Food processing facilities follow the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) rules, but these food safety guidelines are the bare minimum facilities undertake to prevent contamination. In addition to HACCP, these facilities follow rules regarding high- and low-care (or high- and low-risk) areas.
High- and low-care areas establish physical barriers against contamination and relate to anything that creates a process, such as washing, salting and cooking. This not only applies to personal protective equipment (PPE), but also the facility itself. The regulations designate clear start and end points for different parts of the processing supply chain to prevent microbial growth and other types of contamination.
Here is an overview of how high- and low-care areas work:
What are high- and low-care areas?
When employing these guidelines, each facility has its own standards. However, one factor remains constant: As food products move further up the supply chain, the control standards become more strict. Essentially, as food goes from farm to table, it will move from low- to high-care areas.
"As food goes from farm to table, it will move from low- to high-care areas."
As implied by the name, low-care areas require a lower standard of hygiene than high-care segments of a facility. Although food products in these areas may have contact with the environment, they are not at risk for additional contamination, according to Food Safety Magazine. Food processing steps to be completed in low-care areas include receiving, preparing and cooking food.
High-care areas have the utmost hygiene standards. Furthermore, these sections of the facility are temperature-controlled.
Before entering either of these areas, workers must change into the appropriate PPE at designated changing stations and wash their hands throughout the process. In the case of equipment moving between areas, these tools must undergo sanitation procedures.
How do facilities delineate high- and low-care areas?
Several factors establish the barriers between different sections of a food processing facility. These include installations and PPE, according to the British Retail Consortium's Global Standards.
For the physical structure, a few features are present in both areas but more extensive in high-care sections: entrances; filtration systems to remove dust, microorganisms and airborne particles; and color coded floor markings. Color coding also applies to PPE, tools used for processing and appliances.
The physical segregation also includes transfer points. These are places in the facilities between low- and high-care areas where employees must complete certain steps to prevent contamination. Before workers or equipment pass from one area to the other, they must undergo the aforementioned hygiene and sanitation procedures in the transfer point. In some factories, employees cannot move between low- and high-care areas under any circumstances.
"As part of the segregation measures for low- and high-care areas, employees must wash their hands before moving from one area to the other."
How do facilities establish a flow to prevent contamination?
Food processing plants have certain guidelines and layouts to further ensure activities in low-care areas do not affect high-care sections.
Drainage is one key concern. Any drainage systems in the facility must flow from a high-care area to a low-care area. This ensures no contaminates, such as blood from livestock, flow into a high-care section and come into contact with cooked foods.
Another aspect of flow is the cooking process. Because foods are raw when they begin cooking in a low-care area, BRC's standards require double doors on cooking ovens for thorough segregation of cooked and uncooked food products. While some facilities use single-door ovens, they put additional sanitation measures in place to prevent contamination in lieu of a second physical barrier.
What is the global perspective?
More foods are processed now compared to previous years, which raises the chances that part of the supply chain takes place in another country. Not only does this refer to steps in the process, but it also applies to where the ingredients come from.
Different countries have varying degrees of regulation for food processing, and the U.S. has less intense rules compared to Europe and Asia. For instance, the European Union enforces good hygiene practices (GHP), which include extensive training to make certain food processing employees prevent contamination, in addition to HACCP. As shown through regulations regarding low- and high-care areas, HACCP, GHP and other food safety guidelines, increased scrutiny and care of food processing and food safety are growing globally.