Britain’s food industry is in the public eye more than ever. In the last decade, there has been a marked increase in the number of reported incidences of food poisoning, and the whole issue of food hygiene has been attracting increasing consumer concern and political scrutiny.

Highly publicised outbreaks have resulted in death and sickness from salmonella in eggs, listeria in soft cheeses, E-coli 157 in meat products, benzene in spring water and BSE in beef with the resulting fears and anxieties washing over to produce new worries over genetically modified foods.

The reasons for the increasing and dramatic rise in food poisoning notifications are numerous but include:

• Greater awareness by both the public and the medical profession.

• Greater publicity being given to the outbreaks.

• Greater consumption of cooked chilled foods.

• The use of microwave ovens rather than traditional cooking methods.

• People eat out and travel more.

• A change in taste for imported and more lightly-cooked food.

• Changes in animal husbandry and feeding techniques.

• Standards were low and not being rigorously enforced.

The Food Safety Act in the early 1990’s required the food industry to exercise “due diligence” in maintaining the requisite hygiene standards in the production of food products. It was here, for the first time that legislation specifically included the necessity to provide workwear and to have it maintained in a clean and hygienic condition.

Johnsons Apparelmaster, a leading UK supplier in workwear rental, wanted to see a strict hygiene-code in place and was of the opinion that a loosely worded Standard would be “worse than useless for the food handling industry.”

As a consequence the company invested heavily in food-garment processing technology and developed its own stringent hygiene code of practice for the laundering of garments for the food industry creating its Gold Standard.

The establishment of the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) in April of this year and the implementation of increasingly stringent legislation from both the UK Government and the European Union in Brussels meant that Johnsons Apparelmaster was well prepared for the more stringent hygiene demands in garment laundering which the food industry now requires.

The FSA has the power to monitor the safety and quality of food with a mandate to take appropriate action to put right any problems.

The FSA promises to put the consumer first and will have the powers to take action and enforce food safety legislation to ensure that all companies involved in the food chain, from farm to fork, maintain the highest standards of food hygiene. Being an independent body, the FSA will also be free to publish any of its advice, information or investigations about the rules and practices affecting the safety and standard of food production, processing and distribution.

Radical shake up

In July of this year the EU Commission’s new legislative proposals, described as “the most radical shake up for 25 years of the Community’s food safety hygiene rules” were announced, the intention being to make a single, transparent hygiene policy applicable to all food and all food operators, across the member states.

Food industry workwear is obviously an integral part of this equation and more food manufacturers are recognising this. Today’s textile renters will have to adopt a continuous policy of research and development in food garment processing if they are to meet the changing demands of the food industry. Food garment laundering companies which fail to invest, will not only get challenged by government legislation, they will go out of business.

Martin Gregson, technical director for Johnsons Apparelmaster, says:

“Long before the onset of the government’s Food Standards Agency and the proposed legislation from the EU, we identified the need to establish a code-of-practice for hygiene in the laundering of food-grade garments. We have introduced our own hygiene code-of-practice, the Gold Standard, which is unique in the textile-rental industry.

“The standard has been designed specifically for the food industry and arrived at through continuous development and consultation with our customers. They are the ones who are now benefiting from our investment in food garment processing technology.”

Educate staff

Johnsons Apparelmaster is seeing an increasing number of customers starting to educate their staff on the importance of using a bought-in laundry service, as opposed to ‘home laundering. The potential risks of ‘cross contamination’ are becoming understood.

The processes, systems and procedures required for the Gold Standard are extremely comprehensive and have meant that Johnsons Apparelmaster has had to install the most modern technology within its factories and ensure staff have undergone extensive training to recognised food hygiene qualification levels (IEHO Food Hygiene or equivalent).

The company’s most recent investment was a new £1.6 million (US$2.6m) food garment laundering plant in Letchworth that was opened last year. Taking twelve months to build and commission before becoming fully operational, the plant was designed solely to launder food grade garments.

The Gold Standard is available on a national scale and is offered through seven of the company’s plants, with plans to upgrade others. The range of food-grade garments in the food industry does vary, meaning different customers require different levels of hygienic laundering, not all would require the sophisticated methods used in the Gold Standard, but would benefit from the less demanding Silver Standard service offered by the company.

At the top end of the scale, high-risk groups such as chilled-food manufacturers would require the Gold Standard, whereas lower risk groups, such as abattoirs, would require the Silver Standard. The Silver Standard service has been designed for the food industry but caters for those customers where a high attention to hygiene would be unnecessary.

During the Gold Standard process, garments are recorded and numerous parameters are regularly checked at HACCPS (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points). The risk of cross contamination is eliminated with single-barrier washing machines, as dirty laundry goes in one door and the clean garments come out of a separate door into a controlled hygienic or ‘clean room’ environment.

Thorough cleanliness and the removal of any foreign body contamination results from garments being processed at high temperatures with multiple rinses after which they are taken through a steam and thermal drying tunnel where they are subjected to even higher temperatures to guarantee thermal disinfection.

Automated track-rails then take the garments to the sorting area, where the bar-codes for wearer identification are scanned. The garments are folded or wrapped and dispatched to customers. Some of Johnsons Apparelmaster’s larger customers use a convenient locker system.

Here, barcoded garments are continuously removed and replaced on a conveyor system, and workwear is always available for employees who may require frequent changes in the same day. Barcoding allows the company to monitor the garment’s location and identify who it belongs to and how often it has been cleaned. A dedicated transport fleet ensures garment hygiene standards are maintained on all deliveries to the customer.

Staff, working in the laundry’s clean room undergo rigorous washing and changing procedures prior being allowed to enter the area. No eating, drinking or chewing is allowed, and no personal belongings are permitted into the area. Even the structure of the factories that house the laundries is designed to facilitate cleanliness and maintenance.

The drains flow from the clean area towards the dirty area and filtered air is pumped in so that a positive air pressure is maintained.

Full environmental records are kept. Temperatures are regularly checked. Microbiological and foreign body tests are made on all chemicals, and rinse water is frequently microbiologically tested.

Random independent tests are carried out on at least six areas of a garment, to make sure that the standard for microbial levels on finished work does not exceed the recommended values per 25cm2 of garment.

Strike a balance

Customer research currently being undertaken not only highlights the growing awareness of the new and higher levels of cleaning disciplines required by the food industry, but also of the industry’s desire for a wider choice of garment design, which in turn will increase the need to clean and replace workwear more frequently.

Garment rental companies therefore need to strike a balance between what customers desire and what is needed to comply with the legislation.

Martin Gregson says his company is committed to improving hygiene standards in the provision of workwear rental service to the food industry.

“The implementation of the FSA and other legislative bodies is a step in the right direction towards ensuring that all companies involved in the food chain, from farm to fork, maintain the highest standards of hygiene” he says. “It is important that our customers realise how workwear fits into this equation and are aware of the contribution we can make towards the work of the FSA.”

Johnsons Apparelmaster is part of the Johnson Service Group. Its origins can be traced back to 1780 and today it has 25 textile rental plants in the UK and Ireland and 540 drycleaning branches across Great Britain.