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Hand Hygiene in Food Processing and Food Service

Barry Michaels
May 29, 2013

Hand hygiene in food processing and food servicePerhaps nowhere in the world of hand hygiene are there so many difficulties to overcome then in the segment of food preparation.  This is an enormous field and even before intensive hand labor is required, food products are often heavily contaminated with pathogens in the field or associated with animal products.  These are risks to both the food handler and the food chain, but with the picking of berries, green onions or any number of other harvested food products, human pathogen transfer to food can start at this point and it is nothing but downhill from there. 


Hand Hygiene From Farm to Fork…


Fortunately most food processing is mechanized and hand contact after harvest is minimized with hand contact in food processing per million pounds of product being minimal or miniscule, when compared to what occurs in food service.  That said, food comes in every form, requiring much specialized equipment and human interaction with product and equipment and there is plenty of room for contamination related to poor personal hygiene. 


Food service is truly where food workers become food handlers.  Food is taken from its raw form and manipulated; often times cooked but sometimes not, where it is considered ready-to-eat food.  This is where the greatest risk to consumers exists. Sanitation flaws in production and harvesting are often times not caught by food service preparation personnel with effective cleaning.  Ultimately it is all too often contamination and mishandling (temperature abuse & cross-contamination) by the food worker that can lead to outbreaks, hospitalization and sometimes death. Unfortunately we know for a fact that around 50 % of food workers work while they are sick.


Resetting the Risk Paradigm


Cooking by definition resets the risk paradigm in most but not all food handling scenarios.  Food contamination by pathogens in field, harvest, and preparation can be eliminated if food is cooked at the right temperature for the correct time.  Assuming this takes place and no contamination occurs and cooked product is quickly served or stored according to similar time and low temperature parameters, then in most cases food is safe.  


There is just so much that can go wrong from the vantage point of worker’s hands.  Many hazards faced by workers are taken for granted by management where instead, holistic hand hygiene needs to be considered.  Ultimately, this is much more cost effective than reliance on high turnover to solve flaws in the personal hygiene process or inherent risks of food product.



Gloves and the Coupe de Grace


Food products, production chemicals, facility sanitizers and processing equipment especially at food service are loaded with irritating or worse sensitizing ingredients, not to mention those contact allergens present in protective clothing or gloves.  Physical trauma or skin abrasion combined with these sources of sensitizers can easily drive food worker’s hands over the edge into the realm of allergic contact dermatitis (ACD) or occupational skin disease (OSD). Sometimes it is the hand protection that provides the coupe de grace by providing hands with a bath or reservoir of potent contaminated fluid triggering an ACD attack and skin infections.  Added  to this skin damage where workers are required to use fingernail or cleaning brushes to remove heavy soils.


Once sensitized by food/spice, process or glove chemical sensitizer, even after healing, the smallest quantity will set off a repeated skin disease outbreak.  Properly functioning gloves can achieve success by both protecting hands from chemical assault and protecting food from potential human pathogens on hands or in the fingernail region.  When gloves are not chosen or used properly, both hands and food can be compromised.  When hands are sore and damaged either by physical trauma, too much wet work or ACD, hand washing drops below what it needs to be to protect product or end consumers. 


In food processing and service as with healthcare, continuously maintaining hands in a hygienic state is the gold standard.  Without hand health, there is dryness, pain, possible colonization by a number of bad actors and hand hygiene compliance collapses. At the end of the day, safe food  can only be achieved if hands are maintained in a healthy state.  It is here that hygiene must be considered as synonymous with healthy. In this extremely challenging environment defined by food and process, hazards need to be recognized by managers, approaches to minimize skin damage must be found, and use of restorative skin creams or lotions should play a part.  Gloves if used, need to be selected with the challenges in mind and hand sanitizer should be considered as an adjunct to good quality hand washing with mild but effective hand soaps.  Depending on the circumstances specific to the facility antimicrobial hand soap may be a part of an effective hand hygiene strategy.


HACCP Applied to Hand Hygiene


Even though under HACCP hand hygiene is almost always considered a prerequisite program, sometimes doing a hazard analysis on the entire use of hands and hygiene is needed.  Once accomplished, hands, workers, turnover and process are finally put on a sustainable path insuring safe food product and profitability.  It is here that we finally find our food worker standing at the cash register, with handling potentially contaminated money standing between us and safe food. So many challenges and what to do?


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