What a great show! PROCESS EXPO 2015 was the most successful PROCESS EXPO in FPSA history. The halls buzzed with excitement (and sales) and we all got a chance to see the newest food processing machinery and equipment in action.

One theme that was rampant at PROCESS EXPO, and indeed is a top-of-mind consideration for all members of the food processing industry today, was food safety. This has been a recurring theme in all of our conversations with FPSA members, regardless of the industry segment they represented. Especially as FSMA implementation deadlines draw near, food safety and sanitation best practices are taking center stage.

To explore what's new in food safety, and in particular current trends in hygienic equipment design, we spoke with Carl Hollier and Craig Bate from CM Process Solutions, a California-based global supplier of hygienic washing and sanitizing solutions, as well as lifters, dumpers, mixers, blenders, and much more. They gave us some great perspectives on how the food industry is adapting to new requirements for hygienic design and operations.

In this article, you'll discover:

  • New technologies that are bringing more consistency to the washing and sanitation of food processing equipment
  • How automation is improving worker safety in food processing plants
  • What the U.S. is learning from Europe about sanitary design and energy efficiency
  • What the future might hold for hygienic food processing practices

New regulations spur a need for greater consistency

The new FSMA regulations require more accountability than has been standard in many areas of the food industry. When inspectors show up, companies may be required to produce documentation and records confirming their adherence to safety and sanitation requirements and best practices.

Specifically, FSMA mandates the following:

  • Risk-based inspection frequency. High-risk domestic facilities must be inspected within five years of FSMA enactment and at least every three years after that. The FDA will also inspect foreign facilities at an increasingly aggressive rate over the next five years.
  • Food safety plan records access. Companies will be required to document their food safety plans and produce that documentation upon the request of FDA inspectors.
  • Food testing by accredited third-party laboratories. Within two years of FSMA enactment, the FDA must establish a program for food testing by accredited laboratories.

This need for increased documentation and inspection-preparedness is driving a desire for more consistency in washing and sanitation, which is in turn driving innovation in machinery design.

Carl Hollier, who specializes in washing equipment, told us that the biggest technology trend he's seeing right now surrounds monitoring and validation on the washing side of operations. He notes, “It's not just about having the washing machine. It's about having a machine that reaches a validated temperature, uses the right amount of detergent, and produces consistent results.”

CM Process Solutions' Continuous Tunnel Euro Buggy Washer is one example of equipment that enables this level of consistency. The machine moves buggies automatically through a complete wash cycle that consists of a pre-wash, a hot water wash using a pre-set amount of detergent, a high-temperature (185°F) rinse, and chemical sanitation (if desired). The clean and sanitized buggies can then be placed into storage for future use or returned to the facility floor to be put back to work.

What washing equipment like this provides is reliability at critical control points. If for some reason the water does not reach the required temperature or the detergent dosage is incorrect, the machine shuts down and alerts the operator to take corrective action. This ensures that any problems that could affect cleaning and sanitation are detected and solved immediately. The machines can also be linked to and managed via a centralized control system, supporting the food industry's general move toward increased automation and centralized monitoring of everything that happens on the food processing line.

Food industry focusing on continuous hygiene operations and worker safety

Complete food safety can't be accomplished solely on the scale of individual machines. It requires hygienic design and practices to be adopted facility-wide.

End-to-end hygienic solutions

That's exactly what Craig Bate reports is happening. Bate, who specializes in lifting equipment for CM Process Solutions, said that he's seeing exciting new technologies that enable start-to-end hygiene operations throughout the whole facility. These technologies have an ancillary benefit: improving worker safety.

These start-to-end solutions include machines that can handle industry-standard 400- to 600-lb stainless steel vats across the entire processing line. A vat containing a food product can be weighed, mixed, lifted, tilted, and dumped, all without a worker having to do any manual lifting or stirring. This reduces both human contact with the food and the risk of injury due to heavy lifting.

As an example of how different equipment can work in concert, consider the Euro Buggy Tumbler, a new feature product that CM Process Solutions introduced at PROCESS EXPO. This stainless steel tumbler is designed to mix, marinate, and blend even delicate food products all within a standard 400- or 600-lb stainless steel container. Then the vat can be rolled into a lifter or dumper to transfer the product to the next step in processing.

Once the product is cleared, that vat can then be rolled into a continuous bin washer like the one described above for immediate cleaning and sanitation, again without an employee needing to lift or invert the vat manually. This prevents injury, equipment damage, and contamination.

These solutions don't just improve sanitation and worker safety; they also improve the quality of the food. Unlike ribbon blenders, which can damage delicate food products, the new mixing machines can handle challenging items like pasta salad without compromising the look, taste, or freshness of the product.

Dirty-to-clean segregation

The continuous hygienic processing trend can also be seen in products that provide dirty-to-clean segregation (e.g., machines that can partition through walls). One machine, which is massively popular in Europe right now, but just being introduced to the United States, is the Sanitizing Tunnel Conveyor. This machine kills pathogens on packaged products coming in from the outside.

For example, suppose you are making that delicate pasta salad using packaged bacon from an outside supplier. By the time the bacon reaches your facility, it's had plenty of opportunities to become a host to undesirable pathogens. It could be something as small as a delivery driver who didn't wash his hands properly before lifting the packages, but as soon as those packages enter your facility, your product is at risk. You can prevent the pathogens from contaminating your pasta salad by passing the bacon packages through the Sanitizing Tunnel Conveyor before they enter the clean area of your plant.

These are just a few examples of technologies that enable safe, hygienic, start-to-end operations in a food processing facility.

Equipment manufacturing incorporating hygienic design

Hygienic best practices are also influencing manufacturing trends, in particular material selection. Bate noted that, traditionally, it has taken twice the amount of time to clean the equipment as it does to manufacture the product. New hygienic designs focus on reducing cleaning time while improving cleaning effectiveness.

This emphasis on hygienic design is relatively new. As a former food science professor and hygienic design proponent, Ron Schmidt pointed out in a 2012 article for Food Safety Magazine, the movement toward more hygienic design has largely been in response to outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. In particular, Schmidt called Listeria monocytogenes “the food pathogen that has had the most impact on the many improvements in hygienic facility design in the past 30 years.”

While Schmidt acknowledged the efforts of various organizations involved food equipment hygienic design, he also noted that the food industry in general still has a long way to go. Schmidt pinned the blame in part on a lack of industry standards, but the sheer cost of redesigning facilities and re-engineering equipment must also be considered.

Today, attitudes and practices are changing as hygienic design moves from the nice-to-have column to the must-have column. Both the American Meat Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association have issued sanitary design guidelines, and in general food processors and producers are becoming more informed about best practices and what's available.

Here are some of the trends Bate reported seeing:

  • Stainless steel ramps that can stand up to harsh sanitization chemicals, as opposed to rubber or silicon, which can be destroyed by caustic foaming
  • Capped boxes that are fully welded with no open surfaces
  • Equipment welded at 45 degrees – no flat surfaces
  • Parts that are easy to clean, maintain, and replace

U.S. starting to catch up with European standards

Besides the obvious improvement in food safety, one positive consequence of this new focus on hygienic design is that the United States is starting to catch up with its European counterparts. Both Hollier and Bate observed that many of the hygienic design principles that are just now making waves in the U.S. market have been commonplace in Europe for a long time. For example, U.S. processors are just now starting to move away from cardboard bins and wood pallets to food-grade plastics and stainless steel – cardboard and wood have been banned in European food processing plants for years.

That isn't to say that all U.S. food processors are lagging behind. In fact, Hollier held the Wisconsin dairy industry up as an example of an industry that has very stringent requirements for safe and sanitary construction. But it's only now, with the new federal regulations about to take hold, that the market as a whole is moving in this direction.

The flow of information doesn't go in just one direction. As the food industry becomes more globalized, processors and equipment manufacturers around the world are sharing best practices and learning from one another. Hollier gave the example that many principles of sanitary equipment design, such as no flat surfaces inside the machines, are being transported from the United States back to Europe. This cross-border transmission of information is essential as under FSMA foreign food companies who sell products in the United States will be held to the same standards as domestic food companies.

The future will bring more standardization, energy efficiency

Finally, we asked Hollier and Bate what changes they expect to see over the next five years.

Hollier noted that he'd like to see increased standardization in the industry. Currently, there are many different processes, different types of containers, and so on. Standardization of these across the industry would be beneficial to all involved, especially in terms of keeping costs down. It's possible that the new food safety regulations will result in this increased standardization.

Hollier also expects a greater emphasis on energy efficiency. Historically, food processors have not seen the use of water, power, and chemicals as much of an issue. This is another area where U.S. processors have lagged behind those in other areas of the world. But that's starting to change. For example, processors in California are now recycling water and actively looking for more ways to reduce their footprint.

Bate predicts that food-grade plastics and stainless steel will replace cardboard and wood once and for all. Also, he expects a steady increase of awareness of the solutions available to manage manual handling, which save both time and people's backs. For example, lifting aids, while widespread in Europe, are still in only a small percentage of U.S. facilities.

The U.S. market is much larger and the factories are much bigger, but Bate feels that, because of the geographical dispersion of the U.S. food industry, information transfer, in general, is slower. As domestic processors become more aware of what's available, Bate predicts these technologies will be adopted more widely.

For equipment manufacturers, flexibility is key

So what does this all mean for food equipment manufacturers? In short, success requires flexibility and a commitment to safety and excellence.

All members of the food industry are working to adapt to changing market conditions.

For food producers and processors, those conditions often evolve around customer preferences — American consumers today are demanding foods that are both healthier and more convenient.

For equipment manufacturers, successfully adapting to market conditions requires being very flexible in their offerings. This is an area where CM Process Solutions excels. As Hollier put it, “Nothing is standard. If a customer has a particular problem, we'll design to solve it.” Bate echoed that sentiment, saying, “We have 27 designers, 10 project managers, and a 150-person manufacturing facility. There's no making due. We find the right products for the application.”