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Assuring Water Quality and Safety in Food Processing (Part 1)

By Food Safety Magazine on 29 March 2017

Most people take water for granted. In the United States, Japan and in Western Europe, all that an individual needs to do is turn on the tap at any time in the day or night to get clean, potable water. Water is used for drinking, cooking, washing and myriad other tasks.

After listening to the rhetoric at a 2002 environmental conference in South Africa, it is apparent that “the right to clean water” should be included in the list of unalienable rights for everyone in the world. The reality is, however, that those who have abundant supplies of good, clean water should consider themselves blessed. Anyone who has traveled overseas where the recommendations include “Drink only bottled water” or “Use the local tap water for rinsing your toothbrush only,” know how fortunate they are to have good water. There are still places in the world where water must be drawn from public wells and carried home, and others where the people are not even that fortunate.

Of course, even in places where water quality is considered good, problems crop up. The following excerpt from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly describes one such problem: In March and April 1993, an outbreak of cryptosporidiosis in Milwaukee resulted in diarrheal illness in an estimated 403,000 persons. Following that outbreak, testing for Cryptosporidium in persons with diarrhea increased substantially in some areas of Wisconsin; by Aug. 1, 1993, three of six clinical laboratories in Dane County were testing routinely for Cryptosporidium as part of ova and parasite examinations. In late August 1993, the Madison Department of Public Health and the Dane County Public Health Division identified two clusters of persons with laboratory-confirmed Cryptosporidium infection in Dane County (approximately 80 miles west of Milwaukee).[1]

Water is, therefore, a major issue even in countries where the water quality is acknowledged to be good. For example, during the later years of the Clinton Administration, they proposed lowering the standards for certain elements. The Bush Administration held up implementation to allow for additional study.

So, the bottom line is that water is essential for life, health and even doing business, but it can’t be taken for granted. Food processors need large quantities of good quality water for a range of operations, including blending or mixing, cleaning, ice making, steam production and product transport. It is absolutely essential that food processors take steps to assure that the water and water systems in their plants are safe, wholesome and under their control.

Water as a Prerequisite for HACCP

The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) regulations for both the juice and seafood industries include eight areas where processors must have documented programs to assure good sanitation.[2,3] One of these emphasizes the safety of water and ice used in food processing. The following has been drawn from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) HACCP regulation for the juice industry found in 21 CFR Part 123:

(a) Sanitation controls. Each processor shall have and implement a sanitation standard operating procedure (SSOP) that addresses sanitation conditions and practices before, during, and after processing. The SSOP shall address: (1) Safety of the water that comes into contact with food or food contact surfaces or that is used in the manufacture of ice….

The Good Manufacturing Practices found in 21 CFR Part 110 also contains similar wording. The question is, “What can be done to assure that water quality is good?” The regulations state that “the water supply shall be sufficient for the operations intended and shall be derived from an adequate source. Any water that contacts food or food-contact surfaces shall be safe and of adequate sanitary quality. Running water at a suitable temperature, and under pressure as needed, shall be provided in all areas where required for the processing of food, for the cleaning of equipment, utensils, and food packaging materials or for employee sanitary facilities.”[4]

Most processors draw water from city water supplies or wells. The assumption is that these are safe sources but this needs to be verified. There are many operations around the world that draw from rivers or other sources and must treat water on site to assure its sanitary quality. In the U.S. salmon canneries in remote locations in Alaska are such operations. Treatment plants must, therefore, be an integral part of these facilities. In the early 1980s, two outbreaks of botulism that were traced to canned salmon processors underscored the need for both good sanitation and good water quality in these operations. Several operations installed reservoirs for chlorinating can cooling water. Using information developed by the National Food Processors Association, the waters were treated to achieve a 5-log reduction of spores of Clostridium botulinum in an effort to reduce the potential hazard from water.[5]

There are also many operations that have additional treatment systems. They may be passing water through a reverse osmosis (RO) system to ensure that the water is cleaner or of better chemical quality when used as an ingredient. Other might chlorinate or ozonate their process waters, and there are those who pass water through ultraviolet (UV) light systems. Each of these kind of systems need to be included on the company’s preventive maintenance program. Records that filters or ultraviolet sources are changed regularly will ensure that the system will function as designed, that is, it will keep water quality high and/or reduce the microbial load in that water.


This article was first published in Food Safety Magazine, and is reproduced with permission: 


About the Author

Richard F. Stier is a consulting food scientist with international experience in food safety (HACCP), food plant sanitation, quality systems, process optimization, GMP compliance and food microbiology. He has worked with a wide range of processing systems and products, including canning, freezing, dehydration, deep-fat frying, aseptic systems, and seafood processing. Rick served as Director of Quality Assurance for Dole Packaged Foods North American operations. In this capacity, he was responsible for building programs targeted at ensuring the quality of Dole value-added products packed in the U.S. While working on a USAID funded project in Egypt, programs and technical assistance provided by Rick’s technical services group resulted in more than 80 firms enhancing quality, safety and/or sanitation programs, which directly resulted in improved exports and an overall greater awareness of the importance of these three areas in international trade. He is a member of the Institute of Food Technologists and an editorial advisor to Food Safety Magazine. He can be reached at