The Water Paradox: Plant Safety and Sanitation in a Wet Environment

Aug. 12, 2014
Water is the primary ingredient in virtually all beverages, but process water can create as many problems as it solves. Using less water is the solution — except when it's not.

Handwashing stations like this automated unit from Meritech are becoming fixtures in beverage processing facilities, replacing hand sanitizers at the urging of third-party auditors, according to Meritech officials.

Soft drink bottlers and other beverage companies straddle the arid and saturated worlds: Their finished goods are water-based, but (ideally) they process in a dry environment.

The dryness of the environment can be disputed. Walk through any fluid milk plant or brewery, and the slip-and-fall dangers from water on the floor are apparent. Ideally, however, the environment is closer to a bakery than a poultry plant.

Water is necessary for microbial life, and footwear baths can become breeding grounds for pathogenic bacteria if not properly maintained. Rather than flirt with having plant personnel tracking in harmful microbes on their shoes, beverage plants are moving away from water-based baths and toward quaternary ammonium compounds and other solids in doorways.

Conversely, hand sanitation often relies on antibacterial gels or alcohol rinses in beverage facilities, and the efficacy of those sanitizers is being questioned.

Just as equipment and food-contact surfaces must be cleaned before they can be sanitized, people’s hands must be free of residual soil before they can be sanitized. In the view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), soap and water is a best practice for handwashing in both food and beverage production facilities.

Water conservation is a tough sell, as Nalco chemical company and Johnson Diversey discovered when they partnered on a water-monitoring service, first in Europe in 2000 and then in North America a few years later. Both companies were acquired in 2011, Nalco by Ecolab and the Diversey organization by Sealed Air Corp. Now known as the food care division of Sealed Air, Racine, Wis.-based Diversey continues to offer a water optimization program for the beverage industry, positioned as a way to reduce total cost of operation (TCO) rather than conservation, according to Mike Lammers, senior beverage and brewing sector specialist.

At $6 per 1,000 gallons, the average cost of water in the U.S. is “the cheapest in the world,” Lammers points out, undermining conservation efforts in all but the most drought-plagued areas of the country. TCO, on the other hand, includes the cost of heating water, chemical additions, wastewater handling and, perhaps most importantly, the time saved from optimized cleaning and sanitation. Because processes occur in pipes and enclosed vessels, clean in place (CIP) systems dominate the beverage world. Those systems “are huge water consumers, and most of them are not optimized,” he adds.

“With the exception of dairies and juice processes, the risk of not cleaning isn’t there in beverage plants,” Lammers continues. “The worst outcome of inadequate cleaning is usually an off flavor or odor, so the majority of beverage plants have run pretty loose. The motivation to optimize has never been there.”

The vast majority of microbial issues in these facilities relate to the filler valves, and the older fillers that populate most of the plants were not engineered for cleanability. To compensate, extended CIP cycles with 185° F water is the typical protocol. Product proliferation, however, undermines the “cook it off” tactic.

Instead of 72-hour production runs, six hours is the new normal, and a 2 ½ hour CIP cycle to sterilize the filler valves is a throughput killer. Conductivity sensors and other measures of the strength of detergents and sanitizers are helping some processors reduce the CIP cycle to one hour.

A beverage plant with three lines typically will realize savings of $50,000-$75,000 in annual water costs from CIP optimization. The energy savings from reduced thermal treatment of that water reaches to the mid- to high six-figure range. The increase in production time from shorter CIP cycles “is the holy grail,” says Lammers, and that makes plant operators see the TCO light.

The 20-second rule

If less water for equipment cleaning is the goal, more water for personal hygiene is the direction in beverage processing.  According to Michele Colbert, vice president of sales & marketing at Meritech, Golden, Colo., food safety auditors are chastising beverage plants that rely exclusively on waterless sanitizers and insisting they make soap and water available to workers to meet the standards under Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) programs such as SQF and BRC.

“The beverage industry in the past has been getting by with gel-type sanitizers, which are not acceptable to third-party auditors,” Colbert maintains. The plants are being required to install sinks or automated handwashing systems such as Meritech’s if they hope to be certified under GFSI programs. “Instant sanitizers are everywhere, but they create a false sense that they remove all debris and kill everything, when they don’t.”

Even among sanitizer suppliers, there’s little argument. “Proper hand hygiene is the food processing plant’s first line of defense against food contamination,” responds Harold Tyreman, vice president of sales and marketing at Gojo Industries Inc., the Akron, Ohio, hygienic products supplier that counts Purell among its brands. “This includes washing with soap and water when hands are visibly soiled followed by the use of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. For food processing plants in particular, Gojo recommends using appropriate products based on the area of the plant where hand hygiene needs to take place.”

Thorough hand washing is a basic requirement under section 110 of 21 CFR 11, which outlines good manufacturing practices for food and beverage manufacturers. FDA defaults to the CDC for the specifics of proper handwashing. CDC has helped spotlight the potential for human-to-human transmission of norovirus, and instant sanitizers are ineffective against those agents of gastrointenstinal disease, according to Colbert. Soap and water can remove the virus, provided people in the plant comply with the handwashing requirement and continue the process for 20 seconds.

Automated systems like Meritech’s CleanTech 500C deliver a 4 log reduction in norovirus in 12 seconds, she adds, with the additional benefit of recording and documenting the process for review by auditors.

Handwashing may raise a facility’s water-consumption rate slightly, but the increase can be more than made up through the use of dry conveyor lubricants. Sealed Air’s Lammers estimates 80-85 percent of North America’s approximately 900 beverage bottling lines already have converted to dry lubricants, though the conversion rate among breweries lags far behind, in part because of issues in using them with stainless-steel conveyor belts. Wet lubricants typically consumer 15,000-20,000 gallons of water a day. Switching to dry lubricants cuts water costs $20 a day, he calculates, “but operators recognize the occupational hazard of all that soapy water on the floor,” he says.

“Replacing traditional conveyor lubricants with dry conveyor lubricants minimizes water usage, which in turn significantly reduces the opportunity for bacteria, years and molds to thrive, not only on the conveyors but also on the surfaces beneath the conveyors,” points out Ron Shepard, CEO of Shepard Bros. Inc., La Habra, Calif.

The specialty chemicals and services firm has a vested interest — its Propel ST synthetic lubricant has gone through four iterations since it was developed in 2008 — although Shepard notes conventional lubricants were part of its portfolio long before then. The imposition of strict water-use limits in the face of California’s long-term drought is driving some beverage companies to make the switch to dry, he says, but sanitary considerations remain the primary benefit. “The Pacific Northwest has plenty of water, and we’re having robust sales with some pretty large customers in that area,” he says.

“Quite a few chemical companies introduced dry lubricants in the past and failed, so there is reluctance at some processors to try them again,” says Shepard. But when senior management learns the true cost of conventional lubricants, in particular wastewater handling, bottlers give a second hearing to dry.

Modern bakeries have all but banned hoses from the plant floor, and dry foot sanitizers and disinfectants are common in dairies. As beverage firms focus more on food safety compliance and take a harder look at traditional practices, moisture levels outside bottles and cans likely will decrease.

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