Microbial cross-contamination – the transfer of harmful bacteria to food products – remains a leading cause of foodborne illness and disease. To minimize the spread of microorganisms and protect the safety of finished products, processors are advised to adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), educate plant workers on the dangers of cross-contamination and implore how their activities can contribute to or prevent its occurrence.

Step #1: Domino effects
Creating awareness among plant workers of what cross-contamination is and how it occurs is the first step in prevention. Employee practices and equipment are the most common modes of cross-contamination. Poor personal hygiene, eating and drinking in prohibited areas, improper handling of raw materials and noncompliance with plant traffic patterns are just a few examples of the ways employee practices can lead to microbial cross-contamination. Bacteria can live and multiply in the cracks and crevices of poorly cleaned processing equipment. If equipment is not properly cleaned following its use, bacteria can be transferred to foods in subsequent production runs. From the employee locker room to the raw processing area to shipping and all the areas in between, employees must be aware there are thousands of ways cross-contamination can occur. Processors must take proactive measures to prevent microbial cross-contamination.

Step #2: Divide and conquer
Separating raw product from semi-finished and finished product is a cardinal rule in cross-contamination prevention. Accordingly, plant operations must be compartmentalized to ensure the separation of raw ingredients and processed products. When possible, overhead fixtures – common bacterial growth niches – should also be eliminated from open product zones. Wet processing areas should be isolated from other production areas, and standing water should be removed immediately.

Finally, traffic patterns must be controlled to prevent the transfer of harmful microorganisms. Ideally, equipment, utensils and employees in raw and cooked areas should not be interchanged during the workday.

Step #3: Cleanliness next to godliness
Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens, E. coli and other harmful bacteria live in and on the human body, especially around the face and on hands and clothing. Raw materials, such as poultry, meat, milk and agricultural products that are handled by plant workers, often contain Campylobacter, Salmonella and other pathogens. This potent combination reinforces the vital role good personal hygiene plays in the production of safe, wholesome foods. Sanitation experts continually voice the importance of good personal hygiene in the workplace, with proper hand washing and clean outer garments at the center of their crusade.

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