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Ensuring the hygiene of food contact cleaning tools and utensils

15 November 2021

Debra Smith explains how to determine an effective tool cleaning method and frequency. 

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Along with utensils that are used in direct contact with food,  cleaning tools – such as brushes, scrapers, and squeegees – that are used for cleaning food contact equipment surfaces, need to be properly cleaned (and disinfected) both before and after use.  If their cleanliness is not managed appropriately dirty tools and utensils can quickly become a source and vector of food safety hazards, including microbial pathogens, allergens, or foreign material.  Appropriate maintenance is important, even for cleaning tools used on environmental surfaces, to control the spread of contamination and protect the food product. 

Cleaning tools and utensils have also been recognised as sources and vectors of contamination in studies and regulatory reports. One study, undertaken by CampdenBRI on behalf of the UK Government, showed that of the 10,000 samples taken from ready to eat, chilled food production environments, 47% of the cleaning tools sampled were positive for Listeria monocytogenes, a dangerous food pathogen. Another more recent example comes from October last year, when Food Safety News reported that the FDA had issued a warning letter to a food manufacturer highlighting ‘critical food safety violations’, including the improper movement and use of an unclean broom from a wet cooler passageway to a ready-to-eat (RTE) food production area. Whole genome sequencing traced L. mono., found in the RTE area, back to the broom. The FDA concluded that food manufacturer did not clean and disinfect their utensils and equipment in ‘a manner that protected against contamination of food, food-contact surfaces, or food-packaging materials.’ 

Validated cleaning of cleaning tools is also a requirement of many global food safety standard – as benchmarked by GFSI. These include,

• Safe Quality Food Program - SQF Code Edition 9 requires that all equipment and utensils be cleaned after use.

• FSSC22000 - ISO/TS 22002-1:20094 Prerequisite programmes on food safety Part 1: Food manufacturing:

        – Clause 11.2 - Cleaning and sanitising agents and tools – states that tools and equipment shall be of hygienic design and maintained in a condition which does not present a potential source of extraneous matter.
        – Clause 11.3 – requires that cleaning and sanitising programmes shall be established and validated by the organisation to ensure that all parts of the establishment and equipment  are cleaned and/or sanitised to a defined schedule, including the cleaning of cleaning equipment.
        – Clause 11.5 – states that cleaning and sanitation programmes shall be monitored at frequencies specified by the organisation to ensure their continuing suitability and  effectiveness.

• International Featured Standard (2020). IFS Food 7 requires that all product equipment be in a condition that does not compromise food safety and quality, and defines equipment as including equipment used to clean and sanitise food premises or equipment.

• BRC (2018). Global Standard Food Safety, Issue 8 August 2018,  Clause 4.11.6 states that cleaning equipment shall be cleaned and stored in a hygienic manner to prevent contamination. 

Determining an effective, i.e., validated, tool cleaning method and frequency therefore becomes extremely important, both to ensure food safety and quality, and compliance with audit requirements. 

Key steps
The key steps involved with determining a typical tool cleaning process are shown in Figure 1.

A. Choose equipment of good hygienic design – is it easy to clean? Tools with smooth, non-porous surfaces, and gently curved angles are easier to clean than a rough, porous surfaces with sharp internal angles and numerous nooks and crannies. When selecting equipment give it a 360° inspection for hotspots where contaminants may get lodged and be difficult and time consuming to remove. 


B. Evaluate the nature of the soil: What are you trying to remove? Is it just visible soil? If so, is it a loose dry material? A sticky wet one? Or a fatty one? Maybe you also need to remove microorganisms, where some form of disinfection step (heat, UV, chemical) is required after cleaning, or microscopic allergen particles, where a through wet clean is the only method possible to achieve an acceptable level of removal.  Soil chemistry, the hazard type, and the acceptable level of cleanliness (based on risk) will all influence the soil removal process you choose.

C. Consider the appropriate cleaning parameters: The TACT model (also called Sinner’s Circle) can assist in assigning an effective tool decontamination method. Each of the TACT points are critical factors that may highly influence soil removal from a surface while cleaning.

• Time: How long is given to the cleaning process? 
• Action: The mechanical agitation applied during the cleaning process.
• Chemical: The concentration of the chemicals used to act on the soil.
• Temperature: This should be at a level that effectively and efficiently removes the soil (consider the removal of fats versus proteins) and is sometime dictated by the chemical used. 

We have added two more key factors to the TACT model – Employees, who must be trained and competent in the cleaning procedures, and Resources such as cleaning tools, work instructions, etc. to give TACTER.

D. Select the most effective tool cleaning method: The most common cleaning method used when cleaning tools and utensils is to soak and agitate them in a detergent bath at a separate cleaning station. When visibly clean, the tools should be rinsed in clean water, disinfected (as appropriate), rinsed again (as appropriate), and then dried. Tools for high-risk products such as infant formula may also be sterilised. For tools and utensils used in low-moisture production, such as flour and seasonings, dry-cleaning of the tools may be achieved by simply shaking, gently knocking, and wiping the tool or utensil to remove soil. Some heavily soiled tools may require a combination of cleaning methods, such as scraping to remove gross debris and then scrubbing with detergent, rinsing, and drying. Whatever method you choose, care must be taken to limit the spread of contaminants during cleaning.

E. Ensure the tools can withstand the cleaning process: Tools need to be resistant to the chemicals, heat, and mechanical stresses encountered during cleaning. As part of the validation process, it is important to assess the tool’s durability under the same conditions as it will be exposed to during cleaning and use. This may involve regular inspection of the tool for signs of wear and tear, or some form of experimentation to determine a method that is both suitable for decontamination and maximises the useable lifetime of the tool. Testing may be done using different types and concentrations of chemicals (QUATS, bleach, alcohol solution etc.); different temperature ranges (freezing, ambient, dishwasher and autoclave settings); and varied mechanical stresses (high, medium, and low impact).

F. Measure the effectiveness of the cleaning process (Monitoring and Verification):  Monitoring involves giving the tool a real-time check, to ensure that it has been cleaned properly, and making any corrections required immediately. Monitoring methods include visual inspection, and ATP testing. Verification, on the other hand, is a periodic review of the test results (visual inspection check sheets, ATP results, micro-analysis, allergen testing, etc.) to determine whether the validated cleaning protocols are still effective. Note that monitoring and verification activities are not supposed to be conducted by the team implementing the cleaning processes. If the level of clean required has not been met, the cleaning/disinfection process should be repeated. If the level of clean achieved continues to fall below what is required the cleaning method should be revised, re-validated, and the revised method used in the future.

Debra Smith is global hygiene specialist at Vikan.

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