Food industry is faced with the greatest challenge in restoring confidence in the consumers regarding its ability to offer safe foods after a series of episodes of food contamination and costly product recalls in many western countries. It is another matter that contaminated foods do not get sufficient attention in India due to the lax monitoring and enforcement practices prevalent in the country and absence of product liability system sparing the manufacturers as well as the traders from punitive corrective actions. A ray of hope emanated from the corridors of power that is supposed to oversee the food safety in the country, when hotels in New Delhi were chosen to grade them into different categories based on hygiene and food quality, probably keeping in mind the forth coming Common Wealth Games hosted there by India. Whether the declaration of 'intent' will transform into reality remains to be seen.
Inputs for food processing such as raw materials and water, the infrastructure and services, the environment where facilities are located and working personnel are the major sources of microbiological contamination resulting in spoiled foods and consequent damages to the consumer health. Out of these, people involved in handling foods in the processing floor are the carriers of pathogenic vectors, transferring them to the food through their direct contact or through the air they exhale. Till the robots take control of food handling, human hands are bound to be the most crucial tool to manage various operations that constitute processing. While personnel health can be monitored through medical check ups and daily examination, keeping the hands clean is fraught with many practical difficulties. Hands are invariably used by a human during coughing, sneezing, gargling, eating and drinking, visit to the toilets, washing of face and feet and many other purposes. The microbial status of the hands is under a flux, continuously changing during different times of the day.
Current practices of keeping hands clean include washing with soap or detergent and drying or wiping and using antiseptic preparations before entering the preparation area. There is no guarantee that hands of the operators are really clean before entering the processing area because many factors will influence the efficacy of this critical step. Extent of detergent used, quantity of water used, thoroughness of forming the suds and their spread through out the hand, method of drying the hand all will determine how clean the hands are after each washing. According to WHO a person who washes hands often is 24% less likely to acquire a respiratory illness and 45-50% less likely to suffer from a stomach upset. 80% of all illnesses and infections are transported by touch where hand plays the prominent role. A thorough hand washing calls for vigorously scrubbing with water and soap until lather appears, making sure to get them between fingers and finger nails which generally takes about 20 seconds to complete followed by drying with a towel.
Innovations in hospitals which are continuously on alert regrading infection from pathogenic microorganisms are greatly relevant to the food industry managers also and the industry needs to learn from their experience. Popular sanitizing hand gels and liquids, though touted to be efficient, were found to be less effective in practice than washing with plenty of water because the bacteria could still remain on the hand, when not washed. Water and soap wash down these contaminants from hand removing their very source. To make the washing hand operation more reliable, electronic sensors have been developed to detect presence of extraneous matter on the hand which are being tried out in some hospitals in the western countries. Washed hands when brought under a wall-mounted scanner are tested for cleanliness and inadequate cleaning can trigger alarm signals that can be detected, logged and monitored for every individual worker in the organization entering the processing area. Workers wearing appropriate badges pick up the signals and those not cleared can go for more thorough washing. Hot air drying can take as much as 20-30 seconds while towels and tissue paper are often used for quick drying. Drying of washed hands before scanning can now be done in a few seconds using air blades at room temperature using compressed air at 400 miles per hour velocity.
Hand washing is increasingly receiving attention especially during recent weeks because of the pandemic H1N1 virus spreading Swine Flu across the world, expected to affect almost 2 billion people within 2 years. Most effective way of avoiding the infection is washing the hands as often as possible since hands are known pick up the infection first before transferring to the lungs through soft tissues of the nose, mouth and eyes.