Sanitizing Basics … For Real

Any food establishment owner or manager knows that the key to being successful is to keep your establishment free of pests, clean, and for cooking and prep areas, sanitized. Do you have to sanitize your whole building? No. If food is not touching it, then you don’t have to sanitize it. Cleaning is the process of removing food and soil from a surface. Sanitizing is reducing the number of pathogens to a safe level. Sanitizing destroys 99.99% of pathogens, to be precise.

Sanitizing steps …
According to the Food and Drug Administration, sanitizing includes four steps: wash, rinse, sanitize, and air dry. However, truthfully, in all my years of working in restaurants, I never followed those four steps. Instead, I would reach for the cloth — that must always be kept submerged in the sanitizer solution — and clean and sanitize in a one-go method. I always translated these four steps to washing dishes by hand using the three compartment sinks. You do need to clean the surface before you sanitize a surface regardless of whether you are doing the one-step, clean–sanitize method or following the four recommended FDA steps. This ensures that there is no dirt, food, or grease in the way, which could act as a barrier to allowing the sanitizer to do its job, which is to sanitize/kill pathogens on a surface.
Sanitizing can be done with chemicals or with heat in the form of hot water — 171°F submerged or in contact for 30 seconds. The three most common chemical sanitizers are: chlorine-based, quaternary ammonia (quats), and iodine based. The key is: You have to follow the manufacturer’s directions to the letter. The factors that will influence how well your sanitizer does its job are:
Concentration: Use too little, and it’s not working. Use too much, and it can leave a harmful toxic residue.
Water temperature: If the water is too cold, the chemical solution won’t activate. Too warm, and it can neutralize or become corrosive.
Contact time: Let’s say the directions require 30 seconds of contact time in the third compartment sanitizing sink. This means 30 seconds; 10 or 20 seconds will not kill the pathogens. However, leaving pots and pans in the sanitizing solution for too long can corrode your cooking utensils. Several of my students left their cooking gear in the third sanitizing sink all day and came back to find holes in their pots and pans!

Test kits are key …
After you make the sanitizing solution properly, please, please, please test it using a test strip/test kit! I can’t emphasize this enough. Your dishwashers will test the solution in the third compartment sink after they make it, but do they think of testing it afterwards?  I honestly can’t find a standard answer to how often you should test your sanitizer solution. My recommendation is that your employees should test it every hour or so. I have read that the sanitizer solution should be tested at least twice a day. Recognize that if the solution looks cloudy, it’s probably worth it to just change the solution. In real life, your health inspectors will always march straight to the dish-room area to test the sanitizing solution in the third sink. They will write you up if it is not at the right concentration. Don’t forget: if you use more than one chemical sanitizer, purchase the corresponding test kit.

Not to mention the buckets …
Let’s talk about your buckets of sanitizer solution. Employees need to test the solution in the buckets after making it. Your health inspectors might test the buckets, too. I recommend that your employees change out the buckets of sanitizer solution at least every shift (every 2-4 hours).  Ideally, you want your containers of sanitizer solution to be close to the work area so employees will use it, but you wouldn’t want the solution to be next to the food or up on a high shelf because it will contaminate the food and work area should it spill. Putting the sanitizer solution up on a shelf above your employees is also dangerous as it can spill into their eyes and faces. Ideally, place your sanitizing solution buckets underneath your work area on a shelf (not on the floor). If you put sanitizer solution in a spray bottle, please remember to label the bottle clearly with the chemical name.

When should you clean and sanitize a surface that touches food?
• Before and after using that surface.
• When changing from one food item — especially raw meat — to an item that will not be cooked.
• Constant use working with same food and same equipment: I recommend every two hours but certainly no less than every four hours
• If a worker is interrupted or distracted during the job, and there is any chance that the work area got contaminated during the interruption.

Absolute bottom line: I recommend that you teach all your staff how to use test strips to confirm they have made the sanitizer solution properly.

About the Author

Juliet Bodinetz is executive director of Bilingual Hospitality Training Solutions and has over 30 years industry and training experience. She and her team of instructors specialize in food safety, alcohol training and ServSafe training in English or in Spanish and writing HACCP Plans in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. area., or 443-838-7561. For latest food safety tips: Become a fan on Facebook or Twitter: @BHTS

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