Many of us have heard the saying “set it and forget it.” It may be memorable because it is one of the great infomercial taglines, but sometimes, food manufacturers and processors would like to apply this same expression to their equipment. In reality, several best practices involving equipment installation, as well as cleaning and maintenance, are necessary to help prioritize food safety and guard against foodborne illness from occurring on the production line.

When equipment manufacturers designed the first production equipment, they were primarily focused on one thing. Functionality. They had to ensure that the equipment would cook, bake, cut, slice, dice, proof, pack, mix or even sift product as needed. Today, manufacturers are asked to make sure that equipment functions as intended and do it with food safety as a priority. This ensures the equipment does not negatively impact the foods being produced.    

When prioritizing food safety, one aspect that must be considered is the equipment’s accessibility for cleaning and maintenance. The more difficult a piece of equipment is for an employee to access, the less likely it is that these routine tasks will be completed. A piece of equipment that is designed and located to be easily accessible is one more likely to be properly maintained, serviced and cleaned.  

Another area of expertise expected of equipment manufacturers is installation. Even though equipment selection ultimately depends on the available space and necessary function, manufacturer’s collaborative guidance and recommendations on where to place that equipment can be invaluable. For instance, they should be able to help identify whether a piece of equipment is being placed too close to a wall or another machine, which may prompt access issues with the doors and openings that allow for cleaning and general maintenance. 

Manufacturers should also advise regarding equipment installation in areas where contamination is imminent, such as directly over a drain with very little clearance from the drain backups. These could be overwhelmed due to the amount of water used when sanitation occurs, causing additional issues with the equipment. Concerns can also arise if a machine is located under an exhaust fan or cooler, where debris or even condensate could be blown or drop onto the equipment or product itself. These scenarios should be considered before and during the installation process. 

Following installation, it is critical to review all sanitation procedures with a member of the team who has a sanitation background, such as a sanitarian. Doing so will help identify possible cleaning issues before they occur and food safety is compromised. Also, consider how much time and how many tools are needed to disassemble each piece of equipment, and build those aspects into the sanitation plan. Ideally, simple tools such as screwdrivers and pliers are all that is needed. If a full rollaway toolbox is necessary to just break the equipment apart, future cleaning issues and resulting food safety problems are more likely.  

It is also important for the same employees who will be conducting the cleaning to have input in the development of cleaning procedures. This will help confirm that procedures for disassembly, cleaning, and reassembly are attainable based on actual usage of the equipment. Their involvement will then verify that these procedures are fully understood and executable by the team, providing assurance that the equipment will be ready for production each day. Development of a punch list of common maintenance and cleaning issues for each piece of equipment will also help assure timely completion of assigned tasks. This same team should then assist in periodic evaluations of the cleaning, which will help them continuously improve or make adjustments as needed.

Once installed, establish a team that confirms the final accuracy of the equipment’s location, space, and functionality. The equipment will need to be checked by running test product, with this same team assessing for possible defects. This process will help identify minor issues before any salable product is ever produced. Most equipment manufacturers should have a representative or engineer on-site assisting with this dry run to help make any adjustments necessary. 

A similar process can take place to assess the cleaning procedures of the equipment as well. Following the test run or equipment commissioning, clean the equipment utilizing the written procedures from the manufacturer. These may be modified to best meet the needs of the facility, especially following heavy production runs. It is during these unique situations when issues are typically identified, because the equipment has run differently than what the manufacturer likely considered or intended. The plant sanitarian and key members of the cleaning team, as well as a representative of the equipment manufacturer, should be present to conduct this cleaning and make any necessary changes. 

It is important to remember that regulatory agencies do not oversee the design or manufacture of food processing equipment. Instead, they regulate how this equipment is cleaned and maintained by the production facility’s team. 

The next time somebody is tempted to “set it and forget it” with food processing equipment, remember that it is not that simple. These and other equipment-related best practices should be ongoing to help ensure that the operation prioritizes food safety throughout its processes and facility. 

Jesse Leal

Jesse Leal
Food safety professional
 AIB International