The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversee safe operations at food processing and packaging facilities. These regulatory agencies control the supply of meat, poultry, eggs and other food products. While the recommendations and guidelines of each organization may differ, their common intent is to establish sanitary principles in food processing and handling. Together, they ensure that equipment used in processing and handling food products is designed with sanitary principles in mind. From cleanability to daily sanitation, food handling and processing equipment must meet stringent sanitation regulations to pass inspections and ensure compliance.
While these government agencies have mostly been reactive when it comes to establishing policies, a movement towards preventative policies is underway that will surely impact the way food processing and handling facilities operate today.
Sanitation & Hygiene Regulations for Food Production and Processing Facilities
The safe processing and handling of food products is at the heart of the standards established by the FDA and the USDA. Surfaces and equipment that come in contact with food products such as raw meat or milk must not only be easy to clean and sanitize, but also have surfaces that naturally inhibit food adhesion and bacterial growth. For this purpose, the FDA and the USDA propose specific standards to help ensure sanitary surfaces and reduce the harboring of bacteria.
In the dairy and egg industry, 3A Sanitary Standards demand similar finishes. The Standards specify a #4 finish for microfinishes and mechanical polishing to insure high levels of hygiene and keeping processing areas clean. Grade-A farms producing milk, too, have stringent requirements even to the point of restricting what materials milk can come in contact with. From dispensers to milking systems, stainless steel is specified as the material of choice.
Stainless steel has also become the material of choice for meat processing facilities such as slaughterhouses. Unlike other metals, stainless steel does not corrode nor does it add byproducts to food. It is also easy to clean and sanitize.
When it comes to food production or processing, extreme sanitation is necessary to achieve the final stamp of approval before going to market.
Cleanability Requirements for Food Packaging Plants
For food packaging facilities, cleanability of equipment is the primary concern. Oftentimes, facilities process multiple food products on the same equipment. For example, a plant may process both beef and chicken. When changing out and switching the product being processed, it’s important that equipment be highly cleanable. Moreover, equipment must prevent food adhesion, which can lead to development of bacteria. In cases where food adhesion is a problem, build-up from food and biofilms can lead to bacteria growth. Not only can food adhesion create the perfect environment for bacteria growth, it can also mean inefficiencies in production due to cleaning times and a potential for cross-contamination.
To ensure cleanliness and prevent cross-contamination, and thus ensuring better food quality, regulatory bodies recommend superior finish on processing equipment and parts.
Identifying the Risk for Foodborne Illnesses
Foodborne illnesses are often the focus of public news. From cruise ships to lettuce farms, the spread of potentially harmful bacteria such as salmonella or E. coli has caused fear in consumers. While many foodborne illnesses are tied to unsafe handling, the production of food itself can be another origin for harmful bacteria.
In the area of meat processing, wire racks, mixers, grinders, hoppers, pumps, augers, bacon hangers, valves, nozzles, fittings, agitators, chutes and, of course, blades are of extreme importance when it comes to ensuring sanitation. The clean and sanitary surface of these instruments and equipment is critical to preventing foodborne illnesses. Wire racks, for example, are welded. Before coming into contact with food, wire racks much be processed to remove weld discoloration and contaminants. Proper finishing on racks prevents corrosion in welded areas.
Electropolishing as the Preferred Finishing Treatment
As a single-process treatment, electropolishing is often recommended as the preferred finishing process for food applications. Often referred to as reverse-plating, electropolishing treatments improve part performance and lifespan. Parts and equipment that undergo electropolishing benefit from:
- Improved corrosion resistance
- Removal of contaminants and impurities
- A passive and clean surface
- Improved cleanability
- Removal of weld discoloration
- Resistance to food product adhesion resulting in reduced build-up of bacterial biofilms
- Removal of burrs to prevent metal flecks from getting into food
Due to its many benefits, electropolishing is oftentimes the recommended and specified final metal finishing method by the FDA and the USDA.
Electropolishing vs. Other Finishing Methods
Finishing methods have changed over the years. Plating and coatings, for example, were popular methods years ago. These include nickel plating and Teflon coatings. While they were intended to prevent adhesion, they come with their own set of problems. Peeling, and removal of material in the case of Teflon, is a major concern with these two methods. Although both are durable, abrasives can easily damage the surfaces and cause unwanted peeling and breaking that can end up in the processed product. Durability is also an issue when it comes to plastics, an alternative to metal parts and equipment. Due to its more fragile nature, sanitation methods are highly restricted as harsh chemicals and bleaches can easily damage plastics.
Passivation, a citric or nitric acid bath process designed to improve corrosion resistance of stainless steel parts, is another specified finishing method. While passivation improves corrosion resistance, it lacks the additional benefits of electropolishing. Not only does electropolishing offer superior cleaning, higher levels of corrosion resistance, and creates a naturally smoother finish that prevents adhesion, it prolongs the life span of parts and equipment. The improved performance and longer life span benefits of electropolishing far outweigh the finishing costs. Deterioration of parts or frequent part replacement can lead to reduced or slow production, resulting in reduced output and profits for any company. Moreover, risks of foodborne illnesses and potential lawsuits from subpar finishing methods can far outweigh minimal cost differences between these methods and electropolishing.
As a superior finishing method, electropolishing can be used on just about any alloy and offers many additional benefits that not only aid food processing and packaging facilities meet stringent sanitation and hygiene regulations, but also ultimately help support regulatory bodies’ mission to ensure the safe and sanitary processing and handling of food, making food processing and handling safer for everyone.