For many of the people with whom I’ve conversed, the mere mention of the word “sanitation” conjures up images of garbage trucks, mop buckets, janitors, the lack of clean water, and toilets. The general public has little knowledge of sanitation as an operation or a field of work, and its deeply intertwined relationship with the food we eat every day.

Sanitation is in fact the most important function that will happen in every single factory, packinghouse, deli, or restaurant every single day. It is the one safeguard between food and contaminants. Sanitation, then, is the entire set of activities, operations, and products used to produce food hygienically.

Similarly, there is an overwhelming impression that using a sanitizer is all that’s needed to eliminate health risks. This, moreover, is a fallacy shared by more than the general public. Even some workers in the food industry have misconceptions about the purpose, proper use, and appropriateness of sanitizers.

Let’s clear up some of these misunderstandings, shall we?

Here is a nonexhaustive list of some of the top misconceptions around sanitation.
1. Sanitation is about keeping the facility looking clean
Everyone likes a pleasant, organized, and clean-looking facility. Picking up and disposing of unwanted items, particles, ingredients, and defective product are parts of general cleanup. But sanitation serves a much larger purpose critical to food safety. As a prerequisite program or preventive control, it is a fundamental program for mitigating food safety risks and preventing hazards from entering the product.

The regulatory requirement for ensuring food produced is free of contamination (Title 21 C.F.R.) is simple in its intent yet demanding when it comes to everyday execution, particularly for facilities that do not pay attention to organization. By “organization,” I mean planning, facility layouts, scheduling, hiring and training personnel, purchasing and operating the right types of equipment for the job, understanding the food being produced and what it takes to clean its production equipment, having a good knowledge of operating procedure for sanitation protocols (Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures, or SSOPs), etc. (Figure 1).

It is not uncommon to find facilities that were designed for one operation and later producing an entirely different product line, or equipment that has been modified to perform a different duty than originally planned. Good overall design of a facility that helps the equipment function well, allowing employees the room to work with, around, and sometimes inside equipment safely also greatly contributes to the overall level of hygiene. A facility where an employee can comfortably perform their job of cleaning will be a cleaner facility.

A “Seven Steps of Sanitation” approach—Step 1. Secure, disassemble, and dry-clean; Step 2. In sync, top down, pre-rinse; Step 3. Apply detergent and scrub; Step 4. Post-rinse, self-inspect; Step 5. Prepare for formal inspection; Step 6. Post-sanitation/pre-op inspection; Step 7. Sanitize and assemble—can be used in any food processing environment and also adapted for retail use. This approach hinges on effective stepwise cleaning followed by decontamination using a sanitizer. All other details associated with these two major events or that are part of them must be adhered to with the utmost care. 

2. Sanitizers destroy all microorganisms
Sanitizers are chemicals that are appropriate for use in the food industry to significantly reduce harmful microorganisms of concern to food safety. These include a multitude of bacteria, many species of viruses, many species of fungi, and even parasites; however, sanitizers do not destroy all of them. In fact, viruses like norovirus and bacteria like Clostridium difficile can survive even when sanitizers are properly used according to label instructions.

Sanitizers also do not work on any microorganism that is part of a biofilm. Biofilms are communities of microorganisms that coexist and are present ubiquitously. They are a real challenge in the food industry and a primary target of cleaning and sanitation programs. These biofilms are complexes of many species surrounded by an extracellular matrix of polysaccharides and proteins. They can often have many layers of living organisms and can protect a pathogen like Listeria and allow it to persist. So, cleaning activities should target biofilms so they can be removed or prevented completely. This is why cleaning is followed by sanitization. In an ideal world, once cleaning is complete, there will be no remaining microorganisms. The use of sanitizer is then necessary to provide a higher level of security and to complete the sanitation cycle. 

3. Sanitation can be done by anyone; a beating heart is all you need
If you’ve worked in a food processing facility, you know what sanitation is. Similarly, if you’re in production or in a quality assurance role, you know that your success or even your paycheck may well be connected to how good of a job the sanitation crew does. The work conditions, heat and humidity, slippery floors, confined spaces, high-pressure hoses, suds, cold rooms, and treacherous conditions that are encountered by many frontline sanitation workers are not for the faint of heart. The average sanitation professional often requires physical strength combined with sharp observational skills and a keen problem-solving mentality to work with a team that can ensure that the proper planning, cleaning, and verification of a facility or work area is at the right level of hygiene to be worthy of handling food. As facilities become more automated, sanitation jobs are far more akin to robotics, mechanical structure and engineering, and data-interpretation jobs. Sanitation professionals are directly or on a dotted-line basis related to members of the food safety team and are integral to product quality.

4. Multi-purpose systems and tools reduce costs
Since the broader adoption of closed-loop, clean-in-place (CIP) systems in the 1950s, they have played an integral role in liquid-handling (especially dairy) facilities, allowing them to run more efficiently by reducing the steps and time required for cleaning. Since then, CIP is routinely used in numerous facilities with more designs being sought for products of higher viscosity and even for dry facilities. However, CIP systems are not appropriate for all types of products. When a CIP system is connected to an open end, the CIP is no longer a closed loop and should be treated as such. Open ends allow the transfer of material from an ingredient or an in-process or finished product into the system, providing a means for product contamination. Similarly, tools used in facilities should be matched with their hygienic zone and segregated with their own cleaning and management programs. Personal protective equipment should also be handled so it does not become a transportation system for contaminants. Studies have shown that boots used in the processing zone could become contaminated with pathogens from raw or nonprocessing areas if they are not cleaned inside and out using a full detergent clean and sanitizer protocol after each use. Multi-purpose tools and certain reusable items are an opportunity for cost reduction but should always be assessed for risks that could lead to much larger liabilities, recalls, or foodborne illness outbreaks.

5. More is better
Sanitizers work on bacterial cells, viruses, molds, and certain single-celled or parasitic organisms. Commonly used commercial-use sanitizers like quaternary ammonium compounds need a minimum contact time that is specified in the directions provided by each supplier of those chemicals. It is of utmost importance to use the exact amount of chemical and mix as directed. More or less sanitizer will make the sanitization ineffective. Measured delivery systems help avert this issue by allowing exact amounts of solvents to be mixed for cleaning or sanitizing. All major suppliers of sanitation supplies provide numerous products and services to help facilities with their sanitation programs. Deciding on the right mix of these products can be challenging. In thinking through these options, keeping hygienic principles in mind can be helpful. This includes an understanding of the chemical and its purpose based on the product. For example, a detergent intended for a heavily acidic food soil like pasta sauce would not be appropriate for a fresh-cut vegetable operation. Using the right amount of the right type of detergent followed by the right amount of sanitizer will allow soils to be removed swiftly and pathogens to be eliminated.  

6. Sanitize and go
Due to product scheduling pressures, it is possible that the sanitation team may complete applying sanitizer minutes before production starts up again. The idea that applying sanitizer (or, in the EU, rinsing off sanitizer) is the last step is a dangerous misconception. Many sanitizers require several minutes (often 10–30) of contact time to do their job effectively. After this period, any residual sanitizer should be allowed to completely dissipate (at least visually) prior to starting up the production line. Putting into place safeguards such as inspections and sampling can be used as strategies to allow sanitizers to fully work.

7. Dry facilities do not harbor bacteria
If the past year is any indication, dry facilities that completely avoid the use of water need to take a hard look at their SSOPs in conjunction with their supplier program to ensure all risks for pathogens have been considered. For example, a dry-powder facility or a syrup with a finished product water activity in the range of 0.75 that goes through a continuous process will need to be monitored to ensure that Salmonella has not found a cozy home. From cereal to pet food and pancake mixes to whey powder, dry facilities have recalled thousands of pounds of product due to Salmonella contamination. A protocol for dry cleaning that includes the removal of all large and visible particles should be followed by ensuring allergens are cleaned, and then an alcohol-based sanitizer should be applied to the cleaned, dry surface. This process will prevent any potential bacterial buildup or the formation or a biofilm where pathogens could take up residence.

8. Most humans practice good personal hygiene
Sanitation in retail establishments is the ultimate test of good hygiene. Good handwashing practices are crucial to preventing cross-contamination. While the flu virus can be killed using hand sanitizer, foodborne viruses like norovirus and many others can only be removed by effective handwashing. This is why food establishments and foodservice workers must be particularly aware of and properly trained in personal hygiene. Most pathogens that are harmful to humans and of economic concern to food safety are directly linked to fecal contamination. So, while fecal contamination of water, fertilizer, and harvesting or growing environments needs to be controlled, Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) should be adhered to all the way from the field to foodservice. Employee compliance with proper handwashing practices includes scrubbing under, around, and between fingers, washing halfway up the lower arm, applying soap, and scrubbing for a full 20 seconds prior to rinsing. Being conscientious of GMPs in the context of where the facility is located and of cultural norms will allow practitioners to train employees on further details of personal hygiene and GMPs. For instance, employees need to wash hands after sneezing, coughing, and touching body parts; properly use restrooms, taking advantage of toilet paper or water to prevent fecal contamination on hands, clothes, or other parts; and have plentiful access to soap, running water, and clean towels. Portable toilet facilities in fields provide minimal access to field workers when it comes to preventing human fecal contamination or exposure to sick employees. Additionally, a poorly maintained or poorly designed toilet facility can encourage poor personal hygiene or prevent employees from taking the time to fully clean up after using the facility. A thorough hygiene program will consider all aspects of contamination, including water quality and employee wellness.

9. Sanitation team members are easy to replace
When sanitation is thought of as an operational expense, it is easy to view sanitation employees as new hires that can easily be replaced by another new hire. The majority of entry-level sanitation employees leave before they’ve passed the 3-month mark, creating the need for more basic training on an ongoing basis. However, workers in sanitation doing their job well are critical to producing safe food, making these employees important figures in the risk management equation. For example, a restaurant chain like Chipotle has provided ample evidence that poor hygiene at suppliers as well as at restaurants can directly affect stock value and pose a serious threat to customer loyalty. Employee training, retention, testing programs, and qualified oversight are all part of a larger food safety plan that should include a healthy workplace culture and policies that prevent sick employees from working, while providing adequate financial safeguards. Sanitation workers in this scenario are all employees who play a role in the hygienic conditions of the food. 

10. Poor sanitation is the main cause of recalls
Recalls of any product, in either the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s jurisdiction, share some common threads of which “adulteration” is the umbrella term used to classify a good number of recalls. While supply chain issues and mislabeling are large contributors to recalls, allergen and pathogen contamination are not always due to sanitation failure. However, sanitation is only as successful as the integrity of the equipment and surfaces, the quality of incoming utilities including air and water, and the availability of the appropriate tools to be used in the sanitation program. When the root cause of the recalls is linked to sanitation, it is often linked to operator failure. However, operator failure would not always be identified as a root cause if one were to critically look at the decisions made in writing and implementing SSOPs, purchasing and making available tools that enable better sanitation, time and resource allocation, knowledge of the team responsible for the job, the culture around decision making in the organization, reward systems, and design principles applied to enhance personal hygiene and maintenance. In essence, poor sanitation decisions may be deterred by creating a better culture and reward system that fosters responsibility in hygiene.  

Angela Anandappa, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Alliance for Advanced Sanitation and a research assistant professor with the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She has been in the food industry for over 18 years and is experienced in food safety, molecular diagnostics, and food microbiology. Her current work involves developing interdisciplinary research and educational programs to address food safety issues and prevent them by addressing hygienic design and sanitation challenges. Prior to joining the alliance, she was section manager of supply chain safety assurance at the Kraft Heinz Company.