Working with food safety inspectors from the USDA, we’ve seen dozens of food processing plants and facilities across the Midwest. Their job is to inspect these places to ensure proper sanitation and prevent food contamination that could cause dangerous foodborne illnesses. Many times, there are shocking lapses in cleanliness and hygiene hiding in plain sight, even at large factories producing America’s most popular food brands. Here are the top five most cringe-worthy food plant violations we’ve encountered during inspections.
1. Gross Employee Hygiene
Good employee hygiene is essential to food safety. Workers who don’t properly wash hands, cover hair, or follow illness reporting rules can easily spread pathogens throughout a facility. During one inspection, I witnessed an employee handle raw chicken then proceed to prepare sandwiches without washing her hands! Another time, a worker wiped his dripping nose then continued packing boxes of cereal without washing up. Employees have also tried covering up wrist watches or fake fingernails with bandages instead of removing them. Once I even saw a maintenance worker welding equipment nearby food prep areas with no face mask on! These behaviours flout basic employee hygiene rules and can clearly lead to widespread contamination.
2. Insect and Rodent Infestations Galore
Pest control is a perpetual problem at food plants. Cockroaches, flies, and mice can spread dangerous bacteria like Salmonella through droppings and germ-carrying feet and bodies. They love to hide in tiny crevices that may go unnoticed. During an inspection of a pasta factory, I lifted up a heavy bag of flour to find cockroaches scattering in every direction underneath. A chocolate factory breakroom had a serious fruit fly infestation circling opened cans and waste bins. Worst of all are rodents like rats and mice. Their teeth and claws leave behind unsanitary gnaw marks as they chew through packaging and pipes. Finding just one rodent or mouse dropping is enough to shut down an entire operation for deep cleaning.
3. Improperly Sanitized Equipment
Food contact surfaces like slicers, conveyors, mixers, and utensils must be thoroughly washed, rinsed, and sanitized between every use. However, many facilities try cut corners here. I’ve swabbed equipment that had leftover food, grime, or milky biofilm buildup on them. Machines will be dirty on the underside or backside too. If proper detergent concentrations and water temperatures aren’t used, dishes won’t get fully sanitized. Equipment can also become contaminated if they aren’t properly air dried before reuse. One facility was packing lettuce in containers that had just run through a dirty dishwashing machine!
4. Dangerous Temperature Lapses
Holding foods at improper hot or cold temperatures allows dangerous pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella to multiply rapidly. Refrigerators and freezers must be kept below 41°F and 0°F respectively. I’ve found warehouse-sized coolers with temperatures exceeding 50°F, allowing bacteria in meat, dairy and produce to grow exponentially. Hot foods held at less that 135°F also pose a risk. One factory had a broken oven so they just left cooked chicken wings sitting out at room temperature for hours before packing them! These kinds of egregious temperature problems are direct routes to foodborne illness outbreaks.
5. Poor Overall Facility Hygiene
Dirty surroundings attract pests and directly lead to contamination issues. Facilities should have proper ventilation, waste removal, and regular deep cleaning protocols. However, I’ve been in sticky, humid plants with grime and oily residues thickly coating floors, walls and ceilings. Restrooms can be particularly bad, with unstocked supplies, clogged drains, and lack of hand soaps. Dumpsters overflowing with food waste become pest paradises and breeding grounds. Plant grounds outside should be well-maintained without overgrown weeds, litter and standing water. However, many facilities have piles of clutter, debris and months of accumulated dirt and muck throughout.
As you can see, serious lapses in sanitation can exist behind the scenes at food manufacturing plants. From filthy handling practices to infestations and improper cleaning, there are many ways our food can get contaminated. The public assumes these large companies are following rigorous protocols, but even huge brands can make shocking mistakes. As a USDA inspector, I’ve seen them all and aim to protect public health by holding the industry accountable. Consumers deserve full transparency about what’s really going on inside America’s food production plants.
While the violations I’ve highlighted paint an unsettling picture, I want to balance that with some positive notes. Many food facilities actually strive for excellence in sanitation and have exemplary inspection records. There are plenty of conscientious managers, supervisors and employees truly devoted to food safety. Here are a few best practices I love to see during my inspections:
Top Notch Hygiene Habits
Some companies really instill a culture of cleanliness in employees. Hand washing stations will be prevalent in production areas with easy access to soap and towels. Break rooms have posted hand washing reminders at sinks. Hair nets and beard guards are required. There are mandatory glove changes when switching tasks and proper barriers if anyone has bandages or exposed skin. Furthermore, diligent reporting procedures prevent sick employees from entering facilities in the first place. These hygiene practices prevent pathogens from spreading via hands, hair, faces or clothes.
Aggressive Pest Management
To keep insects and rodents at bay, some facilities use full-time exterminators and schedule deep cleanings when production is halted. They quickly address any structural damage that allows pests to enter. Interior and exterior perimeters are sprayed and traps are checked regularly. Any droppings or other signs trigger localized plant shutdowns for disinfection. Some have even adopted eco-friendly pest deterrents like butterfly gardens outside or ultrasonic repellents instead of poisons. These proactive efforts significantly limit contamination risks from pests.
Newer facilities invest in advanced automated washing and sanitizing systems for food contact surfaces. They use antimicrobial conveyor belts and consistently check chemical dispensers. Tests ensure proper sanitizer concentration and exposure time. All parts get full 360° cleaning via robotic jets. Any food build up is precision blasted away by powerful lasers! Then inspectors like myself swab everything afterwards just to be sure. Damaged or cracked items get immediately replaced. These modern sanitation tools maximize killing of dangerous pathogens.
Obsessive Temperature Logging
To maintain hot and cold chains, some plants have alarms that sound if temperatures vary even slightly from set parameters. Sophisticated sensors track temps in real-time across massive warehouses, triggering alerts when readings are abnormal. Data gets recorded for verification and early problem detection. Time is tracked too so nothing sits out too long. For work-in-progress staging, they may use insulated containers, warming lamps or cooling gel packs to keep foods properly hot or cold before further processing or packing. This meticulous monitoring prevents bacterial overgrowth.
Facility Hygiene to Impress
Clean facilities have eagle-eyed quality teams constantly walking the floor looking for problems to address immediately. Schedules keep everything from floors to light fixtures sparkling. Rooms are neatly organized and clutter-free to allow thorough sanitization access everywhere. Air filtration systems run 24/7 to remove dust, odors and allergens. There is ample lighting, ventilation and climate control tailored to the ideal conditions for each area and activity. Drains stay unclogged and waste is promptly removed. These immaculate conditions across all plant zones prevent harmful substances from contaminating areas where exposed food is handled.
The companies who prioritize these types of sanitation and contamination control programs recognize that food safety directly affects consumer trust and brand reputation. While risks can never be fully eliminated in food production, conscientious effort and smart use of technology can minimize hazards dramatically. As USDA inspectors, we appreciate when facilities partner with us to uphold strong standards across the board. Nothing beats the satisfaction of seeing pristine plants where we can feel fully confident in giving a glowing inspection report. Those are the places where I would be proud to enjoy eating the food products myself or serving them without hesitation to my own family.