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Equipment Evolves to Meet Cleaning and Sanitation Challenges

New technology is helping processors solve traditional and current sanitation problems while helping them address labor and resource issues.

Food safety equipment inspection
Investing in updated cleaning and sanitation systems can help processors pass inspections and consistently produce safe food for consumers.

A processor only needs to look at the elevating number of food recalls the past few years to understand that any shortcuts on cleaning and sanitation can lead to trouble, and perhaps permanently damage a company's bottom line.

“Sanitation is key for assisting with food spoilage and allergen recalls. With the increasing number of ready-to-eat facilities due to our ever-changing food demands, we need to ensure that a clean facility is delivered to production day after day for a heathy food supply,” says Stephanie Goff, technical services lead, safe foods chemical innovations, PSSI. “Sanitation has changed in that we are now driven by data and numbers and not just by if it looks clean. We now understand that sanitation can impact recalls and improve production cycles if performed correctly and efficiently.”

With an ongoing labor shortage and tight budgets at some companies, cleaning and sanitation programs have been tasked to evolve and meet many challenges that didn’t exist years ago. Here, we’ll address some of the key areas related to cleaning and sanitation, and what new tools and technology are available for manufacturers to implement into their operations.

Importance of sanitation

Cleaning and sanitation are so vital to a food processing operation that it might be easy for some to view it as a simple routine where skipping steps to save time or money is occasionally acceptable. So, just as a reminder, here are a few reasons why this part of processing is crucial.

“Once production for the day is completed, the clock starts for the growth of microbes that are in the environment or hitchhiked through the process,” says Goff. “Cleaning is the only way to ensure that cross-contamination doesn’t occur between product types or marinades which could lead to allergen concerns.”

What used to be acceptable in a daily cleaning and sanitation routine has changed over the years, with more attention paid to deep cleaning the equipment and the environment that surrounds it. Glenn Quinty, senior design engineer at ThermOmegaTech, notes that cleaning methods that used to be acceptable but are no longer acceptable include: “visual inspection as the sole cleaning verification method, inadequate frequency of cleaning, inadequate drying of surfaces, lack of separation of cleaning tools and equipment, and insufficient sanitizer concentration.”

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Jason White, field audit and support at PSSI, adds, “In the past, acceptable cleaning practices could mean as long as it looked clean or mostly clean it must be clean. The use of high pressure during pre-rinsing sometimes was good enough to make equipment look clean. Other past practices consisted of not titrating cleaning solutions, poor application of cleaning and sanitizing solution, high-pressure water used during the post rinse, hosing the floors prior to and after the final sanitizer application, and simply taking shortcuts. The most important thing to remember is to follow a validated cleaning procedure with approved cleaning and sanitizing chemistry and application rates.”

On the subject of chemistry, Goff says, “Long gone are the days of just rinsing down with water or just using a scrub soap. Detergents have been developed specifically for certain types of metal, equipment, soils, and tasks. We have an arsenal of detergents available for use and have learned that this only expedites the process to use the correct ones.”

Cleaning targets

Some processors might just focus on equipment as the primary target for their cleaning and sanitation program. While that’s still important, there are other areas to consider.

“The critical areas to focus on include processing equipment—especially ones with joints, seams, and gaskets—food contact surfaces, and floors, walls, and ceilings,” Quinty says. His colleague Andy Reichlin, national sales manager at ThermOmegaTech, adds, “Outside of areas where the end product is processed, we also need to clean loading docks and material handling spaces to ensure ingredients are not contaminated.”

Food inspection audit swabAn effective way for a food processor to avoid product recalls and pass inspections is to budget for high-level cleaning and sanitation tools and equipment.PSSI

Turning back to processing equipment, today’s sanitation programs have a deeper focus on ensuring every inch of a machine that comes in contact with food has been thoroughly cleaned. “Some overlooked areas that deserve more attention include equipment joints, corners, and intricate machinery parts, which can harbor contaminants if not adequately cleaned,” says Shawn Berg, business development engineer at Hydro-Thermal. “Additionally, ventilation systems and other non-direct contact surfaces may need to be addressed but can contribute to overall plant hygiene.”

Evolution of CIP and COP

Clean-in-place (CIP) and clean-out-of-place (COP) systems are both effective for precision cleaning the areas that Berg describes. Today’s CIP and COP systems have also evolved in recent years by incorporating new technology and automation, and addressing shifting workplace needs.

“We are seeing systems evolve to meet more strict standards both self-imposed by a plant or via a regulating body, while also achieving the efficient usage of energy, chemical, and time,” says James Bushard, regional sales manager for Pick Heaters. “These changes have come in several forms and include hygienic design consideration, material selection, increased need for automation and integration. Flexibility in the operation of systems and recording of data to track compliance is important as well.”

As for COP systems in particular, “more advanced technologies than traditional COP parts washers have evolved,” says Peter Barrie, product management director at Sani-Matic. “More facilities are realizing the benefits of automated cabinet washers and the further reduction in labor, utilities, and cleaning time they produce. A COP parts washer still has a lot of touch points of the part and room for error, while an automated cabinet washer is like a dishwasher at home: load it up, hit start, and go.”

Food processing clean out of placeClean-out-of-place (COP) parts washers are an effective way to wash and sanitize individual equipment pieces, while newer machines like automatic cabinet washers can cut the touchpoints down further, reducing labor and increasing efficiencies.Sani-Matic

White addresses automation in both CIP and COP systems. “CIP has evolved from assisted cleaning systems to fully automated systems, where the operator is more of a technician than an on-floor sanitor. These advanced CIP systems have been able to show a high degree of repeatability along with automated data collection of their working parameters, like time, temperature, flow rate, and concentration,” he says. “COP systems are also much improved from earlier systems, where temperature and concentration were manually controlled unlike the some of the new systems of today. Other improvements such as engineered directional flow of cleaning solutions and hygienic design of the COP equipment—like wash tanks and cabinets—is now a consideration. Some cabinets offer heated forced air for drying as an option. Lastly, I would mention the integration of automated sanitizing for both CIP and COP systems as another advancement.”

Less labor

Automated equipment—and the data it generates to measure cleaning efficiencies—has been among the most important changes impacting cleaning and sanitation programs. The ongoing labor crunch has meant fewer workers are available to consistently staff a facility and reliably execute its programs, while new hires still learning on the job require additional safety and ease-of-use features to operate cleaning machinery.

“With the influx of inexperienced labor and a labor shortage, we have seen an increased need for the development of complex automated equipment or processes to ensure sanitation standards and maintain cleanliness while reducing manual labor requirements,” says Bushard. “These systems require significant investment both in capital and technical expertise to design and implement.”

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Automated cleaning used to mean eliminating workers on a facility floor, Barrie adds. “But now we say that automated cleaning will help repurpose workers on your facility floor. The labor shortage is making every employee even more valuable, and now if you can reduce the personnel needed for cleaning, you can shift them towards the production processes.”

The advancement of specialized cleaning solutions is another factor in addressing the labor crunch, as they can help balance the four essential pieces needed for effective sanitation—time, temperature, chemistry, and manual labor—by picking up the slack when labor is low. “Think of these four pieces to make up an entire pie,” Goff explains. “If one piece is smaller than the others, one of the other pieces would need to be larger in order to complete the pie. Meaning, if labor is less than what is needed, we would need more time and chemistry in order to complete the task. Chemistry has been improved over the years with scientific studies being performed to see which type of detergent and at what concentration responds best to proteins, fats, and oils. The improvement in detergents can assist in making the process faster and cleanup easier, thus using less labor.”

Food processing washdown sanitationWhile washdowns are still an integral part of a cleaning and sanitation program, washdowns alone won’t ensure clean machinery that can safely produce food.ThermOmegaTech

Resource savings

Environmental concerns are also evolving as processors are being asked to save resources like water and energy in their cleaning and sanitation programs, which would likely not have been a concern several years ago.

“When designing automated cleaning systems, sustainability should always be part of the design process,” says Chad Dykstra, vice president, sales and marketing at Douglas Machines. “Many automated cleaning systems are designed to reuse cleaning solutions for multiple cleaning cycles, and in many cases the prewash and final rinse water is reused throughout the cleaning process to reduce the amount of wastewater and treating of chemicals. The design of single-use cleaning systems such as boosted-pressure manual cleaning have been designed to reduce the amount of water usage by increasing pressure applied to surfaces of the process equipment being cleaned.”

Direct steam injection equipmentDirect steam injection used in cleaning systems helps to save water and energy, while increasing the bottom line through efficient resource usage.Hydro-Thermal

Cleaning systems that use steam efficiently have grown in popularity as energy savings is a priority for many processors today. “Systems that have decreased energy input by utilization of all energy available are more attractive,” Bushard says. “As a manufacturer of direct steam injection hot water systems, our technology gets full utilization of all the total heat energy in a pound of steam. This has efficiency over other heat exchange methods that utilize only the latent heat of each pound of steam.”

Also on the subject of steam, Berg adds, “Direct steam injection enhances efficiency by rapidly reaching and maintaining optimal cleaning temperatures, reducing cycle times, and minimizing downtime. Automation and direct steam injection ensure precision and consistency in cleaning processes, minimizing human error. This technology also facilitates resource savings by optimizing water and energy usage, aligning with sustainability goals. Its versatility, adaptability to various cleaning scenarios, and improved safety and hygiene make direct steam injection a key component in modernizing sanitation practices within food processing facilities.”

Water conservation should also be at the forefront for processors today, since “it not only addresses usage, but also the disposal of wastewater,” White says. “Some strategies currently being used range from proper sizing of water hose nozzle for volume (GPM) and spray pattern, controlling water temperatures for consistency and proper temperatures for the task being performed. Another tool is the use of variable-frequency drives on boosted/high-pressure water systems to control water usage and pressure.”

Worth the investment?

While the labor shortage and environmental concerns should be top-of-mind when investing in modern sanitation tools, a more traditional obstacle for manufacturers might be budget. While some may be reluctant to fully invest in the equipment and systems necessary to ensure a high-level cleaning and sanitation program, the decision not to spend can come with a large amount of risk.

“Today’s labor market makes it more challenging than ever to not invest in automated solutions,” Barrie says. “Work with your supplier to see if they have return-on-investment (ROI) examples or calculators. Often, the labor and utilities savings can be two years, one year, or even less than six months for a capital equipment purchase. In addition, these calculators don’t always take into account the increased production time you’ll have when you take less time to clean.”

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