Code Green: Reconciling Green Cleaning with the Food Code


The FDA food code requires that restaurants sanitize any surfaces that come into contact with food. Although many green cleaners have sanitizing properties, the EPA and the FDA food code define “sanitization” of food-contact surfaces as a 99.999% reduction of disease-causing microorganisms within 30 seconds. Unfortunately, most green cleaners do not kill 99.999% of microbes, making it difficult for a restaurant to be “green” and still follow the codes. But that doesn’t mean that green cleaning is an impossible feat.

Approved Sanitizers

Today, sanitizing solutions used on food contact surfaces are regulated by the EPA. However, any chemical sanitizer used on food-contact surfaces must also be approved as an indirect food additive by the FDA. This is because the sanitizer has the possibility of ending up in the food product.

The FDA has approved more than 45 sanitizing solutions for use on food-contact surfaces. You can add other components that are “generally considered safe” to these solutions. None of the approved solutions are completely eco-friendly, but some of them do less harm to the environment than others. While every state has adopted or is in the process of adopting the federal food code, some local governments have applied even stricter rules to the code, so you should always stay up to date on local codes before choosing a sanitizer.

Choosing a Sanitizing Solution

Chlorine Solution

Chlorine solutions are without a doubt the fastest and cheapest of all the approved sanitizers. However, they are also among the most toxic, corrosive and dangerous of the solutions. Ammonia solutions are generally better than chlorine for the environment, but they are incompatible with many chemicals and other cleaners.

Iodine Solution

Choose an iodine solution. Among the three most common solutions, iodine is by far the most environmentally friendly. Like the other sanitizers, iodine is toxic in high concentrations and can vaporize into the air. However, iodine occurs naturally around the world, and the amount of iodine humans put into the air is nothing compared to the quantities of iodine that vaporize off the surface of the ocean.

Unfortunately, iodine is highly expensive compared to chlorine. There are some cheaper environmentally preferable solutions that have been approved by the FDA for food-contact surfaces.

Quaternary Ammonium Solution

A quaternary ammonium sanitizer (Quats) is the most recommended sanitizer by the FDA. Quats is much less corrosive than both iodine and chlorine solutions and is safe for use on surfaces that touch food. It is limited in effectiveness if organic matter is allowed to sit in the container with the solution, so dirty rags should not be placed in the container after cleaning. Quats should be left to dry on the sanitation surface.

Quats sanitizers are moderately priced, but not as environmentally friendly as other sanitizing options.

Hot Water Sanitation

When possible, you can sanitize utensils or equipment with hot water immersion. This is exactly what a high-temp dishwasher does. To truly sanitize, the FDA food code requires that the water be at least 171º F and that the immersion last at least 30 seconds. Obviously, some surfaces are too large for immersion, in which case a chemical sanitization is necessary.

The federal and local food codes contain more detailed information on the approved solutions and their levels of dilution.

When to Use an Approved Sanitizer

Most food codes require that commercial kitchens sanitize food-contact equipment and utensils under the following conditions:

  • Before each initial use.
  • Between uses when there is a change from raw foods to ready-to-eat foods.
  • Between uses when preparing different raw animal foods, unless these foods require progressively hotter cooking temperatures and you work with them in that order.
  • Between uses when working with any potentially hazardous foods.
  • Any time contamination occurs or is suspected.

Check your local food code for more details on when sanitization is required as there may be additional requirements.

How to Use an Approved Chemical Sanitizer

This simple procedure should be followed any time you sanitize with chemicals.

  • Clean the surface by rinsing and then washing with a detergent.
  • Rinse the surface with clean water.
  • Spray or wipe the approved sanitizer onto the food-contact surface until the surface is glistening. Let the sanitizer sit for the required time period.
  • Allow the surface to air dry.

Check Your Local Code

The FDA food code and the information given here only offer guidelines for safe cleaning. You must always check your local codes to determine the exact rules for food service establishments in your area.


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