Brainstorm: Plant Cleanliness Techniques Pt. 1

In this three-part series of the Food Manufacturing Brainstorm, we ask: what plant cleanliness techniques and best practices can food manufacturers employ to improve food safety in their facilities?

This article originally appeared in Food Manufacturing's November/December 2014 print issue

The Food Manufacturing Brainstorm features industry experts sharing their perspectives on issues critical to the overall food industry marketplace. 

In this issue, we ask: What plant cleanliness techniques and best practices can food manufacturers employ to improve food safety in their facilities?

Plant sanitation is one of the foundational elements of a good food safety program for manufacturers. Although best practices are more an accretion of small details rather than one sweeping gesture, each one is critical. For example, and as the quotation goes, there’s a time for everything; and plant cleanliness is no exception. Again and again we’ve seen food manufacturers treat sanitization as a dreaded midnight-to-three-a.m. activity, using the night shift. These usually are less experienced workers who have had less exposure to in-depth training, and often turn over at a higher rate. How much more effective and efficient it is to perform these duties at midday, when more experienced workers are available and moreover, the process can be supervised. We also believe that the practice of cleaning and sanitizing equipment in place, whenever possible, makes a big difference. 

Another one of those small but key accretive factors is that the equipment should be designed for cleaning ease and user-friendliness. At one of our large food manufacturing clients, we’ve seen great improvement in sanitation efficiency simply by designing out sharp corners from chutes – sharp corners are harder to clean out. Sometimes it’s necessary to swap out a smaller piece of the machinery, taking it away to clean and replace it with a sanitized piece, but in general, going back to the drawing board and rethinking equipment with ease-of-cleaning in mind, benefits the cause from the get-go.   

Of late, there has been much more focus on food allergens, as well as organic and non-GMO accommodations in manufacturing processes, as these require a standard of cleanliness not previously called-for. This puts considerable pressure on older facilities. It has therefore become an increasingly wise practice to use a six sigma microbiology approach to ensure both that standards for organic and non-GMO are met, and that microbes aren’t proliferating. To that end, it’s possible to design processes that make the end product a lot less subject to residuals, as we have seen, in one example of a company making wedge-shaped hash browns for a large fast food chain. 

Similarly, controlling moisture using a six sigma approach decreases the opportunities for bacteria to grow.  In some operations, reducing variation in moisture can also open up the prospect of increasing yields, giving the manufacturer a safer product at a lower cost. We’ve even seen bugs trapped within coated paper in some packing materials. And so packaging can be made a lot safer by removing enough water at the freezing point, and ensuring the integrity of the package’s seal. 

In our view, plant cleanliness can be a factor in greater profitability through a reduction in brand risk in overall material yields — especially when paired with improved process control. As noted, food safety, quality and consistency, as well as downstream packaging, can go a long way toward improving yields, too. Good sanitation practices lie at the root of food safety, good business, and happy and healthy customers.

Author

David Beal, Senior Management Consultant, TBM Consulting Group

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