remove the detergent and any residue. This step is very important because detergents are alkaline and most sanitizers are acidic. Without a thorough rinse, the sanitizer could be neutralized by any remaining detergent on the equipment surface. The water can also be warmer than what was recommended for the first rinse.

    As mentioned before, a rinse is not recommended in dry areas unless equipment parts are being cleaned in a separate area or unique circumstances require a minimal amount of water to remove soils. In the latter case, surfaces must be dry before applying a sanitizer or disinfectant.

  5. 5

    Take a Closer Look

    Inspect and, if necessary, spot clean any areas where there are still visible signs of residue or detergent.

    Pay special attention to hard-to-reach places. If you are a foodservice operator, be aware of commercial food equipment whose food zones are not cleanable by hand. Some examples include beverage dispensers, ice machines, soft-serve ice cream dispensers and blenders. If the equipment is certified to an NSF/ANSI standard, the manufacturer must provide a written set of clean-in-place (CIP) instructions that explain how to clean and sanitize inaccessible areas of a machine. CIP procedures describe the method by which a detergent solution, water rinse and sanitizing solution is mechanically circulated or passed through a piece of equipment and across its surfaces.

    As with any process, CIP procedures need to be validated by the experts involved with an operation’s food safety. CIP instructions should also be reviewed if anything at the facility changes, such as producing a new food product.

  6. 6

    Sanitize or Disinfect

    To help safely reduce bacterial load, apply an effective sanitizing or disinfecting chemical verified as suitable to use for food and beverage processing or handling environments. Before going further, an explanation of the difference between sanitizing and disinfecting is likely needed.

    Sanitizers and disinfectants both kill bacteria and other microorganisms. Disinfectants kill considerably more microorganisms but generally at a slower rate. Not surprisingly, disinfecting chemicals contain stronger chemicals; however, this does not necessarily mean a disinfectant is dangerous to use in a food processing facility or restaurant.

    In the U.S., any product that makes sanitizing or disinfecting claims (e.g. kills viruses) must have those statements validated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) per the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). NSF’s online listing of registered nonfood compounds (also known as the White Book™) is a good way to find FIFRA-registered disinfectants sold in the U.S. that are also suitable for use by the food industry.

    Whether they choose a sanitizer or disinfectant, end-users should only trust a product that clearly indicates its intended use on the label. This is important because different sanitizing and disinfecting products have different chemical characteristics that, if used improperly, might contaminate or adulterate the food product. For example, some sanitizing and disinfecting chemicals are more corrosive than others, while some can be inactivated by organic soil.

    As for dry processing facilities, dry cleaning should be followed by a dry sanitizing or disinfecting process. It is important to apply a low-moisture, alcohol-based product that has been verified as suitable to use on food contact surfaces. The dry sanitizer or disinfectant needs to be highly evaporative, quick-drying and require no rinsing.

  7. 7

    Dry

    When using a rinse-off sanitizer or disinfectant, the product needs to be completely removed with a potable water rinse. Air drying is the ideal way to dry surfaces because a wipe-down could lead to re-contamination. For areas that must be kept dry or cannot facilitate air drying, a leave-on sanitizer or disinfectant is recommended. It is important to follow the directions for drying times listed on the label when using leave-on products.

Next Steps: Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs)

Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) require the thorough cleaning and sanitation of food contact surfaces. As if this was not reason enough to follow the seven steps outlined above, these steps should also be incorporated into a food or beverage processor’s SSOP.

An SSOP is a document that provides detailed information about what a facility is doing to make sure food contact surfaces and other areas are being adequately cleaned and sanitized. The procedures must help prevent direct contamination of food and cannot lead to the adulteration of products. As part of its description of activities, an SSOP must go into specifics about:

  • Personnel responsible for performing the procedures
  • Safety measures for protecting consumers and work personnel
  • Safe handling of chemicals
  • Equipment or areas that are being cleaned
  • Key inspection points
  • Schedule of when the procedures are to occur
  • How cleaning activities are continuously verified
  • Tools and steps needed to disassemble an area or equipment
  • Methods of cleaning and sanitizing such as the seven steps described in this white paper

SSOPs have been described as the “backbone” of a food or beverage processor’s Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) program. As part of a HACCP plan, SSOPs must be kept on file by the facility and reviewed periodically. Since documentation is required, the use of registered cleaning and sanitizing products is an effective way to demonstrate a company’s commitment to reducing contamination risks as much as possible. Furthermore, in the U.S., the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has the authority to request an operation’s SSOP at any time.

Conclusion

When it comes to food safety, cleaning represents only half the job of mitigating contamination risks. Once a food processing facility or commercial kitchen has been properly cleaned, an equally thorough sanitizing effort should follow. This two-part course of action can be broken down into seven steps that also meet the requirements for GMPs, SSOPs and HACCP plans. As part of this step-by-step approach, the use of registered cleaning and sanitizing products is recommended. When performed together, these activities and decisions represent an effective way to optimize an operation’s food safety culture.