Tag Archives: hygienic design

Barry Whitman

Conveying Equipment Plays a Vital Role in Food Safety

By Barry Whitman
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Barry Whitman

A processing plant’s conveyors touch food at every point of production, from receiving to packaging to before and after critical processing stages including slicing, thawing, pasteurizing and cooking. Today’s food-grade sanitary conveyors are built to protect the spread of bacterial contamination that can cause foodborne illness. But what do sanitary conveyors do, and how do they contribute to food processing plant safety?

How Sanitary Conveyors Work

Conveyors move ingredients and products between processing stages in any production plant. They ensure the different plant applications are integrated into a single process and automate handling challenges such as lifting, lowering or reorienting product for further processing.

In food manufacturing, conveyors are critical as they allow large amounts of product to be processed quickly and efficiently, but they also perform another crucial function: ensuring food safety. Conveyor equipment must maintain the same food hygiene standards as the rest of the plant.

Sanitary Conveyors and Food Safety

Bacterial contamination is the most serious threat to food safety when consumable products are handled in bulk. Harmful bacteria can proliferate when food becomes trapped or equipment is improperly sanitized and can spread quickly through any exposed product.

Food-grade conveyor equipment is designed to avoid contamination of products. Modern conveyor food processing systems include food-safe components and special features designed to maintain hygiene to prevent dangerous bacteria from contaminating products and limit their ability to spread.

Sanitary conveyor equipment also helps protect products by:

  • Limiting the time food is exposed to potential contamination
  • Combining and reducing processing steps to minimize handling
  • Matching handling techniques to specific products

Today, food-grade conveyors provide effective sanitary control while offering a full range of handling solutions that can be customized to the needs of a product or the constraints of a production space. These include:

  • Belt conveyors for flexible, seamless line integrations
  • Bucket and incline conveyors for raising product in motion
  • Tote dumpers for safe, efficient bulk handling
  • Horizontal motion conveyors for loose or granular products
  • Vibratory conveyors for cooked foods

Food Contamination Costs Brands Millions

Food-safe solutions designed with a manufacturer’s product and processes in mind are critical when considering the true cost of a food safety failure or product recall.

The CDC estimates that sicknesses caused by foodborne pathogens affect 48 million Americans yearly, with up to 128,000 people hospitalized with bacterial pathogens such as campylobacter, listeria, salmonella, and E. coli. Increasingly sophisticated industry monitoring means manufacturers are subject to ever-higher hygiene standards and more sophisticated contamination tracing techniques.

Today, even a limited product recall can cost a brand up to $10 million. The cost of downtime and lost product of a complete line shutdown to deep clean, sanitize and test equipment can be far higher. In addition, the indirect costs to a business can be challenging to measure but are just as real. These can include:

  • Damage to the brand
  • Damage to the company’s reputation
  • Loss of public confidence in the product category
  • Loss of key staff
  • Lower workforce morale

Today’s Food Safety Standards

To minimize the risk to consumers and the food system as a whole, regulators and industry groups require food processing equipment, including sanitary conveyors, to meet a wide range of standards. Common standards in the U.S. today include:

Compliance with these standards is enforced by regular equipment inspections and testing. Typically, any food-exposed surface must pass a rigorous surface-swab test to meet sanitary requirements.

Safety standards are also constantly improving. For example, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act is being rolled out and will raise standards significantly in several sectors.

Ensuring Food Safety with Sanitary Conveyors

How does today’s food-grade conveying equipment help protect food safety? Here are four examples:

Minimize handling. Perhaps the biggest contribution conveyors make to food safety is minimizing the amount of physical handling products receive. Reducing the need for human contact with food significantly reduces the risk of contamination. Because different types of conveyors can move, raise, lower and change the direction of travel, the need for human handling of food is often eliminated. Some equipment, such as horizontal motion conveyors, can even slow down or reverse direction to allow parts to be cleaned or replaced without stopping the line.

Match technology to process. Choosing the suitable conveyor for a product or process is critical to maintaining a consistent level of hygiene. For example, vibratory conveyors are best for preventing the sticking of cooked food, while horizontal motion conveyors keep frozen product like seafood moving. Experienced equipment providers can help match conveyor equipment to the manufacturer’s specific needs.

Vibratory conveyor belt
Vibratory conveyors help prevent cooked food from sticking to the conveyor.

Use sanitary materials. The best food-grade conveyor equipment is made from high-quality, hygienic materials. To minimize the risk of contamination, any surface that comes into contact with food must be:

  • Smooth and free of cracks, crevices or dents
  • Nonporous and nonabsorbent
  • Non-reactive to food products
  • Corrosion resistant
  • Require little or no maintenance to maintain these characteristics. (This applies particularly to painted, coated or electroplated surfaces. There should never be any flaking, bubbling or chipping of food-exposed surfaces.)

To preserve hygiene, most leading brand manufacturers of sanitary conveyors choose either FDA-approved food-grade plastics for belting or bucket systems and a range of metals for contact surfaces, depending on the application.

While a range of metals might be appropriate for applications handling dry materials such as hard candy or pasta, processors handling dairy and meat products must meet much tighter sanitary standards. In these sectors, true food-grade stainless steel is preferred for its naturally antimicrobial properties and resistance to high-temperature washdown, pasteurization and sterilization procedures.

Designed for safety. The design of professional-grade food conveying equipment takes sanitation into consideration. Today’s systems include minimal moving parts. Keeping the design of machinery simple has several benefits, including:

  • Makes it easier to clean, maintain and sanitize
  • Reduces wear and tear to minimize downtime and maintenance calls
  • Fewer connections and other potential contamination points
  • Key components are easier to access for cleaning and maintenance
  • Simplifies sanitation and validation processes

Simpler equipment also enables the toolless replacement of key components, reducing the likelihood of damage or contamination of a production line by non-sterile maintenance tools.

In addition, newer conveyor systems offer active water and condensation management, which minimizes moisture accumulation and actively manages liquids released by cooking, draining and dewatering. These systems feature:

  • Angled surfaces
  • Tilted or grooved belts and conveyor surfaces
  • Self-draining piping systems

Food processors should look for features that minimize water ingress between components for equipment exposed to high-temperature washdown and sterilization processes, such as conveyors handling dairy or raw meat products. Look for:

  • Solid stainless steel tubing
  • Minimal unwelded joints, crevices or fasteners
  • IP69K compliance: the top industry standard for limiting water ingress between parts

Simple design, premium materials and quality construction all help to minimize food-exposed places where bacteria can build up. They also make it easier to swab-test and validate equipment. Features include:

  • Properly designed and installed fasteners
  • Tight, overlapping joints and connections
  • Smooth, polished welds and well-milled contact surfaces
  • Radiused corners without welds

In addition, look beyond direct contact surfaces when checking for harboring opportunities. Look carefully at the top edges and contact points with coverings or lids where moisture or waste could accumulate.

Value-Added Sanitary Conveying

Value-added technologies or features processors should consider when choosing conveying equipment include:

Combining/Eliminating Processes. Advanced equipment such as vibratory conveyors offer value-added processing that allows product to be laned, spread, dewatered or reoriented while in motion, providing the ability to combine or eliminate processes that were previously separate steps. Fewer steps mean less handling or exposure time for vulnerable materials like sliced fresh produce, raw meats or cheeses.

Improved Quality Control. Variable-speed horizontal motion conveyors allow finished products to be more easily inspected on moving trays before final packaging, enhancing the output quality and allowing more opportunities to spot substandard product.

Clean-in-Place. Premium conveying equipment is generally customized for specific applications and may include features such as clean-in-place equipment. This allows food-exposed surfaces to be cleaned or to self-clean while the machine is still operating.

Value-added equipment such as belt scrapers, flip-down guarding, belt lifts and quick-release take-ups minimize hands-on maintenance, helping to ensure sanitary conditions for longer periods of time.

Ensuring food safety is a top priority for processors, and sanitary conveying equipment plays a role in protecting both the processor and the consumer. Choosing high-quality equipment that fits into a plant’s design and set up and is easy to clean and sanitize helps create trust in brands while also impacting the bottom line.

Emily Newton, Revolutionized Magazine

Sanitary Design: Finding the Right Conveyor Belt System

By Emily Newton
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Emily Newton, Revolutionized Magazine

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.

Angela Anandappa, Alliance for Advanced Sanitation

Advances in Hygienic Design

By Angela Anandappa, Ph.D.
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Angela Anandappa, Alliance for Advanced Sanitation

The industry is taking notice and being more proactive in hygienic design thinking. Hygienic design is not a very new concept; in fact, it’s been around for almost a century when the dairy industry realized standardization was helpful with different parts. When the 3-A Sanitary Standards Inc. (3-A SSI) was established in 1920, the ideals for hygiene revolved around dairy handling equipment. But today, these hygienic design principles have been adapted by other industries, and new expectations for cleanability and standards have been developed by both 3-A and the European Hygienic Engineering and Design Group (EHEDG).

Geometry Is at the Core of Cleanliness

One of the most important factors that have helped the food industry in improving hygienic design is the use of geometry. How does math play such as huge role in hygiene? Hygiene, in the context of hygienic design for the food industry, takes the form of advanced materials formed into specific geometric positions to prevent the adhesion of particles and bacteria. A fraction of a degree angle changed in a cutting edge can make the difference between a smooth cut on a vegetable that allows it to swiftly slide off, thereby allowing the same cutting edge to be reused many more times than a cutting edge with a slightly different angle. This offers a functional benefit in achieving the optimal product quality while also reducing contact with the product and extending the time where buildup needs to be cleaned. The minimum radius of a corner for equipment parts and flooring are well defined for optimal water drainage. Similarly, the slope of a surface, the distance to angle ratios for otherwise horizonal liquid handling tubing, or the height and vertical sloping angles of a drain suitable for a processing zone are all key criteria that define hygiene. The scientific basis for why a certain angle works better than another for a specific purpose is continually being investigated to further improve design.

Standards and Guidelines Converge for Global Harmony

The effort by 3-A and EHEDG to harmonize design standards and guidelines respectively, is bringing about a convergence of approaches that benefits equipment manufacturers. EHEDG with its network of research institutes is capable of providing strong scientific principles upon which standards could potentially be developed or further enhanced. By working together to harmonize standards and guidelines, equipment manufacturers have even more incentive to adopt hygienic design principle. The 3-A SSI offers the 3-A Symbol authorization which helps third parties readily recognize that the equipment conforms to a given 3-A Sanitary Standard for equipment. So an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) is then not only encouraged to adopt hygienic standards, but also incentivized by the breadth of technical data available to them, making the excuse of costs associated with adhering to 3-A standard or EHEDG approval a thing of the past. Given that food safety depends on preventing contamination, new equipment or modifications that do not work to maintain hygiene are risks to the product.

In this new age, an equipment purchase that lacks the third-party nod of approval by a hygienic standards organization is a liability.

Equipment designed to be more easily wet cleaned by allowing for rapid disassembly while not always integrated into standards, is generally understood as a must for modern equipment. Moving equipment in and out of a single-use room for multiple processes is another benefit provided by equipment designed to accommodate quick changeovers. Accessibility is the key to cleaning success, as operators need to be able to fully access, clean and inspect the cleanliness of the equipment. Specifications for easements around equipment for cleanability are important.

Regulatory Requirements Should Inspire Equipment Design

FSMA brought sweeping changes to finally update the federal requirements for food safety that pointed to key areas that promote the use of sanitary conditions for producing, handling and transporting food. Prior to this, the meat industry had already been driving numerous best practices to cleaning equipment that have brought USDA inspected facilities a long way. The dairy industry’s focus on hygiene has been the gold standard for liquid handling, and the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO) set expectations for makers and inspectors to be familiar with good hygienic design, requiring it when it was absent.

But regulations always seek to provide broad guidance that is better executed by non-profits, NGOs and companies that serve to encourage adherence to standards, or those playing a pivotal role in buying decisions. Closely examining the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations and its references to sanitary design points to a vision for improving the state of equipment, facilities and transportation conditions to meet a higher threshold for hygiene that needs to be integrated into engineering designs by the OEM.

Materials Make All the Difference

Stainless steel has been used for over a century and is the standard metal used widely due to its corrosion resistance, formability and ability to be polished and renewed. The Nickel institute reports that two thirds of global nickel production is used in manufacturing stainless steel, forming an alloy that is suitable for food contact equipment and in healthcare.

The hygienic character of the material is directly proportional to the cleanability, moisture resistance and corrosion resistance. Rounded corners, super smooth finishes, slopes and numerous other criteria have been defined for a variety of equipment, surfaces, flooring, etc., in combination with a plethora of materials that provide water resistance, antimicrobial activity, metal detectable or flexible disposable seals, novel elastomers that provide heat resistance for O rings and joints have brought design to a higher level of sophistication than ever before.

Similarly, metallurgy is another area in which innovative alloys have been developed for softer or harder parts of a variety of equipment. Not all stainless steel is the same and while a 304 grade stainless steel works for most food contact equipment, other grades of stainless steel find their best uses in certain other parts of a hygienic facility. And pulling it all together, the design criteria for metal joints, especially those that come into contact with food, are best put together by skilled technicians who understand micro resistance design that promotes food safety.

Education and Awareness

The revolutionary aspect of today’s hygienic design really has more to do with a concerted effort to focus the industry on prevention. Several noteworthy contributions to this effort lay in the hands of organizations like the American Institute of Baking (AIB), North American Meat Institute (NAMI), American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI), and Commercial Food Sanitation (CF-SAN) that have individually or through partnerships with other key organizations, elevated the level of knowledge, accessibility of training and awareness that solid hygienic design for facilities and equipment are the foundations for prevention. And so, as we move forward, this really is an exciting time to be a student of good design and apply engineering talents to the food industry.

Third-Party Assessments

Hygiene can be defined as a set of activities or behaviors geared at preventing disease. Some of the earlier well documented instances of hygiene (or lack thereof) relating to food have their roots in cholera, dysentery associated with the industrial revolution and the need for human beings clustering into smaller and more populated regions, namely cities. But the notion of personal hygiene is inextricably joined to the production of food and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Assessing the hygienic condition of a food production environment is not the same as a food safety audit. To elaborate, a hygienic assessment requires comprehensive knowledge of sanitation systems, equipment design and evaluation criteria, which although included in general terms, are not well scoped in any of the GFSI schemes. In fact, facilities that have passed certain GFSI audits frequently fall seriously short on their ability to produce safe food.
A specialized hygienic assessment is a worthwhile option for big buyers, food service giants and large-scale processors to drive for predictable quality. These specialized audits conducted by organizations that have developed a focus for equipment design are being more frequently utilized as a preventive measure. When done right, they can also be powerful tools for driving positive food safety culture and developing long-term supplier relationships.