By Justin Kadis, Business Development, Federal Equipment Company
Food contamination is a major concern for consumers, the food processing industry, public health professionals and regulatory bodies. Contaminated food can endanger the health of consumers, and product recalls can be devastating to food manufacturers. Beyond the cost of the recall itself, a recall attributable to contamination can lead to the closing of entire facilities and complete shutdown of production. Companies must take a proactive approach to food contamination, building hygienic procedures and controls into their processes to minimize contamination risk. It is essential that food is processed using the safest and most dependable equipment, that the equipment and facility are properly maintained and cleaned, and that potential risks are monitored and mitigated throughout the supply chain.
Sources of Contamination
While there are countless potential sources of food contamination, most fall under one of four broad categories: biological, chemical, physical, and cross-contamination.
Biological contamination occurs when bacteria or toxins produced as bacterial waste contaminate food and is a common cause of food poisoning and spoilage. Bacteria thrive in foods that are moist and have neutral pH and/or high levels of starch or proteins, including seafood, cooked rice or pasta, and dairy. Temperatures between 5 °C and 60 °C allow for maximal bacterial growth. Bacteria present in raw foods before processing can multiply during processing and storage unless proper procedures to minimize bacterial growth are observed. The bacterial species that pose the greatest threats to consumers are Escherichia coli, Salmonella enterica, Listeria monocytogenes and Cronobacter spp.1
Processed foods can undergo chemical contamination at many different points in the supply chain and throughout processing. Chemical contamination may be present in raw foods before processing. Potential sources include agrochemicals, such as fertilizers and pesticides; toxic heavy metals present in air, soil and water; vehicle exhausts during transportation; and antibiotic residues from animal farming. Cleaning and disinfecting chemicals used to minimize biological contamination during food processing can leave unsafe chemical residues that can contaminate food. Toxic compounds can be formed during heating, grilling, canning, hydrolysis, or fermentation steps, including acrylamide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.2
Physical contamination occurs when objects contaminate food, often carrying bacteria that cause biological contamination. Similarly, cross-contamination refers to the transfer of microbes from one object to another; typically, this occurs when raw food or an object that has come into contact with raw food contacts cooked or ready-to-eat food.
Biological contamination (including cross-contamination) is by far the most common cause for the recall of food products, reflecting about half of all recalls in recent years, with physical and chemical contamination each causing 5–10% of recalls. Since the cost of a single recall can potentially lead to the shutdown of an entire facility, not to mention pose health risks to the public, it is critical that the food processing industry takes every possible precaution to eliminate contamination.
Evolving Contamination Risks
The globalization of the food supply chain has led to an explosion of food choices for consumers and reduced costs for suppliers. However, it has also significantly increased the threat of food contamination. Each link on the supply chain creates new opportunities for contamination. Contamination can already be present in raw foods, and it can be introduced during transport of raw materials to the factory; conditioning, including preheating, disinfection, cleaning and sterilization; heating (e.g., boiling, cooking, baking, frying); packaging; transport of packaged food; and storage and distribution.
Additionally, some contemporary consumer pressures are complicating efforts to eliminate food contamination. Consumers are becoming increasingly wary of preservatives –– such as potassium and sodium lactates and diacetates in processed meat –– and irradiation, two popular industry approaches to fight biological contamination, because of perceived health risks. At the same time, consumers continue to push manufacturers to reduce salt and sugar in processed foods, which would make foods healthier choices for consumers, but also more fertile environments for microbial growth. Similarly, consumer perceptions of the benefits of fresh versus frozen food and raw versus cooked vegetables reduce some of the best safeguards against contamination –– freezing and cooking.
Food contamination is a primary concern for consumers as well as manufacturers and regulatory bodies. Considerable effort has been devoted to the development of analytics to detect and identify contaminants in food. Target analysis is more feasible when the likely contaminants are known; screening for undetermined contaminants requires more comprehensive analytical techniques, such as mass spectrometry.
Historically, food poisoning outbreaks could only be assessed locally, tracing affected consumers back to a common source. However, technological advancements have facilitated the genetic characterization of pathogens involved in outbreaks, which allows pathologists to link disparate cases to a single bacterial strain and ultimately the source of the contamination. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as well as university groups, maintain bacterial genome databases. If a bacterial strain in one of these databases is associated with food poisoning in a patient, a report can be sent to all food companies in the network, informing them of the potential contamination link. In 2011, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which provided the food industry with best practices to ensure the safety of the food supply and protect food processing companies from the cost of recalls. The FSMA mandates that companies take a proactive approach to contamination risks rather than merely respond to outbreaks once they have occurred.3,4
Hygienic Processing Equipment
Processing equipment, tools, and operators are primary sources of contamination in food processing facilities. Food processing equipment must be designed and maintained to minimize contamination risk. Many steps in food processing involve warm and wet environments in which bacteria thrive, so cleaning and disinfecting procedures are critical. However, the design of the equipment itself is paramount, as the materials used, the roughness of food contact surfaces, and the presence of crevices or dead areas can have a significant impact on the ability of microbes to evade cleaning processes or of cleaning residues to remain on equipment. Food processing equipment engineers must weigh concerns about operating efficiency against the imperative to protect companies and consumers from contamination and devastating recalls.
Materials used in equipment that contact food must be inert to both the product being processed and the detergents and antimicrobial chemicals used in cleaning. They must be resistant to corrosion and mechanically stable, with smooth, non-porous surfaces that can be easily cleaned. Stainless steel is typically the material of choice for most food processing equipment and is recommended whenever possible. Titanium-based equipment may be more effective than stainless steel for processing corrosive products containing high levels of salt or acid, while certain plastics, such as acetyl resin, can also be safely used.4
Care must be taken in designing equipment to eliminate or minimize the presence of crevices. Crevices cannot be easily cleaned and create opportunities for food products to collect, which can allow growth of microbes that are shielded from cleaning and disinfection. Points of metal-to-metal contact other than welds can create deep and inaccessible crevices and must be avoided.
Another consideration for food processing equipment is whether a given machine is pneumatic, hydraulic, or electric. Each has its advantages and may be best suited to different tasks, and a combination of all three is often required for complex processing equipment. From a food contamination risk–avoidance perspective, pneumatic components are preferred when possible, owing to the comparative cleanliness of air versus hydraulic fluids, the simplicity of their design, and the relative ease of cleaning.
All components that come into contact with food, as well as many that do not but still pose an indirect contamination risk, must be properly cleaned and sterilized (i.e., rinse, clean, rinse, sanitize). Appropriate cleaning and disinfecting agents must be chosen that will kill microbial pathogens without leaving any potential chemical contamination residues. The quality of the water used in the cleaning process is also critical. Water used to clean food processing equipment must be potable and free of pathogens. To protect equipment from corrosion, which can contribute to or facilitate contamination, the water should be maximally free of impurities like oxygen and carbon dioxide, carbonates, chlorides, and high or low pH.4
Importance of a Dependable Equipment Supplier
When upgrading a production line, it is critical that operators are trained to take full advantage of the capabilities of the new systems and to maintain appropriate hygienic controls. Strategic partnerships with equipment suppliers can ensure that individuals at different levels of the company structure, from operators to executives, are prepared to make the most out of the equipment itself and the wealth of information generated and to anticipate future equipment needs.
A strategic partnership with an equipment supplier can facilitate the procurement of the most appropriate equipment, but it can also help the manufacturer with the disposition of equipment assets that are no longer appropriate or cannot be optimally integrated with new technology and software. Such assets can be redeployed to other production lines or facilities with different needs or sold to other companies, and a strategic partner can help determine the most appropriate course of action.
The second-hand equipment market provides food manufacturers with immediately available machinery that promotes process upgrades and capacity expansions with reduced lead-times for specification, delivery, and installation compared with primary suppliers. Key considerations in the decision to procure used equipment include finding a reputable dealer with an appropriate range of equipment from world-leading manufacturers in inventory that also possesses the appropriate expertise in industry trends, logistics, and industry-leading process innovations to help clients make the most informed strategic decisions.
Federal Equipment Company is a dependable partner with the experience and skills needed to help clients with many of the crucial considerations for constructing clean, hygienic food processing operations. We can help customers choose and procure equipment alternatives and sell off equipment assets rendered obsolete and can assist in managing the entire process, including the logistics of equipment removal and installation.
Federal Equipment Company offers value-added services, including operator training and equipment decontamination. We offer our customers a validated, three-step decontamination process that assures that equipment is 99.9999% free of potentially harmful pathogens and contaminants, including β-lactam antibiotics.
- Pendrous, Rick. “Cross-contamination and mislabeling causes most product recalls.” Food Manufacture. 9 Jan. 2014. Web.
- Nerín, Cristina, Margarita Aznar, Daniel Carrizo. “Food contamination during food process.” Trends in Food Science & Technology. 48:63–68 (2016).
- Kowitt, Beth. “Why Our Food Keeps Making Us Sick.” Fortune. 6 May 2016. Web.
- Scherzinger, Jerry. “Stainless Steel and Contamination Prevention in Food and Beverage Equipment.” Food Manufacturing. 18 May 2016. Web.