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Looking at the big hygiene picture

22 February 2024

Michelle Locke looks at the puzzle pieces that need to come together when selecting hygienic furniture to ensure a hygienic environment is created and maintained.

It is often said that ‘the devil is in the detail’ and nowhere is that truer than in a food processing environment, where the tiniest microbe can quickly multiply and become a huge bacterial issue.

But, while the details cannot be overlooked, when planning, refurbishing or reconfiguring a food production facility, taking a big picture view from outset is vital to create a hygienic culture that permeates your whole business. Take a 360° view.

When planning a new facility or introducing new equipment to a manufacturing space, it’s important that all stakeholders communicate openly about what is needed and what impact any changes could have on the business. Engineering or purchasing departments that adopt a collaborative approach with other in-house specialists, such as cleaning and maintenance teams, often gain from their experience and insight when it comes to installing new furniture and equipment.

Consider the current cost of cleaning. Will new furniture or equipment – or perhaps an automated approach – increase or reduce that cost? Will the proposed new equipment eliminate or minimise the hygiene risks that currently exist or could it generate new problems? How complex is machine access needed to conduct microbe tests?

By actively seeking the input of every department – such as stores management, production, finance, health and safety, technical and HR – specifiers can fully assess the risks and rewards of the planned investment and generate a robust project plan that addresses the needs of the entire business.

Corrosion resistance
‘Food grade furniture’ is an easy phrase to use, but what does it actually mean? It should mean equipment that is easy to clean, can withstand the chemicals utilised within the cleaning process without suffering corrosion and the risk of bacteria growth is minimised. Cheaper steels, such as mild steel, can decay over time due to the corrosive nature of cleaning agents and food itself. Corrosion not only compromises the structural integrity of furniture and equipment but can also lead to the contamination of ingredients and end products. 304-grade stainless steel's inherent robustness ensures it can withstand harsh cleaning regimes and remain free from rust, preserving the hygienic integrity of the production process. In addition, stainless steel's smooth, non-porous surface prevents the accumulation of microorganisms and biofilms, reducing the potential for pathogenic growth.

Good design for good hygiene
But design and manufacture go hand in hand. If furniture is manufactured with even the tiniest of dirt harbourage points –such as unnecessary ledges, hidden corners, poor welds, or hard to reach areas – it will inevitably be harder and more time consuming to clean. If food particles are allowed to lurk, microbes can have a field day, spreading at an exponential rate and putting your hygienic environment at risk. Managing microbes such as listeria means paying particular attention to any areas where there are inert liquids. This includes drains and boot washers but can apply to any flat surface or ledge where liquids can pool, such as in environments where condensation builds on the roof and can drip down onto machines and furniture. Other risk points are those where there are regular spillages, such as production lines. A sensible response is to use furniture with sloping surfaces to ensure liquids run off. This avoids unnecessary pooling of both food waste and cleaning solutions, both of which can be a hygiene risk if left unattended.

When it comes to clean down time, the fiddlier something is to clean or the harder it is to reach, the longer it takes to clean. While a clean-as-you-go culture is important to instil in the production team, best practice is always to have a dedicated hygiene team, so that exceptional cleaning is seen as a priority, rather than being treated as an extra job by the production team. Consider how easy each piece of equipment and furniture is to clean. Removing any items that are obvious time stealers will not only save money but will also reduce risk.

The resistance of stainless steel to corrosion makes it compatible with a wide range of sanitation methods, including high temperature washing and chemical disinfection. This provides more options and further minimises the risk of microbial contamination. Every piece of equipment needs to be able to hold its own, enabling efficient and effective clean downs. It is vital to select kit that is ‘perfect for purpose’ and by that I mean purposely designed to fit in to your processes. For example, in an automated environment, has your computer console been designed to prevent water ingress so that it can be easily washed down? When evaluating the cost benefits of new equipment, consider its anticipated lifespan. Based on this, are the expected ROI timescales reasonable?

Washdown flow
Ineffective washdown flow is not only a major time stealer but can have a dangerous impact on microbe management. Cleaning and washdown flow should always be included from the start of the project plan.

For example, when using a dedicated washdown area, having a clear route for staff to follow between production and washroom areas can avoid unnecessary cross contamination and time-wasting. Dirty items left in a corner, ready to be moved to a dedicated cleandown room, quickly become a contamination risk as microbes multiply unsupervised. Do you log your equipment in and out for cleaning? Do you tag each item, so it is clearly identifiable as clean or dirty?

If operating cleaning-in-place will you have the right tools and equipment to complement full washdown for your equipment and machinery? Will operators be able to safely access all areas?

By asking tough questions and planning and investing up front in smart cleaning processes that actively support a hygienic approach, there is an opportunity to make meaningful savings on your production and cleaning costs. There is danger of superficial ignorance when it comes to hygiene and cleaning. Faced with the knowledge that a more expensive piece of equipment, which has been designed to be as risk free as possible, could save 10 minutes a day on cleaning, some specifiers may not see the value in that additional investment. But consider 60 hours saved over the course of a year: that is time that could be used for additional production resulting in greater profitability. Always look at the big picture: all the small details add up to bring huge business benefits.

Michelle Locke is product and marketing manager at Teknomek.

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