Swabbing, sample handling, and effective verification of sanitation can make or break a commissary — especially with so many FSMA compliance dates (and inevitable audits) coming up. With that in mind, Commissary Insider spoke with Tom Dewey, global marketing manager for 3M Food Safety, to get his thoughts on best practices to keep in mind when making sure your facilities pass muster.

According to Dewey, the first thing plant managers need to know is the difference between cleaning and sanitizing.

“Too many people assume that they’re one and the same,” he says, “but there are very important differences. Cleaning involves the removal of bacteria-harboring organic matter – proteins or greases and oils, for example – from surfaces. It also means applying detergents or solvent cleaners that break up surface tension and lift these soils from whatever they may be sitting or sticking on.”

Sanitation, however, means that 99.999 percent of pathogens are eliminated completely, most often through heat or chemicals. Going beyond that requires sterilization, which effectively destroys all surface microorganisms (and not just pathogens).

Once you’ve ensured that all employees understand these differences, the next step is to stress that cleaning should be verified just as often as sanitization.

“In fact,” Dewey says, “the practice of verifying the process that is ‘doing the cleaning’ is one of the most critical daily processes in a food plant. It’s essential that individuals establish a measurable baseline, and then verify that cleaning has been performed up to, if not better than, this threshold.”

Most commissaries will need to verify this has been done over at least 20 randomly selected test points before opening up shop for the day. And of course, record-keeping of this verification is critical for potential audits as proof that the proper actions were taken should a fail of some kind occur.

“Having a system that automates their sample plans and the collection, management, and retrieval of all this data is greatly valued,” Dewey says, also noting that whatever the system you employ for this process, its specific guidance and instructions must be followed down to the last detail.

“Most swabs and sponges should be moist — many are pre-moistened upon opening — and used as close to room temperature as possible,” he says. “You’ll of course want to aseptically remove the product from its packaging, being very careful not to touch and contaminate the material that will make contact with the surface in question. In the case of a swab, it’s usually important to hold the product at a slight angle so the sides make robust contact with the surface on the desired sample area. Moderate pressure is ordinarily called for — enough to collect a good amount of residue, but not so much that it damages the shaft or tip of the swab.”

Dewey says it’s then best to wipe down an area of a few square inches a number of times, starting in one direction and then going the other way as well.

“Finally,” he says, “the swab should be hygienically returned to its applicator, reader or other encasement. Sponges work similarly and are often connected to a stem. After environmental contact, they are frequently stored in sample bags and shipped under refrigerated conditions for eventual sample enrichment and analysis. In these circumstances, it’s very important to label the sample in a clear and detailed manner, and to make sure the sample is not temperature abused prior to its testing. Accuracy is critical in hygiene monitoring, as precision and consistency mean everything, and ‘close enough’ should not be acceptable.”

3M is known for its Clean-Trace System, but also offers a number of other products that address these issues according to your commissary’s needs, for everything from microbial and surface sampling to rinse water and specifically hard-to-reach (and clean) areas.

“We even sell one product – the 3M Quick Swab – that has a rayon tip and self-contained special buffer solution,” Dewey says, “allowing samples to be automatically delivered to an indicator plate test without any need to separately prepare a solvent or use a pipette to transfer the sample.”

3M’s products also allow for data mining and analysis that can help improve day-to-day procedures and better inform operational decisions.

“3M’s technology includes an easy-to-use software platform featuring a simple dashboard that nearly anyone can understand — and that immediately communicates where issues may exist,” he adds. “This provides the opportunity to turn data into action, efficiently and effectively addressing specific areas of cleaning concern.”