Blown seals were a frequent occurrence in the technology’s early days in food. Today’s machines are more industrially hardened and have higher capacities than systems of a decade ago. They also are bigger, weighing up to 80 tons.
Easier loading and unloading is driving down labor costs and increasing throughput, adds Hiperbaric’s Nicolas-Correa. His newest machine, the 525-L, can process about 8,000 lbs. an hour at a cost of less than 4 cents a lb., “and half of that is the depreciation of the machine,” he explains. “A few years ago, with our 300-L system, the cost was over 7 cents a lb.”
Canadian public health officials studied the efficacy of HPP in the wake of the 2008 Listeriosis outbreak that killed 22 and was linked to slicing machines in Maple Leaf Foods’ Toronto RTE plant. The company recalled 220 products and established a $25 million compensation fund for victims. Coincidentally, Maple Leaf was pressure treating meat on one of the plant’s lines but would have needed 10 presses to treat all products. Since then, dozens of HPP systems have been installed throughout Canada.
“Brand protection against pathogens led one sandwich chain to require HPP for its sliced meats,” says Barnard, because a reduced-sodium initiative raised risk levels. “It is a great brand-protection tool.” A Universal-commissioned study in late 2012 projected annual HPP volume growth of 25 percent over the next eight years, and that estimate is proving conservative, he adds.
High-performance elbow grease
The profit margins of some RTE products don’t justify the cost and logistical issues of HPP. Fortunately, improvements in equipment hygienic design and the availability of better methods of sanitation can help processors minimize risk.
Cleanability of equipment was an afterthought for machine builders in the previous century. That began to change when a task force of manufacturers and suppliers in 2003 created the American Meat Institute’s 10 Principles of sanitary equipment design. Recently updated and cross referenced to NSF and AMI standards, those principles — cleanable to a microbiological level, validated cleaning and sanitizing protocols, no niches or collection areas, accessible for cleaning and inspection, etc. — have been embraced by other industry segments.
Cleanability in a fresh or RTE meat plant implies the ability to withstand high-pressure washdown and caustic chemicals. Packaging and conveying specialist Heat and Control Inc. is closely associated with vertical form/fill/seal systems for snack foods, but the Hayward, Calif., supplier has been upgrading and waterproofing components such as Ishida weigh scales, which carry sophisticated electronic controls. An IP69K rating has been secured for several of the weighers, helping Heat and Control secure contracts with USDA-inspected facilities such as Choice Canning Co., which processes RTE shrimp.
Cleanability must be coupled with effective sanitation and disinfection practices, but every processor has to devise a program to address a facility’s specific challenges. Economics is part of the calculation, allows Cristil Garrison, director of training & development at Remco Products Corp., Zionsville, Ind., along with the capabilities of the sanitation crew.
“Drains are one of the biggest challenges when dealing with Listeria,” Garrison observes, and most processors must deal with existing infrastructure that can complicate the solution. In older buildings, the drain in one processing area typically is connected to drains in other zones, raising the likelihood of cross contamination.
“It is an evaluation process,” she adds. “Companies need to analyze what they are trying to mitigate and then choose the tool that helps them best accomplish it.”
To help in the process, Remco’s Danish partner, Vikan, created the Hygienic Zone Planner, an iPad app for mapping and color-coding process areas, their equipment lists and the cleaning tools assigned to them. The objective is to help food companies maintain HACCP compliance and generate documentation for auditors and inspectors.
Color coding and dedicated cleaning tools are gaining acceptance worldwide to control pathogens and allergens, Garrison notes, but those tactics need to be paired with the right tool for the job. Bristles on a drain brush need to be long enough for hard-to-reach places but not so long that they will create an aerosol effect that sends germs airborne, for example.
Remco and Vikan have engineered specialty brushes without crevices for bacterial harborhage to accomplish that. Another innovation is a specialized squeegee that collects condensation on ceilings and other overhead structures. The water is retained in the handle, preventing cross contamination and providing a sample for microbiological testing.
Over and above the minimum
As many as 450 shipping containers of IQF shrimp are shipped annually from India to Choice Canning, the Jersey City, N.J., subsidiary of Choice Trading. Some of the shrimp is bagged raw, but an increasing proportion ends up in meal kits with various sauces, vegetables and starch. “Initially, we were treated as a raw product,” even when sold as ready to cook, says Nithin Poulos, junior vice president of operations.