Surface Sanitation with Ozone: A Non-toxic, Residue-free, and Effective Alternative

Each year almost a half a million people in the world die because of bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens in the food they eat.  The United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 1 in 6 Americans get sick each year from contaminated food, and 6000 die.  In addition to the suffering and death caused by the contaminated food we eat, the economic impact of food contamination is in the billions of dollars each year.  Ozone has proven to be an environmentally friendly, safe, and effective sanitizing agent for every stage of food processing.

The diligent efforts of government agencies and food production facilities to implement procedures and policies serve to limit and control the potential for contaminated food, but people continue to get sick and multi-state outbreaks of food borne disease continue to increase.  New antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria and more centralized food production are only a couple of the factors that may be contributing to the new challenges we face.  Of all the strategies to manage food contamination, an enduring and key part of preventing sickness and death from food contamination is careful surface sanitation.

A clean surface is the first step for food safety.  As our food travels from the field to our table, it comes into contact with equipment that is constantly repopulated with disease causing pathogens from incoming food, food handling equipment, water, air and employees.  Unless careful, repeated sanitation practices are maintained, pathogens thrive and multiply on the surfaces of food processing equipment, contaminating food as at passes through.

Food processing facilities maintain rigorous sanitation procedures to combat the threat of contamination.  Physical scrubbing and washing down of surfaces is followed up with sanitation methods that kill the bacteria and microscopic pathogens that remain.  Heat and chemical sanitizers are frequently used to eliminate these pathogens, but have their limitations and negative consequences.  Ozone is a safe and effective alternative to destroy these pathogens and keep surfaces free of dangerous pathogens. 

A growing number of food processing plants are using ozone to eliminate bacteria, viruses and other harmful contaminants on food.  When ozone is dissolved in water, the ozonated water serves as a powerful disinfectant that is safe and effective not only on equipment and surfaces, but when applied directly to food products.  As the ozone destroys harmful pathogens, it turns back into oxygen and safely disperses, leaving no residue.    

Recent FDA approval for using ozone directly on food and improvements in ozone equipment have opened the door for the use of ozone to combat food born illness.  For many years, food processing plants have been restricted to using heat, pressure, and chemical methods of disinfection, even though ozone has been used since the early 1900’s in water treatment plants for disinfection.  In August 2, 2000, the Electric Power Research Institute (ERPI) petitioned the FDA to approve of using ozone directly on food to reduce the level of harmful pathogenic microorganisms.  In addition to providing a wealth of technical information about ozone, the 380 page petition cites over 80 studies of ozone and food sanitation conducted over the past 60 years.  The following year, the FDA granted GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status to ozone as a food additive.  Since then, ozone use has increased dramatically in food processing.

Chlorine has been a common sanitizer in the food processing industry.  It is a simple and convenient sanitizing solution.  The convenience of Chlorine comes with the problem of residual chemicals in waste water and a building of resistance to Chlorine of E.Coli and Giardia microorganisms.  Chlorine and other chemicals can also react with metals and wood equipment used in the food and beverage industry causing damage and flavor alterations.  Concerns about water contamination with residual chemicals, food quality, and equipment maintenance make ozone an attractive option for sanitation. 

Ozone is a gas that is made from oxygen, and turns back into oxygen as it breaks down.  Ozone is responsible for the fresh smell generated in lightning storms.  Two oxygen atoms bound together form the stabile oxygen molecule.  Passing oxygen through an intense electrical field breaks this oxygen bond, and energy is stored in the three-atom arrangement called ozone.  The sanitizing power comes from the energy stored in the ozone.  Ozone gas is a highly energized form of oxygen composed of three oxygen atoms instead of the more stabile combination of two atoms.  This gas readily dissolves into water to provide a powerful disinfecting solution.   The energy is released as contaminants are broken down, and the oxygen atoms return to the lower energy form of O2.

 Unlike a chemical sanitizer that can be stored in a barrel and added to water when needed, ozone cannot be generated in a factory, concentrated, and stored in a bottle or barrel to be sold to the end user.  The ozone would all turn back to oxygen before it could be used.  Instead, ozone is generated with electricity on site when needed and injected into a water stream to be used immediately.  As ozone makes contact with contaminants, the energy is released, destroying the contaminants and returning to the two-atom low energy state of oxygen. 

A reliable industrial ozone water injection system will often pay for itself after a year of reduced chemical costs.  Chemical disinfectants may be needed to provide some residual protection, but the bulk of the disinfection can be achieved with ozone. The system in general does not take any more space than the totes of chemicals it can replace.  The electrical and preventative maintenance costs are well worth the improvements in food quality and zero chemical footprint in wastewater. 

A little bit of ozone goes a long way in disinfection power.  A small ozone generator using a couple hundred watts of power is capable of making enough ozone to turn 20 gallons per minute of water into a 2 ppm dissolved ozone sanitizing solution similar to using 200 ppm Chlorine in water.   Ozone decomposes rapidly, but in exchange, it provides a more rapid rate of disinfection.  The precise ozone concentration and contact time will vary with the particular application and pathogen. 

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