We recently spoke with John Merenick, who was on the Food Safety and Sanitary Design Panel at this year’s FPSA Annual Conference, to expand upon the panel’s topics and conversations. 

Merenick is currently the Corporate Sanitation Program Manager at Sargento Foods. He has an educational background in agribusiness and food science, and a career in cheese processing that spans over 25 years.

Addressing design concerns, especially for packaging equipment

In terms of food safety, Merenick says packaging equipment, in particular, has a lot of room for improvement. This is because packaging machinery is usually made for various industries, not just food, and the OEMs don’t always understand how packaging food differs from packaging other products. “Sometimes the manufacturer will make a small change to try to meet the requirements for food, but it doesn't always meet it 100%,” he says. And as robotics continues to automate the packaging side of the industry, Merenick encourages manufacturers to be aware of the unique sanitary needs of food contact and washdown environments.

Overall, Merenick would like to see the food industry work more proactively than reactively when it comes to hygienic design. He recalls how it took a Listeria problem for the meat industry to focus on the sanitary aspects of equipment, rather than just its throughput. Out of that experience, the meat processing community compiled its Sanitary Equipment Design Principles, and Merenick feels that the entire industry would benefit from adopting these principles as well. 

He also believes hygienic design depends on strong partnerships between processors and their suppliers. Those relationships start with better communication during the buying process so suppliers have a clear idea of the environments and conditions in which their equipment will be used, because no one wants to find out that the equipment has a sanitary weakness once it’s on the floor and running. “Re-engineering equipment after it's already on the floor is a lot more difficult than dealing with it upfront.”

Merenick challenges equipment designers to go beyond checking off a list of design requirements. He recommends that they go out to see their equipment at the food plant so they can observe how it’s cleaned and what areas are most challenging for processors. “I'd love it if an OEM would come one night and take their equipment apart to clean it with us,” he says. “They might discover that they would design it differently the next time. I haven’t had any engineers show up at midnight to help us on the sanitation cycle yet. But if they do, I’ll take them out to breakfast.”

Seeing equipment in the field can reveal problems, like bacterial harborage areas or improper control panel coverage. Merenick is particularly concerned with the undersides and backsides of equipment. “Typically, engineering staff will have to figure out a way to cool a unit, whether it be air movement, fans, etc.” 

Often, the answer is to leave the underside open to let in airflow. While that may be a solution to overheating, it can cause a potentially hazardous situation during sanitation, even if the equipment in question isn’t part of the production line. Water and food particles can rebound off other surfaces, accumulating in those open electrical areas and creating an opportunity for bacterial growth. “That's an area people don't think about when they bring a piece of equipment onto the floor,” Merenick says. “It's not a nice, quiet warehouse type area. It is a wet environment.”

Fixing workforce challenges, no tools necessary

Partnering with processors also helps OEMs understand labor shortages in the industry and how they might contribute to the solution. Merenick shares some insight into the challenges he sees at Sargento.

“Traditionally, our sanitation is done on the third shift,” Merenick says. “Because of the off-hours, it’s tough to attract and retain employees.” As experienced employees move on, the intense training process begins again for new hires so, it can seem like an endless cycle.

Complicated equipment features extend the amount of time it takes to train employees and run through sanitation processes. “It used to be that things were very rigid and you could barely take them apart, if at all,” Merenick says. “You just had to do the best you could by getting water in there.” So Merenick advocates for equipment that’s easier to disassemble, with minimal or no tools, to help shave time off training and cleaning while benefiting food safety.

Rethinking product manuals 

Another area where manufacturers can simplify the training process is with their user manuals. Traditional manuals are often bulky and full of fine print, which slows down training and can lead to confusion. Merenick suggests cutting down on text and using more visuals. “It’s a lot easier to understand how to do things through a series of pictures with just a couple words,” he says, “rather than a full book on how to take things apart.”  

Even better than pictures is video. At Sargento, sanitation employees are starting to use tablets to access videos for operating, disassembly, and cleaning procedures while on the job. “It's a lot easier to see something and then emulate that same action on the machine itself.” And having those videos online could create an environment where employees can problem solve and share tips.

Merenick also suggests that equipment manufacturers include a list of chemicals that are safe for cleaning their products, particularly as the materials used for equipment change. “Conventional chemicals can be very harsh on new materials,” Merenick says. “I think if both sides learn from each other, they may be able to design new equipment and chemicals that are more compatible.”

Despite these areas where food safety is still a challenge, Merenick believes the industry has come a long way. He attributes this, in part, to open communication between processors and their suppliers. “If you think of food safety today compared to 30 years ago, it's night and day,” he says. “The challenge for suppliers is staying on top of what they're seeing out on the floor. The more they visit, the more they'll learn.” 

This can only happen if food plants are willing to open their doors. “You need to let your suppliers in to see what you're doing,” Merenick says. “That's the only way they're going to understand it better — by seeing it.”