There is no doubt how important it is for meat and poultry food processing equipment to satisfy strict hygienic design standards, ensuring everything on the manufacturing line can be cleaned and sanitized quickly and easily. While it is clear that ready-to-eat (RTE) food contact surfaces need to adhere to hygienic design standards in order to decrease the risk of contamination, it is critical that sensitive nonfood-contact surfaces comply as well. Packaging and coding equipment, as well as other smaller components such as sensors, electrical cords and ball bearings, are often overlooked despite the fact that there is not only the risk of environmental contamination but also the possibility of a shut-down should the facility fail inspection. As with food-contact surfaces, nonfood-contact surfaces have the potential to spread pathogens (especially Listeria monocytogenes), provide harborage areas for insects and rodents, and develop dangerous levels of rust and corrosion.

Harsh Washdowns Take Their Toll on Sensitive Equipment

In order to meet RTE hygienic design standards, there are different practices that meat and poultry processors must undertake including adherence to a stringent cleaning and sanitation program that brings the equipment back to its original condition. This helps prevent contaminants such as biological (e.g. pathogens), chemical (e.g. lubricating fluids, cleaning chemicals) and physical (e.g. glass, insects, metal) from adversely affecting the food product.  Whether a company handles the cleaning and sanitation internally, or hires an outside contractor, the process can be extremely tough on the equipment. Water temperatures can reach 140° F for cleaning and 180° F during the sanitizing process, and cleansers and sanitizers contain strong chemicals such as chlorinated alkaline and iodine. Coding and packaging equipment not properly designed for these harsh operating conditions can become severely damaged. Although some precautions can be taken to protect sensitive equipment, it only takes a small error during the washdown process for an expensive piece of equipment to be irreparably damaged or require expensive repairs.

Common Protection Methods Fall Short

Protecting sensitive equipment such as coders can be costly and time consuming for meat and poultry producers. In some instances, a manufacturer may uninstall the equipment before performing the area washdown and then re-install it.  It can take approximately 90 minutes to uninstall a printer on a production line, re-install it after the washdown is complete and realign and test the printer. Meat and poultry companies with several production lines face a significant time investment in the preparation for a washdown shift.

In other cases, the equipment may be covered with a plastic bag. While bagging potentially saves time, bags are often not sufficiently sealed or can be damaged by frequent handling or sharp edges on the production line. The result could be moisture and water damaging the equipment.  There is also the risk that the plastic bag itself could become contaminated, putting the plant at risk. Finally, some companies either purchase or build their own environmental enclosures.  Unfortunately, many of these enclosures provide a false sense of protection because they are often not designed for water protection and may have exposed gaps or inadequate seals to keep out steam, overspray and chemicals. Environmental cabinets can also be expensive and bulky, taking up significant space on a tight production line yet still exposing the equipment to potential damage.

In addition to water damage, another danger for meat and poultry producers is rust and corrosion.  According to the current Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and most regulatory inspection agencies around the world, all meat and poultry plant equipment, including package coders, must be free of rust and corrosion in order to prevent potential contamination of products. 

Buying Smart Now Saves on Future Hassles and Costs

There are options for meat and poultry processors looking to have their sensitive equipment adhere to hygienic design practices without a lot of hassle and cost. First, when purchasing new equipment, it is imperative to consider the Ingress Protection (IP) rating, which is a crucial factor for meat and poultry manufacturers who operate in wet washdown environments. In these processing facilities, it is suggested that the packaging equipment meet a minimum of an IP65 rating, which means it is dust protected and able to withstand low pressure jets of water.  It is also important to choose a coder designed for harsh conditions. Unlike un-rated coders, IP65 thermal transfer overprinting (TTO) coders can withstand overspray, splash and steam and are built more robustly than other printers. Additionally, manufacturers should not forget about the smaller components. Sensors and electrical cords also need to withstand the washdown process without risk of damage.  One of the most costly packaging and coding equipment malfunctions to repair is an electrical shortage due to a wet cord or plug.

For rust and corrosion prevention, stainless steel offers a significant advantage over the more commonly used aluminum. It is non-porous and non-corrosive with a higher resistance to rust from harsh cleaning agents due to its iron alloy made up of iron, chromium, nickel, manganese and copper. Sanitary food standards recommend a 316 SAE grade stainless steel (18% chromium and 10% nickel), which is superior to 304 SAE grade (18% chromium and 8% nickel) because of the addition of molybdenum. Molybdenum has the ability to withstand corrosion from many acids including chloride, sulfuric, hydrochloric, hydrofluoric and most organic compounds.  Purchasing stainless steel accessories such as brackets, stands and encoders is also a good practice to prevent rust, corrosion and potential contamination. Often these accessories are just as exposed to washdown chemicals as the equipment itself.

By purchasing coders that meet or exceed the IP65 rating and that are made of 316 SAE grade stainless steel, meat and poultry processors can make great strides in bringing the entire manufacturing line up to hygienic design standards while still protecting their equipment investment and maximizing uptime.