"High production bakeries really have been raising their game," McIsaac adds. "One of the critical control points in baking is the divider. Under pressure from key customers, they're taking swab tests, and a lot of the older equipment is not making the grade."
Fresh Start Bakeries, a McDonald's bun supplier, installed a Vemag five years ago at its Ontario, Calif., plant. Additional installations have followed, though those purchase orders were driven not by sanitary considerations but by machine precision. Scaling accuracy is within 1 percent standard deviation. If a dough's target weight is 68g, the unit operates in the 67-69g range, McIsaac says. "We are not the cheapest machine, but we deliver value by not giving away product," says McIsaac. "With fluctuating commodity prices, that is our No. 1 selling point."
Ice cream becomes a handheld food when it's sandwiched between two wafers. Many of the ice cream sandwiches made in America rely on wafers supplied by Ellison Bakery, a family-owned operation in Fort Wayne, Ind., that also was the first licensee of Archway cookies (coincidentally, the brand now is owned by Snyder's-Lance).
In terms of hygiene, "a bakery standard is not sufficient" when the customer is a USDA-inspected dairy, says plant manager Jon Ellis. "We put a lot of emphasis on execution of correct procedures and on minimizing the potential for foreign-material contamination." Just-in-time production and close monitoring of metal detectors and other control points also play to that effort.
Ellison operates two bake lines in a 120,000-sq.-ft. facility that was expanded six years ago. Until then, production and packaging was done in an open-floor layout; with the added space, managers were able to isolate those operations.
"Twenty years ago, it was acceptable to do everything in the same area, but not anymore," observes Ellis. Questioning accepted practices and migrating to higher standards is critical, particularly as the bakery seeks level 3 certification under the SQF food safety standard. As part of the effort, audits of vendors are conducted regularly to verify that their safety programs are consistent with the bakery's.
Consistency of finished goods also is a priority, and the bakery is locked into a continuous improvement cycle with its batch controls architecture. A Win SPC program was installed a decade ago and has undergone three or four upgrades and expansions to recipe management, oven control and conveyor operating speed, Ellis reports. "Operators can make minor adjustments to forming, cutting, baking and cooling, but they can't go out of a preset range." A vision system tied to the program performs 10 quality measures, a major improvement over quality checks in which "you're hoping your calipers are straight across," he remarks.
Sanitary design is a given with a greenfield project, suggests Brian King, president of AM King Construction Co., Charlotte, N.C., but "the conversation always begins with, 'What can we automate?'" When costs are attached to each possibility, the improvement list shrinks in proportion to the bakery's appetite for investment.
King's firm was the contractor for Northeast Foods' Clayton, N.C., bakery, which came on line two years ago. Like Fresh Start, Northeast supplies McDonald's, which wants frozen buns delivered to distribution centers instead of fresh buns to stores.
Conveyors suspended from roof trusses to facilitate cleaning and isolated areas for ingredient handling were designed with sanitation in mind, but high throughput and minimal operator involvement were the key objectives. King points to the "lights out freezer" as an example. Pallets of finished goods move in and out "with the push of a button," with inventory management software controlling an automatic storage and retrieval system that operates without human intervention.
Another project distinction was the installation of three 1,000 KV diesel generators, which can power the plant completely off the grid. Back-up systems that deliver operating power are a growing trend, King suggests. Powerful storms like Hurricane Sandy and Oklahoma's recent mega-twister are stoking interest in self-generation.
Utility companies are inclined to subsidize self-generation and provide more favorable rates to big-usage customers who can go off line during peak demand periods. Those arrangements can mean the difference between building a peak-shaving plant or not.
Safety considerations should extend beyond the product to include the people who work in the plant, says King. Besides minimizing horizontal surfaces and overcoming the challenges of joining dissimilar materials such as steel and concrete without leaving crevices or fissures where vermin or rodents could enter, special attention was given to explosion-proofing in Clayton. Explosion panels surround the flour sifting area, which is further isolated from the production floor by a corridor. NEMA 4 enclosures and a separate air-handling system isolate controls panels, which were flagged as potential explosion points.