Contamination has become an expensive and serious health risk for the food processing industry. The frequency of food intolerances has risen significantly over the past three decades, particularly in industrialized populations.
Although there’s no definite cause of such widespread growth in food allergies, certain factors that are believed to contribute include the hygiene hypothesis, environmental changes, industrial farming, and increasingly complex supply chains.
As a result, the marketplace is tightening food safety requirements and calling for stricter control over food hygiene and safety to avoid contamination. For food manufacturers handling all types of bulk materials, effective hygiene and cleaning regimes are essential to prevent the build-up of microbes and allergens in the processing environment, particularly in enclosed systems.
The conveyor system is a key location where processed or raw foods are transported from one area of a production line to another. As bulk food suppliers realize that the stakes for undeclared allergens infiltrating supply chains are too high, there is increasing interest in the hygiene credentials of conveying equipment to ensure safety at this critical point in the process, without affecting product quality.
This article will discuss the context of these issues and how certified, tubular conveyors for food-grade applications can boost productivity while meeting modern sanitation specifications.
One in 10 Suffer from Allergies
Now more than ever, allergies are a serious matter. Approximately one in 10 U.S. citizens suffer from at least one allergy, with 32 million reported to have intolerances to certain foods. The eight main culprits are outlined as milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and crustacean shellfish. Additional concerns on the rise include vulnerability to products containing gluten and sesame.
The threat of ignoring these risks is significant. Despite regulatory measures, food recalls have increased in the U.S. by 10 percent between 2013 and 2018, a major contributing factor relating to undeclared allergens or cross-contamination of allergens on the food production line.
Another issue is pathogen contamination. According to The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, approximately 48 million Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3000 die each year from foodborne illnesses, highlighting significant room for improvement when it comes to safe and hygienic food handling.
Maintaining a Safe and Hygienic Environment
Reducing the risk of consumer exposure to both allergens and pathogens begins with auditing the food supplier, who typically has their own code of practice. However, the benefits of processing and packaging safe products are eradicated if a factory does not offset the risk of contamination. Manufacturers have a responsibility to establish a food safety plan to comply with legal requirements, with allergen management being an integrated part of the program.
It’s for this reason many large companies choose to segregate parts of the process that handle the products known to contain allergens. For small and medium-sized enterprises, this might not be an option, as they may not be in possession of the same capabilities and resources.
Therefore, bulk suppliers must consider higher frequency of cleaning with the use of chemical sterilization. To be free from residues containing pathogens and allergens, it’s paramount that conveyors are fully sanitized after handling all types of product, from oily spices and fresh produce to milk powder or raw meat. Machinery components that are in contact with the product must be accessible, especially in enclosed systems where the potential for build-up of microbes is increased.
Customers should train their employees to supplement the washdown, sanitizing, and drying procedure with testing, including a visual inspection, followed by swab samples and analysis for any dead and/or live foreign particles. Health and safety of the workforce is another factor to consider, especially regarding the elimination of overexposure to chemicals.
Boosting Productivity with Optimum Design
Product safety and the reduction of cross-contamination is a primary concern for suppliers. As outlined by the World Health Organization, food can be contaminated at any point in the process. At the same time, it is also essential that adherence to hygiene and safety standards does not adversely affect the product quality and efficiency of a factory line.
Today food is often transported using conventional conveyor technology with a belt, bucket, slat, screw, etc., and cleaning is carried out by dismantling the equipment and washing it down with water and chemicals or by alcohol swabbing. With this method, industries are experiencing high labor costs and heavy downtime for sanitizing the conveying equipment, during which time the personnel are exposed to hazardous chemicals.
Manual cleaning is also subjected to human error. For factory managers facing regular changeovers of different ingredients, it is therefore essential for conveying lines to facilitate both quick and deep cleaning that allow for an increase in the productivity of downstream equipment and ensures the safety of staff.
When specifying conveyors, enclosed tubular systems are beneficial in keeping the product protected from atmospheric, airborne contaminants, and other foreign elements introduced by people or other sources. By maintaining the sanitary processing of bulk materials all the way to the packaging line, the risk of product recall is significantly reduced.
Ideally, clean-in-place (CIP) technology is deployed to avoid the dismantling and reassembly of the equipment and provide a re-usable, sanitized conveyor within a significantly shorter wash down period.
When selecting a system, care should be taken to consider certification to ensure a high standard in the design, finish, accessibility for cleaning and selection of material for thorough verification after sanitizing.
USDA-Accepted Tubular Chain Conveyor
In response to food industry demands for equipment that adheres to strict safety and hygiene requirements while boosting line efficiency, newly designed tubular chain-style conveyors offer a more robust option for conveying all types of dry or wet food, from milk powders to raw meat, at any stage of receiving, processing, and packaging. For producers, USDA-accepted equipment demonstrates high quality standards and due diligence on their part to use machinery with recognized certification. In the case of conveying technology, one such standard is proper CIP sanitization procedures to eliminate the possibility of cross-contamination and reduce the risk of product recalls.
With this in mind, Luxme International developed the SaniLux tubular chain conveyor, a USDA-accepted solution for transporting dairy, meat, and poultry using this specific method, meeting the most recent and stringent guidelines set out by the U.S. federal executive department. The conveyor system itself comprises a fixed drive and tension assembly, which automatically tensions the chain continuously during the process and regulates it according to friction, product flow, and variation in atmospheric/product temperature. The system includes completely independent CIP technology that is isolated from the upstream or downstream machinery and is interlocked for operation and safety with the feeding and recovery equipment. The chain assembly for the CIP washdown application has FDA-approved UHMW discs attached by a polished stainless steel 316 link that forms a continuous chain with no metal-to-metal contact parts and no hardware. During the changeover of product batches with different recipes, the SaniLux system is totally cleaned and sanitized from dry to dry in just 60 minutes.
As well as CIP, another standard set out in the USDA guidelines relates to appropriate and thorough testing. Good practice methods include swab testing after the cleaning process to validate the eradication of pathogens and allergens, as well as use of the latest vision technology to inspect the pipe interior and surfaces of the conveyor for any visual residue left over after a hot water rinse and compressed air drying.
In addition to swab tests and video verification, further assessments include an Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) quick analysis and an Aerobic Plate Count (APC) and Enterobacteriaceae (EB) laboratory culture test. If at any stage allergens or pathogens are still present, site managers are advised to insert and convey a wiping or scrubbing disc to clean the interior of the pipes while the whole system undergoes another hot water or acid rinse cycle.
As well as providing manufacturers peace of mind that their system is microbiologically clean, machinery designed to a recognized standard typically requires less cleaning time, saving on water, product, labor costs, and energy.
While investing in the right conveying system might only comprise one section of a bulk supplier’s much larger, complex manufacturing line, overlooking this integral part of the process could be the difference between risking allergens and pathogens making their way into the food chain and upholding a brand’s reputation as one that takes contamination and food safety seriously.
Navam Jagan, B.Sc (Hons), P.Eng, is president, Luxme International Ltd. For more information, email [email protected], call 450-619-1999, or visit www.luxme.com.
Suggested video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yo47fW3tQwM
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