New challenges in hygiene, ready for the bends in the road

Hygiene plays a key role in food production processes and in many cases can be considered as an integral part of them. In some industries, such as the meat industry, cleaning and disinfection operations can take up to a third of the working day.

Thus, it can be understood that the current situation of change, uncertainty and new needs in the food industries also has a great impact on hygiene. We face new questions in hygiene: what can we do? What can we implement and how can we implement it?

New demands and challenges

Some of the new demands placed on the food industry also affect hygiene. For example, consumers are demanding maximum food safety, but at the same time they are demanding food products with minimum intervention, so that it is processed as little as possible. This means that hygiene plays an increasingly important role in preventing cross-contamination and ensuring the quality and safety of food.

Climate change also gives rise to new needs affecting hygiene. The most obvious example is the growing importance of water and energy saving. But it also has an impact on the changes that can occur in the microbiota of food and production environments, which can lead to new food risks as well as affect the shelf life of food.

Apart from these factors, we also have changes and pressures caused by demanding regulations. In general, regulations evolve to make the use of cleaning and disinfection products safer, but we have specific cases such as the Biocidal Products Regulation. This regulation was designed to unify the criteria for approval of disinfectants and guarantee their safe use, but it imposes so many restrictions and conditions that it greatly limits their application in practice, which can have the undesired effect of negatively affecting the efficacy of disinfection processes.

The right response

These are just a few examples of the challenges facing hygiene in food industries. In this situation, we need to consider how to effectively respond to these challenges. To do so, we can rely on factors such as:

  • The advances in knowledge that occur in different scientific disciplines.
  • The development of new technologies and materials.
  • Cooperation with industry, as well as with the administration and suppliers of hygiene-related tools.
  • And, especially important, having a global viewof all the factors that contribute to efficient hygiene.

In this way, we can aim to integrate into our hygiene processes aspects that are increasingly in demand, such as:

  • Fast availability of results
  • Automation of tasks
  • Better management of information related to hygiene processes.
  • Making hygiene increasingly sustainable
  • hygiene management that integrates all the factors that contribute to the best results.
  • And, above all, hygiene processes that build trust.

Below are some examples of innovations and new technologies that have been introduced in recent years to help hygiene processes to adapt to these new challenges.

Process automation

Process automation makes it possible to achieve various improvements in hygiene processes:

  • Optimisation of the application conditions, setting precise times and amount of energy applied.
  • Time savings, as dedicated staff can be directed to other operations.
  • Reproducibility of results – the cleaning result does not depend on personal aspects.
  • Application to operations that were inefficient manually, like belt or hook cleaning.

For example, by automating the cleaning of hooks in poultry slaughterhouses, we ensure that an important vector of contamination is decontaminated during the production process itself, whereas previously these elements were not cleaned due to operational difficulties.

Microbiological control

Moreover, the study of microbiological contamination in the production environment, aided by Next Generation DNA sequencing techniques, provides important information on potential risks to food. Environmental microbiota have a major impact on food characteristics and can be altered by external factors. An exhaustive microbiological control of the plant can help us not only to identify points of risk, but also to study the evolution of the microbial load throughout the year, and thus monitor the impact of temperatures on this load.

Additionally, by using massive sequencing techniques, such as metagenomics based on the 16s rRNA gene, we can identify the microorganisms present in the plant and their seasonal variation. Thus, for example, we have seen significant variations in the composition of the microbiota in samples taken at the same points at different times of the year and increase in the prevalence of microorganisms species associated with biofilm growth.

 

Microbial counts in poultry slaughterhouses at the same sampling points at different times of the year. M. Sanz et al (2021) Christeyns.

Figure 1. Microbial counts in poultry slaughterhouses at the same sampling points at different times of the year. M. Sanz et al (2021) Christeyns.

Hygiene monitoring

More and more production processes in the food industry are monitored in real time, in order to optimise times and identify deviations that may affect the food. This also applies to hygiene operations and is common in cleaning in recirculation systems, such as CIP systems or tunnel washers.

However, we can also apply this principle to OPC cleaning on open surfaces. In this case, we can install sensors that constantly monitor key parameters of the cleaning and disinfection process so that we can collect the data and control in real time how the cleaning is being carried out and whether it is in line with the planned plan, as well as analyse them a posteriori to optimise procedures and contribute to saving time and resources.

Hygiene operations can contribute to improving the overall sustainability of the production process in the food industry. This is not a technological advance in itself, but is supported by other technological tools and the key is how they are combined to achieve the best results adapted to the needs of the industry in each case.

Thus, we can include options such as:

  • Water reclamation, treatment and reuse, appropriate to the possibilities in each case.
  • Savings in water and energy consumption, by optimising cleaning protocols supported by tools such as those seen above.
  • Use of more environmentally friendly products that minimise P and N inputs into discharge waters or avoid the use of ingredients from non-renewable resources.

In short, there are a large number of tools available to facilitate the evolution of hygiene management in the food industry, and it is our duty to know them and make use of them in order to adapt to the changing needs of industry, society and authorities. In any case, we must not forget that the main objective of hygiene, and also of food producers, is to ensure food safety. For this reason, this is all very well and we can offer a lot of novelties to our users, but we must have procedures in place to ensure that what we do in hygiene meets the needs, and that the results are valid from a technical as well as a regulatory point of view.

Quality applied to hygiene

In this respect, we can also rely on existing tools such as quality standards and their certification processes. This also applies to hygiene. Following this model allows us to structure the hygiene services offered in an efficient way, and also to ensure that they are supplied in an effective and appropriate way to the needs of the industry, by defining quality criteria for hygiene performance, setting targets and indicators, and implementing continuous improvement plans.

All this must be properly documented, which also contributes to the traceability and verification of hygiene. If we also introduce regular reviews and external audits, we can have our own quality system to increase the reliability and trustworthiness of our hygiene processes.

It is precisely to highlight the importance of food safety that World Food Safety Day is celebrated every 7 June. Despite advances in food production and distribution, there are still significant challenges to ensure that all people have access to safe and nutritious food and we need to be aware and make use of the tools available to achieve this goal.

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