Controlled Environments Grow Food Industry Profits

Controlled Environments Grow Food Industry Profits

By Susan English

We believe the food industry is the next frontier–and the next frontier for the food industry will be fresher, less-processed food.” These words, uttered by a former food industry executive, now manufacturing manager of a company that markets air handling systems to the food industry, highlight the potential for cleanrooms, or controlled environments, in this dynamic industry. Demand for longer shelf-life products and the threat of broader-based FDA/USDA regulation are even now driving industry profit margins. Nowhere is this more evident than in the meat industry, where processing more often than not takes place in HEPA-filtered cleanrooms or “positive pressure” rooms vs. the cold, stagnant–and contaminated–air supplied by refrigeration systems. Listeria, Salmonella, Campylobacter and–always in the news, E.coli–as well as a myriad of other microorganisms, cause a significant number of foodborne illnesses each year. Researchers estimate that up to 33 million Americans–roughly 14 percent of the population–become ill from microorganisms in their food each year. Microbial foodborne disease is the number one food safety hazard, with estimates of a $4.5 billion impact in medical costs and lost productivity in the U.S. each year.

The major focus of contamination control in the food industry is on the prevention of cross-contamination between ready-to-eat or finished products and raw materials–whether raw meat or milk. It`s no secret that concern for control of these contaminants is extremely high in the public mind. In response to the furor over recent outbreaks of E.coli 0157:H7 and Salmonella, the FDA and USDA have stepped up their pressure on food processors. By improving its own inspection procedures and expanding existing sanitation programs like the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs on a national level, the government is forcing food processors to upgrade their facilities to ensure the safety of the food supply. One of the biggest challenges has been to get smaller companies with limited resources and technological capabilities to invest in HACCP. Industry efforts to meet the challenge have largely centered on various methods of sterilization and on new and better microbiological testing. These methods include steam vacuum systems, steam pasteurization, cold pasteurization, ozonation, antimicrobial rinses, hot water washes, the spraying of carcasses with a phosphate solution, chlorination, hydrostatic and hyperbaric pressure, irradiation and rapid testing.

Alan Ismond of Aqua-Terra Consultants (Seattle,WA), however, believes that pathogens in food are a symptom rather than the root problem. Ismond, an aquaculture consultant with a mechanical engineering background, says pathogens are “the symptom of adulterated cultivation or rearing methods that result in foods with increased vulnerability to microbial and insect degradation.” While food may be pathogen free immediately after sterilization, such as treatment with ionizing irradiation, the danger of recontamination is now greater for these products because competing organisms have been wiped out. He links this “inferior product” to degenerative health problems for the humans who consume it. He says: “In the frenzied race for least-cost production and ever-increasing profits, producers have compromised the quality of plants and animals at the farm level.”

Many industry observers believe that resources might be better spent controlling process hazards at process inception through the use of controlled environments rather than on “reactive”–and expensive terminal sterilization or spot check methods further down the line. “It may be more prudent to spend your resources up front than on microbiological testing,” says Jeff Rhodehamel, a former FDA official.

How the food industry defines a “cleanroom”

Food industry “cleanrooms” are clearly less “clean” than those found in semiconductor fabs or pharmaceutical labs, and as such, they are not classified in the same way. Some of the cleaner process areas in the meat processing or cultured dairy products industries may be roughly equivalent to Class 100 or better. Hixson (Cincinnati, OH), an engineering and architectural firm specializing in the design and construction of food and pharmaceutical plants, divides its state-of-the-art facilities into two classes according to what it terms a “Hierarchy of Space.” Class 1 designates the most critical areas, usually a packaging area located in the middle of the facility, where there is “open” or finished product, such as an aseptic filling or meat processing area. Air handling systems include HEPA filtration–what the industry refers to as “micro” filters–and positive pressure. Equipment is mostly stainless steel, and insulated ferrous piping metals have impervious coverings (used in both Class 1 and Class 2 rooms). There are no horizontal surfaces to collect dust. Temperature and humidity are strictly controlled, and HVAC equipment is designed for easy washdown. Ductwork has access doors for cleaning, drains are stainless steel, and floors are positively sloped.

Class 2 environments include the areas adjacent to filling or processing areas, such as the raw processing rooms or the secondary packaging and palletizing areas. They do not generally have a high level of filtration. Galvanized rather than stainless steel is used. A third category comprises the outer areas of the plant, non-critical functions such as warehousing, dry storage and utility areas. Even in these areas, some clients will specify air handling systems with some measure of filtration. They subscribe to Hixson`s “hierarchy of space” theory, which holds that if the non-critical areas of the plant are properly controlled, it will be that much easier to control the Class 2 areas, in turn, making it easier to control the core Class 1 areas.

Food processors are concerned with the spread of bacteria, yeasts and mold that grow in the moist conditions of processing areas and are carried by air currents throughout the food plant. Lewis Edwards, manufacturing manager at Air Control, Inc. (Henderson, NC), and a former executive with Heinz USA (Holland, MI), sees a bright future for clean air technology throughout all aspects of the food industry. “Most food processing systems are reactive. They try to eliminate the bacteria by applying heat (pasteurization) or refrigeration (flash freezing). But if you use downflow [air] systems to bathe the entire area in clean air to begin with, your chances of contamination are drastically reduced.” Basically, he believes the industry will migrate to the realization that the economy will be to keep the air in the immediate vicinity of the food being processed clean, which will reduce bacteria count. “And it`s cheaper to do it at the beginning than to do it on a spot basis,” he says.

Another advantage is a better, fresher food product. “It`s a given that if you pasteurize food–i.e., bring the temperature to 200&#176F and then hold it for three minutes–that gives you a product that has been `cooked.` Maybe then you cook it when you take it home for dinner, but would you have to cook it that long if the air that surrounded the process were cleaner?” he asks. Hixson vice president and project manager Chris Harmon says some food industry clients are “strong believers” in HEPA filtration, while others don`t think they need it. Mike Steur, who is in charge of business development for food, dairy and pharmaceuticals at Hixson, says not unlike other industries, there exist many levels of cleanliness within the food industry. “Bakeries tend to be less stringent in their systems and facilities` sanitation requirements than the dairy industry. And even within the dairy industry, fluid milk facility requirements would not be as high as for yogurt or cultured milk, where bacterial activity is more intense.” Harmon agrees it would be “very commonplace” in a yogurt facility to see HEPA filters, but far less so in a fluid milk facility. “And you`d seldom see it in a bakery,” he says. Baking being a “dry process,” infestation–bugs in the flour–is the primary issue. Dairy is “wet” processing, with the attendant bacteria plate count problems aggravated by high humidity and moisture, he explains.

Meat plants have historically lagged behind other food industry segments in the hierarchical chain of cleanroom classifications. One reason for this is that instead of using makeup air, the environment is often kept refrigerated at 40&#176 or 45&#176F and recycled again and again to keep refrigeration costs at a minimum. However, Harmon says, over the last five to ten years, there`s been “a huge shift” in that area because the USDA “is making a big push to force these people to put in proper systems with filtration, pressurization and outside air.” In some specialized applications, airlocks and pass-thru`s, as well as gowning rooms, are used and entry is restricted. Some form of gowning is required in most processing facilities, and personnel are required to wear hairnets, beardnets, and rubber boots. Walk-off mats and footbaths are also used to clean boots and shoes, and repetitive handwashing is standard procedure. Extended shelf-life products are developed in these specialized areas.

Extended shelf life and regional markets shift profitability zones

Hixson vice president Chris Harmon says increasing the shelf life of a food product reaps significant profit benefits because it enables products to travel longer distances to market. “If you go into a store and the code date on the item is tomorrow, you`ve got a different perception of the freshness of that product vs. the one that`s code-dated two weeks from now. The quality level may be the same, but your perception is going to be a little bit different. That`s a big issue,” he says. Another driver is the consolidation of retail food outlets. With fewer “mom-and-pop” stores, processors tend to deal with wholesale or regional warehousing. “Instead of selling directly to 10 mom-and-pop stores,” he says, “you might sell to one regional warehouse, and then the small stores order the toilet paper, the Wheaties and the processed foods all from that warehouse.” To compete in that environment, he says, products have to have longer shelf lives because it takes longer for products to get through the system to their final destination. Harmon sums it up: “Our job is to understand the customer`s operational philosophy, determine what is necessary, and apply the right level of technology to the right plant.”

Meat industry adopts cleanrooms

The Excel Division of Cargill Inc.`s Meat Sector (Wichita, KS), one of the top three meat processors in the country, has cleanrooms in all its “further process” meat plants. According to Todd McAloon, food safety manager, the company likes to think of itself as “proactive.” Its cleanrooms have been around for a long time, he says, and were upgraded within the last five to seven years. Four years ago, HACCP programs were instituted into all slaughter plants, before the government began talking about mandatory requirements. “In our cleanrooms for exposed cooked meat products, we typically shoot for one-micron [level of cleanliness] using HEPA filters with 99 percent efficiency. In the raw area, we go for 50 microns with our plant makeup air. Some of our locations will also use UV light systems along with the filtration, and rooms are positively pressurized to force air to flow out all openings, so there`s no crossover from raw to cooked product areas.” When food retailers look at potential suppliers, they look for a physical separation between these two areas and between personnel working in those areas.

Another meat processor, Alpha Meat Packing (South Gate, CA), is working towards ISO 9000 certification. The company features a line of 48 beef, pork and lamb case-ready products which it sells to major food store chains in California and parts of Nevada. Responding to the USDA`s “zero tolerance” edict, the company went so far as to shrinkwrap its lamb carcasses in a food grade wrap. “What we did to be proactive and stay ahead of the regulatory curve was put the same restrictions on our lamb carcasses as were required for beef–because the only full carcasses that come into our facility here are lamb. The carcasses are wrapped in groups of five, from neck to shank, to protect them from vehicular and plant traffic. No matter how big your facility is, you`re always going to have foot traffic, forklift traffic, and hand jack traffic, and you might recontaminate the already clean carcass,” says Steve Sayer, Alpha`s plant manager. The company not only has a thorough microbiological testing program and on-line ATP (adenosine triphosphate) testing, it also performs a voluntary mid-shift cleanup. Compressed air lines contain microfilters that are changed every six months. The company bases its standard operating procedures and GMPs on the USDA`s Inspection System Guide book of inspection codes. Also planned is a new antibacterial plant flooring containing agents that penetrate the cell walls of microorganisms, disrupting their ability to function, grow and reproduce.

The beverage industry

Last year, the bottled water industry came under regulation for the first time, when the National Soft Drink Association issued industry-wide regulations governing bottled water. Shortly afterwards, the FDA issued its own rule, to go into effect on May 13, 1996, virtually requiring operations to be performed in a cleanroom. The FDA rule also prescribes “adequate ventilation to minimize condensation in processing rooms, bottling rooms, and in container washing and sanitizing areas.” Most of the major beverage companies require a cleanroom containing positive pressure. Floors, walls and ceilings are made of smooth, chemical-resistant materials that are easily cleanable. Because of the damp atmosphere in bottling plants, acid-resistant brick floors, glass walls and special ceiling materials are ideal.

Filtration is essential in maintaining a clean atmosphere around the filter. Besides the use of filtered air, efforts are made to remove as much equipment as possible from filling and bottling/canning areas and to limit the traffic to and from these areas. Duane Stensrud, president of S&S Systems (Olympia, WA), a turnkey cleanroom builder who has designed and built cleanrooms for Coors Beer (Golden, CO), Pepsi (Olympia, WA) and Coca-Cola in several locations, says that the industry is researching the possibility of aseptic filling of juices and teas. Carbonated soft drinks do not require aseptic filling because of the addition of CO2 to the product. However, non-carbonated juices, teas, etc., require either “hot fill” or aseptic filling to eliminate microorganisms without resorting to the use of artificial preservatives. If it can be accomplished, aseptic filling will result in considerable industry-wide savings. It will allow cold filling in a regular PET bottle vs. hot filling in a glass or heat-set PET bottle. Glass is heavy and breakable and PET bottles, like the ones containing Pepsi and Coke, are expensive. Also, they will melt when filled at temperatures of 190&#176 to 195&#176F. The product is instead “flash pasteurized” and then cold filled–aseptically processed. The process is complicated, says Stensrud, but “worth millions of dollars to the beverage industry to get there.”

Another problem is that workers in some plants can only operate in bottling environments for a limited period of time because of noise levels that are well over the maximum levels allowed by OSHA, (from 85 to 100 decibels). Also, they can contain harmful levels of CO2 which, in some cases, cannot be entirely eliminated even with proper air changes. In new facilities, S&S has introduced the use of modular filling rooms and glass-walled cleanrooms. These have proved to be economical as well as practical, because the operator can work outside the filling room the majority of the time. At one such facility, the Columbia Beverage Co. (Tumwater, WA), a Pepsi canning and bottling facility, the HVAC systems, whose job it is to maintain acceptable levels of CO2 in the rooms, were engineered for 10 changes of air per hour under positive pressure. A 48 percent reduction in filler room size saved Columbia about $272,000 in construction costs, and in ongoing energy, maintenance, labor and chemical costs. The glass walls are also a deterrent to product tampering.

Milk is one of the most widely distributed, as well as most critical food products. Bacteria love it, and for that reason, it has always been the most highly regulated segment of the food industry. Over the last 30 years, the shelf life of milk has gone from a week or a week and a half to three weeks or longer, while UHT (ultra high temperature) processed milk boasts a shelf life of from 45 to 60 days to one year. “The problem,” says Dave Blumquist of Ecolab (St. Paul, MN) “is not that the milk product will become contaminated, but that the packaging will break down or the product will pick up undesirable `off flavors` from chemical breakdown. For example, the fat will start to oxidize.”

The first essential point of control in a dairy plant is people, according to Bill Coleman, assistant director of the Dairy & Food Inspection Division of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Workers wear company-provided uniforms that do not leave the plant, as well as hair and beard restraints. They also use foot sanitation baths before entering process areas. Handwashing and hand sanitation is always “a big program” with the dairy industry, he says. Gloves are used in the handling of product when wrapping cheeses or boxing novelties, and all food contact surfaces must meet 3A sanitary standards for construction and material. (3A “Standards and Accepted Practices,” formulated by the cooperative efforts of industry and regulatory groups, set forth criteria for the cleanability of dairy and food processing and egg processing equipment.) “It`s been pretty much shown that contamination in a dairy product comes after pasteurization–or recontamination–and so you`re looking for all the critical control points that would have the potential to recontaminate the product after pasteurization,” says Coleman.

Clean protocols are strictly adhered to from the time the milk arrives at stainless steel processing plants, where workers clad in “whites” and rubber boots unload the milk into silos. Lines and tanks utilize CIP and COP (clean-out-of-place) systems that circulate water and cleaning solutions through all parts of the system. Milk is blown out of tanks by UV sterilized air. Listeria, a problem that has reared its head from time to time in the dairy industry, is an organism that grows around drains. For that reason, the industry has set up a very controlled drain construction cleaning and sanitation program which has been very important to the ice cream and fluid industry, Coleman says.

Another problem over the years, particularly for cottage cheese producers, he says–and the one which ushered the use of cleanrooms into the dairy industry–is phage control. Phage is a mostly airborne virus that attacks and destroys starter culture–the bacterial cells or lactic organisms that make up a cheese or yogurt culture. Says Coleman: “Some have started off with a very simple, positive-air type situation, and others have gone beyond that to microfilters.” Concern extends to spoilage organisms as well as pathogens.

Although the FDA/USDA`s HACCP program has been around for 25 years, of the 7,400 meat and poultry plants that are federally inspected, less than 300 to 400 are truly practicing its principles, according to Russell Cross, director of the International HACCP Alliance and former administrator of the FDA`s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Speaking at the 1995 annual meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), Cross advocated a national (mandatory) HACCP program: “When children can die from eating ground beef, which represents almost half the total beef consumption in this country, we need to do more to control pathogens. We must acknowledge that we still have an unacceptable level of foodborne illness in this country and worldwide.” An article entitled “Industry Still A Long Way From Adopting HACCP” by the editor of Meat Processing Magazine (October 1995) cites the fact that the U.S. is “falling behind” the European Union (EU) in scientific-based meat inspection. Evidently, EU countries have already been wrestling with the problem of integrating HACCP into ISO 9000 standards. (ISO 9000 stipulates specific requirements for implementing HACCP.) Industry observers are convinced that the integration of the HACCP process control system and the ISO quality management system offers the safest–and most profitable–food safety program.n

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No preservatives, additives, sulfites, MSG or irradiation are used in the production of packaged salads from Fresh Express Farms, where temperatures are maintained between 34&#176-36&#176F to ensure shelf life. Credit: Fresh Express Farms (Salinas, CA)

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Hawaiian-grown mangoes are shipped to an Isomedix irradiator plant in Morton Grove, IL for treatment before being distributed to mainland markets. Credit: Dept. of Agriculture, State of Hawaii

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CO2 chilling is used for a variety of applications in the baking industry, where speed of chilling, together with precise temperature control, is essential in dough and batter-mixing applications to preserve the integrity of ingredients such as butter or shortening. Credit: Liquid Carbonic, A Praxair Company (Oakbrook, IL)

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An example of form, fill and seal machinery utilizing “natural sterilization,” (no refrigeration or chemicals) this microprocessor-controlled steam aseptic system from Hassia uses saturated steam to package sterilized milk, puddings, yogurt, fruit juices and other longer shelf-life foods, in thermoformed containers. Cup and lid material are sterilized in special steam chambers and then pre-sealed to the bottom web to seal the package. Credit: Hassia USA Inc. (Somerville, NJ

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In this architectural rendering of a cleanroom designed for use in a sanitary processing area, cleanability is enhanced by locating utility equipment in a mezzanine above the processing area. Equipment is housed in a dry, heated environment and is directly accessible from the roof.

Credit: Hixson

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The glass-walled filling/bottling room at Columbia Beverage Co. (Tumwater, WA) houses two can fillers. Just outside, the operator monitors the fillers and feeds lids to a rotary in-feed machine, then to the seamer, which seals the lids on the cans in this Pepsi facility.

Credit: S&S Systems, Inc.

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Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a public health agency in the USDA, evaluates and sets standards for food ingredients, additives and compounds.

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The food industry is one of the harshest environments there is because of the need for frequent washdowns with high caustic solutions, compounded by food processing procedures. The new meat processing pilot plant at Danisco Ingredients USA (New Century, KS) is designed for testing and formulating meat and poultry products, utilizing the company`s range of carageenans, alginates and savory flavors. These Arcoplast wall and ceiling systems can be steam treated and are made of fiberglass-reinforced plastic with airtight joints instead of rivets or moldings that cause contamination.

Credit: Tufco International, Inc. (Gentry, AR)

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Metal detectors like this wide aperture machine from Safeline Metal Detection (Tampa, FL) installed in the Dixon Tom-A-Toe companies (Atlanta, GA), are used to detect objects like metal tags and lead shot in meat; barbed wire in wheat; tractor parts in vegetables; hooks in fish; staples and wire strapping from material containers. The inspection of raw materials eliminates many large, easily detected pieces before they are broken into many, difficult-to-detect fragments. Also, personnel effects like jewelry or buttons, maintenance items like screwdrivers, welding slag copper wire offcuts metal shavings from pipe repair and miscellaneous items resulting from inefficient cleanup or carelessness. In-plant processing hazards include crushers, mixers, blenders, slicers and broken machine parts, etc.

Credit: Safeline Metal Detection (Tampa, FL)

Testing–the “race is on”


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