The current labor market presents serious challenges for food and beverage (F&B) manufacturers. In addition to small pools of jobseekers and high employee turnover, manufacturers are losing important institutional knowledge to a flood of retirements.
While it might not be the first consequence F&B manufacturers think of, the turnover and worker scarcity are introducing variability and uncertainty to cleaning and sanitation processes. To alleviate this risky and costly challenge, some manufacturers are exploring new sanitary design options and transforming at-risk processes with new tools for real-time data collection and analysis.
What is sanitary design and how can it help?
Sanitary design (also called hygienic design) in food processing plants refers to the strategic setup of equipment and processes to ensure they can be cleaned and sanitized to the facility’s standards. It focuses on making cleaning and sanitization easier and potentially quicker while maintaining food safety standards. The right sanitary design will allow a manufacturer to see productivity gains, labor optimization and greater certainty in cleaning and sanitation processes.
Sanitary designs are easier to implement in new facility builds or new equipment integrations, but existing facilities and their equipment can be effectively reconfigured as well. The concept of sanitary design is a practice, not a project, so existing equipment can be reconfigured to bring effective sanitary designs to life. Unfortunately, equipment and facilities aren’t always designed that way. Many facilities and their equipment were built and/or designed before our current understanding of sanitary design became more widely known. In either case — new construction or reconfiguration — sanitary design can result in better cleaning, sanitizing and inspection, especially if you keep these five key considerations in mind:
#1: Accessible for Inspection, Maintenance, Cleaning and Sanitation.
While it seems obvious, one area where most plant designs fall short of sanitary design ideals is machine accessibility. Parts of equipment that are regularly cleaned should be readily visible and require no tools for disassembly. Ensuring accessibility leads to efficient maintenance and effective cleaning. It also ensures equipment can be inspected before running product over it, which can decrease product waste.
#2: No Niches.
Niche issues in most plants refer to bacterial build up. Equipment with product contact and near-product contact should be free of pits, cracks, corrosion, recesses, open seams, gaps, lap seams, protruding ledges, inside threads, bolts, rivets, bunched wires and dead ends. Any of these can turn into murky sanctuaries where bacteria can hide and live. If niches are present, no routine amount of scrubbing or chemicals will eliminate their resident colonies. In the absence of sanitary design, the only sure way to remedy niches is to stop a line, disassemble equipment and clean it. The right sanitary design helps prevent niches and simplifys cleaning if one develops.
#3: No Collection Points.
All equipment surfaces should be self-draining and designed to prevent pooling of water. Also, never use absorbent materials — such as cloth belts or open cell foam rubber — on equipment. Moisture should never drip, drain, or draw into product areas. Conveyor belts should be tense enough to prevent pooling. Eliminate dead spaces where water and/or product can accumulate over the course of the shift.
#4: Eliminate or Minimize Hollow Areas.
Hollow areas should be sealed and airtight to prevent water and food entry. Unintentional internal spaces are frequently not accessible for cleaning and inspection, which provides additional pathogen sanctuaries. Once colonies are established, labor and remediation costs increase exponentially.
#5: Integrate Digital Tracking and Monitoring to Confirm Clean.
New software solutions — like Ecolab’s 3DTRASAR CIP, MCI or upcoming enterprise-level Food Safety & Quality platform — are helping food processors address skill and experience gaps created by high turnover and a shortage of new workers. These tools collect and process important operational data that was previously buried in various parts of the operation, allowing plant teams to move from reactionary to proactive without having to hire any data analysts.
Strategically placed sensors send alerts about potential quality or safety issues. For example, the Ecolab 3DTRASAR CIP platform works with temperature sensors to send alerts when a cleaning sequence doesn’t reach the required temperatures for sanitation. Data collected by those sensors can also show if overnight crews have fully complied with cleaning procedures so the next day’s production can start on time with full confidence.
Digital platforms can also track and display facility trends, which can help plant managers and line workers quickly identify the location of food quality and safety issues. For example, one dairy processing facility was able to use trend data from its digital platform to pinpoint the cause of a recurring issue when a storage facility wasn’t filling properly. This helped the producer adjust its system and minimize product waste. Another benefit of deploying digital technology in an F&B operations center is enhanced reporting. Operations teams can create compliance reports in a fraction of the time they spent previously. The capture and analysis of complete, accurate and timely data also brings greater confidence to compliance processes.
As we look to the future of the industry, it’s likely today’s labor challenges will continue. At the same time, the cost of issues, such as recalls, and margin pressures will continue to challenge F&B manufacturers. The future will require digital advancements and the application of thoughtful practices, like sanitary design.