Maintaining a clean work environment is key to preventing the spread of disease-causing organisms called pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses.
However, while important, cleaning isn’t enough when it comes to surfaces that come in contact with food like tables, dishes, and utensils — you must also sanitize.
This article explains the difference between cleaning and sanitizing and why they are both necessary to keep food safe.
Cleaning vs. sanitizing
Cleaning and sanitizing are necessary to prevent the spread of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites from spreading and causing foodborne illnesses.
The transfer of pathogens from one surface or food to another is known as cross-contamination.
Cleaning and sanitizing are also necessary to prevent cross-contact, which occurs when a food allergen, rather than a pathogen, is transferred from one surface or food to another.
While commonly used interchangeably, cleaning and sanitizing are two different actions.
Cleaning removes dirt, grease, and other contaminants from floors, walls, and equipment like microwaves and refrigerators.
But when it comes to any surface that touches food like preparation tables, utensils, and dishes, cleaning isn’t enough, you must also sanitize.
This is because cleaning only removes visible dirt and food particles — pathogens that you cannot see can still remain, even if a surface appears clean.
Sanitizing is the process that actually kills pathogens and reduces them to safe numbers.
Sanitizing is different from disinfection and sterilization.
Disinfection kills most or all pathogens, and sterilization kills all pathogens.
Disinfectants and sterilant products are more commonly used in healthcare settings like hospitals and nursing homes rather than in foodservice since they are not food-safe.
Cleaning removes dirt, grime, grease, and food particles while sanitizing reduces pathogens to safe numbers.
When and how to clean and sanitize
You must clean and sanitize food-contact surfaces whenever they become contaminated, such as:
- before and after working with food, especially raw animal products
- when switching tasks, such as between dicing chicken and chopping lettuce
- after taking a break, in case of contamination unknowingly occurred while you were away
- after four hours of use, since this is enough time for bacteria to multiply to harmful levels
Here’s how to properly clean and sanitize food-contact surfaces:
- Remove any loose or caked-on food particles.
- Scrub the surface using warm water and a detergent to remove stuck-on food particles, grime, and oils.
- Rinse the surface with clean water to wash away any detergent residue.
- Following the directions on the container, apply a sanitizing solution.
- Allow the surface to air dry (never use a cloth or towel for drying since this can recontaminate the surface).
You cannot sanitize a dirty surface so you must follow these steps in order to properly clean and sanitize a surface.
There are a few extra steps when it comes to cleaning and sanitizing stationary equipment like ranges, grills, hot-holding equipment, and microwaves.
To clean and sanitize stationary equipment, follow these steps:
- Unplug the equipment.
- Scrape or remove food from surfaces.
- Remove all removable parts and wash, rinse, and sanitize by hand or run through a dishwasher.
- Wash and rinse all food-contact surfaces you cannot remove.
- Sanitize the equipment surfaces and allow them to air-dry.
- Reassemble the unit.
Wiping cloths are convenient for washing and sanitizing, but if you’re uncareful, you can pick up pathogens in your cloth and push them around, contaminating surfaces instead of sanitizing them.
Here are tips to use wiping cloths safely:
- Don’t reuse dry cleaning cloths that you use to wipe up food spills or anything else.
- Keep wet cloths used for sanitizing in the sanitizing solution between uses.
- Regularly check the sanitizing solution concentration using a test kit to ensure it’s still effective.
- Don’t use wiping cloths that you use to clean and sanitize surfaces that come in contact with raw animal foods.
- Launder wet wiping cloths daily.
Clean and sanitize food contact surfaces whenever they become contaminated. You cannot sanitize a dirty surface so follow the necessary steps to properly clean and sanitize a surface.
Foodservice-approved chemical sanitizers
The three main chemical sanitizers approved for foodservice include chlorine, iodine, and quaternary ammonium (quats).
However, the 2022 FDA Food Code allows the use of other food-grade sanitizers that are proven effective and used according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)–registered label use instructions (1).
Regardless of your chosen sanitizer, make sure to read the label closely before use.
The label will tell you what the water temperature should be, how much sanitizer to add, and how long the sanitizer should remain on the food-contact surface to be effective.
Here’s a quick look at these factors for the three main chemical sanitizers approved for foodservice:
|Minimum water temperature||Depending on concentration and pH||68ºF (20ºC)||75ºF (24ºC)|
|Sanitizer concentration||25–100 ppm||12.5–25 ppm||Dependent on manufacturer|
|Sanitizer contact time||10 sec||30 sec||30 sec|
You can use heat as the sanitizer when washing dishes and utensils in a 3-compartment sink and some dishwashers but chemicals tend to be more commonly used.
Chlorine, iodine, and quaternary ammonium (quats) are the three primary chemical sanitizers approved for use in foodservice. However, you can use other proven-effective, food-grade sanitizers.
The bottom line
Cleaning and sanitizing are necessary to prevent cross-contamination and cross-contact.
Cleaning removes dirt, debris, and food residue while sanitizing is the process that reduces pathogens to safe numbers.
Clean and sanitize food-contact surfaces including equipment whenever they become contaminated.
The three main chemicals approved for use in foodservice include chlorine, iodine, and quaternary ammonium (quats), but you’re not limited to them.
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