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Keeping the entire cold chain clean and safe

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Dozens of complex components play unique roles in the production and distribution of food and beverage products, from sinks and tanks to assembly lines. Image credit: Lechler-USA
Dozens of complex components play unique roles in the production and distribution of food and beverage products, from sinks and tanks to assembly lines. Image credit: Lechler-USA

Compiled by Benjamin Brits

Many types of cleaning, disinfection or sterilisation are required at the various points in the cold chain, where appropriate equipment, methods, chemicals and lubricants need to meet and adhere to local and international regulations and standards.

Cleaning regimes are something that cannot be neglected or bypassed in the chain. This could be from the pack house on the farm, the processing and packaging plant, refrigerated transport and right through to the shelves at the retail level. This function is critical in best practices to eliminate hazards and risks in foodstuff-handling areas and storage of any kind that can in reality easily become contaminated when cleaned and sanitised improperly, not frequently enough, or not at all.

Cleaning and by extension, contamination awareness, is an aspect of the cold chain that requires continual considerations with the endless amounts of contact points, as several interactions with the various components that make up the process occur.

Without proper hygiene, cleaning and disinfection, a safe product cannot be delivered consistently and devastating consequences can follow. As consumers gain more variety in product ranges, improved processes are required.

It should go without saying that everyone has the right to expect the food that they eat to be safe and suitable for intake, no matter if fresh or in processed form. Foodborne illness and foodborne injury can be severe (or fatal), or, have a negative impact on health over the longer term. Furthermore, outbreaks of foodborne illness can create damage on an overarching economic level – where for example tourism may suffer. Food spoilage is also wasteful, costly, threatens food security and can adversely affect business and consumer confidence.

International trade and the flow of travellers is continually increasing, bringing important benefits. However, this also makes the spread of foodborne illness around the world far easier today. Eating habits have also undergone major changes in many countries and new food production, preparation, storage and distribution techniques have developed to reflect this.

In food processing applications, cleaning and sanitation requires continual monitoring and testing – above visual inspections of equipment. Image credit: Ecoyou | Pixabay
In food processing applications, cleaning and sanitation requires continual monitoring and testing – above visual inspections of equipment. Image credit: Ecoyou | Pixabay

Effective practices are therefore vital to avoid the adverse consequences in terms of health as well as spoilage. Everyone in the cold chain, including primary producers, importers, manufacturers and processors, food warehouse/logistics operators, food handlers, retailers, and even the consumers themselves, have a responsibility to ensure that food is safe and suitable for consumption. Food business operators should be aware of and understand the hazards associated with the food they handle and sell, as well as the various measures required to control such hazards relevant to their business.

According to an NSF white paper, one mistake many food-production companies, beverage manufacturers and food-service operators/handlers make, is assuming that if a contact surface is visibly clean, it is also sanitary. Bacteria such as salmonella and escherichia coli (E. coli) are known to be resistant to soaps and detergents. Consequently, the threat of bacterial contamination at any contact point has not necessarily been fully addressed regardless of how diligently it has been “observably cleaned”.

When looking at technical operational aspects, cleaning and sanitising are not in fact the same, they are two separate procedures. Cleaning helps increase the effectiveness of sanitising efforts by removing organic materials at a visible surface level. Any organic matter can (and is most likely) a good breeding ground for several pathogens. Therefore, cleaning needs to always be done first. Sanitising is what actually reduces the number of pathogens and other microorganisms to levels considered safe for human health. Either process is reliant on the other in terms of effectiveness.

The importance of disinfection and hygiene

In the cold chain, from producer to the shelves at retail outlets, cleaning and sanitising is required to manage contamination risk. Image credit: Eduardo Soares | Unsplash
In the cold chain, from producer to the shelves at retail outlets, cleaning and sanitising is required to manage contamination risk. Image credit: Eduardo Soares | Unsplash

Applying stringent sanitation requirements to all work areas and equipment is critical. Disinfection prevents cross-contamination of chemicals or ingredients from one product to the next, while also preventing microbial contamination, that often leads to reduced product quality and the potential of spreading disease.

Following appropriate protocols is also directly linked to saving money by reducing waste and extending the life of products and production equipment alike. It further addresses employee safety and overall efficiency when soil residue is removed which can contribute to risk situations.

Production preparation processes, such as cleaning fruits and vegetables, also require the proper cleaning and disinfecting tools. This may need to cater to a product’s various forms – be this in whole or cut/processed versions. The same applies for such things as bottle and barrel cleaning. Coating functions, trays, trolleys, hooks, racks, packaging and movement tools also need to be considered in disinfection and hygiene too.

Basic principles of food hygiene

Several official documents outline the “general principles” that should be understood and followed by food and beverage role-players (FBR) – at all stages of the food supply chain. These provide the basis for authorities, locally and (on export goods) in other countries, to oversee food safety and suitability of protocols.

Taking into account the stage in the food chain, the nature of the product, the relevant potential contaminants, and whether those contaminants adversely affect safety, suitability or both of foodstuffs and beverages, these principles enable FBR businesses to develop their own practices and necessary safety control measures, while complying with regulations and standards. While it is the FBR’s responsibility to provide safe products, for some this may be as simple as ensuring that certain key steps are adequately implemented.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has such a programme refined into a five-key-step guide. These include: ‘keep clean, separate raw and cooked, cook thoroughly, keep food at safe temperatures, and use safe water and raw materials.

FBRs need to be aware of all hazards that may affect their product(s). Good hygiene practices (GHPs) are the foundation of any effective control of hazards associated with these businesses. For some FBRs effective implementation of GHPs will be sufficient to address food safety. The sufficiency of the implemented GHP to address food safety could be determined through conducting a hazard analysis and determining how to control identified hazards.

However, not all FBRs have the expertise to do this. If the FBR is not able to conduct a hazard analysis, they may rely on information on appropriate food safety practices from external sources such as provided by authorities, academia or other bodies (such as trade associations or professional societies) that have been based on the identification of relevant factors. Guidance documents describing safety procedures are based on analyses conducted by experts knowledgeable about the hazards and controls needed to ensure the safety of specific types of products.

When external generic guidance is used, the FBR should make sure that the guidance corresponds with the activities of their establishment and ensure all relevant aspects are managed. All GHPs are important but some have a greater impact on food safety. Therefore, greater attention may be needed to provide safe goods. For example, the cleaning of equipment and surfaces which come into contact with ready-to-eat food should warrant greater attention than other areas such as the cleaning of walls and ceilings, because if food contact surfaces are not properly “cleaned”, this could lead to direct and immediate contamination risk.

Greater attention may also include a higher frequency of application, of monitoring and of testing and verification. In some circumstances, the implementation of GHPs may not be sufficient to ensure food safety due to the complexity of the food operation and/or specific hazards associated with the product or process, technological advances (e.g., extending shelf-life through modified atmosphere packaging) or end use of the product (e.g., products destined for a special dietary purpose). In such cases, when there are significant hazards identified through hazard analysis as not being controlled by GHPs, they should be addressed in a comprehensive hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) plan.

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Control of food hazards

The development, implementation and maintenance of GHPs provide the conditions and activities that are necessary to support safety and suitability of food and beverages at all stages of the food supply chain – from primary production (farming/producer level) through to handling of the final product at retail level. Knowledge of the food or beverage, and its production process is essential for the effective implementation of GHPs which may include: appropriate location, layout, design, construction and maintenance of premises and facilities – and should be applied in conjunction with sector and product-specific codes.

GHPs manage many sources of hazards which could contaminate products, such as:

  • persons who handle food at harvest, during manufacturing, and during preparation
  • raw materials and other ingredients purchased from suppliers
  • cleaning and maintaining the work environment
  • storage and display.

As previously noted, all FBRs should be aware of, and understand, hazards associated with their businesses, and the control measures required to manage such.

FBRs should consider using external resources as needed whether the application of GHPs alone is sufficient to manage some or all of the hazards associated with the operation through control of their sources, e.g. control of water quality – minimises the presence of many potential hazards (be they biological, chemical or physical); control of faecal contamination – minimises the potential for contamination with many foodborne pathogens such as salmonella, campylobacter, yersinia, pathogenic strains of E.coli; control of food handler practices and hygiene – prevents many potential communicable diseases that could be foodborne; and control of food contact surfaces by cleaning – removes bacterial contaminants, including foodborne pathogens and allergens.

After consideration of the conditions and activities in the business, it may be determined that GHPs alone may be sufficient to manage the hazards. However, it may also be determined that it is necessary to place greater attention on some GHPs that are particularly important for food safety – e.g. increased stringency of cleaning of a mincer for producing minced meat for raw or lightly cooked consumption, compared to equipment used for producing meat to be cooked prior to consumption; increased monitoring and/or verification of disinfection of food contact surfaces.

Steam cleaning, or more correctly termed, dry steam cleaning, is known to be one of the most effective food safety solutions for food processing facilities. Image credit: Drysteam Supreme
Steam cleaning, or more correctly termed, dry steam cleaning, is known to be one of the most effective food safety solutions for food processing facilities. Image credit: Drysteam Supreme

Hazards that occur, or are present at levels where GHP procedures are not sufficient to provide safe food, should be managed by an appropriate combination of control measures that are capable of preventing occurrence of hazards, eliminating or reducing them to an acceptable level. The control measures can be identified in one or more steps throughout the production process.

Adequate and, where necessary, separate facilities for the safe and hygienic storage of food and beverage products, ingredients, packaging materials and non-food chemicals (including cleaning materials, lubricants, fuels), should be provided. Storage should allow for segregation of raw and cooked foods or allergenic and non-allergenic. Food storage facilities should be designed and constructed to:

  • facilitate adequate maintenance and cleaning
  • avoid pest access and harbourage
  • enable food to be effectively protected from contamination, including allergen cross-contact, during storage and
  • where necessary, provide an environment which minimises the deterioration of food (such as by temperature and humidity control).

The type of storage facilities required will depend on the nature of the food or beverage. Separate, secure, storage facilities for cleaning materials and hazardous substances should be provided.

Cleaning and disinfection methods and procedures can be carried out by the separate or combined use of physical methods, such as heat, scrubbing, turbulent flow and vacuum cleaning (or other methods that avoid the use of water), in addition to chemical methods using solutions of detergents, alkalis or acids.

Dry cleaning or other appropriate methods for removing and collecting residues and debris may be needed in some operations and/or processing areas where water increases the likelihood of microbiological contamination. Care should be taken to ensure cleaning procedures do not lead to contamination of food, e.g. pressure washing can spread contamination from dirty areas, such as floors and drains over a wide area and contaminate food contact surfaces or even exposed goods.

Cleaning and disinfection procedures should ultimately ensure that all parts of the establishment/facility are appropriately clean. Where necessary, programmes should be drawn up in consultation with relevant experts. Written cleaning and disinfection procedures should be deployed and should specify:

  • areas, items of equipment and utensils to be cleaned, and, where appropriate, disinfected
  • responsibility for particular tasks
  • method and frequency of cleaning and, where appropriate, disinfection and
  • monitoring and verification activities.

Monitoring of effectiveness

Application of cleaning and disinfection procedures should be monitored for effectiveness and periodically verified by means such as visual inspections and audits to ensure the procedures have been applied properly. The type of monitoring will depend on the nature of the procedures, but could include pH, water temperature, conductivity, cleaning agent concentration, disinfectant concentration, and other parameters important to ensure the cleaning and disinfection programme is being implemented as designed and verify its effectiveness.

Microorganisms can sometimes become tolerant to disinfecting agents over time. Cleaning and disinfection procedures should follow the manufacturers’ instructions. Periodic review with disinfectant manufacturers/suppliers, where feasible, should be conducted to help ensure the disinfectants used continue to be effective and appropriate.

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Rotation of disinfectants could further be considered to ensure inactivation of different types of microorganisms (bacteria and fungi). While effectiveness of cleaning and disinfecting agents and instructions for use are validated by their manufacturers, measures should be taken for sampling and testing the environment and food contact surfaces (protein and allergen test swabs, or microbiological testing for indicator organisms) to help verify that cleaning and disinfection programmes are effective and being applied properly.

Microbiological sampling and testing may not be appropriate in all cases and an alternative approach might include observation of cleaning and disinfection procedures, including the correct disinfectant concentration, to achieve the necessary results and to make sure protocols are being followed. Cleaning and disinfection and maintenance procedures should be regularly reviewed and adapted to reflect any changes in circumstances and documented as appropriate.

HACCP system guidelines

The HACCP system, that has been covered extensively in prior issued of Cold Link Africa, is science-based and systematic, identifies specific hazards and measures for their control to ensure the safety of food. HACCP is a tool to assess hazards and establish control systems that focus on control measures for significant hazards along the food and beverage supply chain, rather than relying mainly on end-product testing.

Development of a HACCP system may identify the need for changes in processing parameters, in processing steps, in manufacturing technology, in end product characteristics, in method of distribution, in the intended use or in the GHPs applied. Any HACCP system should be capable of accommodating change, such as advances in equipment design, processing procedures or technological developments.

HACCP implementation should be guided by scientific evidence of risks to human health. Although it is not always feasible to apply HACCP at primary production, some of the principles can be applied and may be incorporated into good practices programmes (such as good agricultural practices – GAPs). It is recognised that implementation of HACCP may be challenging for some businesses. However, HACCP principles can be applied flexibly in individual operations, and businesses may use external resources (consultants) or adapt a generic HACCP plan provided by a competent authority.

As well as enhancing food safety, implementation of HACCP can provide other significant benefits, such as more efficient processes based on a thorough analysis of capability, more effective use of resources by focusing on critical areas, and fewer recalls through identification of problems before product is released. In addition, the application of HACCP systems can aid review by competent authorities and promote international trade by increasing confidence in food safety.

The successful application of HACCP requires the commitment and involvement of management and personnel and the knowledge and/or training in its application for the particular type of food business. A multidisciplinary approach is strongly recommended; this multi-disciplinary approach should be appropriate to the FBRs’ operation and may include expertise in primary production, microbiology, public health, technology, environmental health, chemistry and engineering – according to the particular application.

A practical approach to cleaning and sanitising

The NSF white paper referred to earlier further offers a summary and step-by-step guideline on how to clean and sanitise contact surfaces, processing and handling areas where the possibility of contamination could exist. They point out primarily the importance of using the correct, certified cleaning and sanitising products in performing the task required as well as deploying the right tools and equipment.

But then, how does one determine if those tools and equipment are safe? There is no overarching regulatory body that governs the entire cold chain. Facilities such as the NSF are therefore heavily involved in this scope of all food-related chemicals and via their processes, products go through a formulation, label and traceability review. Testing is carried out to determine several issues – such as scent. In this example, guidelines do not allow a fragrance to mask an odour related to a food safety issues such as food spoilage. The ultimate objective of passing a product is to assure end-users that a third party has verified the product in question as being suitable for use by food and beverage companies, and in all commercial applications.

Regulatory bodies and food safety programs around the world have their own varied (slightly) versions in terms of what they class as ‘proper cleaning and sanitising’ of food contact points and equipment. The guideline as follows, provides a general overview of the most commonly suggested steps among the different interpretations. Also, in specialist applications or work – further steps or the use of particular systems and chemicals may be required.

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As with the success of any task then, several specialists point to the fact that as a starting point, those allocated staff or outsourced contractors performing any cleaning and sanitising must be properly trained and further fully understand the reasoning behind each task, as well as the consequences associated with incidents.

While these guidelines are meant primarily for food or beverage handling and production facilities, they also apply to foodservice establishments and what is referred to today as ready-to-eat stations found commonly around the country.


As alluded to earlier in this article, the physical removal of “soil deposits” from contact areas is the initial step. “Soil” includes such things as dirt and dust, gross solids, mineral salts, large particles, proteins, lubricants and other residue. Soil removal can include the use of scrapers, dry floor push mops, brushes and brooms, dry or low moisture steaming, and vacuuming, among others.

Residue removal

When rinsing equipment as a primary step, it is recommended to make use of warm potable water (at 48.9° C). The reason for this is that warmer temperatures could cause soil and particles to adherent to surfaces and essentially prevent removal. To avoid recontamination issues, use of high-pressure hoses is discouraged since a high-pressure rinse could aerosolise soils and chemicals into other areas and equipment that have already been cleaned and sanitised. In addition, the use of high-pressure methods hold a likelihood of possible damage to areas and equipment.

An obvious exception to this step is if the area or equipment that requires cleaning needs to stay dry. Exposing dry food products to moisture can lead to mould and bacterial growth. Consequently, dry food processors have to apply interim dry-cleaning methods in-between any periodic wet cleaning. Instead of a rinse, pads, brushes or dry lint-free towels with a cleaning solution that is suitable to use on food contact surfaces can be deployed. Alcohol-based wipes and other solvents that dry quickly are also options as a rinse for dry areas.

Detergents and scrubbing

It is essential to use chemical cleaners intended to remove fat and protein. In addition, it must be ensured that detergents/chemicals are properly mixed by appropriate dilution rates and contact times provided by the cleaning product manufacturer. If this information is not available, it is again essential to obtain this information as these factors affect the effectiveness of managing a contamination risk.

Over-diluted solutions may not be as effective and could even lead to bacteria developing a tolerance. Conversely, high concentrations of detergent could lead to product pollution and compromise of employee safety. Note: Detergents and chemicals alike can be affected by supply water pH and hardness levels.

To make cleaning efforts productive, manual scrubbing of surfaces – especially with an appropriate foaming agent is strongly recommended.

Again, some steps may not apply to dry processing environments; however, special situations require a dry/low-moisture steam or a minimal amount of water with detergent, followed by a rinse and alcohol-based sanitiser. If this is the case, it is crucial that contact surfaces are moisture-free before production continues.

When it is time for equipment used in a dry area to receive a periodic cleaning, the equipment should be disassembled so all stationary parts can be cleaned and sanitised. All removable parts should be taken to a separate cleaning area where detergent and a potable water rinse can be applied. Once parts are clean and dry, they should be returned to the equipment area on a clean, dry cart for sanitising and re-assembly.


Before proceeding to the sanitising stage, a final rinse with potable water is required to completely remove any detergents or residue. This step is very important because detergents are alkaline and most sanitisers are acidic. Without a thorough rinse, the sanitiser could be neutralised by any remaining detergent on the equipment surface. The water can also be warmer than what has been recommended for the first rinse.

A rinse is not recommended in dry areas unless equipment parts are being cleaned in a separate area or unique circumstances which require a minimal amount of water to remove soils. In the latter case, surfaces must be dry before applying a sanitiser or disinfectant.


Inspect all areas and, if necessary, spot cleaning may be required. Teams should pay special attention to “hard-to-reach” areas as typically, these types of areas are too often neglected.

Foodservice operators must further be aware of commercial equipment’s food zones that are not cleanable by hand. Some examples include beverage dispensers, ice machines, soft-serve ice cream dispensers and blenders. If the equipment is certified to any standard, the manufacturer must provide a written set of clean-in-place (CIP) instructions that explain how to clean and sanitise inaccessible areas of a machine, equipment or system.

CIP procedures describe the method by which a detergent solution, water rinse and sanitising solution is mechanically circulated or passed through a piece of equipment and across its surfaces. As with any process, CIP procedures need to be validated by the specialist involved with an operation’s food safety. CIP instructions also require review should any aspect of a facility change, such as handling or processing a different product.


To safely reduce any bacterial load, teams would apply an effective sanitising or disinfecting chemical verified as suitable to use for food and beverage processing or handling environments.

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For clarity, the explanation of the difference between sanitising and disinfecting is as follows. Sanitisers and disinfectants both kill bacteria and other micro-organisms. Disinfectants kill considerably more micro-organisms but generally at a slower rate. Disinfecting chemicals contain stronger chemicals; however, this does not necessarily mean a disinfectant is dangerous to use in a food processing facility or in food handling.

For reference, any product that makes certain claims or bold statements (eg “kills viruses”) must have such statements validated by the appropriate bodies in the region.

Whether choosing a sanitiser or disinfectant product, it must be stated that allocated users should only trust a product’s capability in its intended use. Also, users must only use a particular product for its intended use. This is important because different products have different chemical characteristics that, if used improperly, might further contaminate or degrade areas. Some chemicals are more corrosive than others, while some can be inactivated by organic compounds.

In dry processing facilities, dry cleaning should be followed by a dry sanitising or disinfecting process. It is important to apply a low-moisture, alcohol-based product that has been verified as suitable to use on food contact surfaces. The dry sanitiser or disinfectant needs to be highly evaporative, quick-drying and require no rinsing.


When using a rinse-off sanitiser or disinfectant, the product needs to be completely removed with a potable water rinse. Air drying is the ideal way to dry surfaces because a wipe-down could lead to re-contamination. For areas that must be kept dry or cannot facilitate air drying, a leave-on sanitiser or disinfectant is recommended. It is important to follow the directions for drying times listed on the label when using leave-on products.

Next Steps: Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs)

Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) require the thorough cleaning and sanitisation of food contact surfaces. As if this was not reason enough to follow the guidelines outlined above, these steps should also be incorporated into a food or beverage processor’s SSOP.

An SSOP is a document that provides detailed information about what a facility is doing to make sure food contact surfaces and other areas are being adequately cleaned and sanitised. The procedures must help prevent direct contamination of food and cannot lead to the adulteration of products. As part of its description of activities, an SSOP must go into specifics about:

  • Personnel responsible for performing the procedures
  • Safety measures for protecting consumers and work personnel
  • Safe handling of chemicals
  • Equipment or areas that are being cleaned
  • Key inspection points
  • Schedule of when the procedures are to occur
  • How cleaning activities are continuously verified
  • Tools and steps needed to disassemble an area or equipment
  • Methods of cleaning and sanitising such as the seven steps described in this white paper

SSOPs are described as the “backbone” of a food or beverage processor’s HACCP program. As part of a HACCP plan, SSOPs must be kept on file by the facility and reviewed periodically. Since documentation is required, the use of registered cleaning and sanitising products is an effective way to demonstrate a company’s commitment to reducing contamination risks as much as possible.

 Several machines are available to cater to particular cleaning and sanitising needs. Here an example of a crate cleaning system. Image credit: PHT
Several machines are available to cater to particular cleaning and sanitising needs. Here an example of a crate cleaning system. Image credit: PHT

When it comes to food safety, cleaning represents only half the job of mitigating contamination risks. Once a food processing or commercial facility has been properly cleaned, an equally thorough sanitising effort should follow. This two-part course of action can be broken down into seven steps that also meet the requirements for GMPs, SSOPs and HACCP plans.

Processing and slaughterhouses

Although this particular subject could take several avenues of specialisation for articles such as this, the information available is extensive, and specific to the various divisions of the food and beverage industry.

In a general context of slaughterhouses, preparation, and processing facilities, many other aspects of cleaning, sanitation and hygiene are applicable. These will be considered in future issues of this journal in detail, but as highlights to add to this feature some of the other relevant aspects that need to be considered follow. These include:

  • Site location and proximity to different town zones
  • Size of any facility (too small means overlap on processes = risks)
  • Building/construction of a facility including design of floors, walls and roofs
  • The equipment installed at a site such as work surfaces, hooks, hoists etc and types of construction materials
  • Permanent or non-permanent personnel that access facilities
  • Precise climatic conditions and timeous throughputs that influence hygiene
  • Water and energy supply
  • Processing methodology and facility flow (stunning, slaughtering and bleeding, scalding, skinning, dehairing, plucking, evisceration are all different per product)
  • Packaging
  • Handling and intra-logistics
  • Liquid and solid waste disposal
  • Pest control (insects, rodents, birds)
  • Personnel hygiene and appropriate safety wear (sole/boot cleaning, hand washing, disinfection booths).


  1. Centre for Disease Control
  2. Drysteam Supreme South Africa
  3. Food and Agriculture Organisation
  4. Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act No. 54 of 1972 (SA)
  5. Lechler-USA
  6. NSF
  7. Partner for Hygiene and Technology
  8. World Health Organisation

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