Tag Archives: sanitary 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.

Stacy Vernon

Lessons Learned from Listeria Recalls

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Stacy Vernon

Listeria monocytogenes continues to be a key factor in food recalls. While it is not the most common pathogen behind foodborne illness, it does have a high mortality rate. Listeria is hearty. It thrives in cold, moist environments, can grow under refrigeration temperatures and is salt tolerant. The risk of listeria contamination can be reduced through stringent sanitation, and environmental monitoring and testing. But far too often, it takes an outbreak or recall for companies to truly understand the efforts needed to find and destroy it in their facilities.

At Food Safety Tech’s Hazards Conference in Columbus, Ohio, in April, Stacy Vernon, Food Safety Operations and Program Manager at CIFT, an Ohio Manufacturing Partner, shared lessons learned from food companies that have experienced Listeria in their facilities and resulting product recalls.

Lesson Learned: Regulatory Requirements

The regulatory requirements related control of listeria monocytogenes can be found at USDA 9 CFR Part 430.4 and FDA 21 CFR Part 117. Both agencies offer guidance documents that serve as valuable resources that food companies can use to build their food safety programs:

USDA FSIS: FSIS-GD-2014-0001 “Controlling Listeria monocytogenes in Post-lethality Exposed Ready-to-Eat Meat and Poultry Products”

FDA: FDA-2008-D-0096 “Control of Listeria monocytogenes in Ready-to-Eat Foods”

“The question is, are your people reading these? Are they aware they exist?” asked Vernon. “In speaking with companies who have gone through recalls, many were not even aware these guidance documents existed or were not utilizing them.”

Lesson Learned: Sanitation Program Shortcomings

“Sanitation is the No. 1 program that you need to have on point,” said Vernon. “Unfortunately, labor shortages and turnover have made this a big challenge in recent years.”

Issues that companies uncovered following recalls include:

  • A lack of understanding of the difference between cleaning and sanitizing
  • Sanitation teams not given enough time to properly sanitize equipment
  • Lack of easy access to the tools needed to sanitize properly
  • Lack of training on or understanding of the seven steps of sanitation
  • Lack of training on what biofilms are and how to detect them

“Sanitation teams tend to be small, and they need to be everywhere,” said Vernon. “Are you looking at their foot traffic? Your sanitation team should get, at least, general training on food safety and pathogens. Make sure this department is not overlooked because they do pose one of the highest risks of cross contamination.”

Lesson Learned: Poor Sanitary Design

Companies cited similar shortcomings in sanitary design. Vernon recommended that companies implement the following practices, if they are not currently following them:

  • Involve your food safety professionals in the purchase of new equipment
  • If purchasing used equipment, make sure that it has been maintained
  • Google “Sanitary Design Checklist.” These free downloads are available from the American Meat Institute, U.S. Dairy and other organizations and are great resources
  • Look for facility and equipment design flaws, such as cracks or separations in the floor, exposed threads, hallow pipes not sealed, bad welds, and water/product accumulation points

“Drain maintenance is also key. One company uses a snake to swab their drains, so they know if they have listeria before it works its way back up into the facility,” said Vernon.

Lesson Learned: Poor Environmental Monitoring Programs

The goals of an environmental monitoring program (EMP) is to aggressively seek and destroy pathogens. “You need to know where listeria is entering the facility, where it harbors and how it moves in your facility so you can effectively eradicate it,” said Vernon. “There is still a mentality that people are scared to find it, so they swab the safest areas. We need to change that mindset to ‘I want to find it and I want to eliminate it.’”

EMPs need to be tailored to your specific facility. Some of the issues companies found with their EMPs following recalls included a lack of internal knowledge to build a comprehensive and custom program and failure to swab properly. “Ask yourself, who is responsible for setting up our EMP and can they do it alone, or do we need outside expertise?” said Vernon.

When swabbing, you need to apply pressure and seek out hard to reach areas. When determining which zones to swab, consider the following:

  • Your risk assessment and hazard analysis
  • Previous environmental monitoring data collected
  • Visual appearance of surface
  • Products produced and intended users
  • Potential for growth after packaging

“Focus on areas where RTE products are exposed. Companies often do not want to swab Zone 1, but one company that went through a recall has implemented swabbing in Zone 1 while they are sampling their products,” said Vernon. “Their reasoning is, the products are already on hold and if they have to throw one shift of product away, it costs much less than a recall or outbreak.”

Lesson Learned: Lack of Employee Knowledge

Several of the companies Vernon spoke with found that they had inadequate food safety and pathogen training and knowledge at all levels; and that they did not have a good sense of employee traffic flow and habits. “When is the last time you stepped back to evaluate traffic flow in your facility?” asked Vernon. “Companies that took the time to evaluate traffic flow and employee practices were often surprised that they did not understand their employees’ movement within the facility or work habits.”

Key areas to investigate include:

  • How do employees and product move through your facility?
  • What is your footwear policy?
  • Are employees following appropriate GMPs for handwashing, PPE, product handling, etc.?
  • Are sanitation employees cleaning properly?

“Changing employee practices doesn’t take a lot of capital,” said Vernon. “It is one of the cheapest ways to mitigate risk.”

Lesson Learned: Not Reassessing Programs

EMP and sanitation programs should be reassessed when findings occur or changes happen in the facility, including anytime you bring in new equipment. “Start with a document review and then reassessment of your environmental monitoring program,” said Vernon.