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Automated cleaning – a help or a hinderance?

13 May 2018

Peter Littleton looks at the pros and cons of automated cleaning of food production equipment. 

Automated cleaning is a hygiene activity or regime which requires little or no human intervention to achieve a full detergent clean. It is often followed by a disinfection process which aims to deliver the item of equipment to a suitable condition to be returned to food contact duties. Examples include tray or rack washers, through to fully automated Clean in Place (CIP) installations and the new generation of self-cleaning robotic food handling/processing equipment. All automated cleaning processes will share similarities in the mechanics of cleaning as well as common pitfalls, areas of concern and benefits.

Starting with the positives: Let’s first review ways to get the best from equipment. It is a given that the clean delivered by an automated regime has been successfully validated, sometimes during the commissioning phase of installation, to ensure that food debris along with any contaminants – such as micro-organisms, allergens or physical debris – have been fully eliminated or removed. This validation process must have been conducted using worst-case scenario levels of contamination and processing conditions and undertaken in triplicate to ensure the validity of the results.  The conditions, parameters and settings (such as concentration, temperature, residence times, etc) must then be maintained to avoid invalidating the exercise and necessitating its repetition, for example, if a new allergenic ingredient is introduced or the chemical regime is altered. These parameters will also form the basis of the verification regime which is required by all third-party standards from retailers and the BRC Global Standard for Food Safety (both Issue 7 and forth-coming Issue 8) which is required to be undertaken at a frequency determined by risk assessment to ensure that the clean has achieved the desired results and has worked.

In what may appear to be a contradictory statement, operators of newly commissioned automated cleaning equipment, particularly CIP installations, would be well advised to review the parameters stipulated with a view to carrying out an optimisation exercise. This is because the original specification may be generous to ensure that the desired cleaning result can be achieved. Many CIP installations can be optimised, using specialist software or skilled personnel, to provide the automation engineers with revised operating parameters, such as rinse times, valve opening times, etc, which still provide a suitable clean while also delivering savings on water, chemical, power or effluent discharges. This is, however, a specialist task which should only be entrusted to those with the right skills or equipment to deliver a new regime validated to ensure food safety and integrity.  The training of personnel involved in operating automated cleaning regimes is also key to ensuring that they fully understand how the equipment works and the implications of unauthorised adjustments or ‘short cuts’. 

A new addition to the stable of training from the Society of Food Hygiene & Technology offers an overview of the range of automated cleaning regimes available, the techniques for assessing them, and the common areas of failure or problem. The ‘Automated Cleaning: Help or Hinderance’ course, will take place at the society’s Staffordshire headquarters on 7th June 2018.

The training event will address automated cleaning regimes  problems, which mostly stem from two sources – engineering and operation. When considering the engineering aspect this could be the result of issues with the design or build of the equipment, for example inaccurately specified pipe diameters or spray-device sizes, or the well-intentioned modification or retrofitting of equipment which may not take fully into account the flow dynamics, operation of the equipment or the size/form of the equipment being cleaned.  This could include the addition of pipe-work spurs in CIP equipment to facilitate future expansion or addition of new lines, tanks, etc, which may then be capped off, thereby introducing dead-legs where contamination may build-up resulting on intermittent infection. 

Other examples could include the replacement of rotating spray devices with static units which deliver a different spray pattern, replacement of pumpsets which may not deliver the same flow rate (a higher flow rate can be as problematic as a reduced flow rate and can even result in equipment damage).

Operational problems
Operational problems can range from automated equipment being used to clean items or equipment outside of the original design specification – for example strip-curtains being fed through a traywash unit leading to jamming or damage to the often aluminium-based retaining plates or the plastic itself getting caught and torn; or operators being able to log in to control panels using common and well known passwords to speed up or shorten aspects of the clean.  These adjustments can lead to incomplete cleaning and will increase the risk of contamination, potentially reducing the safety of the product.  

A further consideration is the reliance that can be placed on the efficacy of the cleaning regime to deliver equipment of a condition suitable for the safe manufacture of food, dairy or beverage products. By this, I mean that, while a regime has been fully validated, the process of verification is vital to ensure that the desired parameters are still being met. Has the clean actually worked? This may be clarified simply by a visual examination (opening a man-way in a tank for example to check for shadow areas using a UV torch), or by taking rinse water samples for assessment using ATP-based technology to look for residual organic or bacterial debris via microbiological analysis.

Increasingly, we are seeing the introduction of robotic equipment in the food processing sector with developments in pick-and-place equipment that is able to handle small articles quickly and accurately, assembling delicate food products such as cakes, biscuits and sandwiches. The use of this equipment brings with it new hygiene challenges through the inclusion of sensors, wiring and a variety of moving parts with minimal visibility and an even greater reliance on the included cleaning regime to deliver the required standards.  I have seen a range of equipment – from excellent through to worrying – but generally, if the cleaning regime is properly specified, designed and followed, the standards that can be achieved are excellent with the added possibility that the line can be run without human intervention, allowing the processing environment to be maintained at lower temperatures or even in modified atmosphere which can reduce the risk of pathogen multiplication, extending shelf-life and reducing the need to excessive packaging. 

We are some way from Dalek style robotic cleaning but the thought of R2-D2 rolling around the production area foaming equipment as he went is certainly enough to put a smile on many a hygiene manager’s face!”

Peter Littleton is training service director at The Society of Food Hygiene & Technology (SOFHT) and technical director at Christeyns Food Hygiene.

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