How Food Companies Can Minimize Cross-Contamination While Expanding Products

How Food Companies Can Minimize Cross-Contamination While Expanding Products

Consumer demands for more specialized products could be a boon for food companies. But the opportunities are not without issues from a food hygiene perspective. Mariane Hodgkinson, hygiene consultant for Hillbrush, explains in this QA magazine feature.


Editor's Note: The following was written by Mariane Hodgkinson, hygiene consultant for Hillbrush, looking at how food companies can expand their business to meet demand for new types of product, particularly in the vegan and free-from categories, without adding on footage, and the importance of reviewing procedures, including cleaning to minimize cross contamination.

The food factory of the future will have many demands on how its space is used as changes in consumer eating and buying impact existing ways of manufacturing. Consumer demand for new kinds of food products such as plant-based or free-from to meet a range of dietary requirements for health issues, lifestyle choices or increased wellbeing has enabled many food manufacturers to broaden their portfolio, push new product development boundaries and bring products to market at a faster speed than seen before. While these opportunities are great news for the food manufacturing industry, expanding business output without adding footage of workable space is the reality for many growing food companies, and it is not without its issues from a food hygiene perspective.

Adding new product types to an existing range is exciting but also demanding, and it isn’t a case of replacing like-for-like in the factory environment. Trying to reach new consumers or ensure the fulfilment of their expectations needs to be carefully balanced with constant assurance of food safety and quality. Using new and different ingredients in an existing production set up may raise the likelihood and severity of hazards historically thought to be under control or suppressed by pre-existing controls in the factory environment. Relying on systems to ensure control of risks is complex but not impossible. Buy-in from all levels of the organization is required and senior management commitment is crucial to ensure sufficient support is given for new ways of working, staff training, education, additional equipment, as well as extra safety barriers needed including new cleaning procedures.

The Plant-Based BRC Global Standard also highlights the potential risk of cross-contamination by using common ingredients for non-plant-based and plant-based products. This assessment is particularly sound when assessing ways of producing when space constrains are a problem. Contamination can be easily transferred during storage, weighing of ingredients and sometimes stock control activities. Traditional methods of control will play a vital part in ensuring the successful run of products with such different requirements, where it is highly likely that product contamination is the worst-case scenario when assessing risks in production.

There are some simple procedures that food manufacturers can implement. Before updating work instructions, it is important to ensure staff are involved as they will be able to indicate if proposed actions are feasible. Keeping teams informed of new ways of processing is paramount. Supplying information is seldom enough. A good training plan needs to be actioned alongside it to highlight risks in relying on systems for control due to limited space. What are the real hazards for each type of product and how they will play a vital part in ensuring the food and, in turn, consumers remain safe during the product life? A good and concise matrix of products and key hazards can be a good visual reminder for staff in production areas.

It is also important to review any cross-contamination routes in the factory, taking into consideration flow of production, waste, personnel and cleaning activities, how ingredients are handled and how best to plan production while minimizing contamination risk.

Running a plant-based line alongside traditional products for example means that cleaning is more important than ever. Maintaining cleaning segregation for different products supports the idea of creating different environments according to the hazards and risk for that specific run.

Mobile shadow boards with tools for specific use (vegan, gluten-free, vegetarian, standard) are a great way of ensuring space in the production floor remains relevant. These will allow tools used for processing and cleaning can be wheeled in and out, washed and stored safely elsewhere. Color-coordinated product instructions are a great visual aid for users, with PPE of the same color to support the change of mindset from one production to another. Shadow boards can be tailored to describe the use of each tool, in many languages, allowing operators where English is not their main language to fully support systems in place and provide continuous compliance.