Cultivating An Appealing Onion Operation

Although food safety issues may be the lead headlines of evening news programs with highlights about Congress’ consideration of several proposals to reform the food safety system, including creation of a single food safety agency, food industry professionals are no strangers to the ongoing discussion about food safety and food safety standards.

Although food safety issues may be the lead headlines of evening news programs with highlights about Congress’ consideration of several proposals to reform the food safety system, including creation of a single food safety agency, food industry professionals are no strangers to the ongoing discussion about food safety and food safety standards. 

“Nowadays with all the problems with food safety issues, we have to meet grade standards and inspections from different organizations,” says Ed Sobiech, third generation onion grower/packager, and president of Green Valley Onion in New Hampton, NY. 

There are at least a dozen federal agencies that share responsibility for keeping America's food safe; and “the challenge of keeping food safe has become more daunting, in part due to global sourcing,” wrote Randy blank of CFO magazine, citing the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast that the that the United States imported a record $70 billion of agricultural products in the fiscal year 2007, up from $64 billion in fiscal 2006 and $41 billion as recently as fiscal 2002.

“It’s a shame how many businesses have gone overseas and across the border, and that we’ve lost so many good businesses,” says Sobiech.  “We need more business like mine that produce or grow here in this country and we are losing more than we are gaining.  So much of our food is coming from other countries and that really poses a threat to our nations food supply – lose farmers and producers and we are at the mercy of other countries.”

For many growers and produce packaging operations like Sobiech’s, the key to staying commercially competitive, is making decisions that are based on long term prosperity rather than short term profits.  “We have to mechanize more and make things easier to do all the time. Technology is always something we have to push for,” he says.

Sobiech attributes his success in business to annual investments in equipment that optimize his packaging operation.  Last year he invested in large industrial fans that circulate more air in the facility ensuring the onions don’t become moist and this year he invested in a central vacuum cleaning system to clean the grading line and building which also gained him higher food safety ratings.

 “I have a central vac in my house and always thought that if I could get a big sized central vacuum system for my warehouse, it would be a great thing,” says Sobiech. 

Central vacuum cleaning systems benefits over manual cleaning methods are threefold: 1) they eliminate virtually all dust and debris that manually cleaning methods leave behind, preventing potentially hazardous situations; 2) they reduce costs by decreasing housekeeping time; and, 3) safeguard equipment by limiting the amount of dust and debris that can cause excess wear and tear to equipment.

“I started searching the internet for a central vacuum system for industrial use and found VAC-U-MAX.  I researched out the machine and it seemed like one of the best built for my needs.”

VAC-U-MAX, located in Belleville, NJ, has been a pioneer in industrial vacuum technology since introducing the first air-operated vacuum cleaner, or air vac, in 1954 which was three times as strong as its electrical counterpart and posed no sparking hazard.
Sobiech’s facility, which packages approximately 600,000 lbs of onions per week, has many belts and conveyors going every which way, and where conveyors come together or packaging machines come together—wherever theses onions are moving—there is always debris from the onion leaves and always dirt left behind.

The onions, first dumped into a hopper, travel about 300 ft down the grading line where they run through a series of machines that ready them to be bagged and shipped on pallets to supermarkets on the East Coast and to Ohio.

After running through a sizer that classifies the onions for uniform bagging, they are sent to a machine, with blades similar to a lawn mower, that trims the top and root.  Excess leaves are removed with a dry brush machine to prepare the onions for visual inspection by staff, and then sent to bagging machines where they are packaged and stacked on a pallet for shipping.

To accommodate the 300 ft line where each piece of equipment creates its own debris, a VAC-U-MAX 20hp Monobloc Central Vacuum was installed in the back of the packaging facility with a 2 yard hopper that collects the debris.  The system, piped throughout the building, spans 160 feet on each side of the facility with outlets spaced approximately 15 feet apart.  The unit can facilitate 20 stations allowing workers to use a short hose to clean around each machine.  

Often users of industrial vacuum cleaning systems assume they need a custom, one-of-a-kind solution when their application actually calls for a pre-engineered product; however, most applications, like Green Valley Onion’s, require standard equipment that offers option capabilities to best fit their application."

The system installed at Sobiech’s facility was created with standard equipment and hose outlets near areas that typically accumulate dust and debris to make clean up more efficient.  “This system saves me a lot of man hours and a lot of clean up time and makes me more efficient in my clean up job.” 

The use of brooms and shovels to pick up debris, or air compressors to blow away dust and debris often creates a false cleaning phenomenon.  These methods only redistribute the dirt leaving it to accumulate in cracks and crevices and can pose hazards to products.

In fact, nearly all regulatory agencies deter the use of brooms and compressed air to control surface dust and recommend the use of industrial vacuum cleaners to remove surface dust from the environment. 

“Having the VAC-U-MAX has added to the cleanliness of the facility and enhanced our food safety efforts,” says Sobiech.  “If there is a nail from the pallet on the floor, the nail gets sucked up. If there is debris on the floor from the pallets, that gets sucked up into the machine – all the things that could harm the onions are eliminated from the room.” 

Often people have a concept of what they have at home or in their workshop and are surprised that they can pick up heavy debris like nails and wood.  Industrial vacuums suck up tons of material an hour; and, most people don’t associate that type of volume with vacuum cleaners. 

For large volumes waste or heavy debris, hoppers can be added to the system for easy dumping to garbage bins or trucks. 

Most of the waste that dumps into Sobiech’s  2 yard hopper consists of dirt, dust, wood chips from the pallets, and onion leaves that have fallen through the belts and inspection tables.

When dirt and debris fall through belts and conveyor systems, that dirt and debris can wear parts sooner than normal causing unscheduled downtime or slowed production and costly maintenance.  Sobiech is much attuned to preserving his equipment.

“If we can keep these belts free of debris and clean it makes it easer on us; and, in the long run on the machines.  Just like if you run with a cleaner vehicle, you get more mileage out of it.  That is how I see my line too.  Getting rid of every bit of dust and dirt on the line makes the equipment easier to maintain.”

Although using industrial vacuums isn’t new to the food industry, many companies have tried in the past to use shop type vacuums to clean up dust and debris, and have found them inadequate under the rigorous demands in the food processing environment.  Thus, when companies begin researching industrial vacuum systems and compare them against the concept of shop-type vacs, they are often surprised by the size of the units and the cost of the units. 

“Sometimes you have to spend more money with the initial purchase, but if you can get a piece of equipment that you’ll get a lot of years from before you have to put money into it and spread the initial cost out over the years, it’s very little money for what it can do for you for business.”

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