How our science-based wash processes guarantee food safety

written by IFCO SYSTEMS, 22nd June 2023, in Stories Food Safety

To clean surfaces effectively, you need more than soapy water. Four variables are key to removing contaminants completely. Learn about the science behind the IFCO wash process and why you can rely on it.

Passing 80.000+ tests per year with virtually zero errors

Passing a test with a perfect score is possible, but only with lots of hard work and dedication. Now imagine passing more than 80,000 tests per year – and every time with virtually zero errors. "In tests for the absence of pathogens, the compliance rate of IFCO RPCs in Europe is consistently higher than 99 percent," explains Thomas Albrecht, Vice President Service Center Operations at IFCO. Such tests, performed by independent authorities and IFCO specialists, validate the effectiveness of IFCO cleaning processes at killing germs and removing contaminants. The hard work and dedication that produce such exceptional results arise from IFCO’s commitment to food safety.

In the food supply chain, effective food safety means not just reacting to bacteria and viruses but preventing them. Some types of food-borne bacteria – such as salmonella – can cause dangerous illness and present a risk to public health. Although most viruses that affect plants in the food supply chain do not make people sick, the concern is that the viruses could infect crops. So preventing the spread of all types of pathogens is the aim, and this is where public health and plant health have something in common: the process of washing, rinsing and sanitizing to remove contaminants, whether bacteria, viruses or other residue, from surfaces.

Applying cleaning science

At IFCO, our wash and sanitation processes are built on the science of cleaning. This involves a matrix that has four variables: temperature, concentration, contact time, agitation

Used together, these variables effectively remove debris, residue and contaminants of all types, as well as pathogens that may be present on the crates. Our washed and sanitized RPCs are then as clean as unused containers. Agitation, whether a physical spray, brush, or force of water flow, is highly effective at removing soil, debris and contaminants. In our crate wash process, agitation loosens debris or contaminants, and detergent slides them off the surface being washed. This very successfully removes microorganisms including viruses, which – unlike bacteria – cannot attach to surfaces.

Removing contaminants

For our wash process, we have also determined which detergent concentrations and temperatures work best together to remove contaminants from RPCs. These vary depending on whether we are washing green or black crates for transport of fruits and vegetables, for example, or red RPCs for perishable meat products, or brown trays used for baked goods. The contact time – how long disinfectants need to stay on the surface to kill pathogens – has been optimized. Oxidation, which disrupts cell walls, is also used to kill or inactivate microorganisms, because this process is fast, efficient and can be broadly applied.

Taking a closer look at the cleaning science involves understanding the interaction of the variables. Warm temperatures allow the surfactants – compounds that lower the surface tension between liquids – in the detergents to lift off contaminants. However, if the water is too hot, the detergents might foam excessively, the disinfectants could vaporize too quickly, or the RPC itself might become pliable, which could jam machine conveyors. "There is a reason behind everything we do," says Albrecht. "And we have the science that backs why we do what we do."

Consistently rigorous cleaning

The entire SmartCycle pooling management system revolves around our consistently rigorous cleaning system. After each use, IFCO RPCs are recollected from retailers and sent to one of our service centers to be cleaned. There, physical separation ensures that no cross-contamination is possible. Following a pre-wash, RPCs are sent through high-pressure wash machines that use caustic detergents and approved sanitizers designed specifically for tunnel wash machines. RPCs then go through a double rinse – a fresh water rinse and disinfectant rinse – performed in separate zones of our tunnel washers.

Validation through "wash challenge" study

After discovery of the Tobamovirus -Tomato Brown Rugose Fruit Virus (ToBRFV), we performed "wash challenge" studies to ensure our wash process is effective in removing and/or inactivating both human and plant pathogens of concern – and to prove the absence of risk of transmission via our RPCs.

The results of the wash challenge: No viruses were detected. This provides scientific evidence that there is no risk of spread or transmission of the ToBRFV via our RPCs following our wash process. Verification testing, as well as tests in our continuous microbiological monitoring program, have also found no presence of the ToBRFV.

SmartGuardian monitoring and reporting

In addition to applying the cleaning science matrix, we have automated and digitalized many of our processes. Our SmartGuardian software monitors and controls the cleaning and sanitation procedures to ensure we meet strict company and industry standards.

The system delivers continuous data – hourly updates and daily shift reports – to tell us how the wash parameters, including pressure, wash temperature, detergent and sanitizer concentrations, are performing. Employees also perform manual measurements of these parameters at least twice per shift to verify that our automated system is in compliance. "If any part of the system – water pressure, for example – is operating at a sub-optimal level, Smart Guardian alerts the shift managers and our food safety experts," says Albrecht. In critical instances, the system automatically halts operations so the process can be recalibrated to its proper settings.

IFCO Food Safety Washing

Verifying and validating cleaning

Following RPC cleaning and stacking, each pallet receives a hygiene verification label with a Smart Guardian summary of all wash processes. The label lists the parameters used for those crates, such as water temperature and detergents, as well as any disturbances during the shift. Our global sanitation partner has provided a guarantee that IFCO RPCs are hygienically clean and completely safe for reuse. The detergents and disinfectants used by IFCO are organically certified and biodegradable. As IFCO RPCs cycle through the pooling system, they are washed and sanitized one billion times every year – and all of our wash facilities follow the same strict standardized hygiene procedures.

IFCO’s tunnel wash process has also been validated by a third-party ISO certified research center on its effectiveness at eliminating attached bacteria from the surfaces of IFCO RPCs and on the removal or inactivation of plant viruses. We also perform quarterly and weekly bacterial swabbing, and daily adenosine triphosphate (ATP) monitoring. The ATP molecule carries energy within cells, so this swab immediately reveals whether any microorganisms are present.

Pooling systems run by growers or retailers may not achieve the same high levels of washing, sanitation and testing. Only IFCO offers this level of safety and validated processes – at all of our service centers worldwide. This is why outsourcing pooling services to IFCO – made easy for our customers through our SmartCycle model, which includes ordering, delivery, recollection, cleaning and sanitation – makes good business and environmental sense.

The IFCO wash process in a glance

IFCO focuses on hygiene in its cleaning and sanitizing operations. Here is an overview of our highly automated wash process and control steps.

  • Preparation: RPCs are opened and placed upside down on the wash machine’s conveyer belt.
  • Prewash: In a pre-wash area, RPCs are sprayed with hot water to loosen and remove any debris on the inside and outside of the containers.
  • Washing: Inside high-pressure wash machines, RPCs are sprayed with hot water, caustic detergents and sanitizers.
  • Rinse: Next, pressurized nozzles rinse RPCs with disinfectant and fresh water
  • Drying: Sanitized RPCs are spun dry in centrifugal dryers.
  • Palletizing: Following inspection, RPCs are wrapped and labelled and sent to a separate area of the facility.
  • Strapping: Once dry, pallets of RPCs are strapped for safe transportation.

Click here for more information on our washing processes

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