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Cleaning: Sanitizing, Sterilizing, and Disinfecting

in 2018/Organic Standards/Preparation/Winter 2018
No loose hair in a food processing environment unless it's a photo shoot! Rebecca Kneen at Crannog Ales

Feature photo: No loose hair in a food processing environment unless it’s a photo shoot! Rebecca Kneen at Crannog Ales

Rebecca Kneen

Cleanup. We do it every day, in our homes and on our farms and in our food processing. For some of us, cleaning and sanitizing takes up more time than actually making or growing. For many farmers, though, cleaning is very much secondary to our primary goal of growing great food. Sure, we’ll spray out our picking baskets with water after digging potatoes in the rain, and we’ll make sure our salad spinner is free of chunks of clay and dried plants, but how much further do we need to go? And do we need to worry about sanitation at all?

Our regional Health Departments tend to prefer every food surface be disinfected, not just cleaned and sanitized, but few of us would adopt this either in principle or in practice. Fortunately, there’s a middle ground. I shall insert here a caveat for all readers: I am NOT a food safety expert. I am a Certification Committee member for NOOA and a brewer and farmer. This article is not the final word, but will hopefully be a useful basic guide.

First, it is necessary to differentiate between cleaners and sanitizers. Cleaners remove dirt, organic material, and some germs (bacteria, viruses, and fungi) by physically washing them away. They do not kill. Sanitizers are chemicals that actually kill bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Disinfectants kill more than sanitizers, but are not always necessary. A surface that is not already clean cannot be sanitized, no matter how hard you try. Cleaners and sanitizers must come in contact with 100% of the surfaces, including valves, corners, and other “blind” areas. And yes, more time and the correct temperature will increase effectiveness, while increased concentration can actually impede the usefulness of any given chemical.

The main principles of any cleaning and sanitizing regime are correct chemical & concentration, complete coverage, and sufficient time and temperature.

For most daily low-risk food applications, proper cleaning is all that is required. If a food is likely to be directly ingested after harvest (as with herbs, microgreens, or sprouts) without the consumer washing them, handling surfaces must also be sanitized, as water- or soil-borne bacteria can relatively easily remain on the food.

Our first approach, of course, is to use only water that is potable and to test regularly. City water is tested daily, but on-farm water sources should be tested annually or, for microgreens and sprouts, at least semi-annually. Water must be tested at the point of use—not at the wellhead, but at the tap in your washing station.

A wide variety of cleaners are usable in the organic standard, and most detergents are up to normal farm cleaning needs. However, reading the consumer label is not enough. Labels such as “biodegradable”, “natural”, or “non-toxic” are essentially meaningless and unregulated. Therefore it is important to not just read the label for active ingredients, but to get an MSDS sheet for the cleaning product and find out what else is in it, as carriers and surfactants can be on the prohibited list. This may require a direct request to the manufacturer and some effort to discover, but it will prevent you from having your certification removed.


Food processing, abattoirs, and sprout/microgreen production all require a bit more by way of cleaners and sanitizers. Dairies, slaughterhouses, and breweries face challenges in cleaning fats and proteins, and require both caustic and acid cleaning. Surfaces should be designed for easy cleaning and resistance to the chemicals needed, while appropriate chemicals to clean the particular type of soil must be sourced. In other words, know both your chemical and what you are trying to remove.

Sanitizers can be used to prevent or manage fungal diseases like damping off in greenhouses, or for tools being used for pruning in orchards, hopyards, or berry plantations. Different uses and different surfaces require different approaches, as with cleaning. Some sanitizers require a post-usage rinse with potable water, while others are “leave-on”. Soak or contact time is critical with sanitizers in particular, as there’s no easy “look test” to see if the sanitizer has done its job. Standard operating procedures help everyone maintain those critical thresholds.

Many producers rely on common household bleach for basic sanitation. Chlorine bleach is listed on the PSL, but beware: many bleach formulations include fragrances that are not allowed. Be very careful about dilution, and ensure the correct ratios are observed. Peroxyacetic Acid (hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid blend) is widely used as a substitute, and is considerably less toxic. It breaks down quickly into a mildly acidic water, which is great for your waste stream, and which is easy on the humans using it. Both bleach dilutions and peroxyacetic acid break down, which means that your mixes must be refreshed or replaced rapidly. Peroxyacetic acid is also a no-rinse sanitizer, which makes it easier to use.

Daily Operations Made Simple

The basic principle here is that if something is not straightforward, it will be done incorrectly. Clear, well-written, and organized procedures with tools directly at hand will ensure that everyone does the job right and rapidly every time.

First, think about what you are cleaning: are you simply doing an annual clean of your start trays? Are you cleaning your daily work surfaces? What are they made of, and what are you trying to remove? What are the potential bacteria, viruses or fungi you are trying to get rid of?

Do your homework: Research your chemicals and make sure everything you need and want to use will be allowed. Do this before the next certification application, so you aren’t caught out in non-compliance in the middle of operations. Get MSDS sheets, write to the manufacturers, and spend some quality time with the PSL. Trust me, it’s riveting.

Look over your equipment: what can you remove and soak in cleaner and sanitizer easily and safely? What needs to be cleaned in place (CIP)? Do you have the appropriate pumps, spray balls etc to run a CIP system? Will it reach all the blind areas? Do you have more than one cleaner type to make sure you can clean the different types of gunk?

Set up your tools: Set up spray bottles, measuring tools and mix buckets for both cleaners and sanitizers. Label each of them with the target dilution (especially spray bottles) and have recipes posted where chemicals are stored. All your chemicals should be in safe, secure storage where they are easily accessed by adults but not children and where you can also keep your measuring tools, but also where there is no chance of contaminating your food or ingredients if you spill.

Write it down: Follow yourself around for a day or a week, and observe what your regular processes are. How often do you need to clean and sanitize? Are you doing it? Are you not doing it because you don’t have the right hose nozzle, or someone keeps borrowing the scrub brush? Is your sanitizer spray bottle too far away or in a spot that’s too hard to reach? Is it a huge chore to set up your CIP system for one piece of machinery? Once you see what you are actually doing, you can see why you are not doing certain procedures—and then you can create a setup or a system that will make it easy to improve.

From that experience, you can create a Standard Operating Procedure, a routine that enables every person to do the same procedure reliably. It includes when to clean and sanitize every piece of equipment or surface, what the appropriate concentrations of chemicals are for different uses, and how frequently to replace chemical mixes. Daily checklists can be incorporated into your batch records or cleaning logs can simply be posted in the work area. Initialing tasks as completed is vital, especially for things like knowing who restocked the sanitizer spray bottle and when, as a missed day can mean no effective sanitizer was applied.

We check on our SOPs periodically, to make sure that they are working for everyone—sometimes you discover that a tool is missing, or a new employee can’t actually reach everything, or that interesting substitutions have been made. Even when you discover problems, they can teach you to change procedures, chemicals, or training. We have also discovered that all staff have to be trained to understand why the SOP is set up the way it is—why certain tanks have to be cleaned differently from other tanks, why contact times are important for sanitizers, and so on. For committed and interested staff, understanding the why will not just improve compliance but can improve the entire system.

Some Common Chemicals and their Effects

Ammonia and bleach (sodium hypochlorite) causes asthma in workers who breathe too much of it in their jobs. They can trigger asthma attacks in children or ECE providers who already have asthma. They can also irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract.

Quaternary ammonium compounds (also known as QUATs, QACs, or QATs) are not volatile compounds, but using them as sprays can cause nose and throat irritation. Benzalkonium chloride is a severe eye irritant and causes and triggers asthma. Exposures to QUATs may cause allergic skin reactions. Use of QUATs has been associated with the growth of bacteria that are resistant to disinfection. Sometimes this resistance also transfers to antibiotics. In laboratory studies, QUATs were found to damage genetic material (genes).

Terpenes are chemicals found in pine, lemon, and orange oils that are used in many cleaning and disinfecting products as well as in fragrances. Terpenes react with ozone, especially on hot smoggy days, forming very small particles like those found in smog and haze that can irritate the lungs and may cause other health problems and formaldehyde which causes cancer, is a sensitizer that is linked to asthma and allergic reactions, has damaged genes in lab tests, is a central nervous system depressant (slows down brain activity), may cause joint pain, depression, headaches, chest pains, ear infections, chronic fatigue, dizziness, and loss of sleep.

Triclosan is a suspected endocrine disruptor and may lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Phthalates are used in fragrances that are found in air fresheners and cleaning and sanitizing products. They are endocrine disruptors. Research indicates that phthalates increase the risk of allergies and asthma and can affect children’s neurodevelopment and thyroid function. Studies show links between phthalates in mothers to abnormal genital development in boys. Phthalates have been found in human urine, blood, semen, amniotic fluid, and breast milk.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that vaporize at room temperature. Many VOCs that are released by cleaning supplies have been linked to chronic respiratory problems such as asthma, allergic reactions, and headaches.

Environmentally friendly cleaners and sanitizers (not the same as organic!)

EcoLogo is a program of Underwriters Laboratory based in Canada. Some of these products are available in the U.S. and some are not. A list of certified cleaning products is available at ecologo.org/en/certifiedgreenproducts.

Green Seal is a program based in the U.S. And used by many institutional purchasers. A list of Certified Cleaning Products is available at greenseal.org/FindGreenSealProductsandServices.

Design for the Environment (DfE) is a U.S. EPA program. DfE certifies both institutional and retail/consumer products. A list of DfE-certified cleaning and other products are available at www.epa.gov/dfe/products.

Rebecca Kneen farms and brews with her partner Brian MacIsaac at Crannóg Ales, Canada’s first certified organic, on-farm microbrewery. They have been certified organic since inception in 1999. Their farm is a 10 acre mixed farm growing hops, fruit, and vegetables as well as pigs, sheep, and chickens. Rebecca has been involved in agriculture, food, and social justice issues since she met her first pair of rubber boots at age three on the family’s Nova Scotia farm.

Farmers’ Markets Go Festive!

in Farmers' Markets/Marketing/Organic Community/Winter 2016

Chris Quinlan

What’s food without a nice glass of BC Pinot to pair with it? The sale and sampling of beer, wine, and spirits at BC Farmers’ Markets brings the market experience one step closer to maturity.

In 2014, the Whistler Farmers’ Market became the first to have a liquor producer approved for the sale and sampling of liquor at a market. The first producer was Pemberton Distillery, producers of Shramm Vodka amongst other spirits.

In 2015, the Whistler Farmers’ Market had 15 initial applications from liquor producers to vend at the market. There are currently three or four producers sampling and selling their products at both the Sunday and Wednesday markets. It is not unusual for a winery to sell out at a Whistler market.

This is a win for markets, producers, and customers. Regional producers gain access and exposure to customers who are tuned into their product. Customers are able to meet and talk to producers about how their product is made. And Farmers’ Markets come closer to meeting their mandate of providing a complete regional shopping experience.

Moving Away from Teetotaling

How can markets and producers take advantage of this opportunity? That requires understanding how we got here.

Before 1986, if you wanted a drink on a Sunday, outside of your home, you either went to a restaurant, few of which were open on “the day of rest”, or you had to go to a private “sports club.” Arguably, this was a large part of the business plan for many of the racquet clubs that flourished in my hometown of Nanaimo. We definitely smashed more Caesars than volleys as members of the Quarterway Racquet Club.

Then came Expo 86 and the beginning of the evolution of liquor laws in British Columbia. It all began as an experiment to ensure that the international tourists who visited Expo 86 did not have to endure the trauma of not being able to get a drink on a Sunday. Fortunately for the hospitality industry, the experiment became the norm and Sunday liquor sales opened up a whole new business opportunity.

Fast forward to 2013. As a result of the long-awaited provincial liquor review, and possibly an Okanagan MLA making his seat available for a seat-less Premier Clark, consultations began with industry and the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets with the aim of enabling the sampling and sale of BC-produced beer, wine and spirits at Farmers’ Markets.

Quinny at the Market

Overcoming Fears

While the move to bring the Farmers’ Market experience in line with that of markets around the world was met with great enthusiasm by the majority of markets and municipalities, it was amazing how many of these organizations still feared this move would somehow result in rampant liquor consumption and public inebriation at Farmers’ Markets. At one consultation meeting a local market manager expressed the fear that the proposed legislation might result in “non traditional” customers attending the market to purchase a bottle of wine and then heading over to the neighboring park to drink it out of a brown paper bag.

One year after the legislation came into effect many markets are still struggling to obtain zoning from their municipal governments that would allow them to host liquor vendors. Much of this is because most municipalities were unaware of the legislation themselves. They were, and some still are, scrambling to enact the necessary zoning and business regulation bylaws.

Whistler Seizes the Moment

How did Whistler become the first to have vendors approved under the new legislation? We were fortunate to be part of the initial consultations with the province and as a result had some insight and input into what was coming. As a former municipal councilor I understood the need to keep the municipality informed as to what was coming down the pipe. By working with municipal staff we were able to ensure that the required business regulation and zoning bylaws were in place when the legislation came into effect, just in time for the Canada Day long weekend market. Pemberton Distillery was already a member of our market, selling their line of non-alcoholic elixirs and syrups. We made certain that we kept each other informed. So when the legislation came in, I called them and they had their application filed within the hour. They were the first, and they continue to be regular vendors at the Whistler Farmers’ Market.

Wine Sampling

Over the past year I have walked many producers through the process of obtaining their permit to sell at Farmers’ Markets, in addition to consulting with Farmers’ Markets on specific liquor vendor policies and municipal relations. From these experiences, and observing liquor vendors at the market, I offer the following:

For a Farmers’ Market, this is one of the greatest opportunities to gain not only excellent revenue from a new vendor category, but also to draw in new customers, as well as retain existing ones with a new product offering.

For the producers, whether you are making beer, wine, spirits, or even Honey Meade (that was a new one this year) it is critical that you go beyond “sending a rep” to sample and sell at a Farmers’ Market. As a rule, we are “make, bake, or grow”, so sending “staff” to cover the market is not acceptable.

Farmers’ Market customers are very specific in what they are looking for. They are educated consumers and can be demanding of producers. The reason they come to a Farmers’ Market is to connect with their farmer, their artist, and their crafter. They want to know and trust the product they are taking the time to purchase. Respect their investment in time away from a big box retailer by investing in the best representation of your product and you will be successful.

Chris Quinlan is a former Business Operator and Municipal Councillor who found his a way to satisfy his passions managing the Whistler Farmers’ Market. Innovating and pushing the boundaries of conventional market management, Chris has grown the Whistler market into one of the largest animist successful in British Columbia. He has worked as a project facilitator and coordinator for the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets, Strengthening Farmers’ Markets’ program and recently launched Marketwurks.com, an online Vendors Application and Management program for Farmers’ and Artisan markets.

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