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Food For Thought: Modern Food Processing Design Requires Long-Range Planning

Walter D. Gameiro, National Director, Food Industry and Distribution All across the continent of North America, farmers and ranchers are working hard to bring the best foodstuffs to the market. And all across the globe, consumers enjoy the fruit of their labor. Often overlooked in this equation is the food processing industry, which works to ensure that food gets to the consumer, not only in the rich variety enjoyed today, but as safely as possible.

Walter D. Gameiro, National Director, Food Industry and Distribution

All across the continent of North America, farmers and ranchers are working hard to bring the best foodstuffs to the market. And all across the globe, consumers enjoy the fruit of their labor. Often overlooked in this equation is the food processing industry, which works to ensure that food gets to the consumer, not only in the rich variety enjoyed today, but as safely as possible. In fact, the food processing industry is this country's second-largest manufacturing sector, surpassed only by transportation, and boasts annual sales topping $400 billion.

Upton Sinclair would have nothing on modern food processing plants - the jungle he railed against nearly a century ago has been replaced by a clean, safe, well-regulated industry. In fact, the food processing industry has almost mastered the food processing element. Now, focus is being placed on the industry element and, as it turns out, there is still room for reform and innovation in an ages-old business. This is especially true when it comes to planning and designing processing facilities in a highly competitive economy.

There is a scientific principle that states that the more complicated a system is, the more chaotic it will become. While chaos is bad for any kind of business, it is anathema to the food industry.

        Up until the 1960s, there was a tendency among food producers to design plants that were supposed to do everything - from slaughtering cattle, hogs and lambs, to processing the various retail cuts. These plants went the way of the dinosaur, however, when regulatory pressure from governmental entities such as the FDA and the USDA cracked down on food contamination. Certain activities, such as slaughtering, have the potential to contaminate other processes that may take place in such a multipurpose facility. That system, in short, is simply too chaotic.

Now, smart facilities managers adhere to the time-worn principle of "keep it simple, stupid." Food processing facilities have become very specialized - many serve only as slaughterhouses and will handle only one species, or will specialize in a final product, such as steak cutting, hamburger or dry sausage production. Specialization makes the process much more efficient, and it is easier to maintain the controlled environment demanded by law when operating such a facility.


Expanding Opportunities

A new trend sweeping every industry that depends on facilities and plants is a tendency to look at the long-range purpose and potential of a facility before a single brick is laid.

Food processing facilities used to be designed and built only to handle whatever production needs a company had to meet at the time. Now, as food companies are more competitive than ever, more attention is paid to making the most of a large investment such as a new processing facility. A great way for companies to realize the potential of any facility is to incorporate the idea of expandability into its initial design.

Now companies build a facility with the idea in mind that if business picks up, the facility might be required to double or even triple in size. This trend is changing the way facilities are planned, with an increase in emphasis on modularity. An architectural and engineering firm hired to design a food processing facility will ask where its client would expect its new facility to be, capacity-wise, in three years and in five years. It will ask about the long range plans or how long is the facility expected to last.

Long-range planning should be carried out so that designers don't paint themselves into a corner or so that future expansion is not prevented by the initial design of the facility. Before this trend became more commonplace, planners would often unintentionally arrange stumbling blocks, such as engine rooms or electrical service, in such a manner as to prevent expansion in the future. Planners anticipate design characteristics that allow for expansion, whether it is considering knock-out walls for horizontal growth or building columns to support a multistory building even if the original design is for a one-story structure.



Because change is the only constant, it is beneficial for food companies that are considering new food processing facilities to ensure that they will build facilities that bend, rather than break, under the winds of change. Another new trend that occurs in the design phase of food processing facilities is flexibility planning. This type of planning allows for the plant to adapt to changes in product lines offered by the company or to shifts in preferences of the consumer. Along with the ability to expand a facility, a company should consider that, as consumer demands change, the company may want to switch a processing facility's product output. This is a viable option in the case of changing a facility from beef to pork, or vice-versa, but troublesome if the facility is to change from processing livestock to poultry.

It is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which a development such as Britain's mad cow disease crisis could point the public taste away from beef to the extent that a company would need to increase production of other foods. Having a facility which could be easily converted to a different product would certainly give the company a competitive advantage. A flexible facility could also be quickly adapted to production of a new product, eliminating the potential necessity of another new facility.

Flexibility means having the ability to replace certain equipment with other machinery quickly, and being able to change wall formation with relative ease. Like planning a facility to be expandable, designers will also plan so the least amount of impediments to flexibility are included in the building's design.



It is all too easy for contamination to be introduced into a food processing facility environment. Although outbreaks of disease due to contaminated food are rare - the vast majority of consumers will never have to worry about buying bacteria-infected beef, for instance - every time someone is infected with E. Coli or another common food ailment, it makes for big headlines. Companies specializing in vegetarian fare reported soaring sales during the mad cow disease scare.

With more and more emphasis and media attention on sanitation, a food processing facility should be designed to eliminate any contamination threats, both in the layout of the facility and in individual architectural features of the facility. While this concern has been around for a long time, the odd sanitation infraction will always create visibility and raise sanitation concerns over the industry in general.

Better construction techniques and newly developed building materials have enabled architectural and engineering firms to design facilities that are more resistant to contamination from the start.

New wall and floor finishes, along with improved roofing finishes and techniques, can help create good vapor barriers within the building envelope to stem the spread of contaminating elements. In many food processing plants, food is sanitized with chemicals or hot, high-pressure water on a daily basis. This can lead to bacteria build-up on floor and wall surfaces, as well as around penetrations such as ducts and vents.

In addition to helping prevent contamination, finishes can also prolong the life of the facility. Untreated, standard construction materials often warp or disintegrate under conditions found in a typical food processing facility and would need to be replaced often if left unfinished.

The visibility garnered by food-poisoning cases these days also makes for an unstable legal terrain, with new legislation regularly proposed to limit various food processing plant activities. The principles of flexibility should also consider sanitation issues, then, as a plant may be required, in the future, to change its sanitation equipment in light of new legislation. Food processing plants enjoy a lack of legal requirements that are specific to their actual construction, as legal entities currently focus harder on the finished food product than the facility in which food is processed. This offers companies a broader range of solutions in their efforts to ensure that the food they process is safe for consumption.


Resource Use

Water is an integral part of operating a food processing plant, used in great quantities every day for the purpose of sanitizing food and the equipment used to process food. USDA requirements governing equipment sanitation can require production lines to be hosed with hot, pressurized water up to 10 times a day.

However, the use of water for sanitation in food processing plants can flush large quantities of useful meat, blood, soluble protein, inorganics, and other waste into the sewer system. Some of this material could be sold to other industries, but instead is lost down the drain. In addition, much of this needless waste adds high levels of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD5) to wastewater. Many wastewater treatment plants use BOD5 levels to gauge the amount of waste that is present in water - and the more BOD5, the more treatment wastewater requires. Sewer plants often add surcharges per pound of BOD5 greater than a fixed limit. These charges can add up to a large monetary expenditure over the course of a year. So a failure to collect these wastes not only means the loss of a salable product for a food processing facility, but also means that facilities have to pay more to have their wastewater treated.

Food processing facilities can benefit from current techniques that can effectively managing water resources. Without sufficient knowledge and use of these techniques, companies could stop flushing away capital through water charges, raw material losses, sewage surcharges, and potentially, fines from environmental agencies. With the current public concern for environmental conservation, the food industry has even more incentive to reduce water usage and production of wastewater.

Dry clean up and new technology to collect waste before it hits the sewer are two of the methods some food processing facilities have employed in reducing the amount of waste generated, the amount of water used and the levels of waste in the flushed water.

This is not to say, however, that food processing plants don't use a lot of electricity over the course of a year. It is estimated that U.S. plants with 50 to 500 employees spend nearly $6 billion on electricity every year. This has made food processing facilities an attractive market for companies who can consult with food processors in an attempt to reduce electricity expenditure, using techniques ranging from exploring the deregulated energy market, and making equipment operation more efficient, to exploring pricing options offered by the power company already used by a processing facility.


Work Force

Of course, the most valuable resource of any company is its employees, and workers in food processing plants operate in an environment unique to the industry. Processing facility planning often includes the use of safer and more ergonomically correct equipment to get the most out of the work force. Many production jobs in food processing involve repetitive, physically demanding work. Food processing workers are highly susceptible to repetitive stress injuries to hands, wrists and elbows. This type of injury is especially common in meat packing and poultry processing plants. Production workers often stand for long periods and may be required to lift heavy objects or use cutting, slicing, grinding, and other potentially dangerous tools and machines. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, in 1999, there were 12.7 cases of work-related injury or illness per 100 full-time food processing workers, more than double the 6.3 rate for the private sector as a whole. Injury rates vary significantly in specific food processing industries, ranging from a low of 4.5 per 100 workers in wet corn mills to 26.7 per 100 in meat packing plants, the highest rate among all industries.

In an effort to reduce occupational hazards, many plants have redesigned equipment, increased job rotation, allowed longer or more frequent breaks, and developed training programs in safe work practices. Some workers wear protective hats, gloves, aprons, and shoes. In many industries, uniforms and protective clothing are changed daily for sanitary reasons.

There has also been more and more of an emphasis on using experienced A&E firms to design facilities so that the owner can get the best value for the money. There was once a tendency, especially among smaller food companies, to hire local contracting firms to design and build their facilities - firms which often didn't have a broad base of knowledge to plan processing facilities. The need for companies to hire experienced and trusted architectural and engineering firms for facilities design should be strongly considered. The process of designing a food processing treatment plant is so complex - from ensuring its sanitation and anticipating growth and change, to better utilizing resources while keeping in adherence with the tangle of legal requirements - that it's best to rely on someone who does it for a living rather than hire a general contractor. An experienced architectural and engineering firm can make sure that no facet of food processing facility planning and design is overlooked, helping companies to save money down the road.


Contact Information

Carter & Burgess Inc.
777 Main St.
Fort Worth, TX 76102