Cleaning Without Chemicals

Sometimes the solution is not a solution, but rather steam, gas or a silver bullet.

By Mike Pehanich, Plant Operations Editor

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Driven by regulation, conscience and bottom line, processors are looking for greener solutions these days, particularly in the area of plant sanitation.

Food and environmental safety concerns coupled with high energy, water and waste treatment costs are motivating the hunt for cleaning and sanitizing systems that do not employ chemicals. Viable alternatives today include ozone cleaning, dry steam deep cleaning, cold and heated pressure wash and steam pressure cleaning.

Here's a look at the alternatives.

Light as air

Spurring the development of non-chemical cleaning technologies has been concern over such potentially dangerous by-products as dioxins and trihalomethanes, which are produced when organic matter reacts with chlorine. Chlorine is the primary chemical used to kill bacteria in water. Although used in a wide variety of plant cleaning and sanitation applications, chemical use requires multiple-step processes, including a critical rinse phase, and, often, hot water or steam.

One alternative is ozone, an often-misunderstood gas comprised of a single element - oxygen. Unlike chlorine cleaning, ozone sanitizing can be a single-step process. It produces no toxic by-products when it reacts with organic material, although levels of ozone in the ambient air must be monitored where such systems are used. Ozone is a strong disinfectant and deodorizer that is second only to fluorine in oxidizing power.

Chemists describe ozone (O3) as a simple oxygen molecule (O2) coupled with a nervous and active O1 "sidekick" atom. It tries to channel its nervous energy by hooking up chemically with anything it comes in contact with. When it can't couple with another molecule, it will join another O1 atom to form a stable O2 molecule - the reason for its relative safety. Proponents claim ozone is 50 percent stronger than chlorine as an oxidizer and it acts 3,000 time more rapidly, without the toxic risk of chlorine.

Ozone technology has held promise for food processors for decades. But who knew how to harness it?

Today, it is emerging as a versatile technology that can be used in a wide variety of applications that include disinfecting water supplies, wastewater treatment and a variety of plant cleaning and sanitation functions. Ozone systems have been approved by all the necessary food governing agencies.

"Our ozone systems are employed by some of the largest food processors in the world," says Dan Lynn, CEO of Ozone International (, Bainbridge Island, Wash. He notes ozone systems are ideally suited for all protein-producing operations, including poultry and seafood, and claims some of the best results come when ozone is continuously applied to conveyor belts during production of the meat or animal protein of choice. He names Tyson Foods, General Mills, Ozark Mountain Poultry, Simmons Foods, Freshwater Fish and Kikkoman among clients.


Ozone International's ozone generator
Ozone Int'l.'s commercial ozone generator.

Ozone International's Whitewater Food Safety has two distinct applications. Water spray bars administer ozone onto conveyor belts to purge or prevent a build-up of an organic "bio-film" containing dangerous microorganisms. Intervening cleaning and sanitizing periods also take place throughout production. Through the adoption of Ozone International's HACCP Integration Program, processors have achieved the 24-hour/six day per week production.

Many companies are using ozone to neutralize biological contaminants in both air and fluid wastewater systems. Processors have used Ozone International's gaseous applications to neutralize the odor in their emissions, which often impacted nearby towns.

"Last year, several poultry processors were challenged by government agencies for the discharge of excessive amounts of suspended solids in their wastewater streams," says Lynn, also noting that Alaska-based UniSea and other fish and seafood processors in Canada and Alaska have found the systems effective.

Sewage treatment plants often charge companies discharging into their systems on the basis of biological oxygen demand (BOD), a measurement of organic solids present in wastewater. Freshwater Fish, a Manitoba seafood processor, used an ozone system to solve a nagging problem of debris build-up on a rotary screen separating solids from discharge water. The system separates the particulate matter from the discharge by depositing water onto a rotating screen. Water passes through a 500-micron screen while capturing solids on the screen surface. Rapid build-up of matter compelled operators to shut down the system frequently - sometimes at 30-minute intervals - for manual removal of the solids. The processor installed a system from that sprayed the screen with ozonated water.

Ozone International is also working with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture on the use of ozone to eliminate E. coli 0157:H7 contamination in hide cleaning and hide-off head cleaning.

Ozone is generated on plant sites, so it requires no storage and has an unlimited supply. It has few safety drawbacks, though warning devices must be continuously active to alert plant personnel if excessive levels of free ozone should develop.

The primary use of ozone to date has been for conveyor and equipment cleaning, wastewater treatment and odor oxidation, with growing application in air systems in welfare areas (change areas and rest rooms). But look for expanded use of the technology in the years ahead.

"In the future, ozone will be a whole-house solution, used even for pest control," says Lynn. "Our goal is to eliminate the use of chemicals in food processing, to have a big impact lowering energy usage, to reduce hot water usage significantly, and to reduce the overall volume of water, which has impact on the hydraulic load of the processor. From a cleaning perspective, we can have a big impact on the environment and on energy. Look at the ROI of companies using our systems. They are very positive in utility cost reduction and added production hours."

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