In the food industry, what is the difference between cleaning and disinfection?

Industrial cleaning and disinfection are two different processes, key in the food industry, which in most cases are carried out separately. The aim of cleaning is to remove dirt and organic matter of equipment and surfaces so that later effective disinfection can be carried out to eliminate microorganisms to adequate levels to guarantee food safety.

To preserve the safety of food in the food industry and extend its useful life, all equipment, utensils and work surfaces that come into direct or indirect contact with them must be in good hygienic conditions, avoiding cross-contamination.

To do this, it is necessary to implement cleaning and disinfection programs, as well as develop specific procedures for each work area.

It is important to understand that in industrial cleaning and disinfection we must consider operations as one more stage of the food production process, and not as a complementary activity. Likewise, the personnel responsible for cleaning and. Disinfection must have extensive knowledge about the importance of contamination, the risks involved and the cleaning and disinfection technologies to be used.

Cleaning and disinfection

Professional Industrial Cleaning and disinfection are distinct and complementary processes. In the presence of organic matter, disinfectants have a significantly reduced effect.  Therefore, before applying a disinfectant solution, surfaces must be properly cleaned with detergents, to allow the disinfectant to come into direct contact with the specific pathogenic microorganisms.

The aim of cleaning processes and practices is to eliminate the different dirt on equipment and surfaces of the establishment, whether it is food remains, grease, dust, dirt, waste products, and so forth 

Disinfection‌ comprises the elimination of microorganisms from surfaces and equipment to an adequate level to guarantee food safety and prevent its alteration. Therefore, disinfection aims to eliminate all pathogenic microorganisms and reduce non-pathogenic microorganisms to levels that won’t affect quality and shelf life. Besides physical methods such as high temperatures, drying, and irradiation, disinfectant products can also be applied chemically.

Manual cleaning and disinfection procedure

Manual cleaning and disinfection normally follow 5 stages:

  • An initial rinse, in which we remove larger particles by applying pressurized water or using squeegees.
    We should not sweep it, as dry cleaning increases the risk of cross-contamination.
  • Application of detergent products, which dissolve embedded dirt and grease films. When the encrustation of dirt is high, a non-abrasive manual method of cleaning, with brushes or sponges, is required.
  • Rinse with water to remove traces of dirt and detergent. It is advisable to use hot water (43-50ºC) and pressure (15-25 atmospheres).
  • Disinfect by applying products for specific use for food industries, by spraying or spraying on surfaces, and by immersion with utensils and small parts.
    Always consider the recommendations of the product manufacturer and apply it at the temperature, concentration, and time.
  • After allowing the disinfectant to act for the recommended time, it carried a final rinse with potable water out to remove any traces of chemical products.


The type of dirt to be cleaned will determine the type of detergent to be used.

According to their pH, the detergents used for cleaning are grouped into three groups: acidic, neutral, or alkaline. 

  • Acid detergents: they are based on strong acids, such as sulfuric, phosphoric or nitric.
    They are especially effective in removing inorganic residues, such as calcareous scale and traces of rust.
  • Alkaline detergents: they are based on alkaline hydroxides sodium or potassium, accompanied by surfactants to improve cleaning properties and metal cation sequestering agents to prevent the formation of lime deposits.
    They are especially indicated for the elimination of organic residues, such as fats, proteins, blood, and so forth.
  • Neutral detergents: I usually use them in manual cleaning to avoid risks for users. They are also used to clean floors or other elements sensitive to corrosive products, whether acid or alkaline.

Another type of classification of detergents is based on their ability to generate foam. Although the generation of foam does not provide any additional cleaning effect, it facilitates cleaning operations for three reasons:

  • Allows longer contact time of the cleaning solution on inclined or vertical surfaces.
  • Allows you to identify areas where the cleaning solution has not been applied
  • Allows to identify the absence of detergent in the cleaning solution

For these reasons, foaming detergents are used to clean open or easily accessible areas. 

In the case of equipment such as circuits or tanks, the formation of foam can cause serious operating problems, excessively lengthening the rising time of the cleaning solution, so in these cases, it is recommended to use detergents that do not generate foam or that They contain surfactants that quickly eliminate the foam-generated.


The function of disinfectants is to destroy pathogenic and spoilage microorganisms to acceptable levels.

The properties that a disinfectant must have are:

  • Have a broad spectrum, that is, be active against many types of microorganisms
  • Have a quick action
  • Not be affected by environmental factors: it must be active in the presence of traces of organic matter and compatible with detergents, soaps, and other chemical products.
  • not be toxic
  • It must be compatible with the surface to be disinfected: it must not oxidize the metal surfaces to be disinfected or degrade other materials, such as fabric, rubber, or plastic.
  • Solubility, stability, environmental friendliness, and economy are all important characteristics.

We classify disinfectants in a similar way to detergents in relation to their ability to generate foam, which determines their areas of application.

With disinfectants, their composition is also key when selecting the right product, the biocidal active substance or the combination thereof, which is the factor that provides the disinfectant with biocidal capacity.

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