For facilities that handle food allergens or foodborne pathogens, a moment of inattention can lead to a cross contamination incident, causing irreparable damage to your brand. In addition to spoiling an entire production run, an accident that introduces an allergen or dangerous microbe into a previously sterile area may require a lengthy shutdown for cleaning and a costly recall affecting every product downstream of your supply chain.
Color coding provides a powerful tool for preventing cross contamination incidents, especially when employees move between production zones over the course of their shift. Color coding provides a clear “stop sign” that halts a worker before they make a costly mistake, such as accidentally using a contaminated brush to clean a sterile production surface, or forgetting to put on a new protective apron before entering an allergen-free zone.
The Food Safety Modernization Act requires facilities to take a proactive approach to preventing cross contamination. Producers can now face criminal penalties for lapses in safety that endanger consumers, so your food safety plan must have preventive controls in place that address cross contamination hazards before an incident occurs.
What Color Coding Looks Like
Color coding helps employees ensure that tools and PPE aren’t moving between production zones, bringing pathogens and allergens along with them where they don’t belong. For example, if every utensil that touches raw meat is coded green and every utensil that touches cooked products is coded white, workers will quickly and easily be able to spot an out-of-place piece in an instant.
In a color coding scheme, every utensil that comes into contact with a potential allergen, pathogen, or chemical contaminant should have a unique, unmistakable color. Storage racks for these utensils should match the color scheme exactly, making it obvious when a tool from an outside zone has been shelved in the wrong area.
Personal protective equipment—including aprons and shoe covers used when processing allergens—should match the color of the zone’s utensils. The color code can be reinforced with signage posted throughout the facility highlighted with the zone’s color, or doors painted to match the color scheme. Ideally, workers in the area should be surrounded by visual cues that will make any out-of-place tools or PPE stand out.
An Unmistakable Warning
The key advantage of color coding is that the system is virtually foolproof. Workers shouldn’t have to make any special examination of their equipment to know whether or not it’s in the right place. A consistent plan will make errors glaringly obvious, even from a distance. Color also has the advantage of transcending language and literacy barriers—staff members don’t have to speak the same language to get on the same page when it comes to cross contamination safety.
Using a color code that contrasts with raw ingredients can also help workers spot foreign objects that have fallen into in food. When every implement used on the line is a single color, employees will be attuned to spotting any trace of a broken implement contaminating the product. Whether it’s a plastic bristle that has come loose from a cleaning brush, or a fragment from the broken tip of a spatula, workers who only have one color to look for are less likely to overlook a foreign object in the food.
Impress the Inspectors
While there is no legal requirement to implement a color coding plan, the FDA recognizes its value in preventing cross contamination. Inspectors will want to see your food safety plan in action, and color coding is an active control that can be verified immediately upon stepping onto the production floor.
Making Colors Count
Although there are no regulations governing the use of color coding, the industry has adopted a set of best practices when implementing a color coding plan:
- Follow the HACCP: Your color coding plan should be developed in response to a thorough examination of the facility’s critical control points. Once implemented, color coding will permanently quarantine certain pieces of equipment within their zones, so you need to be certain beforehand which tools should be contained in which areas.
- Talk to the Floor: Line workers are the best resource for identifying which implements are coming into contact with potential contaminants. Their feedback will be vital for developing a plan that includes the right pieces of equipment and sets the correct boundaries for each color zone.
- Keep it Simple: The number of colors in your facility should be kept to a minimum so workers will be certain which pieces of equipment belong in which specific part of the plant. Using too many colors will complicate the plan’s implementation and risk complacency. Remember, approximately one in twelve male workers are colorblind, unable to differentiate between red and green, so these colors should not be used in conjunction with another.
- Don’t Mix Colors: The entire utensil—from the handle to the tool face—should be uniformly colored. If a brush has a blue handle and green bristles, workers might not be sure where it really belongs.
- Keep it Comprehensive: Every piece of equipment that is not bolted to the floor should follow the color code. You do not want workers growing accustomed to seeing non-colored implements being brought into the same processing areas as colored tools. Color coding only works when violations are obvious at a glance.
- Color Your Culture of Safety: If your color coding is well-planned, simple, and consistent, it will reinforce a broader culture of safety throughout the plant. Workers will feel confident calling out violations, knowing that there is no excuse or exception to the color code rule.