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Communication breakdown

01-Mar-2006

Communication breakdown

Cleaning factories would be a whole lot easier and quicker if engineers thought more about hygienic plant design, says Elaine Watson

Sometimes a couple of inches can make all the difference ... especially when it comes to hygienic factory design. Unfortunately, thinking about how cleaners are going to navigate your plant with a pressure washer is not usually uppermost in the minds of most engineers working on new factories, says John Holah, head of food hygiene at Campden and Chorleywood Food Research Association (CCFRA).

"Machinery is improving. You only have to look at the EHEDG [European Hygienic Engineering & Design Group] website to see that there are hundreds of suppliers whose equipment is certified as complying with hygienic design criteria. But the same cannot be said of plant design. People who design factories do not have a basic training in hygienic plant design, so you still get poor accessibility and points where food can get trapped."

While some companies work closely with cleaning firms when they design new plants and extensions or install new equipment, most do not, claims Philip Shaw, director at cleaning business Initial Foodguard. "It's frustrating that we are not involved at an earlier stage, because sometimes another few inches of clearance around a machine can make a world of difference."

"Now and again," adds Bob Cannell at rival cleaning firm The Hygiene Group, "a switched-on client will involve you with plant design. But it's pretty rare." To be fair, he says, most chilled food plants are fairly well designed in order to avoid hidden traps for food and micro-organisms, not least because of more stringent criteria in the British Retail Consortium (BRC) Global Standard and new Chilled Food Association guidelines.

"But you still have factories making snacks or biscuits or baked goods where they have these huge static pieces of equipment joined by conveyors, which are a nightmare to clean. You get dead spaces with no access. The bane of our lives is having to dismantle equipment."

Steve McGregor, business development director at Compass subsidiary ESS-UK, which has just picked up a major contract with United Biscuits, is more upbeat, however. "At some client sites, we get involved right from the start with regards to bringing plants off line for cleaning. Liaising with engineers and line managers we are then able to highlight any issues in advance that we may anticipate or have previously encountered, such as having to build in longer cleaning times due to plant design."

Making plants as easy to clean as possible is now doubly important as factories operate such long hours, adds Shaw. "Once upon a time factories shut down every night and packed up at weekends. Not any more. We've got plants literally running every hour of every day, with one eight-hour break on Christmas day, which means the windows of opportunity for cleaning are dramatically closing."

Not that this means hygiene has gone out of the window, he stresses, just that cleaning schedules have to be more flexible. "If a plant gets a large order, they will crank up to a 16-hour day at a moment's notice, which means you've got to completely re-do your schedule."

When it comes to the nature of cleaning schedules, however, there is a surprising lack of consistency, says Holah at CCFRA. While hygiene requirements are enshrined in food safety legislation and industry certification schemes, he says, schemes like the BRC Global Standard do not actually provide detailed schedules outlining how to clean your factory in order to meet the standards.

"None of the auditing schemes go anywhere near describing what the cleaning schedules should be," he says. "There are particular concerns that schedules from some of the US cleaning firms do not go as far as they should in high risk plants in the UK because they are based on the requirements of the US market, which doesn't have such a big chilled industry."

To tackle such concerns, CCFRA is currently developing sector-specific cleaning schedules that should be ready by the year end, he says. "Underpinning this is work looking at where the emphasis of control should be. There are three vectors of contamination: contact between surfaces; bacteria from the air; and liquid contamination. If we know which is the most frequent source of contamination, we can target resources more effectively. As data currently suggests that direct contact is the biggest problem, for example, more money should be targeted at hand washing."

You can probably find listeria in most plants if you look hard enough, and pseudomonas is also common, says food safety expert Dr Slim Dinsdale. "However, things have improved enormously in recent years because robust hygiene systems are used in a due diligence defence if something goes wrong."

Given that most food manufacturers already have hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP)-based hygiene systems, they should also comply with new hygiene legislation on the microbiological criteria of foodstuffs that came in on January 1, adds Jenny Morris, policy officer at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.

A more pressing concern is that cleaning budgets are often the first thing to be squeezed when firms need to cut costs, which can lead to false economies, says Dave Barker at powered cleaning machines supplier Nilfisk-Alto.

High-pressure cleaners, for example, are cheaper to use than low pressure ones as they are quicker and use less water, he says. However, the greater the water pressure, the more likely you are to create an aerosol effect, whereby fine droplets of water spraying from nozzles can deposit bacteria several metres away, ruining the best-laid hygiene plans and costing businesses twice as much in the long run. Again, while mists can be reduced through special nozzles or using bactericide in water, these things all have a cost attached.

When it comes to cleaning techniques, the trend is toward using less water (becoming more expensive to buy, treat and pour away), and fewer chemicals, says Stuart McNeil, technical manager of Gramos Applied, which supplies cleaning and hygiene products. This means fewer firms are cleaning factories by blasting everything with hot water and bleach, which can create a damp environment that helps pathogens flourish, he says.

It has also led to an increase in alternative methods such as cryogenic cleaning, steam cleaning, ozone water treatments and UV disinfection. Historically, it has been hard to build a business case for cryogenic cleaning (blasting equipment with pellets of frozen carbon dioxide to lift off contaminants).

However costs are coming down, claims Craig Booth, UK sales director at Icevent Technology, whose dry ice blasting equipment is used by manufacturers including Cadbury Trebor Bassett and British Bakeries.

"A decade ago," he claims, "you could pay £3 for a kilo of dry ice. Now it's about 60p. Likewise, blasting machines also used to cost £20,000; now we're supplying them for less than £7,000."

The advantages are clear, he says: reduced cleaning time, minimised dismantling, protection and clear-up, and no damage to electrical, mechanical and softer substrates.

One factory manager recently estimated that 60% of his faults were due to cleaning water ingress to electrical components, adds Booth. "Faults like this can cost thousands of pounds in downtime, which suddenly makes the economics of dry ice far more compelling." FM

PEST CONTROL: fry them or freeze them

With methylbromide-based fumigation now banned and insecticides out of favour, manufacturers are increasingly turning to new technologies that fry or freeze our six-legged friends.

Brian Duffin, operations manager at pest control expert Rokill, which has been successfully trialling its heat treatment technology at Young's Brewery in London, says: "You can set everything up, heat up a sheeted area while the rest of your plant is still running, clear up and you're out in five hours. While it might seem expensive, the cost of spraying chemicals all over your equipment or shutting down your factory for days to fumigate are also extremely high.

"Unlike insecticides, heat treatment also kills eggs, larvae, pupae and adult pests."

The alternative is freezing the little blighters, says Jeff Callaghan at Insect-O-Cuter, which has exclusive UK distribution rights for the Cryonite liquid carbon dioxide pest control technology that literally freezes insects to death. Ideal if you're looking to avoid chemicals and downtime, says Callaghan, who has conducted successful trials with several leading UK food manufacturers.

Chilling also happens so quickly that condensation doesn't form. However, staff need specialist training to use it properly. Spraying freezing carbon dioxide into the air might make your factory look like a nightclub, but it won't kill pests, he says. "People do have a tendency to use it like a firehose. The secret is targeting the problem area."

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