By now, we all know that FSMA is shifting focus from response to prevention when it comes to food safety. As processing companies prepare for FSMA compliance, many are looking for direction on best practices for sanitation and hygiene.

We talked with Darin Zehr, the general manager of Commercial Food Sanitation (an Intralox Company) and a former plant manager for Kraft Foods. As experts in food safety, Commercial Food Sanitation (CFS) consults and leads training programs in sanitation, hygienic design, and environmental controls.

With FSMA looming, Zehr says one of the most important and prevalent questions he hears from clients is: “How can we become more proactive in hygienic design?”

Read on to learn how food processors and OEMs can answer that question through:

  • Changing mindsets
  • Training
  • Collaborating
  • Cultivating a passion for food safety

“Everybody believes in food safety”

“Ask anyone in the industry,” Zehr says, “they all believe in food safety.” Indeed, Food Processing's annual survey of food and beverage manufacturers found that product safety is the top industry priority for 2016.

As Zehr points out, food processors have a moral responsibility to ensure food safety. Beyond that, he says, ensuring the safety of your product makes financial sense. For instance, direct costs for a food recall average $10 million. And indirect costs—a damaged reputation, stock implications, and the like—can make losses substantially higher.

With at least 626 food recalls in the U.S. and Canada last year, there is room for improvement. Hygienic design is one place the industry is turning to upgrade food safety practices and prepare for FSMA.

Hygienic, or sanitary, design focuses on design techniques that encourage the highest level of hygiene at all points along the line, particularly by promoting easy and effective cleaning of equipment. (For more details about hygienic design, see this previous article.)

As more and more companies look to be proactive in this area, Zehr suggests that the first step is to work toward adjusting current mindsets.

Changing mindsets

When it comes to attitudes toward hygienic design, Zehr says, there is an increasing amount of enthusiasm. But there's also some resistance.

Addressing that resistance is an important part of making progress. “Ultimately,” Zehr says, “changing mindsets is the biggest challenge.”

From “cost” to “investment”

Perhaps the most widespread concern is about cost. As Zehr puts it, “we need to close the mental gap” between food safety and cost control.

Investing in hygienic design can involve a significant expense, but it can also increase efficiency and minimize risk. “More and more food companies are recognizing that you can be more efficient and effective with good hygienic design,” Zehr says. “It can make your overall operation much better.”

He notes that investing early on during the planning stages will save money and time in the future. Food safety failures will be minimized or eliminated. And easy-to-clean equipment will cut down on cleaning times, as well as use fewer resources.

This analysis of hygienic design supports that idea, suggesting that “sanitary design principles can … be a driver of multi-year operational efficiency gains.” Among other efficiencies, companies can expect labor savings, less product loss, decreased testing expenses, and fewer consumer complaints.

In the end, Zehr says, hygienic design always makes sense from a business standpoint.

Food safety failures must be an industry-wide concern

Different sectors of the food industry are affected by product safety in different ways. For instance, produce and meat processors might be more concerned with microbe control, while the bakery sector is likely to place more focus on allergens.

Even more, Zehr points out that some sectors have greater experience with food safety problems than others. Thus, certain sectors of the food industry may be more aware of and vigilant about the importance of food safety, as well as the consequences for failure.

Zehr says that needs to change. The mindset that “it's just not going to happen in my company” is no longer relevant, he says. Everyone must be aware of and proactive about food safety and hygienic design.

Regardless of what you produce, Zehr emphasizes that “you need to have solid hygiene programs in place, and certainly have an environment that's sanitary. It's an expectation in our world today.” With FSMA, of course, that expectation becomes even more vital.

Effective monitoring

To truly prioritize food safety, companies need to be honest with themselves and others about the conditions of their facilities. Environmental monitoring is a critical part of that effort.

Zehr notes that some companies have approached the issue by testing less, seeing this as a way to reduce positive test results. This, he says, is a prime indication that the company's overall sanitation program is not robust enough.

Having a comprehensive program in place means, first, that you'll have fewer positive test results because your facility will be more sanitary. But it also means that you'll be better prepared to react to any issues that are identified before they become larger problems.

The knowledge to effect change

Another mental barrier Zehr sees is the unknowing acceptance of existing equipment and practices. “Some of it gets to ‘I don't know what I don't know,'” he explains.

In other words, there is a tendency to accept the equipment you've inherited at a facility—and to thereby accept all of the obstacles and challenges that go along with it—simply because you're unaware of alternatives.

But when food professionals have been introduced to the potential of hygienic design, Zehr notices a different approach. “Once people start learning what a good program looks like,” Zehr says, “then they go for it.”

Training, training, training

When trying to change mindsets about hygienic design, Zehr says, “it all starts with training.” He notes it's important that everyone at an organization—from line workers, to operations supervisors, to top-level management—learns about sanitary design and its importance.

Implementation training is equally important. “A program is only as good as its execution.” Zehr advocates for a hands-on approach in which participants get practice in everything from cleaning and pest control, to design principles and environmental monitoring.

Zehr further notes that training should focus on sustainable approaches that will carry a company into the future. “It's really finding that sweet spot where you can continually improve equipment and layouts and install practices,” he says.

In his role at CFS, Zehr has watched such training programs work firsthand. The popularity of his company's programs attests to their success: a Sanitation Essentials Training is sold out through the end of the year, and a training program in Hygienic Design is nearly sold out, as well. Next year, the company plans to start offering an advanced course that will focus on concepts like recall management, cost efficiencies, and safe commercialization of new products.

Learners in CFS's Sanitation Essentials Training

Learners in CFS's Sanitation Essentials Training

Working together

At its best, hygienic design is a collaborative process from Day 1. Zehr stresses that the planning and design process should include OEMs, project managers, and facility workers who specialize in maintenance, operations, sanitation, and food safety. He suggests that spending more time having conversations upfront will help immensely when the equipment and processes are put into place.

Zehr notes that OEMs play an especially crucial role. “You can do all the [sanitation] programs you want,” he says. But if the equipment itself isn't hygienic, “you're just repeatedly spending unnecessary money making up for poor design.”

In his company's training programs, Zehr is encouraged by increasing levels of involvement from equipment manufacturers. “We work with OEMs and their designs on-site,” he says. “They come to our training and send their engineers there.”

Further, trained personnel at processing plants can have a better dialogue with OEMs overall, especially as workers get to know the new FSMA standards. While hygienic design will always require ingenuity from engineers, Zehr says, knowledgeable managers and executives can give direction on “principles that can really drive change.”

“Getting the passion”

And driving change is what CFS is all about. Zehr believes that training, collaborating, and changing mindsets all work together in service of a larger goal: namely, to foster an underlying passion for hygienic design and food safety.

“You've got to build the technical knowledge,” he says. “But even more important is getting the passion, and getting people to really, truly believe that hygienic design is important.”

He's seen especial success when companies combine formal training with annual assessments. These assessments consider all aspects of a plant—including design, production, sanitation, maintenance, etc.—to identify gaps and potential hang-ups. Any barriers can then be addressed through further conversations and on-site training.

“That's really where cultural change happens,” Zehr says of this combined approach. “That's where we've seen companies totally get on board. Their whole culture changes because the company's investing in areas that they feel are needed—hygiene, sanitation, food safety, environmental controls—and ensuring that their customers are getting a great product that's safe.”

What comes next

In the future, Zehr expects to see continued collaboration and more education around hygienic design. Consumers expect safe food, processors will continue to create demand for more hygienic options, and OEMs will continue to meet that demand.

Ultimately, Zehr envisions an industry that will become stronger through a sharper focus on hygienic design and food safety. “I think companies that are really engaging with the process of going out to learn more, and getting their people involved and engaged—they're the ones who are going to win in the end,” he says.