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Ensuring Hygiene in Meat and Poultry Inspection
Tuesday, 10 December, 2019, 16 : 00 PM [IST]
Siddharth Kachroo
Microbiological and cross-contamination in meat, poultry and seafood plants can prove a significant risk to human health, while causing enormous reputational and business damage: so the last thing any processor needs is for other safety-critical equipment to become a breeding ground. A look at how hygienically-designed equipment in tandem with suitable sanitisation programmes can prevent such incidents from taking place.

Hygiene is a crucial consideration in meat, poultry and seafood production plants, where large volumes of raw unpackaged food are commonly processed in highly-automated environments. Without the effective implementation of the most stringent sanitisation programmes, manufacturers run the risk of causing microbiological and cross-contamination, which can pose a significant risk to public health.

As well as endangering the lives of consumers, the repercussions of cross-contamination and microbiological outbreaks can also include loss of production caused by unplanned downtime and facility shutdowns, along with lost revenue and reputational damage resulting from adverse publicity.

It’s no surprise, then, that washdown regimes within plants that process animal proteins are rigorous and regular. Production lines are cleaned on a daily basis, often using chemicals and foaming agents, along with high-pressure water-jetting. Machinery needs to be able to withstand such arduous treatment - day-in, day-out - so that food processing lines can be returned to service without delay.

Such extreme environments mean that food processors need to give careful consideration to the selection of equipment, including product inspection systems used to prevent physical contamination, to ensure that it is fit-for-purpose. Investment in hygienically-designed metal detection systems, x-ray machines and checkweighers can help to ensure easy, cost-effective and reliable cleaning and maintenance programmes, playing a key role in preventing contamination incidents.

Equipment needs to be designed to prevent bacterial ingress, survival, growth and reproduction on both product and non-product contact surfaces, while the ability to easily dismantle equipment for cleaning and inspection is also extremely important. The use of smooth surfaces on product inspection equipment can also help to prevent pathogenic microorganism growth by making cleaning easier to carry out.

Fit-for-purpose indicators
To achieve such high levels of performance, product inspection equipment makers need to apply hygienic design principles throughout the development cycle, from initial CAD concepts all the way through to construction and commissioning. That’s because even the smallest design detail can end up making a big difference once machinery is in operation on the production line.

One of the first considerations is material choice. Product contact surfaces on metal detection systems and x-ray machines must be made from materials which are corrosion resistant, non-toxic and non-absorbent. Plated, painted and coated surfaces should not be used for food contact surfaces or for surfaces above product zone areas.

Stainless-steel construction is advisable as it offers corrosion resistance – whereas uncoated aluminium should be avoided as it dissolves in harsh wash-down environments. In addition, plastic-coated belt materials are preferred over cloth, which absorbs moisture and can harbour microorganism growth.

Avoiding water accumulation
Product inspection equipment should be designed to be self-draining; meaning that liquid from the product, cleaning process or condensation, which can harbour and promote the growth of bacteria, cannot accumulate, pool or condense. Machinery framework with a rounded profile, or inclined at 45 degrees, are a boon: but flat under-surfaces that are difficult to see or clean should be avoided.

Electrical enclosures and instrument housings should come with sloping tops to enable liquid run-off, while extendable stainless-steel feet should not contain any exposed screw threads to avoid liquid and bacteria traps. Equipment like metal detection systems and x-ray machines should also come with plenty of clearance under the supporting frames, to avoid liquid accumulation.

Belt tension, meanwhile, should be adequate throughout operations to prevent water pooling on belts, while side guides raised by 25mm from the belt allow for cleaning. Metal detection and x-ray systems must also be designed without ledges, while catch trays should feature ample drainage slots.

For checkweighers, horizontal surfaces have to be kept to an absolute minimum, which not only allows water to roll off but also reduces build-up of product particles or dirt in the first place. Vision inspection systems are also available where the vision enclosure is mounted on stand-offs, which minimises face-to-face contact with the sub-frame. In addition, the sub-frame is designed in a manner that uses clean design concepts, and is constructed out of round tubing which sheds water and minimises the pooling of water on the sub-frame.

Ensuring airtight sealing
Hermetic sealing is also used to boost hygiene standards. Hollow areas of equipment such as frames and rollers should be eliminated, whenever possible, or permanently sealed to eliminate water being pooled internally. Bolts, studs, mounting plates, brackets, junction boxes, name plates, end caps, sleeves and other such items should be continuously welded to the surface of the equipment, not attached via drilled and tapped holes.

Equipment parts should be free of niches such as pits, cracks, corrosion, recesses, open seams, gaps, lap seams, protruding ledges, inside threads, bolt rivets and dead ends. Welds should be flush and free of pits, cracks and corrosion. It is also advisable that internal angles should be 135 degrees or greater, and internal radii should be 3mm or greater. Internal angles of less than 55 degrees should be avoided as the area between the surfaces cannot be seen or cleaned.

Press and shrink fits should not be used as they have inherent gaps and can leak. Fasteners should not be used in or above the product contact zone as they are harbourage areas. In addition, there should be no exposed threads as these pose a contamination risk. Flanges should be welded, with gaps in welded seams to allow for free flow of cleaning solutions. Bolted joints should be gasketed and the gaskets visible to verify their presence. Belt scrapers should not have lap joints and must be capable of being removed without tools.

Selecting the right IP rating
Ingress protection is also a crucial consideration, with each industry having its own special set of requirements when it comes to the proven protection of electric enclosures of appliances, machines and installation materials against penetration by solids and liquids. In the meat, poultry and seafood sector, where high-temperature, high-pressure waterjets are often used as part of the sanitisation process, product inspection equipment is often required to have IP69K rating, providing protection against the rigorous washdown procedures.

The importance of accessibility for hygienically-designed equipment is a further consideration, which enables meat, poultry and seafood processors to maintain and repair machinery in the most effective manner. All parts of the product inspection equipment should be readily accessible for inspection, without the use of tools to avoid time-consuming dismantling and reassembly.

Parts should be easily removable by hand or with the use of simple hand tools, while other product contact areas such as reject bins and cable routing baskets should easily detach to assist with cleaning. In addition, tool-free belt removal and tensioning is advisable to allow for quick and easy sanitisation, maintenance and replacement of parts.

Finally, operational performance comes into play when it comes to hygiene. During normal operations, product inspection equipment must perform so that it does not contribute to unsanitary conditions or the harbourage of bacteria. This requires the careful design of components and parts that will be touched by the operator. Buttons on control panels should be easily cleanable, and the same applies to handles of associated equipment such as safeguards and covers.

In conclusion
At a top-line level, hygienic design can play a critical role in reducing the risk of microbiological and cross-contamination incidents in plants that process animal proteins, which in turn protects consumer health and eliminates the risk of reputational damage.

But there are other benefits too. Investing in equipment that is built with hygienic principles in mind can result in reduced overall maintenance costs and increased uptime. And that’s a pretty important factor when it comes to delivering increased operational efficiency and boosting the bottom line.

(The author is business manager, product inspection and global key accounts, Mettler Toledo)
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