Now that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is in place, launderers serving the food industry could face greater pressure to comply with tight controls and the scope of those controls could increase.

The FSA was set up by act of parliament on 1 April 2000 to ensure that the food we eat is safe, and to offer independent, balanced advice.

The agency has been created to protect the public health from risks which may arise in connection with the consumption of food and to protect the consumer’s interests. Its prime aim is to provide the public and the Government with advice and information on food safety from ‘farm to fork.’

It protects the consumers through effective enforcement and monitoring and supports choice through promoting accurate and meaningful labelling.

Led by a board appointed to act in the public interest, not to represent a particular sector, the FSA’s members have a wide range of skills and experience.

The agency bases decisions and advice on the best evidence available. It seeks independent expert opinion from advisory committees and it commissions research.

The FSA will be accountable to parliament through health and safety ministers. It has the unique legal power to publish the advice it gives to the Government.

Meat hygiene

The FSA will have headquarters in London plus offices in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Meat Hygiene Service, which also has the protection of public health as a primary aim, is now accountable to the FSA.

The agency bases its rule on an amended version of the Food Safety Act of 1990. There are no specific directives to launderers, but the food supply industry must prove due diligence. By implication, launderers face the same obligations.

Food manufacturers and processors need to be sure that any ancillary item entering a food production area will not be a safety risk to the final product. Food manufacturers must be able to show that they are diligent in trying to prevent risks. Workwear worn in food production areas is a potential source of contamination (foreign bodies and micro-organisms), so laundries must assure food supply customers that the product is safe. A physical barrier is only the starting point in the control of microbiological and foreign body contamination. The food industry uses Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) to identify and control risks to food safety. By adopting the same system under the framework of ISO9002, launderers can assure customers that workwear is safe.

When providing general industrial workwear, laundries have focussed on producing dry, crease-free and visually clean garments. In these terms, ISO9002 provides an adequate framework for assuring consistent garment quality.

However, provision of workwear to the food industry also requires control of foreign body contamination. To ensure disinfection of workwear and to prevent subsequent re-contamination, laundries have replicated many of the controls used in the food industry. Food processors in the high-care sector have separated production into low-risk areas and high-care areas by building physical barriers, for example at the point where raw food is cooked. Similarly, laundries have separated soiled and clean garments with a physical barrier at the point of thermal disinfection.

The Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) system was originally developed to provide safe and hygienic food for astronauts on the US space programme.

Where ISO9000 is concerned with product quality, HACCP is concerned with product safety. HACCP analyses areas of the production flowline where there is a risk of contamination, and sets down procedures for identifying and controlling such risks.

Such techniques cannot be confined to the food producer but must also be applied to items, such as protective workwear, that are peripheral, but essential. The primary function of workwear in the food industry is to protect the foodstuff from contamination, the secondary function is to keep the wearer clean.

So launderers must operate a barrier washer system and demonstrate that equipment is maintained, calibrated and regularly revalidated for effectiveness. Where it falls below standard, loads should be isolated and then, following corrective action, reprocessed.

Thermal disinfection is the essential part of the laundry process. Holding loads at 71degC for 3minutes (allowing for mixing) will achieve this, but it is essential to show that such temperatures can be met and disinfection must be validated by microbiological testing.

  Such demands seem challenging, but those launderers who have HACCP procedures in place should have little difficulty in complying with changes brought about by FSA requirements. Indeed, should other workwear items be classed as critical, these laundries could gain more business. Food industry launderers who do not operate HACCP systems will face pressures to comply or risk losing business. Complying could mean high investment.

A prime requirement of hygienic laundering using HACCP is the validating and monitoring of thermal disinfection and of the cleaning efficiency of a wash process. FCRA test pieces offer a simple means for validating laundry processes and regularly monitoring their conformance to specifications.

The wash process parameters must conform to specified standards. A typical spec will cover: correct sorting and classification; load weights, wash program selection and machine execution.

Correct main wash temperatures, liquor levels, chemical additions and final moisture retention must be maintained.

It is also important to check soil removal efficiency, soil redeposition, build-up of optical brightening agents, adequacy of rinsing and for under or over-bleaching. Shortcomings in these areas will impact on microbiological cleanliness and fitness for use by customers operating biologically sensitive processes.

As mentioned earlier, FCRA test pieces provide a relatively simple way of monitoring these parameters and their careful interpretation can reveal much about the wash process.

Two complementary types of test pieces are available: The quality control (QC) piece is made of gently bleached cotton without the addition of an optical brightening agent. The fabric is used to monitor the long-term effects of a washing process and may be passed through the process up to 25 times. FCRA then analyses the pieces, examining for whiteness at visible wavelengths to monitor redeposition of soil; for fluorescence to monitor build-up of optical brightening agent: and for chemical damage to indicate bleaching effects.

Wash processes are usually intended to deal with one type of soil but must also provide reasonable results on others. The FCRA one-wash test strip includes four types of artificial soils: particulate (mineral, oil and pigments); hydrophilic (foodstuffs); protein (blood); and bleachable (stains, red wine).

The amount of soiling on each test piece is designed to defeat the heaviest wash processes. Some soiling always remains so that it is possible to assess the efficiency of soil removal by reflectance measurements.

Test pieces may be used in validation of washing processes to set performance specifications. Wash test-pieces will always show some variability in results even for nominally identical loads. Variations can be caused by differing efficiencies in opening out of loads in the machines as well as by weight variations

Inappropriate bleaching can cause excessive damage to cotton. Such damage can occur after the wash process, if bleach has not been effectively washed away before the item is transferred into the high temperatures of a tumble dryer or tunnel finisher. The chemical damage measurement of the QC test piece provides a valuable check.

‘Laundering workwear for the high care sector of the food industry’ is available from the FCRA:members £30;non-members £75; also for test-piece details:

Tel :01423 885 977.