Equipment Designed With Sanitation In Mind Can Ease Processors' FSMA Requirements

Thorough cleaning and sanitizing of food-handling machines and equipment is a requirement, but the task becomes easier and faster when upfront consideration is given to sanitary design.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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With implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) under way, sanitary design migrated from a nice-to-have to a must-have for the processing and handling equipment inside food & beverage manufacturing facilities.

Cleanability has moved from afterthought to a central consideration in total cost of ownership of equipment, particularly when there is direct contact with food. FSMA extends that consideration to include incoming materials, both food and nonfood, environmental conditions and the physical structure. Cross contact with allergens receives special attention in Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Human Food, the FDA guidance document issued in August.

Building and equipping a plant from the ground up is one way of addressing sanitary design, but the vast majority of companies must work with the facility they already operate. Fortunately, even legacy sites can clear the higher sanitary bar, as evinced by General Mills’ $25 million commitment to its 110-year-old Buffalo, N.Y., cereal plant.

Guidelines for equipment design have existed since the 1920s, when the 3A certification program for dairy processors was created. A broader hygienic view began coming into focus 12 years ago, when a working group of meat processors and architectural engineers established 11 facility design principles. Working on behalf of the AMI Foundation, they advocated distinct and separate hygienic zones, control of airflow and humidity, cleanable walls and ceilings and a tight building envelope that keeps pests out.

Design principles for both the facility and the equipment take aim at standing water and advocate surfaces that are “cleanable to a microbiological level.” That expectation has shaped the design of much of the processing and handling equipment placed in service in the past decade. Sloped surfaces, radial corners and hermetically sealed hollow tubing are routinely incorporated into the machines, conveyors and other food-contact equipment built by many OEMs.

Those principles guided re-engineering of a basic depanning system from Capway Automation Inc. (www.capwayautomation.com), a York, Pa., supplier of bakery equipment. Dubbed the Provident, the machine is rated IP69K for high-pressure washdown and cleaning with caustic chemicals. “FSMA is why we did this,” according to Bob Harrington, a principal and vice president at Capway.

“Bakery is going away from dry cleaning,” he maintains. “You’re seeing more and more high-pressure washdown in sweet-goods manufacturing.”

Many pizza manufacturers are subject to USDA oversight, and meat and poultry companies are acquiring bakeries as they migrate toward value-added products that are enrobed in dough, he says. As a result, Capway considered USDA guidelines and 3A standards when designing Provident.

But FDA’s FSMA guidance clearly distinguishes between wet and dry processing environments and suggests any water use should be on an as-needed basis. “Water in a dry environment is one of the most significant risk factors for Salmonella contamination,” providing the essential ingredient for microbiological growth, the August guidance points out.

The decision to rely on sweeping, brushing, scraping and vacuuming to clean equipment surfaces or follow a controlled wet cleaning approach often comes down to the risk assessment of bakery personnel. Guidances for low-moisture foods from Grocery Manufacturers Assn. and PMMI’s OpX Leadership Network allow for both approaches while emphasizing the need to thoroughly dry the equipment and evacuate standing water.

Kick the bucket

The GMA and OpX initiatives are helping establish standardized approaches to sanitary design, allows Jim Ruff, general manager-integrated solutions group at Key Technology (www.key.net), Walla Walla, Wash. However, Key’s vibratory conveyors and sortation machines are as likely to be found in a plant producing cheese or poultry as one making low-moisture foods.

“They’re getting there, but there’s a ways to go,” Ruff says of the OpX guidance. “We have that information already from our customer base,” and the sanitary level of a machine is more a function of what regulations a food company must comply with and how much it is prepared to spend.

Sanitary conveyance drives most processors to vibratory and away from belt conveyors, he believes. A stainless steel pan is inherently more cleanable than a belt. The key differences with vibratory conveyors are the pan’s finish and the type of welds used in its fabrication. TIG welds and ground and polished welds are available options, but unless the product is ready-to-eat or further processed, few companies are willing to pay the premium.

Some equipment subcategories are under particular sanitary scrutiny. Bucket conveyors in particular are targeted because of the challenge they pose for thorough cleaning and the cross-contamination consequences they present.

One of the most successful product launches by Dorner Manufacturing occurred recently with VBT (short for vertical belt technology), a sanitary incline conveyor that can operate at 90 degrees and features sidewalls that are RF-welded along only a fifth of the unit’s length to make cleaning faster and more effective.

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