As food safety and quality control in pet food processing become increasingly data driven, it’s easy to slip into viewing these pursuits simply as standards to be met — a definitive bar to be cleared (or not cleared).

The truth is food safety and quality are a lot more like the never-ending pursuit of operational efficiency in a plant: a journey, not a destination. And one of the most promising new paths along that journey follows emerging best practices around dry sanitization.


Enhancing food safety: driving down risk — and waste

We know that the standards around food safety and quality keep rising. Pet owners today want high-quality ingredients and higher-quality products. FSMA effectively unified food safety standards for pet and human food products.

To conservatively manage risk, pet food manufacturers have the challenge of ensuring their products are safe both for the pet (or maybe a curious child) consuming the food and also the pet parent handling the food. In practice, most plants are extraordinarily careful (and successful) in producing high-quality, food-safe products. But mistakes, and recalls, still happen for many.

Even if there’s never a recall, all manufacturers are plagued by waste: the percentage of product doesn’t meet standards (and gets tossed out, cutting into the bottom line). It's clearly not acceptable to be discarding 50% of product. But 20% isn’t uncommon. Moreover, what difference would a 2% or a 5% reduction in this waste have on your bottom line?

Food safety is about minimizing both risk and waste. The opportunity for marginal — but meaningful — gains are driving forward-thinking food safety and quality leaders to look for new ways to enhance food safety and drive down both risk and waste.


Why now is the time to consider dry sanitization

We’ve all heard the saying, “Water is life.” Food safety leaders heard the insidious danger in this adage — water gives life to all sorts of unwanted and pathogenic life, as well. Managing water and moisture has always been an essential part of food safety GMPs in production facilities. But with the growing focus on biofilm as the biggest source of microbiological risk in most pet food processing environments, moisture management is rising to the top of priority lists.

The irony is many of the conventional methods of fighting biofilm involve large amounts of water during the cleaning, rinsing and sanitization steps. Plants often end up with residual water in the production environment that feeds — rather than fights — the biofilm problem.

The notion of fully “dry” sanitization used to be just that — a nice concept that wasn’t practical in real world processing applications. But we’ve seen some major breakthroughs in the last few years,  including new chemistries that destroy biofilms more reliably and efficiently.


Two-in-one wipes streamline dry sanitization

The most obvious objection to dry sanitization centers on efficiency. Leaders worry that moving from flood sanitization to a “dry” spray-and-wipe method will add additional steps to SOPs that will ultimately drag down uptime. But plants can now use two-in-one wipe products to significantly simplify dry sanitization. The two-in-one wipe has, fittingly, two benefits: an employee can achieve both cleaning and sanitization with one product, and the wipes come pre-saturated with a controlled dilution of sanitizer product. That means no more worries about dilution control, and it also minimizes the amount of wet sanitizer product being applied to a surface.


Dry floor treatments eliminate tracking

To keep microbiological contaminants from entering the production environment, most plants use a wet floor treatment (aqueous or foam sanitizer) in doorways. However, no sanitizing protocol can fully eliminate all bacteria from footwear, and residual moisture from wet sanitizer applications facilitates the spread of the remaining microorganisms around the production environment. But new dry floor treatments solve this problem, using “pelletized” sanitizer (imagine a fine-grained sand) that delivers high antimicrobial action on contact, without the tracking problem — and without creating a hospitable wet environment for surviving microbes.


Plant leaders discovering operational advantages to dry sanitization

As more pet food processing facilities implement dry sanitization protocols, we’re also seeing operational benefits that extend beyond the realm of food safety. For example, limiting the spread of moisture and soils around the plant can protect the functionality, reliability and longevity of production equipment and surfaces within the plant. Worker health and safety benefits, as well; reducing the spread of microbes protects plant workers, and mitigating residual moisture also reduces slip and fall hazards.

Sustainability is emerging as perhaps the most exciting upside of dry cleaning and sanitization. Consumers are seeking out more sustainable pet food choices, and dry sanitization can significantly — and rapidly — reduce total water usage in a plant.


Clearing the validation hurdle(s)

Validation is the elephant in the room. Plants can’t just implement new dry cleaning and sanitization SOPs and hope they’ll be effective. And the time, cost and hassle of clearing validation hurdles typically pushes plants toward the status quo. Here again, we’re seeing innovation lower the barriers to change; a new breed of digital validation platforms is enabling plants to move from slow, manual sample gathering and paper-based documentation to more automated sampling protocols and fully digitized documentation. This data-driven validation not only ensures compliance and supports audit-readiness, but it also gives plants assurance that all the effort to implement dry methods are actually delivering the efficacy plants need to protect food safety and quality.


Capturing big opportunities will come down to small gains

Pet food processors are looking at huge growth opportunities. Consumer spending on pet food rose 16.2% from 2021-2022, reflecting an accelerating trend that sees pet food owners willing to spend more for better quality. But to capture those big opportunities, pet food processors will need to focus on small gains that create competitive advantage. Strategies like implementing dry sanitization can play a significant, and easily overlooked, role in powering bottom-line benefits. The winners in this growing market will be those who not only meet rising standards for high-quality product, but continually leverage new innovations to meet those rising standards at the highest levels of efficiency, reliability and consistency.

Jeremy Adler, Ph.D., is a technical service leader at Ecolab.