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Not cool: the hidden temperature control danger

06 February 2017

After hygiene, precise temperature control is probably the greatest consideration for the food and beverage industry, both in terms of regulating the working environment as well as specific production processes.  

According Brent Hall, technical manager at ICS Cool Energy, many manufacturers mistakenly overlook an important element of their cooling systems which could pose a serious contamination risk.

Glycol is a staple in all chiller-based cooling systems operating below 6°C. it is an anti-freeze solution with built-in inhibitors to prevent the heat transfer fluid damaging chiller systems. 

Used throughout industry in secondary refrigeration systems, glycol can be separated into two main categories – mono-ethylene glycol (MEG) and mono propylene glycol. Most food processing plants are aware of the high toxicity levels of MEG and it is therefore rightly overlooked in favour of MPG for all food-related applications.

An MPG can offer a low oral toxicity levels and for the last 20-30 years it has been perceived as the safe solution where there is a risk of incidental contact with food. Indeed, MPG, as a compound, is used in some food colourings and flavourings, as well as in e-cigarettes. 

However, MPG is fundamentally very corrosive. While it represents minimal risk to humans, an MPG, even when diluted with water, can be highly corrosive when it meets metallic elements, such as aluminium, copper and steel, found within a chiller system. Therefore, the majority of suppliers recommend the use of inhibitors to counteract the corrosive nature of the glycol, and this is commonly accepted within the food and beverage processing sector. 

The hidden toxins 
While these inhibitors are necessary to ensure the chiller system is able to operate efficiently and effectively, many of these commonly-used inhibitors do not offer the same levels of low toxicity as MPG. 

Crucially, the glycol inhibitor toxicity information is frequently not reflected in the safety data sheets due to the relatively low volumes used, so they too are missed by the end-user. 

An uninhibited MPG and water solution would not pose a risk of poisoning if a leak were to occur and it came into contact with a product intended for human consumption. The same cannot be said, however, if the heat transfer fluid has been treated with the majority of anti-corrosion inhibitors available on the market. Ultimately, using the wrong inhibitors means the MPG solution creates a serious risk of contamination. 

So, how should the food processing industry tackle this potential contamination risk? Awareness is the first step, according to Hall and he urges all food and beverage manufacturers to check with their current glycol supplier whether the substance poses a contamination risk if it were to come into incidental contact with food.

Next, consult with industry bodies. There are a number of organisations which can offer guidance on ‘food safe’ products, with the National Science Foundation (NSF) being a key authority. The NSF can provide a list of products which are accredited as safe to use in food processing applications, and can therefore provide a reliable alternative to MPGs with potentially toxic inhibitors. 

These products, which include the NSF-accredited FlowCool-FS glycol from ICS Cool Energy, feature organic inhibitors which can guarantee the required levels of corrosion prevention and thermal efficiency, without posing a risk to human health if inadvertently consumed. These organic inhibitors have been developed by a team of skilled chemists which, when combined with an MPG, will offer end-users the desired peace of mind when it comes to avoiding potentially poisonous contamination. 

The food processing industry is, rightly, a risk-averse market sector. One small leak can cost a company its credibility and share of the market, and it is becoming increasingly hard to recover reputational damage in such a fast-paced and competitive market. In 2000, for example, 86,000 pounds of sliced and packaged turkey was recalled after consumers complained the product was off-odour, off-flavour and caused temporary intestinal discomfort after consumption. Testing proved that the product had been contaminated with non-food grade thermal fluid. To ensure consumer safety isn't compromised, food and drink manufacturers should always use thermal fluid suitable for incidental contact with products. 

Glycol is an ever-present fixture in most cooling systems in food and beverage processing plants across the country. However, many manufacturers may unwittingly be exposing themselves to serious contamination risks if a leak were to occur and the glycol used was treated with potentially harmful inhibitors. 

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