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David Dixon

Food safety is a more wide-ranging topic than sanitary design, but paying close attention to the sanitary design of both equipment and facilities is one of the primary elements of food safety, along with Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls (HARPC), ingredient supply chains, processing and recipes. This article provides an overview of the various initiatives over the past 15 years that promote best practices.

Food safety is a subject that is top of mind with all food producers, due in part to the attention received by high-profile cases of foodborne illness and adulteration — outbreaks of illness associated with the Peanut Corporation of America and Chipotle, along with the adulteration of food produced in China, are a few instances worth noting. 

The potential negative impact on brands and stock price is a strong motivator. Further pressures come from customers, consumers and regulations. Industry groups such as the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, regulations such as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and customer quality programs such as Costco's all highlight food safety and sanitary design.

Most importantly, leaders in the food industry recognize their moral responsibility to produce safe food. Sanitary design is a critical prerequisite for food safety.

Overview of the History of Sanitary Design

It's been some time since the USDA ended its policy of reviewing and approving documents submitted prior to new construction or renovation. The best-known guidance sources at that time were the USDA “Blue Book,” Thomas Imholt’s “Engineering for Food Safety and Sanitation,” guidelines from various food companies and design manuals from engineering firms.

Consistently active during this period was Kraft Foods, which held training courses for vendors and suppliers selling to Kraft. A buyer could even specify “the Kraft standards” from certain equipment manufacturers. This led to the Equipment Design Task Force of the American Meat Institute (AMI), now the North American Meat Institute (NAMI).

In 2002, NAMI developed 10 principles of sanitary equipment design:

  1. Cleanable to a microbiological level
  2. Made of compatible materials
  3. Accessible for inspection, maintenance, cleaning and sanitation
  4. No product or liquid collection
  5. Hollow areas must be hermetically sealed
  6. Avoid niches, cracks and other harborages for microbiological growth
  7. Promote sanitation during operations
  8. Hygienic design of maintenance enclosures
  9. Hygienic compatibility with other plant systems
  10. Validated cleaning and sanitizing protocols

In 2004, NAMI championed the Facility Design Task Force (FDTF), which developed “Sanitary Design Principles for Facilities.” These eleven principles were best practices for facility designs and renovations:

  1. Distinct hygienic zones are established in the facility
  2. Control the movement of personnel and materials flows to reduce hazards
  3. Water accumulation is controlled inside the facility
  4. Room temperature and humidity are controlled
  5. Room air flow and room air quality are controlled
  6. Site elements should facilitate sanitary conditions
  7. Ensure that the building envelope facilitates sanitary conditions
  8. Interior spatial design promotes sanitation
  9. Building components and construction facilitate sanitary conditions
  10. Utility systems are designed to prevent contamination
  11. Sanitation is integrated into facility design

Following this, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) ran with the ball and modified the NAMI’s work to better address low-moisture foods operations. The GMA “Equipment Design Checklist for Low Moisture Foods” was released in 2009. The association’s Sanitation Working Group wrote a checklist to support and identify specifics of each of the 10 principles of sanitary design. Designers use the tool to help identify problems that limit the effectiveness of sanitation procedures.

Additionally, there have been a few sector-specific initiatives. The “Food Safety Guidelines for the Fresh Cut Produce Industry” became available in 2001, and the GMA issued the “Industry Handbook for Safe Processing of Nuts” almost a decade later. Also, there is AIB International, an organization that facilitates food safety for grain-based products and is a source of information on sanitary design and operations.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and 3A have developed standards and guidelines for equipment. The European Hygienic Engineering and Design Group (EHEDG) certifies equipment and issues guidelines for sanitary equipment design; 3A and UL also certify. Among the existing groups, there is competition — and perhaps more than a bit of confusion. One source that consolidates much of the available literature is Commercial Food Sanitation.

Of course, the FSMA and the associated Allergen Control and Food Defense elements of FSMA provide a strong motivation to implement sanitary design, but it is not prescriptive and does not require spec design approaches.

Investment in sanitary design is justified not just as a prerequisite for food safety, but as a way to lower operating costs. Equipment and facilities utilizing the best standards of sanitary design clean faster, with fewer chemicals, less labor and lower wastewater treatment costs. In many operations, yields are improved and scrap is reduced. Higher asset utilization results, and personnel safety is enhanced. Understanding and maximizing these links requires experience and expertise.

While the amount of information available to plant owners and operators has improved in recent years, it is not practical to assume that reading through the documents available on the FDA and other websites will be sufficient to ensure sanitary designs for equipment and facilities. Forward-thinking food companies will use a variety of resources, including third-party consultants, experienced designers and other specialists to ensure sanitary design success.

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