This article was published in the September 2021 issue of Pet Food Processing. Read it and other articles from this issue in our September digital edition.

Sanitation and disinfection in pet food processing is more important than ever before. Where once plants did not shut down just for cleaning, now down days for cleaning are regularly scheduled. Randy Kohal, vice president, food safety and reliability, Nexcor Food Safety Technologies, Buford, Ga., said the importance of processing sanitation and disinfection has increased over the years from early concerns of dirt and buildup to a modern understanding of the risks of microorganisms.

“Risk mitigation is the basis for sanitation practices and having a scientific understanding as well as a food safe culture is critical to success,” he said. “The resulting benefit is a workforce that understands the importance of sanitation, proper food safety, and execution in the most economical way possible.”

Sanitation is one of the most important pillars for food safety. Joe Stout, founder of Commercial Food Sanitation (CFS), New Orleans, La., noted that without proper sanitation and disinfection, there can be no safe food manufacturing environment.  

“If we don’t start production with a clean plant, all the other programs and practices will not be enough to avoid risk to product,” he said. “They are both paramount to the success of the other departments within the food manufacturing facility and most importantly to the consumer.”

This commitment to sanitation and disinfection has resulted in higher quality products.

Technology solutions help processors adhere to new sanitation protocols and manage resources.Technology solutions help processors adhere to new sanitation protocols and manage resources. (Source: Nexcor Food Safety Technologies)  

“Many understand that for sanitation and disinfection to be successful, they must follow procedures,” said Donald Rushing, food safety professional at AIB International, Manhattan, Kan. “This includes understanding how much caustic and water should be used, the proper temperature of the water, how long they are leaving it on the equipment, and when to remove it for the best results. If cleaning chemicals are removed too early, they won’t be effective. If left on for too long, they will leave behind not only soil residue, but also that of the cleaning chemical itself.”

Most facilities today also have procedures that must be followed before setting foot on the manufacturing floor, with everyone in the processing area required to wear a smock and walk through a foot sanitizing bath to limit cross-contact.

Over the past six years, Evan Reyes, director of sales, sanitation division for Goodway Technologies, Stamford, Conn., has visited more than 600 plants to improve safety and promote sanitation best practices.

“I’ve seen a tremendous amount of growth and capital investment in the pet food industry, with a lot of new plants being built at a faster rate than regular food plants,” he said. “With that, we’ve seen an increase on food safety and quality. That wasn’t as big of a deal five years ago.”

Brian Wood, who retired as director of Brookfield, Wis.-based HydriPet Ingredient and Sanitation Solutions in July, noted a lot of sanitation practices have changed since the institution of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rulings a couple of years ago, which required that pet food be handled like human food from a regulatory standpoint, and that’s been a great thing for safety.

“A lot of customers have set up a food safety plan, which is required under FSMA, and every plant has to have a PCQI (preventative control qualified individual) onsite,” he said. “That person is responsible for pulling it all together and identifying preventive control areas.”


Best practices

Today’s pet food manufacturers are looking for better tools that can help them clean the challenging areas they have to clean and identify the right solutions to help them produce safe, quality food.

One area that can be streamlined is washing equipment or systems to clean and sanitize bins, trays, racks, totes, buckets, or anything used in the process that comes in contact with the finished product or any of the raw ingredients. Properly cleaning these items is a key step to delivering safe, pathogen-free products.

Systems specifically designed to wash totes, tools and everything else that comes in contact with product can save both time and resources.Systems specifically designed to wash totes, tools and everything else that comes in contact with product can save both time and resources. (Source: Douglas Machine Corp.) “Cleaning any tool or container that comes in contact with products after every use is of paramount importance,” explained Kevin Quinn, sales engineer, Douglas Machines Corp, Clearwater, Fla.

The company supplies efficient washing and sanitizing systems that can clean any container from large bins to small trays whether they are plastic or stainless steel, need to be washed in batches or continuously. Processors can work with suppliers to design the systems that work best for each application.

Another area critical to food safety is training. Food safety experts agree that training is first and foremost vital to any success as operations that actively address their food safety culture establish risk aversion as the expectation and not a theory.

“The importance of training the employees using the equipment, the employees cleaning the equipment, and training the people verifying the sanitation of the equipment and areas cannot be understated,” Kohal said. “Training is the most direct and universal way to achieve good sanitation practices. Regardless of the type of processing and size of facility, an educated workforce that understands the costs and risks of not performing sanitation correctly is invaluable.”

Another important practice is to assure the sanitation team is set up for efficient and effective success. Stout explained this is achieved by pre-sanitation preparation, following a methodical/sequenced science-based process, providing them with the tools to clean more efficiently, engaging other departments while not solely relying on sanitation to execute.

Sanitation crews often work with a variety of chemicals, and proper training on the procedures for using these chemicals is important.

“Without proper preparation of the chemicals, the cleaning will not be successful in removing biofilms and getting into places where there may be harborage,” said Donald Rushing, AIB International.

“Without proper preparation of the chemicals, the cleaning will not be successful in removing biofilms and getting into places where there may be harborage,” Rushing said. “The sanitation team should work closely with their chemical provider to understand and apply instructions for chemical preparation and use.”


Tech talk

Technologies can and will vary based on the many variables in any one manufacturing environment. Stout said the best place to start is with the process, the method, and all tools/resources needed to be successful at an efficient and effective sanitation process.  

“The Sanitation Standard Operating Procedure (SSOP) is the key to a repeatable and reproducible result when properly verified and validated against the desired goal,” he said. “Another important concept to consider is the design of the equipment. Equipment that is hygienically designed will aid the sanitation process. The equipment will be easy to disassemble and access and will prevent harborage areas.”

Many technologies can aid in the process from standard cleaning tools and equipment to verification/validation tools and kits to assure sanitation effectiveness.

“Those such as steam cleaning technology for low moisture environments to complex clean-in-place (CIP) systems for pipe and tank operations,” Stout said. “Surface residue and microorganism testing instruments can aid the process post-cleaning to verify effectiveness of sanitation execution.”

Although it’s not a new technology, more manufacturers are using bioluminescence to quickly evaluate the success of their sanitation and disinfection program.

“They will use the technology to measure the amount of soils on various surfaces, then clean to reduce that number and then measure again to determine the effectiveness of their cleaning,” Rushing said. “Many manufacturers also work closely with accreditation labs to check for bacteria, mold, and even pesticides on raw ingredients and finished product. Based on the lab’s input, manufacturers will know whether they have a problem and then can work to correct it.”

Kohal said digitalization and use of appropriate mobile computers on the plant floor for training and tracking sanitation tasks streamlines operations and prevents gaps in documentation and human error.

Dry steam can effectively clean grease and other residues and remove bacteria on a wide variety of machinery and plant equipment, including sensitive packaging and filling equipment.Dry steam can effectively clean grease and other residues and remove bacteria on a wide variety of machinery and plant equipment, including sensitive packaging and filling equipment. (Source: Goodway Technologies)  

“The ability to self-audit and quickly act on non-compliances prepares operations for actual audits and puts them in a position to have strong food safety regardless of day, shift, product, audit or any other variables,” he said.

Fostering innovation

Goodway Technologies offers low-moisture dry steam cleaning equipment that is great for dry pet food manufacturing facilities because it achieves a much deeper cleaning on the soils that are present in the environment, Reyes said.

“The residue left behind by kibble is typically oily and dusty and hardens up, and the dry steam just melts it off,” he said. “And because it introduces very minimal moisture into the environment, it doesn’t flood the area, which is always a concern in dry pet food to prevent Salmonella growth.”

Nexcor Food Safety Technologies has worked with manufacturers to streamline training on sanitation execution tools for the plant floor.

“Being able to operate food safety execution tools like mobile devices, sensors, digital documentation, dashboards and more in real-time mitigates risk and protects the product,“ Kohal said. “It also ensures that human error is accounted for and minimized.”

CFS is constantly innovating to provide solutions for food safety, sanitation and hygienic design challenges across the food manufacturing industry.

“We achieve this by strategic consulting and training focused on risk associated with micro contamination, foreign material, and allergens to name a few,” Stout said. “One of our key specialties is working with our customers to organize their cleaning process in steps – what we call the ‘Seven Steps of Cleaning.’”

He explains that when employees work in silos instead of in an organized manner, the results are recleans, inefficiencies and potential cross contamination risk. Completing one step of the process at a time helps the employees work more efficiently and save time.

“Training is the most direct and universal way to achieve good sanitation practices,” said Randy Kohal, Nexcor Food Safety Technologies.

“It is by understanding the customer needs/potential issues that we use our expertise to provide guidance with their programs, processes, and execution to make practical and sustainable changes for continuous improvement,” Stout said. “We continue to grow our base by learning from the challenges of the customers we support. By fostering open communication with industry subject matter leaders and innovative suppliers, we maintain our knowledge base on the latest and most up-to-date practices regarding sanitation and hygienic design.”

A supportive facility-wide food safety culture is key to having a successful and efficient sanitation process.  

“As the industry continuously evolves due to innovations and regulations, it will be up to all of us to intentionally focus on strengthening this culture across the board,” Stout said. “It is by the effort of upper management, department leaders, and every individual that will ultimately yield safe food for our consumers.”

Read more about pet food safety on our Operations page.