According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 6 Americans gets sick from eating contaminated food every year, resulting in an estimated 3,000 deaths. As if the human cost isn’t sobering enough, the Grocery Manufacturers Association also estimates the average cost of a recall to a food company is a whopping $10 million in direct costs in addition to brand damage and lost sales. Forty-eight percent of recalls in 2017 happened because of undeclared allergens, and 32 percent were due to Listeria, Salmonella, or Eshcerichia coli.

Color-coded tools are a practical, straight-forward way to implement zoning in a facility and may help keep different hygiene levels—such as raw and finished products—separated.

Color-Coding as a Preventive Control
Color-coding cleaning tools can help decrease the risk of contamination or allergen cross-contact incidents that lead to recalls. The process of color-coding in food production facilities has become more important thanks to the regulations in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and the guidelines proposed in Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) standards. FSMA and HACCP address food safety by creating systems for preventing, eliminating, or reducing any significant hazards in the entire production process, from raw material to distribution of the finished product.

Color-coding is an excellent example of a control measure. Color-coded tools can be assigned to different CCPs to keep allergens or likely sources of contamination separate. For example, blue may be assigned to the section of a plant that deals with raw hamburger, while the section that handles it post-cooking uses yellow. This easy signifier helps ensure that a brush that cleaned a surface covered in raw beef (and possibly E. coli) isn’t used to clean the workbench for the finished product. Color-coding is an easy and simple solution to ensuring tools and cleaning equipment aren’t switched around these raw and finished workspaces. 

When color-coding is well implemented in a facility, it’s easy to distinguish among zones and know what they represent. Because of this instant visual cue, separating raw from finished products and keeping allergens separated is much simpler.

Color-Coding as a Universal Language
The environment in a food processing facility can be chaotic. The frantic nature of it is only compounded when employees speak multiple different languages. Trying to keep everything organized and streamlined can, at times, be a daunting task. Having employees use color-coded tools could solve some of these issues.

Whether you have just one employee who speaks another language, or 500 who speak a variety, color-coding may help to keep efficiency high and mistakes low. Colors are universal, no matter what language someone speaks. Employees can be taught in their own language that red tools are used for wheat, for example, and they’ll be able to identify the right tool without having to hold a conversation with another employee, who may not speak their same language.

To assist in everyone learning and remembering which color goes with which zones or products, posters and/or color-coded tool stations should have each color with its purpose in all languages spoken in the facility.

How to Choose Colors for Different Applications
Color-coding’s success as a preventive control can be lost before the first tool comes into the facility if colors aren’t chosen wisely. The usefulness of color-coding comes from its simplicity, and choosing too many colors or having complicated color assignments can muddle this clarity.

Limit the number of colors you use to around 3–5 in small or medium-size facilities. In larger food processing plants, keeping the number of colors each individual has to remember on a daily basis to the same small range can help keep everyone on the same page.

Similarly, think carefully before adding secondary color assignments or mixing and matching tools and their handles. Instant recognition is one of the largest benefits of color-coded tools and taking that away by complicating it may reduce its effectiveness.

Colors should contrast with the products they will be used in. For example, yellow works well for seafood, but might not be as useful with wheat. A small scraper may be hard to spot in a large container of wheat, and being able to easily spot a tool can mean the difference between a pricey recall and a fixable mistake.

Any color-coding plan should account for common forms of color-blindness. After all, 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women have some type of color-blindness. Avoid pairing red and green together, as this is the most common form of color-blindness. Otherwise, try to avoid pairing shades that are close together on the color wheel, such as blue and purple. Black is an excellent choice for floors and drains since those brushes will be used with harsh chemicals in the areas with heavy potential for contamination and absolutely must not be mixed up with another color.

Training for Color-Coding Programs
When a new color-coding plan is introduced, training should begin shortly before the tools actually arrive on site. To minimize any possibilities of confusion, be sure to roll out the color-coding program all at once and announce a clear start date. Workers should know what colors they’ll be expected to use, along with how to store and take care of their tools. Along with this, employees should be taught why color-coding can help increase food safety and make their jobs easier. The concepts should be laid out plainly and clearly, and should be paired with facts about how dangerous cross-contamination and cross-contact incidents can be.

When employees feel the weight of their involvement in food safety efforts and are given simple measures to follow, they may follow procedures more closely.

Once a program is up and running, re-training will need to happen yearly, at a minimum. These retraining sessions should be both specific in what colors are to be used when or where, and contain a general overview of the purpose of color-coding.

Re-training should also happen when a wrong color tool is used, even if the error was caught quickly enough to avoid damage. When a program change happens, workers should be re-educated and retrained on every step of the process, even for areas where nothing changed.

Training is of the utmost importance, but signage can bolster that training. Don’t leave room for ambiguity with color-coding. Let signs—in however many languages are needed—remind workers which color is assigned to which zone.

Having a color-coding program in place can help prevent cross-contact and cross-contamination incidents in food processing facilities. Not only does it serve as a simple visual cue, it can also transcend language barriers. With a straightforward color-coding plan and sufficient employee training, color-coding can help reduce the chance of a recall, which could save a company money, time, and brand reputation.

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