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Does your steam pass the taste test?

14 November 2016

Francisco Pedrosa explains why it is time for food and beverage manufacturers to take a quality-first approach to process steam. 

While the quality and purity of the steam used in pharmaceutical production and the healthcare industry may have been an important consideration for a number of years, the food and beverage sector has been much slower to analyse the type of steam it uses. 

The principles of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system have been widely known and implemented for some time. Indeed, since 1998 all food businesses have been legally bound to have a food safety management system based on the principles of HACCP. For manufacturers using steam in direct contact with their product – via steam injection, for example – HACCP helps to ensure the quality of the final product by identifying potential hazards and minimising associated risks. Despite this, there is a misplaced assumption among many food manufacturers that steam is an entirely clean commodity. 

In reality there are four different grades of steam, with each one suiting a range of different applications.

Steam grades
The steam quality spectrum ranges from plant steam which is the most common grade in process industry, with applications including precise temperature control for processing – to hot water production and onto pure steam, which is deemed safe for injection into the human body. 

Generally however, it is the two classifications between these extremes which are key to the purity debate in the food and beverage industry. 

One of these is filtered steam, which is often referred to as culinary steam, is essentially plant steam passed through a fine, stainless steel filter – generally a 5 micron element which removes 95% of all particles larger than 2 microns in size. While filtered steam is generally regarded as the minimum grade for food and beverage processing, it is vital to note that the filtration process only eliminates rust, pipe scale, and other corrosion-based particulates from finding their way into the end product. It is not designed to remove chemicals from the steam. 

This means that manufacturers injecting filtered steam into their product remain susceptible to contamination from chemicals used to treat the boiler feedwater or from cross contamination within the plant. Although these contaminants may not be as visible as the particulates generally captured by a filter, they can affect the taste and taint of the product in question, which may impact quality control and downstream supply chain activity.

The other grade of steam is Clean Steam, which is the highest grade for food and beverage applications and is typically raised from purified water in a dedicated clean steam generator. Clean steam should be considered for quality-critical processes.

Keeping it clean
The key to food manufacturers eliminating the risk of contamination is a more widespread use of clean steam. In contrast to both plant and filtered grades, clean steam is used as standard in a range of quality-critical processes. Rather than relying on a filtration process to extract particulates, production utilises a secondary steam generator with the ability to control feedwater quality. Clean steam requires the use of stainless steel pipework and components that eliminate the potential for corrosion of steam traps, valves, and pipeline equipment made from traditional carbon steel materials. 

Aside from the benefits that clean steam can bring, in terms of compliance, food technologists can also be assured of its ability to deliver consistent quality and flavour. Greater traceability is a real benefit to major retailers too, who we anticipate will also become much more aware of the effects filtered steam can have on the colour and taste of their products.

Setting the standard
Last year the Food Standards Agency reported 63 product recalls for a variety of reasons including labelling errors and production faults, which was just over double the equivalent number reported in 2014. With the enforced and voluntary recalls evidently on the rise, suppliers are clearly at risk of damaging relationships with stockists and affecting listings. This combination poses a very real threat of impacting the bottom line, particularly given that product recalls cost food producers an average of 9.4% of their annual revenue, according to a 2015 TUV SUD Safety Gauge study entitled ‘The importance of food safety’. 

Currently, there are minimal standards to control the quality or quantity of boiler chemicals that have the potential to enter the food process through the steam system. Since steam quality checks are often not put in place, the types of chemicals (food approved or not) and their concentration levels within the steam often remain unknown. The FDA does offer some guidance on the chemicals which can be used in food production and while these regulations are not recognised in Europe, chemicals approved to FDA standard are widely used in the food and beverage industry throughout Europe. The point to consider here is that although there may be a standard in place, it is neither mandatory, nor does it avoid the use of chemicals altogether.

With no specific legislation governing the quality of steam in commercial food and beverage production, manufacturers are free to take a discretionary approach to the purity of the steam they use. Using clean steam can offer benefits – greater compliance with stringent food safety standards – meeting legal obligations, and enhancing overall process productivity. Best of all however, clean steam has the potential to make a real impact on what matters most to the consumer – the taste of the end product.

Francisco Pedrosa is marketing product manager – Food & Beverage and Clean Steam at Spirax Sarco. 

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