Why is Sanitation Important?

Although this question is very obvious for many food processors, it is necessary to fully understand the impact of sanitation on food products. Good sanitation, including cleaning and sanitizing, is essential to food safety and quality and is a foundation for all food safety systems.

Sanitation controls the source of contaminants in the environment, preventing contamination of food products. In this sense, sanitation removes soil and microorganisms (bacteria, yeast or molds, etc.) from the environment and prevents bacterial build up, (ex: biofilm), reducing the possibility of cross contamination.

Even though sanitation has always been related to food safety, good sanitation has also a positive impact on other aspects of the product such as appearance, flavour, longer shelf life and overall acceptability of the product.

The information prepared in this page is not intended to show you how to clean and sanitize your plant, but it will provide information on the sanitation principles that create a safe environment for food handling and processing. Several critical elements of environmental sanitation are described below.

Clean vs. Sanitize

Cleaning and sanitizing are two separate steps in an effective operation. Cleaning consists of removing the product residue (soil) from surfaces. It involves washing and rinsing and is usually performed using detergents and soaps. On the other hand, the purpose of sanitizing is to eliminate or substantially reduce the number of pathogenic bacteria and food spoilage microorganisms to acceptable levels.


A biofilm is a build-up of microorganisms attached to a solid surface by the excretion of complex polysaccharide-like compounds. Biofilms are formed by pathogenic and spoilage microorganisms that can contaminate food products during production.

Biofilms can be found on any surface that is in continuous contact with food: cutting boards, stainless steel surfaces, conveyors; but specifically in those areas where accumulation of product residues occurs: cracks in floors, concave surfaces, elbows, junctions in piping, etc.

Because biofilms form with time, prompt and effective cleaning is required to ensure elimination of bacteria in the early stages of biofilm formation. Unfortunately once a biofilm is formed; it is extremely difficult to remove.

A good sanitation program will help you to control the formation of biofilms in your facility.

Steps of Daily Sanitation

  • Pre-rinse: The working area and equipment should be rinsed with either fresh water or a wash solution to remove visual gross soil. This should be done right after processing to prevent the soil from drying on the surface.
  • Application of the cleaning chemicals: Cleaning chemicals can be applied using brushes, foams, sprays or scrubbing pads. The selection of the application method and the cleaning product will depend on your operation and the type of deposit. The concentration, temperature and exposure time of the cleaning solution are usually recommended by the supplier. 
  • Post-rinse: Once the soil has been removed from the surface, it must be rinsed away with warm, potable water.
  • Sanitizing: Once the surface of the working area and equipment are cleaned, a sanitizer or sanitizing solution can be used to reduce the number of micro-organisms remaining or hidden. Sanitizers that are most frequently used are: chlorine, iodine and quaternary ammonium. Select the appropriate sanitizer for the organisms needing control. 

Verification of Sanitation

Verifying the effectiveness of the sanitation procedure is as important as the sanitation procedure itself. There are some activities that could be performed to ensure that sanitation goals have been achieved:

  • Confirmation of chemicals used by reviewing records of concentrations, temperature of the solution, application times.
  • Visual inspection of the working areas and equipments.
  • Perform microbiological testing such as surface swabbing, air sampling, sponge, etc. These methods are reliable but labour-intensive and results take 24 to 48 hours. Rapid microbiology tests are commercially available. For more information on microbiological testing, see Food Safety Testing.
  • Perform chemical testing such as surface swabs for protein, fat or starches or allergen testing.
  • Perform indirect microbiological examinations (rapid methods). These methods are based on the metabolic products produced by the micro-organisms. One popular method is the Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) testing, which provides results within minutes. The ATP units are available through several suppliers.
  • If deficiencies are found, sanitation procedures can be corrected and the equipment recleaned, sanitized, and re-inspected.

Sanitation Challenges

  • Selection of an effective cleaning product: One of the most important criteria in selecting a cleaning chemical is determined by the type/combination of deposit (soil): oil, fat, grease, starch, etc. These deposits have different pH levels and solubilities, which will affect the effectiveness of the cleaning agent. For example:
    • Surfactants: Remove soil and light residues from surfaces.
    • Degreasers: Remove grease and oils.
    • Acid cleaners: Remove minerals and scale residues.
    • Alkaline cleaners: Remove protein and fat.
    • Abrasive cleaners: Remove burnt-on or heavy residue.
    The chemical supplier should be able to help you identify an effective cleaning product for your purpose. They also should provide recommendations for the preparation of the cleaning solution, providing suggested concentration, solution temperature and exposure time for an effective application.
  • Type of food contact surfaces: The composition of the surface to be cleaned (stainless steel, rubber, plastic, etc.) will also determine the choice of cleaning chemical and sanitizer. Some cleaners are suitable for a specific surface composition.
  • Selection of sanitizer: Either heat or chemicals may be used as sanitizing methods. When hot water or steam is used as a thermal treatment, both time and temperature should be considered (ex: 77-85°C for 45 seconds to five minutes). On the other hand, some elements that affect the effectiveness of a chemical sanitizer are as follows:
    • sanitizer concentration
    • temperature and pH of the sanitizing solution
    • cleanliness of the surface to be sanitized
    • exposure time
    • water hardness
  • Sanitary equipment design: The American Meat Institute (AMI) introduced some consideration to describe a sanitary design:
    • cleanable to a microbiological level
    • made of compatible materials: the equipment should be corrosion-resistant when in contact with food
    • accessible for inspection, maintenance, cleaning and sanitation
    • no product or liquid collection
    • sanitary operational performance
    • sanitary equipment design is a good foundation of any sanitation program, but it has to be complemented by good cleaning practices
  • Sanitary facility design: It is important to consider the design of the facility and the traffic pattern to prevent cross contamination between raw products and ready to eat (RTE) products. In addition, sufficient ventilation is critical to prevent the formation of condensation and humidity control. Air flow in the facility from areas of high pressure to lower pressure is another important concern. In this sense, air flows from a raw product area could possible carry pathogens and contaminate the RTE product.

Developing your own Sanitation Standard Operating Procedure (SSOP)

The SSOP, one of the prerequisites programs of Hazard Analysis and Critical Point (HACCP), describes the written sanitation procedure of a food processing plant. The SSOP does not necessarily mean changing the way you sanitize your plant; it simply documents how you do it.

It is important to recognize that each plant is unique; therefore each facility should develop its own SSOP. The following elements should be included in your SSOP:

  • policy
  • responsibility
  • frequency
  • procedure
  • corrective action
  • records


Once the SSOP are developed, the sanitation crew should be trained on these procedures. Some important aspects that should be considered during the training are:

  • Provide written procedures that describe the general and specific tasks for all the workers.
  • Review the procedures with workers to ensure understanding.
  • Emphasize the reason behind each task and the importance of sanitation.
  • Focus on visuals and hands-on training. The ‘classroom’ training should be accompanied by in-plant training.
  • Emphasize the personnel practices.
  • The schedules for cleaning and sanitation should be well understood.
  • Review the procedures for handling chemicals and sanitizers (is protective equipment required?). Material safety data sheets must be available for each chemical (cleaner and sanitizer) used in the plant.
  • Personnel should undergo annual refresher training on the practices and procedures for cleaning and sanitizing.
  • Keep updated records of training. Document the names and signatures of the employees that received training as well as the topic of material provided.

Sanitation Program

The purpose of a sanitation program is to provide a clean and sanitary environment for the handling of food products.

  1. Assign a plant sanitarian, which must ensure that all the equipment and areas of the plant are properly cleaned and sanitized.
  2. Prepare written cleaning procedures, which must include a step-by-step method for properly cleaning and sanitizing each piece of equipment (SSOP).
  3. Include a list of the following supplies:
    • materials and supplies required for cleaning and sanitizing
    • cleaners and sanitizers
    • clothing and protective equipment
  4. Determine cleaning schedules. This will provide the frequency that each task needs to be completed and assigns responsibility.
  5. Prepare and provide training to the sanitation crew as required.
  6. Develop self-inspection programs (verification). Self-inspections include pre-operational inspections, which are conducted before starting the processing line, and full inspections, which cover all areas of the operation and all food contact surfaces.
  7. Record all the cleaning and sanitations procedures, as well as the inspections and corrective actions taken (if needed).
  8. A periodic review of the program and the records will help to evaluate the effectiveness of the sanitation program.

Finally, the development and implementation of a pest control program is also required to maintain an effective sanitation program. Pests can and do contaminate previously cleaned and sanitize areas and transmit diseases.

Related Links

For more information, email the Food Safety and Inspection Branch or call 204-795-8418 in Winnipeg.