Emily Newton, Revolutionized Magazine

Sanitary Design: Finding the Right Conveyor Belt System

By Emily Newton
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Emily Newton, Revolutionized Magazine

Conveyor belts are a key component in food processing and manufacturing. Following we look at current standards and resources to help companies identify the right systems for their facilities and food products.

Sanitary or hygienic design supports food safety by ensuring that the equipment you bring into your facilities does not pose a risk to the food you produce and that it can be properly maintained and sanitized. When it comes to purchasing a new conveyor belt system, there are several considerations, as well as standards and regulations, that can and should guide your decision.

Current Standards and Regulations

The food safety standards that apply to conveyor belts may differ depending on where your company operates. Here’s a closer look at some geographic specifics as well as standards recognized worldwide.

The United States. In the U.S., the FDA does not directly certify conveyor belts. Instead, the agency focuses on Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs). These are overarching regulations covering virtually all aspects of a food processing facility. In addition to equipment, CGMPs extend to sanitation, plant design, production, process controls and more. The FDA also has additional CGMPs for infant formula, acidified foods, low-acid canned foods, bottled water and dietary supplements.

The FDA maintains a list of approved food contact substances (FCS) and materials deemed safe and not technically affecting consumables. A food-grade conveyor belt’s materials must be on the FDA’s list to comply with U.S. regulations.

Europe. The European Committee for Standardization (CEN) combines 34 European countries’ standardization bodies. It includes, but spans far beyond food to cover consumer appliances, health care, construction, chemicals and much more. Different CEN standards apply based on how and where the conveyor belt will be used. For example, CEN/TC 153/WG 9 is for equipment used to process cereals, while CEN/TC 153/WG 2 relates to meat processing infrastructure.

Less broadly, the 1935/2004 regulation applies to conveyor belts used in the European Union (EU). It concerns all articles or materials that touch food. The regulation also mentions 80/590/EEC, which established a symbol designating safe materials. Moreover, it emphasizes that food producers must maintain traceability and verify the sources of any food-grade materials.

International Third-Party Certification Systems. In addition to abiding by country or regional standards, food processing professionals may wish to pursue internationally recognized certifications. One example is Food Safety System Certification 22000 (FSSC 22000). It covers food safety and quality management for manufacturing, packaging and storage. Another is the BRCGS Global Food Safety Standard, adopted by many of the top food manufacturers as well as retailers and restaurants.

These third-party certifications are optional. However, they can strengthen a company’s worldwide reputation and increase consumer confidence.

There are no third-party certifications specifically for conveyor belts used in the food industry. However, the Conveyor Equipment Manufacturers Association (CEMA) website offers research and technical information that can help guide purchasing decisions as you investigate products and suppliers.

3-A Sanitary Standards (3-A SSI). The 3-A Sanitary Standards (3-A SSI) cover design methods and principles to support proper sanitation by making equipment easier to clean. Standard 3A 39-01 covers pneumatic conveyors for dry materials, while 3A 41-03 is for mechanical conveyors that move dry items. These are voluntary standards developed for food processing plants and facilities associated with the dairy industry.

Conveyor belts that comply with the 3-A standards are made with nontoxic, food-safe materials. They must also tolerate repeated and ongoing exposure to cleaning products. The 3-A standards also include details about construction of the conveyor belt to prevent areas where food could get caught. This includes making systems with smooth surfaces and no sharp corners.

Moreover, 3-A standards require designers to consider methods of cleaning. For example, must the cleaning occur in the production area, or can the conveyor system be moved to another area for cleaning and sanitation?

Considerations When Choosing a Conveyor System

A food processing plant’s environment presents several key considerations when selecting conveyor belts. For example, many belts include nonflammable materials so they can be used near high-heat areas. Moisture in the air can also affect the belt. Too much wetness could cause some materials to stretch or break, while too little moisture can cause other materials to crack or shrink.

Companies must think about the processing that occurs as food moves along the conveyor. Does it require cutting, washing or exposure to oil? Consider each stage the products go through, from raw to complete. Each step could introduce new considerations for your food-grade conveyor belt. Take potatoes, for example. Processing often involves immersion in a boiling oil bath and seasoning, and each processing step causes potential temperature changes and chemical exposures.

Following are additional considerations when investigating a new system:

Food Characteristics. Aspects of the food itself could affect how well a conveyor belt works or how long it will last. Sugar and salt are two examples of non-synthetic preservatives that double as ingredients. Their abrasive textures can cause premature wear on conveyor belts not designed to handle them. Look for options with special polymers that encourage the food with sticky textures to come off cleanly and not cling to the belt. Consider overall weight of the foods on the belt at a given time as well.

Cleaning Methods and Products. Manual cleaning methods are time and labor-intensive, but they’re cost-effective for small operations. Plus, they work well for removing bacteria and/or biofilms from hard-to-reach places. Automated options usually rely on motorized brushes and sprayers that move along a belt’s surface. Dry ice blasting and dry steam cleaning also help to remove dried or stuck-on materials.

Consult the manufacturer’s cleaning instructions to identify chemical agents that will work best for the belt’s materials as well as those that you should avoid. Using inappropriate cleaning products could cause the belt material to break down, creating food safety and contamination risks. One best practice is to choose a washdown-rated food-grade conveyor belt that can tolerate many different cleaning methods as well as high temperatures.

Many modern conveyor systems also have quick-release parts that make cleaning easier and reduce the amount of time that the equipment is out of commission.

Optional Accessories. Many conveyor belts can be customized as needed before or after purchase. These optional accessories may include cleaning-in-place (CIP) modules or automated container-filling systems. Some companies now offer plug-and-play CIP modules that can be attached to any conveyor belt without expensive retrofitting.

The Desired Length. A conveyor belt’s length is an important consideration, but companies need not worry if they realize they need to add length. Food-grade fasteners allow you to extend the belt to meet your facilities’ needs. Splice presses can be even more efficient, especially with air-cooled designs that offer splice times of under 10 minutes, providing maximum flexibility for manufacturers.

Maintenance and Warranty Considerations

When investigating options, sales representatives can help you choose the correct model and optional features for your needs. Once you’ve identified a few suitable options, ask about maintenance and warranty options. Even short periods of downtime can be extremely disruptive in the food industry, so you need to understand how to contact customer support and how quickly they can respond to requests for service.

Warranties can vary in length, the specific components they cover and can affect the final cost. Read the fine print to make sure you understand circumstances, such as changes in the manufacturing process or environment, that may void the coverage as well.

Purchasing a new conveyor belt system requires planning and a thorough investigative process. Consider these points as you research options and reach out to peers in the industry to get their input on trusted products and manufacturers.

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