Whether they deal with meats, agriculture-based products, or ready-to-eat and snack foods, fresh-food processors have a strong incentive to prevent contamination. According to CDC estimates, one out of six people in the U.S. will suffer from foodborne illness each year, and tainted products can instigate recalls, tarnish brand names, and lead to litigation. But there is one area of risk many processors don't yet adequately address: the containers that transport their ingredients.
No food processor would knowingly permit pathogens or other contaminants to enter the processing plant. Yet, when they allow packages containing outsourced food ingredients to be received without being sanitized, they may be taking a risk that amounts to the same thing.
“There is not always a clear understanding when we are talking about low-risk vs. high-risk or high-care areas in the food processing plant,” says Farzad Shahsavarani, vice president of operations for Fresh Food Solutions at Chicago-based Flying Food Group (www.flyingfood.com). FFG produces food destined for customers in the airline catering, grocery, food service and specialty markets. It produces more than 300,000 fresh meals and snacks daily for over 70 airlines around the world and leading food retailers like Starbucks' cafes in the U.S.
“Keeping foods free of contaminants requires a lot more than just walls and doors and traffic flow,” says Shahsavarani. “Some processors don’t realize that contaminated containers entering the plant are exposing their products to environmental impurities and possible pathogens.”
When ingredients such as cheese, dough, shrimp or other outsourced ingredients are shipped, their outer packaging—whether buckets, bags or cans—is exposed to dirt, chemicals and other contaminants that are present in delivery trucks or other forms of transportation. Shahsavarani says what is needed is a fail-safe system that provides assurance that the containers transporting these packages are fully sanitized on all sides before they enter high-risk or high-care areas of the processing plant.
Typically, this would involve the use of an automated system, such as a conveyor belt and spray tunnel, that sanitizes packages of all types with a uniform concentration of sanitizing solution as they travel from low-risk to high-risk areas. Shahsavarani says this type of equipment is known as a “barrier tunnel” or “sanitizing tunnel” in Europe. FFG uses the Econosan, distributed by CM Process Solutions, Corona, Calif. (www.cmpsolutions.net), a supplier of stainless steel equipment for food processing and other hygiene-conscious industries.
The Econoscan conveys the food container through a tunnel where a solution of sanitizing detergent is misted onto the items from top, bottom and sides. The tunnel is a conveyor belt-driven system that sprays a mixture of water and a sanitizing agent to disinfect the containers before they are sent into the food processing plant and opened. The speed of transit through the tunnel can be adjusted to operate at between 3 and 12 feet per minute. The water used in the process is recycled, and detergent is continually topped off after the water is recycled.
Effects of FSMA
The U.S. Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), also called the Food Safety Act, signed into law in January 2011, gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) broader power to regulate any aspect of food production in order to provide a safer food supply. Its five areas of food safety enhancements include preventive controls that shift the FDA’s food safety approach from responding to outbreaks to preventing them. This will be accomplished by holding food production facilities more accountable for implementing safe and effective measures to prevent contamination.
According to Mark Corser, CEO of CM Process Solutions, “with FSMA, conventional methods of cleaning and sanitizing are being re-evaluated, as hand-washing operations including power spraying cannot uniformly eliminate contaminants and pathogens. Automating the cleaning and sanitizing process can help to ensure food-processing buggies are cleaned and sanitized properly.”
With a fully automated system, the loading and unloading is automated along with the washing process. Such systems should also provide a sanitizing hot water and chemical rinse, “and ideally have the capability to handle more that one size of buggy,” says Corser. His company’s ET 75 Tunnel Washing System, for example, is a fully automated tunnel washer capable of handling 400 lb. and 600 lb. buggies with a throughput of 75 buggies per hour.
Buggies are transported through the system’s tunnel by a stainless steel chain conveyor. The system automatically lifts and mounts each buggy in an inverted position to enable the most thorough washing of internal surfaces. In the main wash chamber, each buggy is washed by a “traveling” jet system. Essentially, the buggy stays still inside the chamber while a set of jets wash up and down the length of the buggy at high speed. The jets make 30 to 35 passes on the stationary buggy, spraying backwards and forwards, to ensure that all surfaces are thoroughly cleaned. After the wash process is completed, buggies are then automatically unloaded and delivered to the floor level allowing the operator to remove.
Shahsavarani says that, in Europe, the sanitizing of food containers arriving from outside sources is routine. “The food processing industry there is largely self-policing about this,” he says. “However, in the U.S., that is not a routine practice.”
Corser says, “This is strangely an American problem. I say that because, in the U.S., many food processors are using highly advanced technologies throughout their plants,” but not in the container-receiving area. Most plants employ sophisticated washing and sanitizing equipment to ensure that pathogens and other contaminants do not travel via containers from the back of the plant to the food preparation areas, he says, “but when it comes to sanitizing containers as they come into the plant, that is often overlooked.”
Shahsavarani believes that, in the future, “it is very likely that higher global safety standards like GFSI [Global Food Safety Initiative] will come into play. This would include sanitation of food packaging.” In the meantime, U.S. food processors like FFG who want to stay ahead of regulations are watching the dock door and sanitizing containers accordingly.