Cleaning and Sanitation - Is there really a difference?

Marshalee Valentine

Thursday, November 22, 2018

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Over the last few weeks, we've been exploring food safety from different angles with every article making mention of cleaning and sanitation. Cleaning and sanitation play significant roles in food safety and must be carried out at all stages along the food supply chain, from farm to fork. This ensures that the risk of microbial contamination of food or food contact surfaces is reduced. There is however a common misconception that the two are synonymous. I have had employees at facilities I've visited tell me, “It sanitise, Miss! Mi wash it wid soap!” However, there is a major difference between the two.

Cleaning is whereby soil, dust, food build-up and other visible residues are removed from food or food contact surfaces. This process involves scraping of excess debris if necessary, using clean potable water to wash off surface debris, washing and scrubbing with recommended soap for the product/item being cleaned. It is important to research the type of cleaning agent required, as not all cleaning chemicals can be used on food or food contact surfaces. Additionally, for cleaning to be effective, the correct concentration of the selected cleaning agent must be used at the right temperatures for the recommended amount of time to ensure efficacy. Cleaning agents include:

Detergents – Remove soil

Solvent cleaners – Grease-dissolving agents

Acid cleaners – Remove mineral deposits

Abrasive cleaners – Remove heavy soil build-up

Sanitation, on the other hand, is the process of using a sanitising solution to kill, or reduce to safe levels, microorganisms (bacteria, mould, and yeast) which may form an invisible biofilm on food or food contact surfaces. However, for sanitising to be fully effective, proper cleaning must first take place and recommended sanitisers for product or contact surface must be used.

Different types of sanitising methods include:

Use of heat – exposing the surface to steam using one of the following time temperature schedules – 170 degrees F for 15 minutes or 200 degrees F for 5 minutes. Or using hot water, which must be at least 171 degrees F (77 degrees C).

Use of radiation

Used mostly in packaging areas of food processing facilities. Contact time should be at least 2 minutes; however, the radiation only destroys those microorganisms that are in direct contact with the rays of light.


The chemicals normally used at proper concentrations include chlorine (sodium hypochlorite concentrations 5.25 to 6.5 % in liquid form) and quaternary ammonium for food contact surface; while chlorine and hydrogen peroxide, at recommended concentrations, can be used for food products. The expected reduction in contamination is 99.999%, which can be assessed using test swabs.

There are some factors that may affect the effectiveness of sanitisers. These include:

Concentration of product used – Ensure you use the amount recommended on safety data sheets, as too little can be ineffective and too much will be toxic.

Temperature – Ensure you check labels to see what temperature works best for the sanitiser or cleaning agent being used, as some chemical sanitisers and cleaning chemicals work best in specific temperature ranges.

Contact time – Read the labels/safety data sheets to ensure the recommended contact time is used. This will give the sanitiser enough time to kill the microorganism.

Water quality – This is critical to cleaning and sanitation, as the quality of water can affect the efficacy of cleaning agents and sanitisers used. Hard water (water with levels of calcium and magnesium carbonate exceeding 200 mg/l) makes cleaning products less effective. Additionally, research has shown that an increase in the hardness or pH of water used to prepare sanitising solutions will lower the bactericidal properties of the solution prepared from that water.

Cleaning and sanitation are extremely important to prevent food-bourne illnesses that may result from microbial contamination at all stages of production from farm to fork. Here are a few reminders of areas to monitor.

Surfaces/equipment that will come in contact with produce or livestock on farm during production, harvesting, packaging and storage must be washed, rinsed, and sanitised regularly; to prevent the risk of microbial contamination from soil, water, livestock, fertilisers, harvesting equipment, workers and pests.

All transportation vessels must be cleaned and sanitised prior to loading to prevent potential sources of cross-contamination.

All food production areas must be cleaned and sanitised daily. Food contact surfaces, utensils and equipment must be cleaned and sanitised before and after use and also after switching from one product to the next. Equipment must also be cleaned and sanitised after regular maintenance activities are carried out. Ensure you have separate areas for cleaning, rinsing and sanitising.

Ensure that water quality is monitored based on the requirements for agents being used.

A planned schedule must be created which may include type of equipment/surface to be cleaned, location of equipment/surface, chemicals and their concentrations, frequency of cleaning along with responsible personnel.

All employees on farm or in food establishment responsible for cleaning and sanitation must be trained on the importance of cleaning and sanitation and how to carry out activities for different types of equipment/surfaces.

Check labels/safety data sheets to ensure the correct strength of cleaning agent or sanitiser is being used to avoid toxic overload or inefficient cleaning and to see if they are suitable for activity being carried out.

Marshalee Valentine

CEO-Quality, Food Safety & Environmental Management Systems Consultant

Vally Consulting

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