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Ensuring hygiene in automated environments

20 December 2021

Eric Partington discusses the importance of ensuring hygiene when considering automated solutions in food production environments. 

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As we seek to reduce operator intervention in the production of foodstuffs, more companies are considering automation. However, thought still needs to be given to critical issues such as materials, design and hygiene.  

Understanding the CE mark
The CE mark on a piece of equipment is not an indication of quality, or of its having been manufactured in the EU. It is a guarantee from the equipment manufacturer that the item meets all the regulations applicable to it in the country in which it is to be used. In the EU these include not only the obvious electrical regulations and noise regulations, for example, but also the Framework Regulation EC 1935/2004 (which controls the materials which will be in contact with a food product) and the Machinery Directive 2006/42 EC (which requires food-processing equipment to be hygienically-designed). Only manufacturers who can provide proof of compliance with all the applicable legislation are allowed to attach the CE mark to their product.

Now that the UK has left the EU, the requirements of the Framework Regulation have been embodied in UK Statutory Instrument 2619 and those of the Machinery Directive in Statutory Instrument 1597.  The CE mark is gradually being replaced by the UKCA mark and by 1 January 2023 the transition to compliance with those Statutory Instruments must be complete and only the UKCA mark used.  It is therefore advisable when considering the purchase of a piece of food-processing equipment to ask the manufacturer to confirm all the legislation he can document that his equipment complies with.

• Suppliers are not psychics: The advised selection of food contact materials is crucial. Suppliers of equipment do need to be given technical information about both the food product and the cleaning regime that the equipment will be expected to encounter.  Specifying that a pump or valve will be ‘for food use’ is not good enough! Nor is ‘FDA- or NSF-approved’ - it is the UK standards and legislation which must be met.

• Hygienic design is worth good money: While there may be a premium for buying a piece of equipment which has been engineered to be hygienic, (for example, to resist the build-up of contamination and to be easy to clean between production runs) the life-time reductions in the cleaning downtime, in water and detergent consumption, in the energy required and in the resultant effluent burden will more than justify that cost.

• Specify CIP for the 'worst case': Manufacturers of food-processing equipment are required to recommend for each item they sell a procedure for cleaning it. But a clean-in-place (CIP) circuit may comprise a number of items, each with its own 'ideal' cleaning regime. And these may be linked by pipework for which there are no recommended procedures. The CIP procedure should be tailored so as to clean not only each individual item but also the inter-connecting pipework as this may incorporate tight bends and dead-ends and side arms which cannot be cleaned as easily and quickly.

• Don't always believe a green light: Even a well-controlled CIP routine may not remain 100% effective and efficient forever-and-a-day.  There is an initial requirement to develop a validated cleaning procedure which is demonstrably capable of achieving the level of decontamination required.  It is then important to apply that validated procedure and to monitor every time that it really is being followed.  Only when that procedure has been completed successfully should it be possible for the green light to come on, signalling that production may recommence.  Additionally, it is necessary to verify at regular intervals that the procedure is still doing its job, (for example, through a review of monitoring records) and to keep records of these actions.

If we are to leave control of the production of our food to a CPU, we must have given it the very best equipment - and the best instructions - we can.

Eric Partington is Chairman of the Regional Section of the European Hygienic Engineering and Design Group (EHEDG) which serves the UK & Ireland.  

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