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Strict specifications for all processes

From the production of raw materials to delivery to end customers, strict hygiene is mandatory, especially in the meat industry – not only during the COVID 19 pandemic. The food industry is required by law to ensure hygienic working conditions throughout all stages of production and distribution.

Consumers take it for granted that they can choose from a wide variety of flawless meat products at any time. Manufacturers and retailers who are subject to EU hygiene legislation – EU Regulations (EC) No. 852/2004 and No. 853/2004 – are responsible for this. The latter regulation is particularly relevant for food hygiene in meat production, as it contains specific hygiene regulations for food of animal origin. Meat companies must ensure that food remains hygienic during production and processing as well as during transport and distribution. Products are considered safe if they do not pose a health hazard, are free of contamination by germs and bacteria, and are fit for consumption.

The fact is that when it comes to sanitation, the corona SARS-CoV-2 pandemic presents numerous challenges to the meat industry, particularly operations, production, and personnel. However, it is also a fact that in terms of hygiene, health, and occupational safety, strict on-site requirements have always applied to both large and small meat companies, including close-meshed controls. The top priority of the heightened measures during the pandemic is to prevent the corona virus from entering establishments and infecting employees.

From stable to table

The core idea of the food hygiene law is to strengthen the personal responsibility of food companies within the framework of “hygiene self-monitoring”. This means that under the principle “from stable to table”, each company takes responsibility for monitoring all of its hygiene-related activities with foodstuffs. Regulatory authorities exercise a supervisory function.

The responsibility for food safety passed to the companies during development of the European hygiene law. With the introduction and implementation of “good manufacturing practices” (GMP), “good hygiene practices” (GHP), the “HACCP concept” (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) and various quality management systems in production and manufacturing, two areas came increasingly into focus: food safety and consumer protection. “EU Regulation (EC) No. 852/2004 on food hygiene requires anyone handling or selling food to establish a HACCP system. The scope of this correlates with the size of the operation,” says Josef Messmer, Managing Director at PHT – Partner für Hygiene und Technologie, GmbH. The Bad Tölz-based company supplies food companies with individual hygiene products as well as complete hygiene systems.

The EU hygiene regulation applies to all commercial industries that come into contact with foodstuffs in the above sense. The HACCP concept, internationally recognized as a food-specific system for the prevention of health risks to consumers, is an important component of all food safety management systems. At all stages of production, processing, and distribution, including primary production, operators are required to carry out their own HACCP-based checks. To avoid liability risks, it is advisable to be familiar with the most important EU regulations and national legislation and to seek advice from accredited, independent experts – especially in regard to trade, supplier, and above all, hygiene audits.

Industrial hygiene

The cleanliness of rooms, machines, and equipment has a significant impact on food safety and product quality. Regular cleaning and disinfection are essential in food operations to mechanically remove germs and deprive them of their breeding ground. Removing up to 90 percent of germs is sufficient for many areas. Scrubbing or rubbing gives cleaning agents intensive contact with dirt. At the same time, the chemical composition of these agents must be adapted to the requirements. While alkaline agents mainly remove grease, protein and smoke deposits, acidic cleaners are suitable for removing limestone. Neutral cleaners are particularly kind to the skin and materials but are less effective than alkaline or acidic agents. The main principles of this are:

Completion of basic cleaning, for example, dry sweep, vacuum and/or wet remove coarse dirt on floors

Use of hot tap water and food-grade cleaning agents – in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions regarding concentration, temperature, and exposure time – for cleaning

Rinsing with clear, hot water to prevent residues of cleaners from getting into food

Use of disposable paper towels or cloth towels that are changed daily for drying surfaces if necessary

Documentation of the cleaning performed

In contrast, effective disinfection is required only for surfaces such as containers, carts and transport vehicles that come into contact with perishable food. Here, too, essential requirements must be complied with. This means:

Use only of disinfectants approved for the food sector and observation of the specified exposure times, dosages, and temperatures

Thermal disinfection of items in the dishwasher, provided that rinsing temperatures of over 70 °C are reached

Use of water if rinsing is required

Documentation of disinfection in a cleaning protocol

A cleaning and disinfection plan as part of the hygiene plan is helpful. It should map all processes in hygiene-relevant work areas and include all rooms and objects in a food company. How often cleaning and disinfection is required depends on the individual needs of the operation. “In principle, the success of any company depends on a well-functioning overall hygiene concept in which all individual components work together harmoniously,” emphasizes Philipp Aurbach, authorized signatory at PHT Germany South and Managing Director PHT Austria.

Production hygiene

To produce safe food, good production hygiene is essential. The aim of food hygiene is to allow as few undesirable microorganisms as possible to get onto or into food during production and to kill any microorganisms that may be present or prevent them from multiplying. Among other things, the crucial factors for optimum product hygiene are:

Maintenance of specified temperatures throughout the processing cycle

Assurance of an uninterrupted cold chain for products requiring refrigeration

Strict separation of work equipment according to product groups, e.g. by color, to prevent transferring germs through hands or contact with equipment

Washing used tools such as knives, boards and machines thoroughly with hot water and detergent after use and disinfecting them

Touching meat only with washed hands and keeping work steps such as washing, cutting or preparation separate from the processing of other raw materials

Thoroughly cleaning hands after contact with fresh or thawed meat

Ground meat and products are particularly sensitive. Grinding meat increases its surface area, which provides microorganisms with a larger surface area to attack. Thus, strict hygiene measures are particularly important when handling ground meat and products.

Personal hygiene

Employees in food processing plants must meet and maintain high levels of hygiene. They must:

Thoroughly clean and disinfect their hands (including after each visit to the toilet), boots and soles before starting work

Only wear clean work and protective clothing and regularly change and wash it

Refrain from wearing heavy make-up, nail polish, jewelry, and wristwatches

Tape visible piercings or remove them while working

Ensure a high level of personal cleanliness through regular washing and showering

Cover any wounds completely

Attend yearly hygiene training seminars to stay up to date on the basic rules for maintaining good hygienic practices in the workplace. These seminars should cover personal, operational and production hygiene as well as the company’s own monitoring system – as proof of the careful handling of food and support for the optimization of operational processes and the use of goods.

There are legal requirements for personal hygiene, the basic principles of which are specified in § 42 of the Infection Protection Act (IfSG). They must also be taught in food hygiene training courses in accordance with § 4 of the Food Hygiene Ordinance (LMHV). Persons who manufacture, handle, and sell meat products must have a certificate according to § 43 ­IfSG.

Detection and control

Microbiological risks such as contamination and cross-contamination from surfaces that come into contact with food can be prevented by regular and correct cleaning and disinfection measures. The DIN standard 10516 “Food Hygiene – Cleaning and Disinfection” is the comprehensive working basis of these. As proof of disinfection, the relevant EN standards apply throughout Europe. In Germany, proof of disinfection in accordance with the German Society for Hygiene and Microbiology (DGHM) is also required as a prerequisite for listing with the Association for Applied Hygiene (VAH).

For self-monitoring documentation procedures, it is helpful to have not only a safety data sheet for each cleaning and disinfecting agent used, but also a technical data sheet. To fulfill legal requirements, hygiene measures must always be verified, or in other words, measurable. DIN 10516:2009-05 specifies the various test procedures for controlling the effectiveness of cleaning and disinfection.

General documentation requirements

The European regulation on food hygiene explicitly requires all hygiene measures to be documented. In the event of product liability, proof is only possible with documentation. “It is basically assumed that what is documented has happened and what is not documented has not happened,” Josef Messmer sums up. “It is therefore in a company’s best interests to keep operational records that are transparent to third parties.”

The relevant supervisory authorities require written evidence of compliance with food law requirements. To demonstrate fulfillment of the rules, documentation should be appropriate for the nature and size of the company.

All food production companies are thus required to define the scope of measures and monitoring in their businesses, the range of products offered and the hazards and risks involved.

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