With FSMA coming up and more focus on food safety across the industry, we’re seeing major improvements in sanitary equipment design. As we’ve discussed in previous articles, advancements like non-overlapping surfaces and stainless steel materials enhance food safety by making food processing equipment much more accessible for maintenance and cleaning.

One area of the food safety discussion we haven’t yet explored is the workers themselves, in particular, their personal protective equipment (PPE).

For an expert perspective on worker safety and food safety, we talked to Stephen Hurst, the co-owner and president of Top Dog Manufacturing. Top Dog is a Canadian manufacturer of protective clothing, including aprons, gloves, and sleeves, for the food processing industry. He described some major trends he sees in food processing — more attention to food safety, increased cost sensitivity, and greater concern about the environment. He also explained how Top Dog’s products can help food processors address all three of these concerns by decreasing their risk of contamination, their costs, and their environmental footprint.

This article explores Hurst’s perspectives on these and other hot topics in food processing.

Recalls on the rise due to regulatory changes, globalization

The number of food recalls is rising, which Hurst said suggests that safety standards are either not being adhered to or aren’t high enough. Indeed, a study on recalls earlier this year by Swiss Re produced some startling results:

  • – Since 2002, the number of food recalls per year in the United States has nearly doubled.
  • – Food contamination costs U.S. health authorities $15.6 billion per year.
  • – In 2013, almost 9 million people got sick from contaminated food — 50,000 of them were hospitalized, and almost 2400 died.
  • – In 52% of food recalls, the companies are on the hook for more than $10 million each. It’s possible for the loss for a single company to reach $100 million.

Swiss Re found that this drastic increase in food recalls is primarily due to three factors:

  • – Regulatory changes, such as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which are becoming more stringent
  • – Increasing globalization in the food supply chain, as ingredients and technologies are being sourced worldwide
  • – Demographic changes, such as and aging population and increased allergies in the general population

The trick for food processors is that contamination can happen anywhere along the line. As the Swiss Re report author and risk engineer Roland Friedli said: “Food recalls can be caused by something as simple as a labeling error on the packaging, or as complex as a microbial contamination somewhere along a vast globalized supply chain….even a simple mistake can cost a food manufacturer millions in losses and even more in terms of reputation.”

With recalls increasing and the high costs associated with them, Hurst notes that “serious plant managers are looking for products that can bring down their food safety risks tremendously.” These products include processing equipment that conforms to the latest standards in sanitary design, but they can also include protective clothing. And just like using the right materials for equipment (i.e., stainless steel) can reduce food safety risks along the processing line, using the right materials for protective clothing can drastically reduce food safety risks at any point where humans come into contact with the food.

The protective clothing from Top Dog Manufacturing is made out of 100% pure ether-based polyurethane film, which is manufactured for them by an American company with a reputation for quality. Hurst said that, to the best of their knowledge, Top Dog is the only company in the world using this material. Their proprietary formula confers a number of benefits:

  • – It will never crack. The number one failure of protective garments in the food processing sector is cracking. Cracking is the direct result of exposure to animal fats, degreaser, harsh or caustic cleaning chemicals, and water. Cracking not only shortens the life of the garments, but microorganisms can grow in the cracks. Also, people get wet and cold. Ether-based polyurethane is soft at any temperature and will never crack. This means the clothing lasts longer, protects better against contaminants, and is more comfortable to wear.
  • – It won’t degrade with repeat exposure to water. Unlike other polyurethanes, ether-based polyurethane can stand up to the rigorous laundering cycles necessary to properly clean and reuse the clothing over long periods of time.
  • – It’s UV stabilized. The clothing will not degrade over time with exposure to UV light.
  • – It’s antimicrobial. Top Dog’s protective garments are made from ether-based polyurethane resins that are naturally resistant to the growth of microorganisms. They also contain special lubricants that make them slippery and antimicrobial. As Hurst explained, there is simply “no place for organisms to hide.”

Protective clothing can also work hand-in-hand with metal and x-ray detection equipment as part of a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan. More food processing lines are being fitted with metal detection equipment to look for contaminants and dangerous items, such as needles. Metal detectable products contain special polymers that have magnetic properties, which allow plastic and rubber foreign objects to be identified by metal detectors.

To help companies use metal detectable products in their HACCP plan, Top Dog Manufacturing is partnering with a company that has an extensive line of metal and x-ray detectable products, such as pens and hair nets. The two companies connected at PROCESS EXPO in 2013, and next year they plan to launch the food industry’s first line of metal and x-ray detectable protective clothing.

Increasing safety without increasing expenses

On the whole, while the food industry at large enjoys very healthy profit margins, food processors are behind the curve. According to a recent analysis by NYU Stern School of Business, the net margin for the food processing industry is 6.87%, which is nearly a full point below the average of all markets together (7.84%).

Hurst said that he is seeing a broad emphasis on cost containment as companies work to implement new food safety initiatives and new technologies, while at the same time keeping their expenses down.

Top Dog Manufacturing’s protective clothing helps companies achieve this goal.

First, the antimicrobial properties of the clothing help companies reduce their risk of recalls and their associated costs. Also, because it won’t crack or deteriorate when exposed to normal food processing plant conditions, ether-based polyurethane clothing lasts longer than clothing made from other common materials, like vinyl and polyethylene.

According to Top Dog, their polyurethane aprons can last for six to twelve months as long as they aren’t destroyed by knives or cutting. Even if you were to replace the aprons once every three months, that’s still considerably more wear than you get from vinyl aprons, which are commonly replaced every three weeks, and disposable polyethylene aprons, which can be replaced as often as twice a day.

Although polyurethane is more expensive than other materials, Top Dog calculates that the extended life of the clothing can translate into savings of as much as $28 per employee per year.

About 1.5 million people work in food and beverage manufacturing plants. If all of them switched to polyurethane aprons, it could potentially save the companies a combined $42 million per year. On a more micro level, Hurst noted, “You can pay $3 for an apron ten times or $12 for an apron one time. Smart buyers know that the price of acquisition is far different from the cost and the value of ownership over time. Even though the $12 price point is higher, you will always come out ahead with products that are engineered better. ‘Save Big with Durability’ has long been Top Dog’s slogan.”

United States catching up on attitudes toward the environment

Several of our interviewees have noted that the United States is just now starting to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of the environment. Hurst is seeing this trend as well.

For example, he mentioned that Top Dog’s food processing customers in Europe and Russia are particularly concerned about the environment. Part of this is due to regulations — both PVC and vinyl are banned from food processing plants in some parts of the world, while in the United States the materials are still allowed. As a result, many domestic companies still buy large quantities of disposable safety clothing that is changed every time someone goes for lunch or coffee. These disposable products aren’t recyclable or compostable, which means that they are just thrown away. This increases not only the companies’ carbon footprints, but also their waste management costs (i.e., disposal costs, landfill costs).

Unlike the disposable materials, the pure polyurethane that Top Dog uses can be recycled and reused. For example, rather than throwing the aprons away after three months, a company could send them to a recycler to be repurposed into polyurethane fingers used in machinery for sorting vegetables and potatoes, or exported and used in the manufacture of footwear. In addition, there is no off-gassing from polyurethane, so even when it is thrown away it doesn’t release harmful chemicals into the environment.

Hurst expects that over the next five years there will be more focus in the United States on the environment, which will raise awareness and adoption of eco-friendly recyclable materials. It will require education and training about the new materials, a process that has already started.

Processors demand more customization, suppliers focus on service

Customization has been par for the course in food processing for a long time. Processors all have their own unique facilities and their own unique needs, so there aren’t many one-size-fits-all options. At least as far as equipment and machinery are concerned.

But this has not been true for protective clothing. Though people come in different shapes and sizes, there haven’t traditionally been many options for aprons and other personal protective equipment (PPE).

The result is that plant workers are frequently stuck with aprons that are too long, too short, too narrow, or too wide. Top Dog is seeking to change this by offering numerous customization options and making sure that their customers get what they want, not just what’s available. For example, Top Dog’s aprons can be made with an extra belly patch, extra width, extra thickness, and so on. Their protective clothing is built specifically to fit the people who will be wearing it.

Finally, Hurst emphasized the importance of having an orientation toward service. As business in general becomes more globalized, customer service and personal connections are what makes companies stand out. He noted: “What we value more than business is personal relationships. That’s what reinforces our value proposition. It’s our internal culture.”

Indeed, relationships and service are what make Top Dog successful. Hurst travels to Russia every other year to spend a week nurturing relationships with Top Dog’s customers there. He believes that, especially over long distances, “trust and integrity are critically important to establish and maintain.”

Top Dog also cultivates their relationships with their other distributors. This was evident in our conversation with Mike Brown from Diken International, a global supplier of chemical products for the food processing industry and also the U.S. distributor of Top Dog’s products. Brown said of Top Dog: “They make a high-quality, innovative product at a reasonable price. They are also great people to work with. We’re the same type of company: service-oriented for our customers. That’s why we fit so well and why our products do well in the market.” Diken’s rapid growth supports this statement — they have been in the United States for only five years and are planning a major expansion in 2016.

Overall, our conversation with Hurst revealed that food safety isn’t something that takes place just at the equipment level. For a complete food safety plan, companies must just use the best materials and implement the best practices at all levels, from purchasing stainless steel equipment down to optimizing their choice of protective clothing.