From The Editor | November 9, 2017

Hormel's Strategy In The Battle Against Microbial Contamination

Sam Lewis

By Sam Lewis, editor, Food Online

Your company’s CEO probably isn’t going to notice if you start a production run an hour late. But, if you start production on time without inspecting the environment, taking corrective actions, and sanitizing the environment, your product may be forced into withdrawal or a recall… and your CEO will know you in a very intimate and negative way. Here, Doug Craven, corporate manager of sanitation at Hormel Foods, discusses the steps Hormel takes to ensure its food processing environments and food contact surfaces are properly sanitized, aren’t harboring microbial pathogens, and safe products are reaching its customers.

Cleaning and sanitation is a process. For it to be effective, proper steps must be followed. Hormel Foods’ cleaning and sanitation processes have been in place, and adjusted when necessary, for nearly 30 years. Needless to say, the company has become pretty good at it.

First in the company’s process is dry cleaning and disassembling equipment. Obviously, this first step is completed without water and is intended to limit moisture — a critical aspect of bacteria growth — in the environment. First, electronics and control panels should be wiped then covered. From there, dry cleaning of the environment — brushing and scraping food from equipment, using compressed air and brooms to sweep the environment, and industrial vacuums to collect dust — begins, and this includes breaking down each piece of equipment to its most-basic components. “There's nothing more critical to the start of the sanitation process than disassembling equipment,” says Craven. “A full understanding of what needs to be taken apart to find every potential growth niche is essential. And when disassembling occurs, it needs to be documented.”

Next in the process is rinsing the environment. As Hormel makes primarily pork-based products, the company’s rinse phase uses water with a temperature slightly above the melting point of pork fat and is propelled through at 3/16 inch nozzle at 200 PSI. “We want to avoid high pressure,” says Craven. “We’ve found when rinsing exceeds 200 PSI, bacteria can atomize in the air and make its way back into the environment and your products. You will want to find a temperature and pressure that is best for your unique product.”

Following the rinse down comes soaping and scrubbing. It is essential to use the right chemicals, the right concentrations of them, and ensure they have made sufficient contact with every surface that needs cleaning. “We don’t just want clean lines, we want clean rooms. So, our soaping and scrubbing extends to every part of the environment,” says Craven. “And obviously, we don’t want to be cleaning and sanitizing one side of a room while the other side is making product. Again, bacteria will atomize in the air, spread across the entire room, and contaminate products and the environment. When soaping and scrubbing, be sure to stop production and complete the process for each room.”

All of that dry cleaned, rinsed, and soaped and scrubbed waste has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is the drain. But as we all know, drains are major harbors of bacteria; that’s why cleaning the drains is an important part of Hormel’s process. The company assigns a single person with designated brushes and chemicals to clean each room’s drains. Once cleaning is complete, sanitizer is poured down the drains, filling the drain traps, and then the room is left to dry. Periodically, each drain is jet flushed. “We jet our drains as routine maintenance. This prevents any foreseen reasons for backup,” says Craven. “And much like soaping and scrubbing, cleaning the drains is never performed during production.” From there, Hormel applies sanitizer to its food processing environment and food contact surfaces… but more on that later.

A dry cleaning of the environment has been performed, the environment received a rinse and a chemical scrubbing, and the drains have been sanitized. It’s time to inspect. This is the first opportunity to see if the cleaning, to this point, has been successful. The inspection phase includes a visual inspection of the room, as well as some touch-and-smell cues for contamination in the room. “We look for indicators of and precursors to bacterial growth, such as loose soil, adhered soil, and a greasy or filmy feel to the equipment,” says Craven. “Obviously you can't see the bacteria, but you can see the conditions where it can grow. Each indicator of a process failure has a different cause. Log them and report them back to the team who is cleaning and sanitizing the environment. If the process reveals poor results, look for and determine deficiencies, then adjust accordingly to fix them.”

Don’t go into the inspection expecting perfect results; there really is no such thing. Instead, start the inspection looking for deficiencies and failures in the cleaning and sanitation process. When you find them, correct them. “I often tell our employees our CEO will never know if you start a production run 30 minutes or an hour late,” says Craven. “However, if you don’t’ take corrective steps during inspection and a product is forced into withdrawal or a recall, you will know our CEO very intimately and not in a good way.” Needless to say, inspection phase and the decision to move forward with production is a critical one.

The environment has been cleaned and sanitized, corrective actions have been made after inspection, and the decision has been made to start production again. It’s time to reassemble equipment. Anyone working to reassemble equipment and the food processing environment will be wearing sanitor clothing and have washed and sanitized hands. This crew will work to sanitize pieces of equipment that aren’t accessible while machines are fully assembled and then reassemble the equipment. They will also remove standing water and condensation accrued during rinsing and soaping and scrubbing. “We want to remove standing water and condensation to not jeopardize the sanitary conditions we worked hard to create,” says Craven. “Again, removing moisture from the environment is essential to preventing the growth or microbial pathogens.”

A formal, pre-operations inspection is also part of reassembling equipment. “We'll make sure everything is right, we'll cycle equipment, we'll complete our pre-op visual inspection, and correct any further deficiencies,” says Craven. “You can also swab equipment, testing for organic material and verifying your processes and your controls are functioning.”

The final step of Hormel’s process is applying sanitizer. It was mentioned earlier that Hormel applies sanitizer after cleaning and before inspection. The company sanitizes again after the equipment is assembled. First, any additional water and condensation is removed from the environment and equipment. From there, sanitizer is applied to the environment and food contact surfaces. “When we apply sanitizer, we first want to make sure our concentrations are correct. We use a non-rinse format sanitizer that leaves residual on surfaces it touches. This residual is non-toxic and helps with sanitation during pre-ops and during operations,” says Craven. “Once we have correct concentrations, we take a flood approach, ensuring we achieve full coverage. We want to make sure we get intimate contact between the sanitizer and the surfaces being sanitized.” The room and equipment are left to dry, and once it is, the room is ready for production.

Across Hormel’s plants, the company has equipment with difficult-to-clean/sanitize areas. For this equipment, heat treatment is used. Heat treatments are also used as part of the company’s periodic, microbial prevention maintenance on all of its equipment. “When we would have a positive in our environmental monitoring program, we would immediately respond by using a combination of extreme heat and water to eliminate it,” says Craven. “After doing that several times, we learned it’s better to get ahead of the curve and prevent that positive. We are now ahead of that curve and use heat treatments as part of the routine to counteract poor sanitary designs in processing equipment.”