If you can smell the scent of food in a thoroughly cleaned container, does that imply trace amounts of food particles remain?


It goes without saying that our sense of smell is commonly used in helping identify undesirables in day-to-day life, and as such it's understandable to correlate certain smells to hygiene effectiveness. However, I'd like to definitively understand whether or not the presence of odorants unequivocally indicates ineffective or insufficient sanitation (in particular, on direct food-contact processing utensils and containers in a commercial/industrial environment). E.g., coffee mugs with lingering scent of coffee despite repeated washing.

From the standpoint of HACCP/HARPC, I've always been slightly curious about the absence of "smell" as a modus operandi for pre-operational inspection (visual is the go-to). I've always made the assumption that it simply isn't a reliable sensory indicator (despite visual being the same, in that sense), but I'm not fond of assuming. I have a physics background, but I am unfortunately a bit lacking in biology / chemistry knowledge (beyond food safety-related microbiology).


I'd like to understand from a scientific stand-point: is there an exclusively causal relationship between the two? Are there possible scenarios where we can detect odorants despite having met sanitation performance standards? For the sake of this question, I'd like to preclude the hypothetical possibility that "there were traces of debris/microbiological activity/etc., only they were within the tolerable limit defined".

I'm sure there might be a lot of complexities I am glossing over in my question, for which I apologize; e.g., I am aware in the framing of my question, I am holding some prejudice that the hazards of concern are microbiological -- whether pathogenic or not -- wherein the results from an adenosine triphosphate swab may be used as a quantified measure for overall activity. For the sake of keeping this question from becoming too technical and convoluted to answer, and to also simplify and make measurable the criteria for "sufficient sanitation", please advise from the microbiological stand-point, but if relevant please advise from other standpoints as well (under HACCP/HARPC, the remaining potential hazard categories would be physical and chemical [includes radiological]).

Thank you!

  • $\begingroup$ Well that's discouraging to see. May I ask why the down vote? I even made sure to carefully read through the help pages here and here and thought I covered all my bases...? $\endgroup$
    – Arctiic
    Jun 23, 2019 at 11:11
  • $\begingroup$ My impression is that someone in the past day has felt like downvoting a significant percentage of recent questions, so the downvote for this question is about par for current submissions. The question has also garnered a close vote, with close reason "unclear what you're asking", which IMO is not terribly off target. Despite the amount of verbiage (also perhaps in part because of it), what you're really asking doesn't seem all that clear. Not that I could answer anyway, but I wonder: any smell? Inadequate cleaning for what? "industrial" when the example is coffee scent from a coffee cup? $\endgroup$
    – mgkrebbs
    Jun 23, 2019 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry about that! This is from the standpoint of sanitation at food processing facilities, I work as a food safety practitioner and document coordinator. The background might be very specific, probably not many people will know what it's like to work at a USDA inspected food plant, hence maybe the terminology I'm using could sound a bit unfamiliar. What I'm asking though is more generalized and I think can be answered by the community here. Let me rephrase it: if you can smell the scent of food in a thoroughly cleaned container, does that imply trace amounts of food particles remain? $\endgroup$
    – Arctiic
    Jun 24, 2019 at 1:29
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    $\begingroup$ Or rather, one would assume "yes" in most cases, but are there cases where detecting a scent does not equate to presence of particulates that remain on the surface due to inadequate cleaning? $\endgroup$
    – Arctiic
    Jun 24, 2019 at 1:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Arctiic Trivially, if you detect an odorant then (unless you are imagining things) some of that odorant must exist. How much depends on the particular odorant and who is doing the smelling. From that point, from a food-processing standpoint it depends more on standards than biology, which I think is why some people have issue with the question. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 24, 2019 at 20:17


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