By now, you most certainly remember the nation-wide E-Coli related recall of romaine lettuce that plagued 2018. According to reports, as many as 121 people became ill across 25 states, with a 40% hospitalization rate, as the outbreak was getting started, with further developments indicating that the FDA has traced the source of the outbreak to chopped lettuce.

To put things into perspective, a 2014 FDA study has revealed that 48 million people (1 in 6 Americans) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die every year as a direct result of foodborne illnesses. To make matters worse, the USDA estimated the approximate costs associated with foodborne illnesses were $15.6 billion that same year. According to data accumulated by the CDC in a 2015 study, almost half of all foodborne illnesses are related to the produce industry with the balance coming dairy and eggs at around 20%, meat and poultry at 22% and shellfish at 6%.

And finally, in 2013, the CDC found that leafy vegetables were responsible for one-quarter of all food poisoning cases.

Though not all cases can be traced back to pre-cut produce, a significant portion could have certainly come into contact with industrial equipment; especially in the bagged retail produce space.

With the final stages of the FSMA looming, tremendous pressure has been placed on the produce industry to re-evaluate not just their sanitation procedures, but their equipment. An efficient, well-designed sanitary piece of equipment, however, along with proper sanitation protocols, can significantly reduce the risk of foodborne illness and the negative after-effects. So, when it comes to choosing equipment, any manufacturer’s best bet is the consideration for the 10 Principles of Sanitary Design:

  1. Cleanable to a microbiological level
    All plant equipment must be constructed to allow effective cleaning throughout its lifespan. This means the design should discourage the growth and reproduction of microorganisms on all contact and non-contact surfaces.
  2. Made of compatible materials
    Not all surfaces are impervious to the materials they’re being exposed to. This is very important to understand when it comes to designing processing equipment. Some caustics may cause corrosion or pitting when applied to certain materials. Over time, this can create nasty little harborage areas for microorganisms. In this case, corrosion-resistant materials are ideal.
  3. Inspection, maintenance and sanitation accessibility
    It has been said that “If you can’t see it and you can’t touch it, then you can’t clean it.” Put simply, if you’re working with a non-CIP environment, you need to be able to get everything clean. Having equipment that can open up completely will not only allow for full exposure of food soil for sanitation, it will also allow your sanitation team to get the job done properly, safely and in line with procedures.
  4. No product or liquid collection
    Processing equipment shouldn’t harbor an environment where product can collect and eventually dry out. When this happens, you risk contaminating your batch with foreign particles. Alternatively, considering that moisture increases the risk of microbial growth, factories should not have machinery that allows for standing water; flat surfaces for example. As we know, standing water can be a breeding ground for undesirable microorganisms. In this case, your equipment should have open choke points that encourage free movement of product throughout operation, as well as slanted or rounded surfaces for proper drainage.
  5. Hollow areas must be hermetically sealed
    Although the FSMA frowns somewhat upon the usage of hollow tubing, and most equipment frames are tubular –and we already know from Principle 4 that flat surfaces harbor microorganisms –it must be ensured that all hollow tubing be completely sealed. Any penetration or puncturing of hollow tubing can allow microorganisms to grow and re-contaminate the plant by moisture or food soil collecting within. Even something as simple as a name plate with pop-rivets can compromise plant safety. Though there is currently a push for increased use of open or solid frames, in the circumstance where hollow tubing is unavoidable, conscious equipment suppliers will ensure that all hollow areas are sealed with continuous welds throughout.
  6. No niches
    Food processing equipment should not have any harborage points. Anything ranging from plate-to-plate contact, non-continuous or unpolished welds, lap seams or bolt rivets is an excellent place for food soil to collect and contaminate your plant. As with hollow areas, conscious equipment suppliers will design and build their machinery with continuous welds and sanitary polishes (No. 4 Sanitary Finish, 32RA).
  7. Sanitary operational performance
    As examined in principle 4, processors want to avoid increased microbial counts during machine operation, meaning manufacturers’ primary focus should be to build equipment that reduces the amount of moisture and product build up.
  8. Hygienic design of maintenance enclosures
    It’s inevitable: your machinery will need to be serviced throughout its lifetime. And if we’re to be realistic here, it will likely happen more often than you’d like it to. Nevertheless, plant machinery needs to be serviceable but without contamination risks. Even if you’re using oils and lubricants that are safe for food applications, most processors would prefer to not have them leak into a batch. Designing machines that not only contain separation between the drive and product zones, but also allow all wiring, buttons, cutting tools (in the form of removable cartridge-style construction for less downtime) and seals to be accessible for proper cleaning, eliminates this issue entirely.
  9. Hygienic compatibility with plant systems
    This responsibility falls at an even 50/50 split between the manufacturer and the equipment supplier. All equipment must be built to be usable with existing factory systems (air, steam, water etc).
  10. Validate cleaning and sanitary protocols
    Considering all nine principles, principle ten ties it all together in that all processors must have a tried, tested and true procedure when it comes to plant sanitation. Cleaning procedures must be clear and concise and must use caustics that are compatible not just with the factory environment, but the equipment as well.

In consideration of the facts, food safety and proper sanitation put a significant burden on public health, but in conjunction with the right knowledge and procedures, it is one that is – thankfully – highly preventable. As members of the food industry, it is our responsibility to help lessen this burden – and it all starts with evaluating the design of the equipment being brought in.

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