By John Kalkowski, editor in chief, Food Online
Almost weekly, it seems, media headlines shout out a new recall of food products. However, a few basic decisions on the choice of equipment used in packaging and processing could dramatically reduce the likelihood of bacterial contamination ever causing a recall of your plant’s product.
With the beginning implementation in August of new FSMA rules, the industry is becoming increasingly focused on food safety, according to Jeffrey Barach, a consultant to PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, and former VP of science policy and new technologies for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “The public may hear about more recalls, but I don’t think we are slipping on safety,” Barach says. “Companies are just doing a better job of identifying bacterial contamination and issuing recalls before public health is affected.” He adds that at least half of food recalls are due to mislabeling of products that contain allergens.
Industry Team Develops Guidance Document
Much of the industry’s attention is directed at food processing, but packaging operations also are a risk for contamination. That is one reason the Alliance for Innovation and Operational Excellence (AIOE) recently released One Voice for Hygienic Equipment Design for Low-Moisture Foods.” This document (available for download at www.pmmi.org/aioe) provides guidance for equipment design in both wet and dry environments.
Barach, a member of the team that developed One Voice, says the group, which comprises original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and consumer product goods companies (CPGs), was established to provide better communications during the design process of packaging equipment. He explains that good design can eliminate many points where equipment might harbor bacteria. The document lays out basic criteria for packaging machinery, which can save time and investment throughout purchase discussions and decisions.
To meet CPG needs, Barach says equipment manufacturers need to concentrate on three areas: knowledge of new FSMA rules, incorporating machine design principles into their equipment, and providing better service to customers in terms of training. CPGS frequently rely on suppliers for references and guidelines to use in making decisions and educating their staff, he says.
Barach describes FSMA as a leap ahead of Hazard and Critical Control Point (HACCP) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) programs employed in the industry. He urges each company — no matter its size — to establish at least one individual as a food safety expert. This person should understand the new rules and be able to talk the customer’s language. He suggests that companies follow a draft curriculum devised by the Food Safety Preventive Controls Alliance (FSPCA). It is designed especially for small- and medium-sized companies that must comply with the Preventive Controls for Human Foods rule that will be part of FSMA. This document is available for free download at www.iit.edu\ifsh/alliance.
Eliminate Locations Where Bacteria Thrive
Because it comes into direct contact with the product, Barach says, food packaging equipment is a key area of focus for any food safety program, and equipment design can factor heavily into an operation’s microbial controls. Packaging machinery should be designed with safety in mind — minimizing exposed parts, wiring, slots, and holes, for example, to reduce the number of areas where potentially harmful bacteria can thrive.
Based on customers’ demands, OEMS also are becoming increasingly careful about the materials used in constructing machinery, he says. Stainless steel is often easier to clean than other materials because it can withstand harsh chemical cleaners. Some OEMS also offer high-tech antimicrobial coatings of bacteria-resistant materials based on enhanced polymers or certain metals. Automation can be another effective option for improving product safety, he adds, since it can reduce the chances for human error, another potential a source of contamination.
Another important factor, he says, is the introduction of strictly controlled zoning in food operations in which a manufacturer limits when and where food products come in contact with certain equipment or personnel. This allows safety efforts to be focused on the areas of manufacture that need it most, rather than the entire operation. For example, an area where ingredients are blended for processing requires more attention than the warehousing operations, and can be isolated to prevent contamination.
Zoning also makes it easier for equipment to be sanitized to meet the requirements of that stage in the production process. While packaging machinery should be designed for efficient cleaning, Barach says, it is just as important that personnel are properly trained to follow standard sanitation procedures to prevent spread of foodborne diseases.