Food factories’s future hygiene

The food factory of the future will have many demands on how its space is used as changes in consumer eating and buying impact on existing ways of manufacturing. Consumer demand for new kinds of food products – such as plant-based or ‘free from’ – to meet a range of dietary requirements for health issues, lifestyle choice or increased wellbeing has enabled many food manufacturers to broaden their portfolio, push NPD (new product development) boundaries and bring products to market at a faster speed than seen before.

While these opportunities are great news for the food manufacturing industry, expanding business output without adding square metres of workable space is the reality for many growing food companies, and it is not without its issues from a food hygiene perspective.

Inevitably this will have a knock-on effect on the type, frequency, and method of cleaning in food production areas.

Adding new product types to an existing range is exciting but also demanding and it isn’t a case of replacing ‘like for like’ in the factory environment. Trying to reach new consumers or ensure the fulfilment of their expectations needs to be carefully balanced with constant assurance of food safety and quality.

Using new and different ingredients in an existing production set-up may raise the likelihood and severity of hazards historically thought to be under control or typically suppressed by pre-existing controls in the factory environment controls which are not always relevant for new products.

The reality is that cleaning costs money; it is an essential step, but it does not add direct value to the product and often has hidden financial impacts such as the costs of water, heating, chemicals, increases speed in wear and tear of processing equipment, requires monitoring and formal validation study of cleaning.

When food manufacturers are rushing to introduce the latest product to meet consumer demand, the changes to cleaning protocols, training in new ways of cleaning, the right tools to use or the amount of time devoted to cleaning can sometimes be overlooked.

Simple and practical

Food manufacturers are looking for simple, practical solutions that will make cleaning regimes much simpler to implement and manage, particularly when they are introducing new kinds of ingredients, materials, and even new technologies onto a line.

Relying on systems to ensure hazard and risk control is complex but not impossible. Buy-in from all levels of the organisation is required and senior management commitment is crucial to ensure
sufficient support is given for new ways of working, staff training, education, additional equipment, as well as extra safety barriers needed, including of course, new cleaning regimes.

If introducing plant-based ingredients into the production line, the Plant-Based BRC Global Standard highlights the potential risk of cross-contamination by using common ingredients for non-plant-based and plant-based products. This assessment is particularly sound when assessing ways of producing when space constrains are a problem. Contamination can be easily transferred during storage, weighing of ingredients and sometimes stock control activities.

Traditional methods of control will play a vital part in ensuring the successful run of products with such different requirements, where it is highly likely that product contamination is the worst-case scenario when assessing risks in production.

So, what steps should be taken to ensure the cleaning implications of these new introductions are part of the project and that the team is on board in producing safe products?

Often, changes in cleaning activities are discussed and review after product introduction, due to a retrospective HACCP review or unfortunately, due to issues with product quality and safety. To ensure that improvements to accommodate introducing new products are given the appropriate level of importance at the right time, it is strongly recommended adding a “cleaning review” to the critical path within your product development (new – NPD and existing – EPD).

This means any shortcomings based on existing capabilities can be discussed with the project team, financial support can be agreed, and it allows cleaning to be given the necessary focus to ensure risks to product safety are managed during the product development and prior to completion of the project.

Better perspective

Where space is a limiting factor, discussions with the project team will also enable a re-think on better use of available space or allocation of additional space for cleaning tools, how to ensure cleaning of processing lines can take place without contaminating other areas and provide the project team with a better perspective of what it takes to produce a safe, wholesome product, supporting a true product safety culture.

The last thing any company wants is a product recall due to contaminated new product reaching its consumers. The key is to know your enemy and plan for control.

It is important to review any cross-contamination routes in the factory, taking into consideration flow of production, waste, personnel, and cleaning activities; how ingredients are handled and how best to plan production while minimising contamination risk. Running a plant-based line alongside traditional products for example means that cleaning is more important than ever. Maintaining cleaning segregation for different products supports the idea of creating different environments according to the hazards and risk for that specific run.

Utilising available knowledge (from members of HACCP multi-disciplined teams, suppliers’ expertise, professionals in the various areas, etc) will allow an assessment to be made on what piece of machinery is to be cleaned, known issues with particular food products can be discussed and will give the opportunity to look at the benefits and limitations of available cleaning tools to ensure the best decision can be made on changes to hygienic activities, avoiding excess expenditure with unsuitable solutions and providing a very robust plan of action to ensure the site is in control of its operations.

Segregation and the right tools

Mobile shadowboards with tools for specific use (vegan, gluten free, vegetarian, standard) are a good way of ensuring space in the production floor remains relevant. These will allow tools used for processing and cleaning to be wheeled in and out, washed and stored safely elsewhere. Colour coordinated product instructions are a great visual aid for users, with PPE of the same colour to support a clear ‘mindset segregation’ between operational teams, allowing re-adjustment of behaviour from one production to another.

Although a standard within the industry for some years, there are now specific references included in the BRC Retail Standard and UK Retailer Codes of Practice on using colour-coded cleaning tools to reduce the risk of cross-contamination in a factory environment.

Check your tools

Shadow boards can be tailored to describe the use of each tool, in many languages, allowing operators where English is not their main language to fully support systems in place and provide continuous compliance. Assigning specific coloured cleaning tools to areas to control allergen usage, high-risk and low-risk factory zones, floor cleaning and food contact equipment is looked upon favourably by customers, auditors, and inspectors.

They demonstrate that the manufacturer takes hygiene and cleaning seriously and organises procedures effectively in their business.

Check with your cleaning tools supplier about their advice in dealing with specific food products and any tools designed to tackle certain areas. Often suppliers have worked on projects with other customers and sharing these learnings will increase knowledge about the tools they promote but also help to raise the cleaning standard in food manufacturing.

There are many different solutions to ensure that cleaning tools are actively supporting improvements in cleaning.

Anti-microbial surfaces on cleaning tools are specifically designed to provide an extra safety barrier when preventing the growth and reducing the risk of bacterial cross-contamination. This improvement doesn’t replace the need of a well-thought-out and delivered cleaning regime, it is designed to add an additional level of protection for cleaning and product handling tools, making cleaning these tools more effective and minimising the transference of organisms from one area to the other, between cleaning tools and consequently from one type of product to another.

Check the design of cleaning tools. Tools that are manufactured using hygienic design can be great help in minimising foreign body contamination and transference to other areas. These improvements can be minimal changes to traditional designs but will make a big difference when trying to keep tools clean.

Further advances are being developed in cleaning and disinfection to support full product safety and integrity, some of them focused on the very issue of multi-use of factories.