Using Organic Cleaners and Sanitisers in Food Service

Considering switching to organic cleaning agents? Make sure you weigh the pros and cons of "going green" in your food business.
September 30, 2019

Cleaning and sanitising are important ways to prevent harmful microorganisms and other hazards from contaminating food and making it unsafe to eat.

With the environment on everyone’s mind in recent years, the market of organic cleaners is booming — offering a wide variety of almost every type of cleaner and sanitiser imaginable.

Conventional cleaners and sanitisers, such as those derived from chlorine, iodine or quaternary ammonium, are increasingly under fire for perceived health risks and detrimental impacts on the environment.

Organic cleaning and sanitising agents (e.g. peracetic and other organic acids, hydrogen peroxide) claim to be better for our health and the environment, but may be less effective when it comes to reducing the number of potentially harmful bacteria, which could have serious consequences for a food business.

There's also the question of compliance with Australian food safety laws and regulations. Are food businesses who make the switch to organic or natural cleaning products in breach of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code?

Compliance with the Code

Cleaning and sanitising are separate procedures. Cleaning involves removing visible food waste, dirt and grease, usually with water and detergent, whereas sanitising is the process of killing food poisoning bacteria using either hot water (77°C or above) or a chemical sanitiser (or a combination of both).

Under Standard 3.2.2 of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code ("the Code"), food businesses in Australia must ensure that eating and drinking utensils, as well as food contact surfaces and equipment, are cleaned and sanitised — but they are not legally obliged to use specific cleaning agents.

The Code states that food contact surfaces and equipment must be in a “clean and sanitary condition”, which is defined as:

  • clean; and
  • has had applied to it heat and/or chemicals or other processes so that the number of microorganisms on the surface has been reduced to a safe level and does not permit the transmission of infectious disease.

In theory, this means that food businesses are free to use organic cleaners and sanitisers if they so choose, provided they are suitable for use with food contact surfaces and eating utensils (food grade) and the business can demonstrate the cleaning method is effective. 

Important note: While cleaning and sanitising chemicals are not specified under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, state/territory or municipal laws may differ. We recommend checking with your local health authority if you are considering using organic cleaners in your business. 

Click here for more information about the Code and food safety in Australia.

Pros and cons of “going green”

While organic cleaning agents may not be prohibited under the Code*, it’s important to consider the pros and cons before making a decision that could affect food safety in the business.

For example:

  • Organic cleaners may not be as effective at killing germs than their traditional counterparts.
  • Organic cleaners may require extended contact time with surfaces and utensils to work effectively.
  • Food workers may need to use more “elbow grease” to achieve the same level of visible cleanliness when using organic cleaners.

Organic cleaners, which may be perfectly suitable for home use, are often perceived as a riskier choice for food businesses, which are held to a higher standard of hygiene and sanitation.

For a food business, failure to meet those standards can have real and serious consequences, including health code violations and associated fines, as well as the risk of damaging its reputation as a result of a food poisoning incident or outbreak. Organic cleaning products (also called “green cleaners”) are also generally more expensive than conventional cleaning chemicals.

However, there are equally compelling arguments on the other side. For example, continuous exposure to harsh chemicals like chlorine bleach has been linked to a variety of health problems, from cancer to kidney and liver damage. Food Handlers who are exposed to toxic chemicals on a regular basis may also experience skin irritations, respiratory problems or acute allergy symptoms.

Once they’re washed down the drain, cleaning chemicals (in large quantities) also contribute to water and air pollution, which can have negative environmental impacts (e.g. contaminated waterways, smog, algal blooms). Consumers are more eco-conscious now than ever, and may give their business to food businesses who show a commitment to sustainable practices.

Ultimately, there are pros and cons to either decision, and whether switching to organic cleaners and sanitisers is a viable option — or the right decision for the business — depends on the business’s leadership, values and culture.

Note: While some organic cleaning agents may be just as effective as conventional chemicals if correctly prepared and used, alternatives such as vinegar, lemon juice or methylated spirits are not recommended unless specific methodology (e.g. concentration, pH, temperature, contact time) has been verified as effective. 

*Remember, state/territory or municipal laws may specify cleaning or sanitising agents not in the Code. Check with your local health authority to confirm. 

Tips for effective cleaning and sanitising

Regardless of the cleaning agents you use, do the following to ensure effective cleaning and sanitising:

  • Clean food contact surfaces and utensils thoroughly before sanitising — sanitising agents cannot penetrate organic matter, so they are unable to effectively kill food poisoning bacteria if the surface is still visibly soiled.
  • Use sanitisers at the correct concentration (too low or too high is not effective) and temperature. Ensure that the sanitiser is given enough time to work effectively (contact time). Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions, as different chemicals will have different requirements.
  • Remember that some sanitisers require extended contact time to ensure pathogens are reduced to a safe level.
  • Prepare chemical solutions daily to make sure the solution is effective (diluted sanitisers often have a shorter shelf life than the concentrated form).
  • Completely cover all contact surfaces to be sanitised with the sanitising solution (use a dip or spray). Pay special attention to equipment with surfaces that are difficult to reach (e.g. blenders, meat slicers, can openers). Equipment may need to be dismantled to effectively sanitise different components. 
  • Allow surfaces and utensils to air dry after sanitising. If you can’t wait, use towels that are clean and dry. Use them only once, because if they become contaminated they can transfer pathogenic microorganisms between items. Do not use towels repeatedly without washing and drying between uses.
  • Be careful not to re-contaminate sanitised utensils and equipment. Ensure that cleaned and sanitised dishware, utensils and food contact surfaces are handled only with clean hands and stored in a clean and sanitary location.

Effective cleaning and sanitising are critically important in a food business, so it’s important that Food Handlers are trained to perform these tasks properly. Cleaning and sanitising procedures are covered in-depth in our online food safety training courses, including our:

  • Food Safety Supervisor course
  • Food Handler course

For more information about our nationally recognised food safety courses, contact our support team.