If your factory is going to meet hygiene and safety requirements, you need to embrace the concept of production zoning. Products and ingredients cannot be handled in the same way. Instead, specific environments need to be established, with each environment acting as a direct reflection of the risks and requirements of the products within them. Defining clear zones in this way is a vital part of overseeing the production process. It is also the best way to ensure the relevant controls are in place. As detailed in Issue 9 of the BRCGS Global Standard in Food Safety, the most common areas to consider are: low risk, high risk, and high care. We decided to create a guide to each of these three areas, also addressing ambient high care areas, along with their compliance and equipment requirements. 

What is a low risk area?

As the name suggests, low risk areas handle products with a reduced risk of microbiological contamination. One possible reason that a product belongs in this area is that it is set to undergo a kill step at a later stage. A kill step is an action that helps to destroy bacteria. Examples include certain kinds of cooking, freezing, pasteurization, and chemical washes. Another reason for a product being handled in a low risk area is that, either naturally or by design, it doesn’t support the survival of the pathogens that would typically grow during storage or use.  

A product is considered low risk if it: 

  • Is always going to be cooked by the consumer 
  • Is processed within the final container 
  • Doesn’t support the growth and/or survival of pathogens 
  • Is a ready-to-eat product that has been stored, chilled or frozen 
  • Is a raw material or prepared product that is going to undergo a kill step 
low risks food

What are the compliance and equipment requirements for a low risk area?

‘Low risk’ should never result in ‘low standards’. Instead, good manufacturing practices should be upheld at every turn. Otherwise, it will be impossible to drive hygiene standards, secure audit compliance, and nurture the correct culture amongst your workforce. As with all the zones at your factory, you need to ensure the relevant equipment has been calibrated, Cleaning Instruction Cards are up to date, and team members have the correct clothing and utensils.  

what is low risk food

It is also essential that equipment from a low risk area isn’t travelling into a high risk or high care zone. Colour coding is one of the best ways to prevent this from happening. Not only will this impress retailers and auditors, it will also make it easier for your operatives to keep track of equipment. Say a green brush is taken into a blue zone or a red squeegee is taken into a yellow zone, this breech will be immediately obvious and much easier to resolve. This will be even more likely if your equipment is stored on corresponding shadow boards, as it will be easy to confirm that everything has been returned to the right place.

Shadow boards

Shadow board Inspiration Guide

Want to learn more about shadow boards? From engineering tool boards and storage for your spill kits to PPE bases and change part stations, there are over 70 shadow board designs to explore in our Inspiration Guide.

What is a high risk area?

High risk areas are self-contained zones that handle products that have been through a kill step but are yet to have the full protection of packaging. A product or ingredient is considered high risk if it:

  • Requires chilling or freezing during storage 
  • Has undergone a full cook to a minimum of 70°C for two minutes (or the equivalent)
  • Supports the growth and/or survival of pathogens 
  • Is ready-to-eat, ready-to-heat, or is likely to be eaten without adequate cooking (e.g. cooked crustaceans) 
definition of high risk food

What are the compliance and equipment requirements of a high risk area?

One of the most important compliance requirements for high risk areas is segregation. Time segregation isn’t an option, so physical barriers are a must. The ideal barrier is a full wall that has undergone a comprehensive risk assessment. It needs to be capable of preventing cross-contamination caused by:  

  • Workers moving between zones
  • The movement of equipment, utensils, and materials 
  • Water or other cleaning liquids washing into the area 
  • Pathogens moving across from a low risk environment 
definition of high risk food

You should also be thinking about airborne contaminants, including dust particles and water droplets. One way to manage this factor is to pay close attention to the air pressure in different zones. This is especially important if there is a wall mounted transfer hatch operating between a high risk and low risk area. Although there is no threat posed from air travelling from the former to the latter, there are significant risks if the air is travelling in the opposite direction.  

What is a high care area?

High care areas are physically segregated zones that have been established with the intention of minimising contamination of products or ingredients. Examples of high care products include sandwiches and pre-prepared salads.

high care

As with high risk products, high care products must be ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat. Alternatively, there may be a high likelihood of them being eaten without first being heated to the recommended temperature. Another requirement is that the finished product requires chilling or freezing during storage, and is vulnerable to the growth and/or survival of pathogens. One final consideration is if a process has already been carried out in an effort to reduce product contamination from microbiological hazards to an acceptable level. Only once a product or ingredient meets all these criteria will it qualify for entry into a high care environment.  

What are the compliance and equipment requirements of a high care area?

An effective high care area protects products from recontamination, so it needs to have suitable segregating barriers. Before entering a high care area, vulnerable ingredients and products undergo a process that reduces pathogenic bacteria to a level that is safe to eat. Spoilage organisms will still be present, but they can be controlled through temperature and shelf-life requirements. One of the most effective ways to do this is with the use of a Wireless Monitoring System. Instead of relying on time consuming manual checks that could be open to human error, a wireless system will provide automatic updates and will even set off an alarm if an error occurs.

high care

What is an ambient high care area?

Ambient high care areas handle products that are vulnerable to the survival of pathogens. The term ‘ambient’ refers to the fact that the finished products within these areas are stored at room temperature, as opposed to the environment being temperature controlled. As with the finished products in standard high care areas, they will be ready-to-eat, ready-to-heat, or will be likely to be eaten without adequate cooking. The finished products will also be susceptible to the survival or growth of vegetative pathogens, and this has the potential to result in food poisoning. Consequently the production process for these products will include a process, such as a microbiological kill step, in an effort to remove or reduce these pathogens.  

ambient high care

The final requirement for products handled in an ambient high care area is that they must be a raw material that is prone to contamination with a vegetative pathogen. It is also worth noting that if the risk of vegetative pathogen contamination from a raw material has been handled by a supplier and controlled at an earlier point in the chain, this would mean it no longer fits the criteria of an ambient high care product. However, the supplier in question would be expected to have completed a full risk assessment.  

What are the compliance and equipment requirements of an ambient high care area?

When establishing the proper compliance and equipment requirements for ambient high care areas, it is recommended to draw on any experience of running high risk and high care environments. This is because many of the controls will be very similar. Issue 9 of the BRCGS Global Standard in Food Safety only includes two clauses relating to ambient high care areas. The first is that the map of the production site includes the location of the pathogen control step(s).

ambient high care

The second is that a documented risk assessment is completed to determine the risk of cross-contamination. This risk assessment will need to: 

  • Identify potential sources of microbiological contamination 
  • Examine the raw materials and products 
  • Detail the air flow and quality 
  • Document the provision and location of utilities (including drains) 
  • Examine the flow of raw materials, packaging, products, equipment, personnel, and waste 
what is a high risk food

If you would like further guidance relating to the equipment needed for the different zones in your factory, the Klipspringer team would be happy to help. Share your details below to arrange a free consultation.