Water is fun. It provides nutrients, quenches thirst, and cools us off on hot summer days. Water or moisture is also necessary to support certain types of sanitation. However, traditional wet cleaning methods involve large volumes of water and, often, liquid chemicals. The water and chemicals are liberally applied to walls, equipment, and floors, and then rinsed away with more water. In facilities that make food products with low water activity, this practice increases hazards because water allows microbiological growth and spreads contamination. This article will discuss the application and advantages of designing a reduced-moisture sanitation program that minimizes microbial “bloom” and trims costs.

Treat Water Like Glass
Controlling water should be like controlling glass and brittle physical hazards in a processing facility. We need to take the principles for managing these hazards and apply them to water in our production facilities. Water should be included as a “physical hazard” in the Hazard Analysis of a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plan and a food safety plan. Treat water like glass.

The best way to understand water control is to apply it to our own homes. No one leaves their house knowing that uncontrolled water is dripping, leaking, or producing condensation, or that stagnant water is pooling in our kitchen or home without taking care of it right away. This type of water causes extensive damage to the house with expensive cost of repairs if not fixed expediently. We need to take this same type of thinking and apply it to all food production facilities, making sure that we do not have dripping, leaking, condensation, or pooling of stagnant water in our production facilities. When ignored and not fixed immediately, it creates an environment for microbial growth and damage to the structure and equipment, along with increasing pest activity.

WOW – War on Water
There are many reasons why developing an uncontrolled-water plan is so vital and important to a food production facility. For one, a plan is crucial in making a step change in pathogen risk reduction and spoilage organism control. Uncontrolled water leads to significant microbial growth in food products such as Listeria, Salmonella, yeast, and mold. Post Holdings has developed great work on “WOW – War on Water” management systems for controlling water within a food production facility, sharing their work throughout the food and beverage industry. These concepts should be applied by all food production facilities.

Uncontrolled water also leads to human safety hazards such as chemical and slip hazards. Beyond the human safety risks, water also poses a risk to production equipment, impacting its reliability and functionality. Even the best-designed equipment is susceptible to water egress, electrical issues, and premature failure. It is important to minimize water’s impact to production systems.

Water control is called out as a focus area in the Food Safety Modernization Act. Looking at some of the recent recalls, we see how uncontrolled water has impacted pathogen growth in the environment and how condensation contaminates products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service is the only organization that has water and condensation guidance for food production environments in the Sanitation Performance Standards Compliance Guide. This guide outlines when condensation is acceptable in food production facilities. In all other environments, uncontrolled water and condensation are unacceptable.

Uncontrolled water also has a negative impact on a company’s environmental and sustainability goals. Every food facility has environmental goals based on controlling the amount of water going into the waste system and the cost and impact of treating that water. Sustainability initiatives focus on the use of water within and around a production facility. Controlling water can add value to the company’s bottom line.

Water also contributes to contamination risk within all areas of a plant by moving other contaminants around. These contaminants include chemical, physical, and microbiological risks. Unnecessary water is like gasoline for a fire. Facilities should push the concept that water use should be by exception only.

Cleaning Methods That Minimize Water Risk
Figure 1 aligns the cleaning methods applied with the development of uncontrolled-water plans. It shows the levels of risk, from the lowest-risk cleaning activities such as vacuuming and wiping to the highest-risk like high-pressure water and the use of compressed air. The objective is to use controlled methods to collect the soil or material that we are cleaning up, rather than dispersing it into other areas around the facility.

A great analogy is to compare these methods to the types of cleaning we conduct in our homes. We do not dust our living room with compressed air. We need the same type of control in our plants. There might be specific applications for difficult areas to dust, so we might use compressed air in a can to clean keyboards or tight spaces but then would quickly clean up the soil that is dislodged. The same would apply in a processing facility. Only use controlled methods that are applicable to the environment to clean. The same applies to the use of water cleaning. We do not drag in the garden hose to clean the kitchen floor. We control water use with mopping and spot-cleaning. This should also be applied in the plant. We should not be flooding the environment with water but rather controlling the water used to clean equipment, floors, walls, and ceilings, making sure that the areas can achieve a 100 percent dry environment before beginning production. The goal is to minimize the impact, time, and frequency of cleaning that water has on the environment.

Toward More Efficient Changeovers
It is very difficult to drive these types of changes, especially culture changes, of dry cleaning in a food facility. If there is not a food safety crisis or event, the driving factor needs to focus on the positive financial impact of implementing an uncontrolled-water plan. Focus on minimizing the resources and the cost of these cleaning activities to a business. Ultimately, food safety is the driver, but using the financial impact as the force to build the business case for a dry cleaning initiative will gain acceptance and support.

Minimize the disruption of changing the cleaning method by focusing on the goal to be achieved by the cleaning process. Determine the cleaning method to use and the order of preference. Minimize the time for cleaning by following quick changeover (QCO) principles: Get in and out of those activities as quickly and as efficiently and effectively as possible. This can be done by following sanitary design principles. A great tool to use is the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s Sanitary Design Checklist both for facility and equipment. It provides a resource to facilitate discussion around sanitary design in developing QCO procedures and processes.

Once the developed methods have been proven to be efficient, focus on minimizing the frequency of cleaning. How long can a run go without stopping for cleaning intervention and then be brought back to a basic condition of sanitation and quality? Conduct a comprehensive assessment on reasons to clean. There are reasons to clean beyond food safety and quality. Look at operational needs and plant safety needs. Operational needs include buildup of product on belts causing belt tracking issues, buildup in pipes causing back pressure, and other issues. These same operational needs may also impact human safety issues. Understanding the overall impact for all these reasons is essential in developing a business case for implementing a dry cleaning program.

Order Cleaning Methods by Preference
Give guidance to business team members about the order of preference of cleaning methods selected. The ideal state, when thinking about value-stream mapping, is a no-cleaning scenario. This may seem unreasonable, but there are a few, limited times where this can be applied. The order of preference for cleaning methods to be considered from a financial cost and low-to-high microbial risk is: no cleaning needed, purge, dry clean, dry clean with chemicals, clean in place (CIP), controlled wet cleaning, assisted cleaning system (ACS), controlled CIP, and flood cleaning.

The number one choice is no cleaning needed. This would apply to equipment where there would be redundant or dedicated systems, and where regular cleaning would not be needed. An example of this would be bulk ingredient systems. This would be a regulated system that would not need regular cleaning unless there is contamination or a special event. This applies to bulk materials such as oil, salt, sugar, or even flours if the silos or tanks are designed and maintained appropriately. It can even apply to in-process unit operations. There can be a redundancy in delivery mechanisms to manage for allergens as well. Have a dedicated delivery system for peanuts isolated from a dedicated almond delivery system. These are very stable products requiring little to no cleaning on a regular basis.

If no cleaning is not an option and removal of soil is needed due to changeover for flavors or ingredients that affect quality of product, purging would be the next cleaning method to consider. The question to consider is, “Can the system get just enough of the next product or ingredients purged to meet the product’s sensory needs?” Purging pushes the next product through a pipe using an inert material such as salt or other unique methods. Purging has limited applications owing to not being able to remove 100 percent of the material from the system.

If the need is to remove all the material off or out of the system, then dry cleaning will need to be considered. Cleaning methods such as vacuuming, brushing, scraping, and very limited compressed air use to remove dry soil and debris are used. If this is still not effective, then chemicals will need to be applied to the dry cleaning to remove the soils, but water-based cleaning methods should not be introduced.

When challenges arise using just dry cleaning methods and mechanical action, then water may need to be introduced through fully automated circulation cleaning processes. The step change from dry to wet cleaning parameters is best accomplished with the use of CIP. Fully automated cleaning systems work best as they allow control of parameters such as time, temperature, concentration, flow, and mechanical actions along with the repeatability of the cleaning method. Fully automated systems are very well-controlled and take the human element out of the cleaning equation. This works only for pipes, tanks, and similar equipment that is designed as fully CIP.

A controlled wet clean out of place is the next choice of cleaning method to consider. Just like at home, we do not bring in hoses; we set up a controlled wet environment for cleaning. A better scenario than taking items out of place such as utensils, bowls, and small wares to be washed in the sink would be an automated dishwasher. This provides management of the same parameters as discussed with CIP. Lessons from the pharmaceutical industry reveal the importance of controlling water in that reducing the human element in cleaning is important, and automated cleaning provides control of performance and repeatability for cleaning in a food processing environment. Again, eliminating the human process is important. Human elements like experience, and differences in performance and skill sets vary day to day and person to person, creating inconsistency in the cleaning process.

ACS is a manual CIP process without all the bells and whistles of CIP. A process tank may be used to mix the chemistry and then deliver it to the equipment. This method does increase the chance of human error to occur, however.

Controlled wet cleaning in place may need to be used when ACS and CIP cannot be applied. It may not be possible or reasonable to remove all the pieces and parts of the equipment that are in contact with food and need to be cleaned. Just as when wiping off counters at home, areas in the plant that are soiled and need to be cleaned using water should be controlled in isolation to not spread the soil to other pieces of equipment and areas within the plant.

Flood cleaning should be avoided whenever possible. Full flood cleaning spreads the soil, extending the cleaning process beyond the focus areas. This causes the highest risk to equipment, product, and employees through contamination, early failure of equipment, and risk to human safety.

Key Takeaways
Controlling the risks and financial costs of cleaning can be done by developing and implementing the right cleaning methods discussed here. Developing an internal water-control program, like an audit program for glass and brittle plastic, is required to design out that hazard. The goal is to eliminate unnecessary use of water within a production facility. That starts with choosing the right type of equipment.

Training employees about the new WOW program takes time. It is a challenge to change the culture and mindset that a facility needs to be sparkling. There is a difference between the cleaning processes for stuck-on soils of spaghetti served on a plate versus sugar cookies served on a plate. It would be acceptable to brush off the sugar and crumbs on a serving plate and place toast on the same plate rather than giving the plate a full water-and-detergent cleaning. Employees will challenge the thinking of dry cleaning methods. Implementing this new system takes time to change employees’ mindset.

It is not uncommon to walk through a facility and see uncontrolled water dripping and pools forming under leaky pipes. The need to train employees not to walk by these uncontrolled-water issues is essential in changing the culture and accepting new cleaning methods. Using the home example again, no one would walk by some plumbing issues like dripping, leaking faucets or pooling water at home. People need to see the water differently at the plant just as they do at home. Employees should be empowered to report the leak, grab a squeegee, and push the water down the drain so the surface can dry. They need to see the controlled-water systems put in place and practiced throughout the facility.

Follow the ranked cleaning-method proposal to minimize the added risk of cleaning. Work collaboratively with sanitation engineers to think about early management. Train engineers so that they are aligned with the different cleaning methods that facilitate dry cleaning, or so they design equipment with parts that are easily removable and can be subjected to an automated cleaning process.

Establish a risk-based framework to ensure that the appropriate cleaning methods and sanitation protocols are applied. Regulators also need to understand how the ranked cleaning methods reduce the risk of microbial contamination. Align the methods with scenarios that reduce the microbial risk profile in the processing facility. Understanding the risks, the right methods, and the right cleaning frequency is essential. What is the proper science behind cleaning? Is it to reduce microbial growth or to reduce pest activity? Science needs to support the step change in pathogen risk reduction as well as significant financial impact to the food and beverage production industry.

Controlling water and treating it like glass is a journey for everyone in the food and beverage industry and a destination that profits everyone, including the consumer.   

Karl Thorson is the food safety and sanitation manager at General Mills. Gina R. (Nicholson) Kramer, RS/REHS, is the executive director of Savour Food Safety International.