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Industry Insider: Get the Basics on Color-Coding

A comprehensive food safety plan considers the people, equipment, process and environment involved in the food production process. Color-coding can be a helpful system to protect the food product.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Food Manufacturing

About 48 million people (1 in 6 Americans) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year from foodborne diseases, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is a significant public health burden that is largely preventable.*

ALSO SEE: Preventing Contamination

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law by President Obama on Jan. 4, enables the FDA to better protect public health and shift the focus from responding to food contamination to preventing food contamination. The following are among FDA’s key new prevention authorities and mandates:

  • Preventive controls for food facilities: Food facilities are required to implement a written preventive controls plan. This involves: (1) evaluating the hazards that could affect food safety, (2) specifying what preventive steps, or controls, will be put in place to significantly minimize or prevent the hazards, (3) specifying how the facility will monitor these controls to ensure they are working, (4) maintaining routine records of the monitoring, and (5) specifying what actions the facility will take to correct problems that arise.*
  • Produce safety standards: FDA must establish science-based, minimum standards for the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables. Those standards must consider naturally occurring hazards, as well as those that may be introduced either unintentionally or intentionally, and must address soil amendments (materials added to the soil such as compost), hygiene, packaging, temperature controls, animals in the growing area and water.*

One of the most important FDA-proposed rules is HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points). Complying with HACCP regulations is an important part of any food processing operation, and knowing where the critical zones are and preventing cross-contamination from happening is an integral part of this compliance. Currently, there are HACCP procedures for dairy, juice, retail seafood, and retail and food service. HACCP is a preventative approach to the identification, evaluation, and control of food safety hazards that may cause illness or injury when not properly controlled. Put simply, HACCP is designed to help control the threat of cross-contamination from biological, chemical, and physical agents. According to the FDA, “any action or activity that can be used to prevent, eliminate or reduce a significant hazard” is considered a control measure. Color-coding is an excellent example of a control measure.

Once potential food safety hazards are identified, critical control points can be documented. The FDA defines a critical control point in a food manufacturing process as “a step at which control can be applied and is essential to prevent or eliminate a food safety hazard or reduce it to an acceptable level.” Knowing where the critical control points exist in a food production process is essential to designing an effective HACCP plan.

A comprehensive food safety plan considers the people, equipment, process and environment involved in the food production process. Color-coding can be a helpful system to protect the food product. Color-coding can also help food processors improve productivity as part of a 5S system that integrates color “cues” throughout the work process to reduce waste and optimize productivity.

Common allergens that are often addressed through color-coding include milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. Different colors are typically assigned based on type of food or task, or by “zones” within a food processing facility.  For example, typical sanitation zones may be defined as food contact areas, non-food contact areas, remote and/or non-food processing.

While there are no federal or state regulations in place specifically for color-coded tools, the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has developed Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) procedures that recommend the use of color coding on items such as employee smocks, containers, tools, cleaning equipment and utensils. Similarly, no rules exist about what colors should be used for various purposes, but certain colors have become standard in the industry: red for raw meat, blue for seafood, green for produce, white for finished food and yellow for hazardous areas.

Tips for Successful Color-Coding**

  • Keep it simple –color assignments should be logical and not complex
  • Be consistent – color assignments should be consistent in how they are applied
  • Consider contrast – color assignments should be easily recognized among food being processed so the tools can be more easily identified when lost or misplaced
  • Communicate your color-coding program – it’s critical to make sure all employees are on board. To help assure compliance, some employers recommend meeting with shift employees first, then rolling out to all employees to ensure compliance.

Implementing a well-delineated color-coded system is one of the most effective and straightforward ways of preventing cross contamination and maintaining good hygiene, and it can be particularly effective in breaking down language barriers in multilingual food processing facilities. Through proper training, employees better understand and can clearly identify tools by their various colors. Color-coding is also an effective means of distinguishing between “material handling” and “cleaning/sanitation” within a food processing facility, which saves employees time and potential confusion in between food runs or processes.

During inspections, regulators from the FDA often looks favorably upon color-coding as part of a comprehensive food safety plan because it can be easily followed by employees, and easily documented to improve traceability in the case of a food safety recall.

To get started, contact your Grainger representative about conducting a facility audit with the color-coding experts at Remco Products Corporation.

* FSMA website - http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/FSMA/

** Provided by Remco™ and Vikan™ color-coded solutions.

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