According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year foodborne illnesses sicken nearly 128,000 individuals and result in 3,000 deaths in the U.S. Despite incorporating protocols such as frequent wash downs, food manufacturers often struggle to maintain clean conveyor equipment along processing and packaging lines. Exposed conveyor systems remain vulnerable to contamination ranging from unwanted pathogens to leaks that occur along a production line.
In this Q&A, Ken Lento, Senior Business Strategist, Optical and Food for Flexlink Systems, Inc., discusses the importance of conveyor equipment design in reducing the potential of foodborne pathogens entering the supply chain. Lento has more than 25 years of experience in material handling, specializing in precision assembly, lab automation and food manufacturing. He will be presenting an Innovation Stage session on hygienic equipment design at PACK EXPO East 2017 (Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia; Feb. 27–March 1).
Q: What are some industry concerns regarding food safety?
A: Food manufacturers have always maintained a focus on reducing the potential for foodborne illnesses in processing operations, but one area that continues to be a challenge is ensuring the cleanliness of conveyor systems. Conveyors can be particularly vulnerable to bacterial growth, including pathogens such as listeria. All it takes is one scratch on a metal conveyor to be a source of harmful bacterial growth. Recently a manufacturer was fined $11 million after a building leak contaminated a food conveyor and resulted in consumers getting sick. This is a problem that continues to impact the industry.
Q: What are some common sources of bacterial growth?
A: Bacteria will grow in areas where water gets trapped. It also grows under poor hygienic conditions, which can include improper or incomplete cleaning. If companies have discovered contamination, they need to have a thorough process in place to ensure that they are implementing the correct protocols. This includes rigorous testing. Even with proper protocols, conveyor systems that are not hygienically designed can be inherently vulnerable to bacterial build-up.
Q: What hygienic design options should manufacturers look for in conveyor equipment?
A: There are about 10 fundamental design elements that food manufacturers need to follow with respect to equipment, including conveyor systems. The most important rule is to avoid metal-to-metal contact. Water can build up behind screw heads and be a source for bacterial growth. To avoid trapping water, surfaces should be sloped and not flat, and hollow tube bodies should be avoided because they can trap water as well. It’s also important to assure worker accessibility to all components so that they can be easily cleaned. I have seen conveyor systems with chains and belts that are difficult to reach. This makes effective cleaning more difficult and increases the risk of bacterial contamination.
Q: What are some first steps that manufacturers should consider?
A: Manufacturers need to take a hard look at their conveyors and, for that matter, other equipment to ensure proper hygienic design. They should look for suppliers who use FDA-compliant materials for food safety. Suppliers should also be certified by a reputable organization such as 3A Sanitary Standards, Inc., which is a recognized standard for equipment cleanliness. This shows that manufacturers have taken important steps to improve hygiene in the design and manufacturing processes.
Q: Does the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) require manufacturers to incorporate upgrades to conveyor equipment?
A: The FSMA does not specify design requirements, but the new law does raise the attention level for sanitary food handling. Companies need to start recording and monitoring their processes, including doing more risk analyses. If companies were not motivated to make changes beforehand, FSMA now adds a sense of urgency. Beyond FSMA, it just makes business sense to incorporate properly designed equipment and ensure sanitary protocols. All it takes is one incident of foodborne illness to wreak havoc with your brand. Manufacturers cannot afford to take that risk.
 Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/2011-foodborne-estimates.html