In recent months, we've looked at how food processing companies are preparing for FSMA implementation by investing in sanitary design. Equipment that ensures safe processing and clean-up is essential to a sanitary operating environment.

But what about the products that actually get the cleaning done — the chemicals and detergents, even the water used to keep surfaces and equipment clean?

Mark Brueggemann, National Sales Manager at Pick Heaters, has spent over two decades helping food industry clients select water heating systems that optimize safety and efficiency. Founded in 1945, Pick Heaters was the first direct steam injection company to introduce a 3A sanitary heater.

In this article, we share Brueggermann's take on water heating in the age of FSMA. We'll also take a look at how chemicals and detergents have traditionally been used in the sanitation process. And we'll look ahead to innovations that enhance efficiency and sustainability.

Sanitation Basics

We use the term “sanitation” as shorthand, but keeping facilities clean requires six essential steps:

  • Dry Clean: Sweeping, clearing the area of extraneous materials, disassembling appropriate equipment.
  • Pre-Rinse: Rinsing area and equipment surfaces.
  • Clean: Applying detergent to all surfaces, ensuring that each product is at the proper dilution and receiving adequate contact time.
  • Post-Rinse: Thoroughly rinsing all surfaces.
  • Inspect: Inspecting to make sure that previous four steps were conducted appropriately.
  • Sanitize: Sanitizing walls, floors, and equipment, paying attention to optimal contact time.

Each step requires a combination of worker oversight, properly temperature-controlled water, and the chemicals, detergents, and sanitizers to get the job done right.

Companies are increasingly validating various steps of the process using adenosine triphosphate (ATP) swabs to make sure that the pre- and post-rinse steps have been effective. Titration test kits and/or test strips can also be used in the sanitation process to verify that the sanitizer is properly mixed.

Water: The Essential Ingredient

Nearly all of the steps in the cleaning and sanitation process require water. And each step requires a particular water temperature and pressure.

For example, for the pre-rinse, warm-to-hot water in the 120°F to 135°F range is optimal. During the final sanitation step, water must be kept between 70°F and 95°F.

Some sectors of food processing have their own temperature requirements. For facilities that process meat or meat products, the USDA mandates that utensils be sanitized at sanitizing stations where the water is held at 82 °F or above.

For over half a century, Pick Heaters has been attuned to the hot-water needs of the food processing industry. Of course, hot water is used throughout a plant. But Mark Brueggeman says that the number one problem his company is brought in to solve is plant sanitation. While the food industry has always needed to safely and efficiently bring hot water to hose/sanitation stations in their plants, Brueggeman notes that FSMA has made companies even more intent on reliable water management and temperature control.

A company's failure to operate at appropriate temperatures could result not only in fines, but in unsafe product. Indeed, Brueggemann knows of some plants that have recently been inspected by the Department of Health and the USDA with directives to make sure that their water temperatures are set appropriately.

Luckily, as the scrutiny on water temperature ramps up, so does the availability of sophisticated tools to control temperature.

As with other aspects of plant operation, heating units are increasingly aided by automation. According to Brueggeman, heating unit automation can include basic temperature control or simple thermostatic control, or they can be tied into programmable control loops using a distributed control system (DCS).

New water-heating technology is also replacing mixing tees, which require both a cold water line and a steam line to each station.

For example, Variable Flow Heaters are one of Pick Heater's signature products. These steam-injection heaters automatically maintain the preset temperature within 3°F, regardless of changes in steam or water pressure, water flow, or incoming water temperature. The pneumatic temperature controller, immediately downstream of the heater, responds quickly to changes in water flow rate to maintain the preset temperature. The relief valve allows the heater to maintain water at a preset temperature during idle times. And unlike mixing tees, these heaters respond automatically to varying pressure and have automatic pressure control.

Variable Flow Heater from Pick Heaters

Variable Flow Heater from Pick Heaters

Food Safety, Worker Safety

Brueggeman champions the replacement of mixing tees in part because the older technology is less efficient and more difficult to control. They're also less safe for workers, because they can drop steam at the point of use. If live steam passes through when water pressure drops off, workers can get scalded or injured.

In addition to its benefits for food safety, the Variable Flow Heater improves worker safety. Pick's product can be installed separate from use points, which provides a safe supply of hot water throughout the plant — without exposing workers to the dangers of steam.

Cleaners and Chemicals: No One-Size-Fits-All

The companies that provide sanitation chemicals are getting FSMA-ready, too. Food processors are turning up the pressure on chemical companies to provide the best products and training, to help them get their SSOPs (standard sanitary operating procedures) up to snuff.

Adel Makdesi, corporate senior microbiologist at cleaning solutions provider Zep Inc., says, “FSMA tells processors not to process food under any suspicious condition that would cause food adulteration or contamination…Therefore, to better comply with FSMA, food processors should implement an effective sanitation program that will take care of not only food preprocessing equipment, but also the plant environmental surfaces.”

The challenge is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. For example, some cleaners and sanitizers get rid of fungi and bacteria. But then additional products must be used to eliminate harmful microbes likeListeria,E.Coli, andSalmonella — no “golden-ticket” sanitizer can effectively kill off all microorganisms at once.

To address this need, chemical companies have developed “antimicrobial direct intervention programs.” This technology uses a spray or immersion process to remove dangerous pathogens from product. These programs also have the benefit of improving quality and increasing the shelf-life of products.

Sanitation Innovations

Traditionally, sodium hypochlorite, or bleach, was the primary sanitizing agent used in food processing facilities. But given concerns about health and environmental risks, some processors now use hydrogen peroxide instead.

Companies are also looking to the future of sanitation with green compounds like ozone.

How does ozone work? According to Food Processing magazine, “Sanitation occurs when the unstable third oxygen atom is transferred, with a large release of energy, from ozone to the molecule being oxidized. The transfer of energy in oxidation causes the outer membranes of microorganisms to rupture. As ozone molecules enter lysed microorganisms, genetic material (DNA and RNA) is oxidized and destroyed.” Ozone can replace not only chlorine, but also hot water and steam in many applications.

There are, however, some risks associated with ozone. Worker safety concerns and issues around controlling the substance have delayed its widespread implementation. Ozone has also been known to cause pitting in stainless steel equipment and to react negatively with lipids, causing rancidity issues.

But advocates of ozone point to ozone-resistant piping and emphasize the compound's eco-friendliness. In addition to its use in sanitation, ozone can be used to provide improved flavor and extend product shelf-life as well as cut down on water usage. As we learn more about safe handling, it's likely that ozone will have an increased presence in food processing sanitation.

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The goal of FSMA is to address food safety issues before they arise. But sanitation solutions are different for every company, every facility, and every process.

Pick Heaters is well aware of the need for customization. Brueggeman says that Pick “gets beyond model numbers and sizes to the particular application” that a company is working on. He works with clients to discern where steam injection heating “is going to be a plus for you and your process.” He helps clients come up with sanitation solutions that fit their needs.

Food manufacturers are gearing up to take on sanitation like never before. And that makes these kinds of innovations and new solutions invaluable.