Have you ever asked yourself: How do I clean this equipment? How did this equipment get here? Does my boss know how much time it takes to clean and sanitize this equipment properly? Do engineers understand the food safety risk? Why are new food plants still installing equipment that is so difficult to clean? What are some practical solutions?
Cleaning time in food plants can be drastically reduced with good sanitary design of equipment. Substantial hours are spent cleaning poorly designed equipment such as warehouse storage rack legs, bins, silos, bucket-lift elevators, rotary airlocks, cyclone conveyance, underside belt conveyors, hollow framework, legs bolted to the floor, equipment spot welds, and recessed anchors, to name just a few.
Cleaning a storage-rack leg with a tethered, weighted, stiff-bristled nylon brush up and down the shaft, followed by vacuuming the droppings, is a somewhat effective approach for preventing an Indian meal moth infestation. But implementing this method on the leg of a warehouse storage-rack that is 30 feet high might take five minutes with three people: one on the lift, one on top, and one on the vacuum. How many storage rack legs are there in a warehouse? Assuming 1,000 legs per warehouse section times 50 sections, there are 50,000 legs, which equates to 12,500 hours to clean a warehouse storage rack system one time. But one time is never enough. Additionally, the design is made worse when the bottom shelf is positioned a few inches from the floor creating limited access to remove spillage.
This is just one example of the cost to clean poorly designed equipment that is commonly found in food plants. Equipment that is near or in the food-processing area typically has even higher food safety microbiological risks. Imagine the microbiological growth created from warm material flowing through an outdoor, 100-foot-high bucket-lift elevator and distributor in the cold weather.
The optimal solution is to eliminate the need to clean. In the storage-rack example, you could eliminate the semi-open leg shafts, e.g. incorporating a solid or alternative design, to reduce the pest harborage areas. Eliminating the bottom shelf entirely would provide better access for cleaning. If the underside is partially accessible, a self-driven vacuum robot could be utilized but would still require vacuum cleaning of each leg anchored to the floor.
Other high-risk bacteria problems are the inability to properly clean equipment that has non-accessible void-space material (e.g., a double-lined coating drum) near post-kill material, as well as product coolers in that vicinity. Coolers are high risk for microbiological and insect contamination and must have the highest sanitary design.
There is a wide array of excellent reference material online for sanitary design of food equipment (e.g., http://bit.ly/2C6QbrE, http://bit.ly/2o1gIEq, http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fs119). Finding such references is not the problem; rather, an issue seems to be a lack of food safety and sanitation understanding within the architect, construction, engineering, and equipment-supply worlds. These industries probably did not have a food safety and sanitation curriculum in their studies.
PRACTICAL SOLUTIONS. One practical solution is to better educate these professionals. Food safety leaders must reach out in some manner to reduce the continuation of poorly designed equipment. Offer workshops, provide references, and review blueprints and images to brainstorm solutions before installation. Instead of reacting with laborious cleaning after installation, build in solutions that are more proactive to reduce cleaning costs. This activity will be a two-way learning curve as each will be learning from the other.
However, it is not enough. Equipment manufacturers should be held more accountable. As a condition of purchase, suppliers of food processing equipment should provide effective and efficient cleaning instructions. Providing this could move some suppliers into a more competitive advantage with better food safety and sanitation design.
Another practical solution is for top management to consider food safety and sanitation in their planning, budgeting, and acquisition. Low-cost equipment decisions can come with high-cost consequences. What does it cost to clean 50,000 warehouse storage rack legs four times per year? A million dollars? What is the cost to eliminate Salmonella in a food plant that was contaminated from an outside bucket-lift elevator? Some plants can’t do it and might eventually close.
FDA emphasizes that when evaluating hazards, food facilities must consider their effect on the safety of the finished food for consumers, as stated in 21 CFR 117.130(c)(2): “The condition, function, or design of a facility or its equipment could potentially result in the introduction of hazards into foods. For example, older equipment (e.g., older slicing, rolling, and conveying equipment) may be more difficult to clean (e.g., because of close-fitting components or hollow parts) and, thus, provide more opportunities for pathogens to become established in a niche environment than modern equipment designed to address the problem of pathogen harborage in niche environments; in such instances enhanced sanitation controls may be appropriate.”
Although older equipment is more expensive to maintain, new equipment should not be more expensive to clean. When one factors in cleaning costs, sanitary design of food equipment is not more expensive. Utilizing good sanitary design of food processing equipment will save money.