A Uniform Approach To HACCP

Next to their hands, employees’ uniforms pose the greatest risk of product contamination. A quality uniform  supplier should strengthen, not compromise, the HACCP program in a processing environment.

The federal government has made Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) the centerpiece of food-safety initiatives. The system is designed to identify, prioritize and control potential problems. Under HACCP, it is every manufacturer’s prerogative to rank the severity of the physical, chemical and microbial dangers in a process.

While uniforms and garments are not likely the weakest link for a business in which food safety is imperative, operators should recognize the risks of improper care, cleaning and garment handling. Partnering with a uniform supplier that can document the steps taken to minimize the hazards garments can present in a food-handling environment is a value-added proposition.

A Proactive Approach
With global food-safety awareness elevated throughout the supply chain, a proactive approach to controlling hazards is a fundamental aspect of doing business in the food industry today. This process requires vigilant documentation and constant review of processes. The importance of product safety in any food operation is paramount, but it must be acknowledged that this comes at a price, as regulatory compliance and sanitation steps ultimately impact the bottom line.

Out of the top 10 common food-handling practices causing food poisoning, both cross-contamination and infected persons can involve employee uniforms and garments.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates food borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. While there currently is no established USDA or FDA guideline requiring food establishments (processing plants, restaurants, retail meat, deli and bakery departments) to use laundry services, there is a universal expectation within the industry that a sanitized, safe work environment will be maintained.

Food Safety & Uniforms
Adhering to strict food-safety and sanitation procedures is required to minimize the risk of customers contracting a foodborne illness. Outbreaks of foodborne illnesses have spawned lawsuits and liability claims, costing careless companies millions settlements and millions more in reputation damage.

A clean facility is not necessarily a sanitary facility. “Clean” typically implies visible cleanliness. Sanitation addresses levels of invisible cleanliness. Foodborne illnesses can be caused by microorganisms, such as pathogens, yeast, mold, viruses and parasites that are impossible to see.

The Uniform Suppliers’ Role
When looking at the role uniforms and garments play in a plant’s HACCP program, customers should expect more than just clean garments. Uniform and work apparel companies must offer specialized HACCP-conscious uniform programs to companies whose success is dependent on food safety. Uniform companies should adopt a HACCP mentality as a part of their daily business, so their customers have one less control point to address. Uniform suppliers should include the following Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs) in their HACCP program to ensure every step of their processes should guard against cross-contamination.

Critical SSOPs
Wash Formulas & Temperature:
It is accepted and verified by many scientific evaluations that linen and garments processed in a well-engineered wash formula are hygienically clean upon completion of the washing process. Hygienically clean is defined as “a reduction in microbial counts to a level free of bacteria, viruses and other disease-producing organisms,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Soaps or detergents loosen soil and also have some microbicidal properties. Hot water provides an effective means of destroying microorganisms, and a temperature of at least 160 degrees F for a minimum of 25 minutes is commonly recommended for hot-water washing.

Regardless of whether hot or cold water is used for washing, the temperatures reached in drying, especially during steaming, provide an additional layer of antimicrobial protection. Once clean apparel passes through a steam tunnel, it is taken from the racks and sorted three times to ensure worn or deteriorating garments are removed.

The preceding process is highly effective at producing hygienically clean garments but there is still a risk of cross-contamination after the garments are washed, cleaned and processed. Such cross-contamination can occur at any point after the drying and conditioning processes within the processing plant, during transportation to distribution centers or even on the delivery trucks to final clients. This is why wrapping the clean garments in a polyurethane bag shortly after conditioning can virtually eliminate the risk of cross contamination.

Transport & Delivery: It’s important to know the safeguards uniform suppliers have in place to avoid cross-contamination during transport and delivery. Some of the Critical Control Points (CCPs) are as follows:
1. Garment Material and Design:  Traditional materials used for aprons, like vinyl and polyurethane, have cleanability issues. The right materials can promote both food and employee safety. A vinyl apron, for example, tends to stiffen after repeated sanitizing and exposure to cold temperatures. The plasticizers used to make vinyl what it is - a pliable material - will start to leach out. On occasion the material becomes hard and brittle, and it could start flecking into the food supply.

A line of work apparel must include various shirts, pants and smocks specifically designed for food-processing environments, all without buttons or pockets which could add potential for contaminants. Color-coded garments can help managers better identify workers and visitors who could be contaminating food products by being outside their designated work areas. Research indicates 100 percent spun-polyester garments provide higher levels of anti-microbial protection as compared to cotton.

2. Carts/Plastic Tubs: Carts used to transport clean clothes should either be designated for carrying clean clothes only or be equipped with a disposable plastic liner or a disposable nylon liner/cover to ensure clean clothes do not contact carts or soiled garments.

3. Pest Control: Each laundry-processing plant should have an effective pest control program in place to minimize possible hazards.

4. Gloves: Disposable gloves should be worn during the sorting of dirty garments, with all sorters wearing disposable gloves that are changed regularly. Gloves should also be worn by handlers of clean food apparel before being poly-wrapped.

5. Cross-contamination on the Service Route: The process for servicing food accounts must be designed and executed in a way that prevents cross contamination.

Cross-contamination can occur when dirty clothes are picked up and placed in the same cart in which clean garments are delivered. Dirty garments should be placed in a disposable plastic laundry bag within the delivery cart and should be stored in a specific location on the truck to avoid cross contamination.  The delivery person should wear disposable gloves when delivering clean garments and picking up dirty garments.

6. Training: All vendor employees must be trained regularly and certified on basic food safety and preventing cross-contamination. Educational programs must include steps to avoid cross-contamination between different departments within the same plant or store on their route, as well as how to handle soiled and cleaned garments at the customer’s facility and on trucks.

Employees of apparel companies should be trained on the company’s HACCP work-apparel cleaning proc
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