Clean machine

By John Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Hygiene

Clean machine
Stringent hygiene procedures and good cleaning routines are essential in maintaining the very highest levels of cleanliness in high risk food processing areas. It's something many hospitals could learn from, reports John Dunn

If I had to have an operation, I would prefer to have it done in a food factory than in a hospital, says Stuart McNeil, technical manager of Gramos Applied, the Smethwick-based supplier of cleaning and hygiene products to the food industry. He is rather passionate about hygiene.

"The cleaning and hygiene regime in most high risk food factories -- places where food is prepared that is not going to be cooked, such as sandwiches and sushi -- is very good. Many of them have much better hygiene practices than some hospitals. And the hand washing regime is far stricter."

So let's hope none of us breaks a leg, then.

Nevertheless, says McNeil, even the best food factories can occasionally take their eye of the ball with regard to hygiene. And that is why, as a member of the Society of Food Hygiene Technology (SoFHT), as well as its publicity director, McNeil has been going back to basics at SoFHT's annual conference in Telford this month. He has been giving delegates a timely reminder of basic food hygiene rules.

The simplest way to keep your factory clean is to clean properly and disinfect properly, says McNeil. But things can get in the way of good hygiene, even in the best run food factories. "There's pressure from production to get product out of the door because that's where the money is made. Hygiene is often seen as throwing money down the drain, which is what it is. And so machinery breakdowns and production over-runs will eat into cleaning time."

Under this pressure, factories can simply lose sight of basic hygiene, says McNeil. "It's that old saying: it's hard to remember you're draining a swamp when you're being bitten in the backside by alligators!"

But it's not difficult to clean and disinfect properly, he argues. First pre-rinse, then apply the cleaning chemicals and rinse. Apply disinfectant, then rinse and dry. "That's it, that's what you have to try not to lose sight of. It doesn't matter how you apply your cleaning chemicals, by hand, by foam, or whatever, the idea is to rinse off the gross debris, apply your cleaning chemical, and let it do its work. Then rinse it off, disinfect, rinse again, and dry. And there you have a clean surface, ready to start work on again."

But there's another, equally important, aspect to McNeil's back-to-basics campaign, he says -- reminding people to wash their hands properly. "At any high risk food factory in this country you wouldn't get through the door without a white coat, hair covering, and washing your hands three times. The hand washing regime is far stricter than in hospitals."

But mistakes do slip in. And he has to train people how to wash their hands properly, says McNeil. "As a kid I wasn't allowed to sit down to eat unless I had washed my hands. Even at school you washed your hands and had them inspected before you had your school dinners. Children today aren't taught to wash their hands as a matter of course before they eat. And people are very surprised when they go into a food factory and are forced into the hand-washing regime.

"Many times I've stood up in front of 50 people in a factory and told them how to wash their hands properly. I tell them it should take as long to wash their hands as it does to sing 'Happy Birthday'."

But there's another increasingly attractive way to cope with the pressure to cut costs on the cleaning budget. Get rid of cleaning altogether. Outsource it.

Outsourcing factory cleaning

Outsourcing factory and office cleaning to a specialist contract cleaning company has several advantages for food companies, says Bob Cannell, business development manager for Slough-based Hygiene Group, supplier of contract hygiene services to the food and pharmaceuticals industries.

In-house cleaning teams tend to be expensive, he argues. They attract premium wages. There's the cost of chemicals, equipment, and management. And most food factories forget to factor in the costs of training and laundry since these tend to get lost in the general factory overhead. Also, if the production line runs short of staff, they will often raid the hygiene team.

But the benefit of contracting out cleaning is not just cost saving, says Cannell. He reckons his teams of on-site contract cleaners are better trained, better equipped, better managed, and better motivated than many in-house cleaning teams. "We exist to clean. So we can do it quicker, better, and cheaper. And since we are not direct employees of a company, they can't raid our cleaning teams."

Everything his contract teams do has to pass muster with the supermarkets and the food industry's audit bodies. "We have to demonstrate due diligence in everything we do so that clients feel comfortable that they can demonstrate due diligence as well."

For real dedication to cleaning, however, you need to turn to Cannell's rapid response grime busters. The Hygiene Group has a regional network of highly trained, highly equipped, mobile cleaning teams ready to tackle one-off or infrequent cleaning jobs, particularly high level work -- everything from ceilings to silos. There is even a team of three, fully trained in rope access work. "They tend to see themselves as a bit of a macho outfit," says Cannell.

But there is an alternative to abseiling across ceilings to shift dust from girders and prevent bugs and beetles from dropping on to the production line. It's called automation. The more you can automate your production line, the more you can reduce your reliance on manual labour, says David Bradford, managing director of Manchester-based automation specialist RTS Flexible Systems.

And the fewer people handling food, the less the risk of slip-ups in the time-consuming and costly personal hygiene and handwashing regimes. Potentially, automation allows you to enclose parts of your production line in their own sterile environments (the so-called 'factory in a tube' concept), he says.

The development of high speed pick-and-place robots, such as ABB's lightweight FlexPicker, has revolutionised food factory automation, says Bradford. "But there is still a perception that automation can cause big cleaning headaches." That's why he makes a distinction between so-called hard automation (dedicated automated lines) and flexible automation, using robotics. It is true, he says, that some hard automation systems, for making lasagne fully automatically, for example, have earned a reputation for being a nightmare to clean.

"But modern robots are lightweight, open structures making them easy to clean. And we will use stainless steel and design out any bug traps. The robot itself can be hosed down or housed in a protective cover." And in some cases a robot can simply be wheeled up to a production line to do a job, then wheeled away later to be cleaned. RTS has also developed systems that automatically change the robot grippers in direct contact with food. The dirty gripper is dumped in a cryogenic cleaning bath while a clean one is fitted automatically.

"I don't want to say it's easy to clean robotics," says Bradford. "It does cost a bit more. But robotics is becoming very competitive with manual labour in terms of hygiene. It offers traceabilty of what's touching the product. And it avoids problems with people not following, for whatever reason, the hygiene rules."FM

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