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Electrostatic Intervention Technology: An Effective and Efficient Future for Food Safety

By Mark Swanson
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Technology, apple, Birko

Using electrostatic technology in food processing isn’t a new idea. It has been around for years, but no one has been able to effectively harness the possibilities of this method for pathogen reduction. That’s all changing thanks to the research and dedication of a food safety group made up of experts and leading protein processors.

Now, food companies of all types stand to benefit from an innovation with the potential to revolutionize the industry. For the first time, there is a way to use electrostatics to deliver antimicrobial intervention with a high level of efficacy and minimal resources.

Less water, less chemical and better coverage—it almost sounds too good to be true. But it’s a reality, and it came from a focus on providing better protection with precision application.

The Basics of Electrostatics in Food Safety

The ultimate goal of using electrostatic technology in food processing is to achieve a high level of transfer efficiency. In terms of antimicrobial use on food products, that concerns how well a processor is able to cover products with a solution over a 360-degree surface.

There’s a large amount of waste, or very low transfer efficiency, that comes with current antimicrobial intervention methodologies. Most food processing operations either use a lot of water and chemical solution to cover a less-than-ideal surface area, or they use an enormous amount in an attempt to get better coverage.

The hope for electrostatics has been that it could improve transfer efficiency by applying opposite charges to food products and antimicrobial solutions. Opposites attract. Positively charged particles are drawn to negatively charged particles, and so, an antimicrobial intervention, such as peracetic acid (PAA), should better adhere to protein products if the two have opposite charges.

In theory, the science seems very simple. But in practice, finding ways to use electrostatics effectively was an extensive, eye-opening journey. It took a team of scientists, food safety thought leaders, and participation as well as funding from three top beef processors to find the answer.

Research and Development

The food safety group, which included Keith Belk, Ph.D. of the Colorado State University Center for Meat Quality & Safety, spent years experimenting, testing and fine tuning electrostatic application technology to make it as precise as possible.

In the beginning, there was no clear indication whether the efforts would produce results. The group didn’t know which type of electrostatic technology would work, what parameters should be used or if any of it would be effective. Just as Thomas Edison experienced many failed attempts while inventing the electric lightbulb, our group went through a series of exercises that eventually led to the right type of electrostatic application. Yet just as importantly, we discovered many methods that did not work.

For example, testing showed that applying a charge at the spray nozzles was not a good way to harness the potential of electrostatics. The charge was too difficult to control using this approach. Eventually, researchers found the best way to achieve transfer efficiency was to apply a negative charge directly to the source of the antimicrobial intervention. This allowed the negatively charged solution to effectively adhere to the positively-charged meat product with maximum control of the operating parameters.

Interestingly, while the group explored a variety of ways to apply antimicrobial intervention using electrostatics, applying a charge to the source proved to be the only technique that worked. The rest had virtually no impact.

After identifying the right approach, there were still big questions researchers wanted to answer. One such question was what happens when a vacuum is applied to the process? Would it work better, worse or have no bearing on the results?

Theoretically, the group thought a vacuum might aid in the process by opening up the surface of the meat, allowing for deeper penetration and further reduction of pathogens. However, tests revealed that applying the antimicrobial solution with electrostatics in a vacuum provided no additional benefits.

The next step was developing a prototype system to support both beef and poultry processing. Finding ways to control electrostatics and achieving transfer efficiency in a pass-through system proved to be challenging. Food production lines don’t stop, which means antimicrobial intervention can’t be done in batch mode.

The final equipment design included a conveyor system that slowly rotates to expose all surfaces of the product as it moves through the line while maintaining constant line speeds.

The Results

In-plant testing at beef processing facilities proved just how much of a difference electrostatic technology will make for food companies looking to improve efficiencies and strengthen food safety efforts.

During recent tests, researchers ran the system at a high volume between 265 and 700 pounds per minute using peracetic acid at approved levels between 1600 and 1800 parts per million (ppm). The results showed a log reduction in the range of 2.1 to 2.6 with an average of 2.4 on a series of tests. That is outstanding, especially considering many facilities typically achieve a log reduction of around 1.0 to 1.5. Plus, most food manufacturers are using substantially more antimicrobial solution to achieve that sort of pathogen reduction.

Results from laboratory studies show the technology provided equal coverage to a dip tank, but it used 95% less solution. Dip tanks are common in poultry processing, but they are very inefficient and waste a tremendous amount of water and chemical. Poultry facilities switching to electrostatic intervention technology would use a fraction of the water and chemistry, greatly improving efficiency.

Beef and pork processing facilities use sprayers for antimicrobial solutions and are much less likely to use dip tanks, as they’re not a viable intervention method for an operation of that scale. However, sprayers alone may not provide adequate coverage, creating the possibility for food safety risks.

Beef and pork plants could achieve better coverage with electrostatics while using the same or even less solution. That’s because the preciseness of this innovative approach also eliminates waste that comes from over spraying.

The Potential Benefits of Adopting Electrostatic Technology

How much of an advantage a food processing facility gets from implementing electrostatics into its antimicrobial intervention process is very dependent on the type and size of the operation as well as its current approach to food safety. There are, however, several major benefits that any food company will realize after adopting the technology.

  1. Improved food safety. Processors can be confident they are achieving 360-degree coverage while bolstering efforts to eliminate pathogens on food products.
  2. Efficient use of water and chemical. The precision achieved from utilizing electrostatics has the potential to dramatically reduce waste without compromising food safety. High transfer efficiency means processors save money and resources.
  3. Reduced water treatment costs. Protein processing facilities have large amounts of waste water that need to be treated in-house. More efficient use of antimicrobial solution significantly reduces money and resources needed for water treatment.
  4. Reduced repair and maintenance costs. Because of the acidic nature of food safety chemicals such as PAA, overspray of antimicrobial solution can unintentionally land on other surfaces and equipment. The low pH levels can lead to corrosion and damage, requiring repairs or additional maintenance. But, precise application with an electrostatic method within an enclosed space reduces the overspray problem.
  5. Better indoor air quality (IAQ). Another side effect from over spraying is chemical odors in the plant. Here again, protection with precision offers a unique benefit. Minimization of overspray improves IAQ, producing a safer and healthier environment for workers.

An additional benefit of electrostatic intervention technology is that it allows for precise measurement of the degree of the charge applied at the source, the concentration of the chemical in the solution and the overall transfer efficiency. While the original food consortium involved members of the protein industry and was optimized for use by meat processors, produce and fresh-cut facilities also stand to benefit from implementing electrostatic technology.

Changing the way your plant operates may feel risky, and being among the first to adopt an innovation can come with some uncertainty. However, in this case, avoiding early adoption could put you at a disadvantage, and the food safety risks are greater than those associated with pursuing this opportunity.

Electrostatic technology for antimicrobial interventions provides impressive advances in efficiency while offering protection–for both the public’s health and safety as well as brand reputation. The future of food safety looks precise.

Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

How Automation Benefits the Food and Beverage Industry

By Megan Ray Nichols
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Megan Nichols

During seasonal volume and demand peaks in the food and beverage industry, common practice is to increase labor and mobile equipment supplies temporarily. While this works great for small- to medium-sized businesses even in the current landscape, it’s not ideal for larger teams. This is primarily due to the evolution of technology, especially in the automation sector.

Adding more labor and machines can help increase volume, but it comes with a sizeable cost, one that could be shaved with the right process and system updates. As one might expect, adopting advanced automation systems, robotics and processes that can be controlled via machinery or software is the answer. Believe it or not, these systems can be made to work alongside and improve performance of existing laborers and teams.

In fact, automation is taking many industries by storm, and it’s about time food and beverage companies climbed aboard. Automotive, construction and healthcare are just three examples of industries already being disrupted by automation and AI.

But how is the technology being adopted or implemented in the food industry, and how will companies benefit from incorporating such systems?

Better Quality Control

Along the food and beverage supply chain, there are so many involved processes, workers and touchpoints that it can be difficult to not only keep track of food, but also to monitor its quality. As you know, quality is of incredible importance in the industry. You don’t want faulty or contaminated foods entering the market because it can be detrimental. Food must always remain traceable and safe, and it’s difficult to guarantee a system that has so many working cogs.

Automation, however, can change that completely. With the appropriate systems, defects and issues can be noticed much earlier in the supply chain. By detecting problems during packaging or processing, you can cut down on the total number of problematic goods that enter the market. Better yet, you can accurately identify when and where those problems are coming from and remedy the issue for improved performance in the future. If something along your supply chain is the culprit, automation will help you hone in.

Eliminating contamination can be controlled — and achieved — by deploying the appropriate cooling and air compressor systems. However, that also means understanding where this hardware must be utilized for maximum reliability. Automation and analytics systems can be helpful in discerning this information, better protecting foods and goods along the chain.

It’s not a pipe dream, either — systems are already being adopted and implemented to achieve such a thing.

End-To-End Traceability

While we touched on the idea of traceability a little in the point above, it’s the lion’s share that’s really going to make a difference. Automation and modern analytics tools can be deployed to track products and goods from inception to fulfillment. Because the systems in question are designed to track and monitor on their own with little to no input, you can tap in anywhere along the chain to seek the information you need.

Have a contaminated shipment that was discovered too late? You can use the modern analytics and automation tools at your disposal to find exactly where they are shipped or headed. This way you can head off a massive health problem before it even starts.

This, in turn, can help alleviate compliance costs and stressors, as well as improve the overall performance of the supply chain and various key processes. You could, for example, see how long a particular stop or touchpoint along the supply chain is taking and use the information provided to speed up performance.

End-to-end traceability and all the data that comes with it is about more than just watching where food comes from, where it is handled and where it goes. You can use the data provided to build an accurate profile and predictive system for future gains.

Improved Worker Safety

Automation systems, AI and modern robotics are often used to control rote, repetitive and sometimes even dangerous tasks. In this way, you can save human laborers from the dangers of a particular activity or even the monotony of busy work. It frees them up to handle more important demands, which is another benefit.

Of course, increased safety and protection for your loyal workforce can also work to alleviate operation or maintenance costs in the long run. It can lead to faster and more widespread adoption of new standards and regulations for your workforce at large as well. Traditionally, such a change might require additional training, new equipment or even better protection for your workers.

In the case of automation, you can simply update the existing hardware and software to be compliant and save the trouble of maintaining everything else, such as updating safety gear for your workers, which would no longer be necessary.

Efficiency Boost

It’s no secret that when deployed and developed properly, a machine or automation system can perform work faster and better than human laborers, at least in some cases. A machine never tires, never gets bored and can never slack off—unless it has a malfunction. That’s not to say modern technologies will be used to replace workers outright, but instead, they might be deployed alongside them to help them work faster, better and safer.

Take Amazon, for instance, which has deployed an army of AI and automation robots inside their warehouses to improve the efficiency of their order fulfillment process. It has the added benefit of speeding up the entire system, so customers get their items faster. It also improves safety and performance for the workers, effectively eliminating unsafe tasks or rote work.

Automation can provide benefits across the board for the food and beverage industry. It will be interesting to see how technological developments unfold.

Keep It Simple: New Software Tool Cuts through Data Clutter

By Maria Fontanazza
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As companies are hit with a massive amount of information as a result of new technology, proper management of data intelligence can be difficult. The key is to be able to translate the data into useable information to drive improvements in processes, products and business operations. A new tool aims to do just that—help companies boost operational margins using real-time data intelligence, from supplier performance to trends to safety and quality processes, across an organization.

Launched earlier this week, SafetyChain Analytics can also help companies spot problems before they balloon into larger issues that affect product quality. Barry Maxon, CEO of SafetyChain, explains why the company developed the tool and how it can help food companies save money by being more efficient.

Food Safety Tech: What was the impetus behind developing this tool?

Barry Maxon, SafetyChain
Barry Maxon, CEO of SafetyChain

Barry Maxon: The food and beverage industry historically is a business that has tight operating margins. At the same time, companies spend a tremendous amount of money every year collecting compliance data. If you walk through any food and beverage facility, you’ll see people writing down data on paper and putting it in filing cabinets or a spreadsheet. There’s already a tremendous amount of data being collected. We wanted to help companies go beyond collecting compliance data to satisfy their records for their auditors; we wanted to harness that data so they can begin to use it to drive operational excellence. That’s what’s going to make the difference in moving the needle on a company’s bottom line and their operating margins—the ability to leverage all the data they’re collecting to gain insights into how their business is operating and use it to improve their processes, products and operations.

FST: How does it address challenges that food businesses experience? How does it streamline their workflow?

Maxon: Companies are being squeezed from all directions—they need to do more with less, perform at the speed of business today, and remain up to date with all the different compliance standards—be it regulatory, industry standards from GFSI, and even down to customer specific compliance level. There’s a tremendous amount of demand being put on food companies. Yet at the same time, all of these demands typically require greater cost, and they’re being challenged to do more with less and achieve greater economy with their businesses to actually improve their bottom line. It’s a double whammy—improve your bottom while also having greater demand placed on your business—competitively, and from a regulatory and compliance perspective.

There are a lot of processes that have been fundamentally manual in the past, on paper and spreadsheets and in filing cabinets. We’ve talked to companies that say they have people spending hours a day just billing out paperwork and putting numbers into spreadsheets. And we have multi-billion-dollar industries still running on spreadsheets. As nice as a spreadsheet is, it’s a 40-year old software technology that came out in 70s. We’re trying to use new and innovative tools so companies can perform in this new era of technology and use it to benefit their business in multiple ways.

Food Safety Tech: Who are the main product users?

Maxon: Your user base is anyone in the organization who touches safety, quality or compliance from an operational standpoint.

Often the front-end users are collecting and reviewing the sets of data. One of the key elements of the tool is to deliver the right data to the right user in real time. In the past, one of biggest challenges for food companies is that they may run for many hours before realizing they are out of compliance. The idea is to give front-line users have an immediate access to data that prompts them when they’re trending into a direction where they need to take preventive action.

At the same time, managers and executives have access to the tool so they can mine the data, run the reports, and see process control charts.

Screenshot of SafetyChain Analytics tool. “One of the key elements of the tool is to deliver the right data to the right user in real time.” – Barry Maxon

FST: Are there different security controls for this software?

Maxon: Absolutely. You can organize it so users only see what matters to them. That’s really the key to keeping it simple. Data can very quickly become overwhelming. We’re trying to deliver prebuilt dashboards and reports, and organize the data to make it intuitive. We’re also trying to leverage data on an exception-based management principle. It used to be, in more manual paper-based processes, that a supervisor had to review every single record and sign off on it. Here, with automation in software, everything that passes compliance goes through the system; you don’t need to look at it—it will immediately highlight where you have exceptions in your process so you can quickly take corrective action and make sure everything is resolved before it gets further downstream.

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