It’s a sad fact that some food processors still buy equipment based simply on price and the ability to produce a product. But, cleanability, ease of maintenance, safe operation, user friendliness and other factors should be considered when purchasing equipment.
The American Meat Institute assembled an expert panel a few years ago and developed 10 basic principles of the sanitary design of equipment used for ready-to-eat products:
- Cleanable to a microbiological level
- Made of compatible materials
- Accessible for inspection, maintenance, cleaning and sanitation
- No product or liquid collection
- Hermetically sealed hollow areas
- No niches
- Sanitary operational performance
- Hygienic design of maintenance enclosures
- Hygienic compatibility with other plant systems
- Validated cleaning and sanitizing protocols.
However, these principles apply to all food processing equipment, not just those pieces used for ready-to-eat goods.
AMI’s website includes a checklist for evaluating equipment that can be accessed at https://www.meatinstitute.org/ht/a/GetDocumentAction/i/97261. Each of the above 10 points has five to 15 sub-elements. For example, validated cleaning and sanitizing protocols include:
- Cleaning and sanitizing are considered in the design process.
- Cleaning protocols must be safe, practical, effective and efficient.
- Cleaning and sanitation protocols have been developed by the manufacturer, validated and provided in a training manual that is easily read and understood by cleaning and sanitation employees.
- Equipment design and materials are capable of withstanding standard cleanup procedures, and the MSDSs for the cleaning and sanitizing chemicals have been reviewed to ensure compatibility. Special deep-cleaning should be scheduled based on indicators such as mean time failure analysis.
- All equipment components including belts and product contact components should be able to withstand heating to 160˚F for up to 30 minutes. Procedures to protect sensitive components included in the manufacturer’s procedures should be followed.
One of the basic requirements for many companies is a mandate that a third party must approve their equipment for use in food processing. USDA evaluates equipment used in meat and poultry operations. Organizations such as 3A Sanitary Standards (http://www.3-a.org/) and EHEDG (European Hygienic Engineering and Design Group) (http://www.ehedg.org/) have established sanitary and hygienic standards for equipment and list those that pass muster.
However, there is a basic issue that goes beyond sanitary design—program maintenance. Buying equipment that is easy to clean and maintain is only part of the equation; the programs to properly maintain and clean equipment must be scrupulously adhered to. In addition, managers must ensure these programs are properly developed, documented, implemented and maintained. This also includes sufficiently training staff to do the work and documenting the training was not only completed, but the staff members fully understand what they are doing and why.
In addition, food processors should establish basic guidelines for evaluating and purchasing new equipment. Setting up the program is part of the food safety management system and should also be part of the organization’s continuous improvement program. In fact, the program should be all inclusive when it comes to food processing and handling equipment. Every change or tweak to equipment should be evaluated prior to making it. Far too often, companies make changes in line layout or operations only to learn they have had an adverse effect on food quality, food safety or operational efficiencies.
A wise processor will set up a program to take an in-depth look at any change to processing operations, whether it is a tweak or a new equipment purchase. Subjecting any change to a rigid evaluation before it is made will determine whether it will be feasible and effective.
If management decides the plant requires new equipment to meet the needs of existing or new customers or as a means of enhancing quality and safety programs, the following procedures should be followed:
- Top management should review the need for change with key plant and management personnel (treasurer, production manager, quality supervisor and the food safety team or a designated member) and discuss options for improvement. Notes of the meeting should be maintained.
- Management should assign staff to research equipment, materials or proposed changes to ensure they meet the needs of the plant. This research would include identifying potential equipment and suppliers, and how the changes would be made. This step is where the FMEA concept comes in handy; if the results of the FMEA indicate a potential change poses a potential risk to the business, that option would be eliminated or modified to address the identified risks.
- Once the equipment has been selected, the team should review specifications and pricing, and rate the materials. Notes of this meeting should be maintained.
- An individual should be designated to visit one or more facilities that use the equipment or materials to evaluate performance. Notes from the trip should be prepared and filed. (This is often a challenge since an individual may not be allowed into a competitor’s facility.) The focus of this exercise is to not only select the right equipment but to ensure the equipment will pose no significant risks to the business.
Some companies take this process a bit further. Instead of accepting what the equipment manufacturer offers, they work hand-in-hand with the company to further improve the existing equipment. These tweaks then become the property of the food processor.
All of this may seem like a great deal of effort, but going through this process is worth it. Equipment that meets the 10 previously highlighted principles, and is easy to operate, maintain and clean, can provide significant economic benefits such as improved operating efficiencies, reduced operating costs and enhanced product quality. However, managers must ensure the established systems are adequately maintained. Food and beverage processors should commit to properly evaluating equipment and process changes by doing it right the first time around.