Poll Shows Cleanroom/Food Industry Disconnect
By Sheila Galatowitsch
New food safety processes are opening up the food industry to contamination control technologies, but before a real market takes off, both suppliers and users must surmount a learning curve. A CleanRooms poll found that while most suppliers and distributors report a few food users as customers, only a few are actively marketing to the food industry. Moreover, most suppliers know little about the market itself and its potential, and don`t know where to go for more information.
It`s not difficult to understand why contamination control suppliers are in the dark. The food industry is complex and diverse, ranging from meat and poultry processing, to beverage and brewing, aseptic packaging, fresh prepackaged produce, and frozen and canned goods. Each segment has different concerns, and food processors seem to know as much about contamination control as suppliers know about the food industry.
But that is destined to change. “We have several factors pushing for a change, and we have the means to solve it,” says international contamination control expert Dr. Åke Möller. Good manufacturing practices (GMP) rules, long followed by the pharmaceutical industry, are also suitable for the food industry. Since 1993, ISO, which has given the world the 9000 quality standards, has been working on international contamination control standards (cleanroom classification, design, operation, etc.), and those standards will be valid for the food industry. Provoked by stories in the media and environmental concerns, consumers continue to push for safer food with fewer chemicals and preservatives. And in order to compete globally, avoid costly recalls and potential litigation, food producers will have to meet the highest standards possible.
In the U.S., food safety standards originally developed in the 1960s by NASA are the basis of landmark regulations issued by the U.N.`s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), and proposed by the FDA and USDA in 1994. The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) program is still in the proposal and feasibility stages, but food processors from all segments have lined up behind the program for voluntary participation, and many have HACCP plans in place. HACCP requires that food processors analyze their procedures to see where hazards could get into a product, determine which point in the process is critical to ensure those hazards are minimized or eliminated, and provide continuous monitoring.
Today, the food industry represents only 3 percent of the total market for cleanrooms, but it has the potential to become a much larger market, according to researcher Robert W. McIlvaine, president of The McIlvaine Company (Northbrook, IL), which publishes an annual report on cleanroom markets worldwide. He projects capital expenditures in the food processing industry to reach $46 billion over the next five years. Less than one-half of 1 percent of this investment is currently allocated for cleanrooms and filter systems.
Greater concern about contamination control, the growth of the aseptic filling industry, and legal problems resulting from pathogenic organisms in food products will cause the market segment to grow from $40 million per year in 1996 to more than $60 million per year in the year 2000, according to McIlvaine. “This forecast includes only modest penetration of cleanroom technology into the meat and poultry industry. Should new regulations require cleanroom technology for federally inspected meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants, this market segment of the industry could double in size.”
McIlvaine observes that Europe is far ahead of the United States in the utilization of cleanrooms in the food processing industries. Japan is also a leader in the use of cleanroom technology in food processing plants. As a result, the total world market for cleanrooms and food processing is presently over $150 million per year.
The cooked-ready-to-eat food market is especially open to cleanroom technology, says Dr. David Gombas, a research professor at the National Center for Food Safety and Technology (Summit-Argo, IL), a consortium of food processors, academia and the FDA. The food industry will increasingly be concerned about environmental contamination during certain stages of the food handling and preparation process.
Contamination control measures in the food industry depend on the process stage, according to Gombas. Raw materials (meats and produce) are inherently contaminated, so the environment in which they are processed is not as important. The environment itself will offer less of a contamination risk than the materials coming into that environment. But as materials are processed, their microbial load diminishes, so monitoring and controlling the environment becomes more important. “Between processing and packaging there is a window in which pathogens in the environment could get back on the product,” Gombas says, and those are the areas where closed or cleanroom environments become critical.
Using Cleanroom Environments
Some food processors, such as the aseptic packaging and dairy industries, are already working within enclosed and cleanroom environments. Gombas predicts that HACCP will spur the use of cleanroom technology where it is appropriate, as companies become more comfortable with the new safety measures. Processors “will identify the environment as being significant in a number of products and commodities, and when that happens, environmental control through cleanrooms or whatever will emerge as the best option for controlling contamination in those industries,” Gombas says.
For now, the food industry is on the learning curve. Quality control managers at larger companies and food conglomerates are more likely to understand the sources of potential risks, the risks themselves and what to do to control them. That`s the case at poultry giant Tyson Foods (Springdale, AR). The company is upgrading all plants in four areas: structural isolation, equipment design, personal hygiene, and sanitation. The structural isolation upgrades include separate processing, changeover and buffer rooms.
According to divisional quality assurance manager Tom Smith, the upgrades are directly related to contamination control requirements for the company`s cooked and refrigerated products, which include roasted chicken, luncheon meats and imitation seafood. There is an increased emphasis on microbiological control even in raw food areas, Smith says. “We`re redirecting our emphasis to provide as sterile a product as we can.” After the upgrades are completed, the company`s plants may more closely model the pharmaceutical industry.
Food processors will use the same contamination control products and services that are used by the microelectronics and pharmaceutical industries. Dr. Möller says that laminar air flow technology, currently unknown in the food industry, will give processors a cheap way to create a completely sterile area. Other products may have to be modified to meet specific requirements. In 1990, HEFCO (Louisville, KY) modified an existing air filtration product to meet mushroom growers` needs. The company also counts users in the poultry, beverage (beer brewing) and ostrich industries. HEFCO acquired these food customers without any marketing effort, and company officials now believe the food industry will be a growth market. Marketing Director Don Davidson says the company plans to hit the food market next year with a focused advertising campaign.
Gloves have been sold to the food industry for years, but the market has really taken off since the AIDS epidemic. “It`s a gigantic business for us for certain types of products,” says Roger Gass, vice president of sales and marketing for CT International (San Luis Obispo, CA). The company`s marketing strategy is to attract distributors who do business in the food preparation, food testing and food service markets.
Other suppliers reporting food industry users include Safeskin Corp. (San Diego, CA), maker of specialized latex gloves; Clestra Cleanroom Inc. (N. Syracuse, NY), which manufactures modular cleanrooms and laminar flow equipment; Coast Scientific (San Diego, CA), which distributes contamination control equipment to food manufacturers for R&D, testing and processing; and HIAC/ROYCO (Silver Spring, MD), which sells its particle counter equipment to the potable water, yogurt and aseptic packaging industries.
In the short-term, pricing may be an obstacle to opening the market. “Cost is a primary issue with this market. They are generally looking for an economical product,” says Robbi Rizzo, product manager for CT International`s scientific division. n