By AIB International

Preventing allergen cross-contact issues requires several well implemented strategies. Effective cleaning is one of these important strategies. Cleaning is more than just making the facility look good. Cleaning methods take food safety into account, and they are done in a way that prevents contamination of raw materials, products, and equipment.

With allergens being one of the leading causes of food recalls in many countries, proper allergen management and thoroughly cleaning equipment to remove allergen residue is of great concern for food manufacturers.

Cleaning programs that work effectively consider allergens on the production line and in storage, allergen changeover production schedules, and provide enough time to clean the equipment to remove allergens to prevent accidental cross-contact.

Cross-contact vs. Cross-contamination

The terms food cross-contact and food cross-contamination have been used interchangeably, but they refer to two different types of issues, even though both can lead to a food recall.

Food cross-contact will occur when a food allergen is unintentionally transferred from a food containing an allergen to a food that does not contain the allergen. When cross-contact occurs, cooking does not reduce or eliminate the chances of a person with a food allergy having a reaction to the food eaten.

Food cross-contamination occurs when a bacteria or virus is unintentionally transferred from one food product or surface to another. When cross-contamination happens, proper cooking of contaminated food may reduce or eliminate the chances of foodborne illness.

Let the cleaning process begin

A very critical step, as with all cleaning processes, is to remove as much of the product residue from the equipment as possible prior to starting any in-depth cleaning. CIP systems use a pre-rinse to accomplish this. Among other benefits, removing the excess residue will speed up the cleaning process. It will also help prevent the accidental spreading of allergenic materials, especially when using compressed air or water to clean.

Next, scrub the equipment to break up any residue and biofilm. Do not use chemicals before scrubbing. “Why”, you might ask. That’s because debris can only be removed by a mechanical action and not by chemicals alone. The agitation step of cleaning is critical to remove product residues, including those containing allergens.

Know your equipment’s “hot spots”, or the areas where product residue can build-up, such as rollers, scrapers, elbows, tensioners, and product guides, to name a few. And don’t forget to clean product belts, rollers, and other moving equipment, as they can also contain product residue.

It is not uncommon for the cleaning crew to clean the equipment only in the position in which it was stopped. However, they might forget to run it during the cleaning process to reposition it and therefore miss spots because of this oversight. Make sure your cleaning procedures address this issue.

Watch out for compressed air and water

If the equipment can be wet cleaned, rinsing thoroughly is crucial to remove all visible residues. Inexperienced cleaning crews might just spray some water on the equipment and start foaming or applying chemicals, but this method takes a long time and is ineffective.

If you must dry clean, your next step should be brushing and/or vacuuming, which helps reduce the spread of allergens. Compressed air should only be used as a last resort to help dry and clean inaccessible and difficult spots. Since compressed air can move debris, it is very important to control where and when it is used. A thorough inspection of the equipment and surrounding areas should take place afterwards.

Cleaning tools, light and inspection

Cleaning tools are frequently forgotten during the cleaning process. Most cleaning processes use reusable brushes, scrapers, and tools, but follow-up must be done to ensure they are cleaned afterwards. Don’t forget to clean the utensil wash sinks and clean out of place (COP) tanks. Cross-contamination and allergen cross-contact can occur if cleaning tools are not properly maintained, so be sure the tools used for cleaning are part of your cleaning program. Designating cleaning tools for cleaning after each specific type of allergen run, is another control measure that helps prevent cross-contact transfer during cleaning operations. Color coding is often used for this purpose.

Adequate lighting is also key to the cleaning process. Frequently, smaller parts from the production line are taken to a wash pit, COP tank, or wash sink, where lighting may be poor, making it difficult to see any remaining residue. Ensure those areas have good lighting to help ensure cleaning success.

Last but not least, you need to complete a post-cleaning inspection. This process is best performed by someone other than the person who did the cleaning. The inspector should use a good flashlight and be familiar with the equipment’s “hot spots”, where residue might accumulate.

It is critical that the plant allows enough time to conduct a proper post-cleaning inspection. This allows for recleaning when needed before the line resumes production to prevent unplanned downtime.

It is advisable to do allergen testing on cleaned equipment on a periodic basis. This can validate that the cleaning methods and their execution are effective in removing the allergen residue from the equipment. If the tests show that allergen residue remains, then the cleaning procedures and practices must be evaluated and modified to achieve the desired results.

Below is a list of resources that can help you learn more about cleaning practices, sanitation, food safety, and allergens, among other topics:

Food Safety and Sanitation Online: this course is geared towards helping mid-level managers and supervisors in the food supply chain more effectively manage their food safety systems. With its unique curriculum and design, participants can select from the 24 modules and complete those relevant to their needs or responsibilities.

Food Safety Essential: designed to support frontline workers quickly gain the knowledge they need to perform their jobs. This training is available in English, Spanish and Mandarin.

Microbiology and Food Safety Webinar: this online webinar helps line supervisors and operators, sanitation supervisors, quality managers, and warehouse supervisors improve their knowledge of food safety microbiology.

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