Safeguarding the hygienic integrity of produce within today’s large-scale food and beverage facilities is becoming an ever more complex task—as plants get bigger, demand becomes more intense, and clients expectations increase.
Yet as these manufacturing and logistical challenges are evolving, so too are the cleanliness and quality standards that businesses are required to meet to ensure that contaminants, unwanted microbes, and harmful bacteria don’t creep into the food chain.
Not only is minimizing contamination incidents a priority for earning the trust of retailers and consumers, but governments are also expecting both domestic and foreign businesses to conform to the same high standard in order to protect against foodborne illness outbreaks.
For food that has traveled across vast distances, this means closely scrutinizing the conditions at every point of the foodstuffs journey, including where it is grown, manufactured, processed, packaged, stored, transported, and sold.
Unwanted bacteria, mold, fungi, dust, and grime can potentially enter at a variety of stages and from a variety of sources, however few areas of any facility will be as at risk as the floor area. Gravity will cause the majority of contaminants to end up on the floor at some point and hazardous microbes can enter under the shoes of employees or on the wheels of equipment.
The importance of maintaining a hygienic floor finish was exemplified recently, as an unclean floor played a key role in the disastrous Listeria outbreak at the cantaloupe producers Jensen Farms, which led to 33 fatalities, 142 hospitalized victims, the end of the business, and a criminal record for the farm owners.
Hygienic Flooring Properties
To minimize these threats, it is essential that the floor is seamless and impervious, as otherwise the germs will build up within any hard to clean gaps or cracks in the floor’s surface. Once this has started to happen, harmful microbes can spread to other parts of the facility, infiltrating the equipment, spoiling produce, and potentially becoming the start of a foodborne illness.
Coving will be required at the edge of the floor to create a seamless transition between it and the wall. Without this, substances can get trapped in the space between the two surfaces, where it can become a contamination threat over time. Coving also significantly aids the wash down process by containing the water and making it easy for the site’s cleaners to wash around the sides and corners of the room.
Excess water poses another problem to food facilities as if it starts to pool and stagnate, it can become a prime site for unsanitary microbes and substances to colonize. Floors therefore need to be pitched to a fall with stainless steel drainage incorporated into the finish to ensure that any liquids can easily flow out of the working environment.
While it is important for the floor to be easy-to-clean, this criterion may be at odds with another crucial consideration—slip resistance. Food and beverage facilities are often wet places in which to work, meaning that an anti-slip finish is vital to keep staff and visitors safe. However, a roughly textured surface can impede the effectiveness of the cleaning regime; therefore a compromise may need to be made when heavy slip resistance and ease of cleaning are both of critical importance.
Incorporating antibacterial additives into the floor is a good way to further minimize the risk from contaminants. Different flooring materials will deliver the bactericidal property in different ways, from chemically treated surfaces to incorporating a natural agent within the finish. The efficacy and longevity of the bacteria killing property will vary depending on the option chosen. The ISO 22196 test method is the accepted food industry standard to ascertain the antibacterial effectiveness of plastics and other non-porous surfaces.
While often unconsidered, the floor’s color can be a useful asset to cut down on contamination and to make a facility safer. Bright signage can be used to create walkways that highlight the safest routes around the site while different zones can be given floors in contrasting colors to avoid cross-contamination. This type of color zoning can be beneficial in locations where, for example, raw and cooked meats are in close proximity to each other and the site operator wants to highlight the crucial difference between the two areas.
Food and Beverage Flooring Challenges
The floor will need to retain all the above properties for an extended period of time, as if any one of these elements is compromised then so too is the site’s sanitary integrity! And in the food industry there are a multitude of unavoidable factors that can easily degrade an insufficiently robust floor finish.
A wide variety of food products will inevitably spill onto the floor and could include fats, hot oils, blood, sugar, and natural food acids. These can cause substantial damage to surfaces that don’t have a high level of chemical resistance. Uncoated concrete for example will be corroded and quickly become porous in such an environment. These substances can even infiltrate concrete, resulting in microbial growth that is exceptionally difficult to eradicate once it has begun.
In addition, rigorous cleaning and maintenance processes including steam cleaning, pressure washing, hot water washdowns, and the use of aggressive cleaning agents can all place a significant amount of stress on the floor. If the floor is not coated, or the coating is not up to the task at hand, then these factors could eat into the surface, leaving it susceptible to bacterial penetration.
The amount and type of physical stress that goes into the floor will also need to be carefully considered, as heavy equipment and potential impacts from dropped tools can easily chip a weak surface. Areas likely to undergo heavy foot traffic or where wheeled equipment and forklift trucks are going to be moving across the floor need to ensure that the finish won’t crack when put under this level of strain.
Traffic loadings can be especially damaging, for example just a hand pallet truck when fully loaded could weigh over 2,000 pounds. When repeatedly moved, this will put a lot of pressure through the small wheels and into the floor, especially over areas where it is being pulled in a tight turning circle.
The floor’s impact resistance should be tailored to your environment, the higher the likelihood of a severe impact, the thicker the floor coating should be to protect the critical bond layer where the coating meets the concrete. The compressive strength of the floor system can be used to determine the suitability of the floor to the task at hand. Going back to the hand pallet truck scenario, a compressive strength of at least 40 to 50 newtons/square millimeters would be required.
Polymer Flooring Benefits
Many large-scale food industry facilities are utilizing polymer solutions to ensure that the floor finish provides the required properties, and that it will be able to maintain them for an extended period of time.
Polymer flooring systems are available in a wide range of formulations and can be specified to meet the different needs of the various working areas within a food and beverage facility, such as thickness, chemical resistance, slip resistance, color, and thermal shock resistance. Despite the variety of solutions, polymer floors share many common properties that make them highly applicable to the food industry, including being seamless, impervious, and robust.
Cementitious urethane floors are one of the best types of polymer flooring for production areas and for locations where the floor will be put under intense strain. This capability stems from its thick buildup and high cross-linked density, which means that it is able to effectively resist heavy impacts, corrosive chemicals, sudden extreme temperature changes, and other deteriorating factors.
A 1/4 to 3/8 inch thick cementitious urethane floor finish is particularly advantageous in areas prone to heavy impacts, as not only will it have a good chance of dissipating any impacts, but should a chip ever occur, then it would not progress down to the substrate.
This type of flooring also has excellent temperature resistance and a thermal coefficient of expansion similar to concrete, which means that it will move at the same rate as the underlying substrate during periods of thermal cycling. These properties make it especially advisable for cold stores, blast freezers, furnaces, and the space underneath hot ovens due to the inevitable long periods of exposure to extreme temperatures.
Antimicrobial additives can be incorporated within the polymer matrix of a cementitious urethane system in order to offer an advanced surface protection against harmful bacteria, mold, and yeasts. The Flowfresh range from Flowcrete Americas, for example, has a silver-ion based antibacterial agent homogenously distributed throughout the system’s resin matrix. The formulation complements regular floor cleaning and hygiene practices between wash cycles.
Methyl methacrylate (MMA) systems offer food manufacturing facilities certain performance advantages compared to alternative polymer materials. The most notable benefit is that MMA floors can cure at incredibly fast speeds and can be installed at extremely low temperatures—which is particularly advantageous for cold storage room renovations as it avoids having to bring the room up to an ambient temperature to recoat the floor.
MMA systems demonstrate a high level of resistance to a range of acids and alkalis and although they have a unique odor during installation, which can be a concern to facilities operators with produce in the vicinity, the odor is harmless and can be minimized during installation with proper ventilation.
The other main form of polymer floors are epoxies, which are typically trowel or roller applied, two- or three-component systems. Epoxies offer limited resistance to organic acids, which are found in a large quantity of natural foodstuffs. They also have a lower resistance to thermal shock, which makes them more susceptible to cracking and debonding in rigorous food and beverage environments.
Epoxies are a good choice for the non-processing zones of a food manufacturing site, such as the packaging, maintenance, staff break out areas, corridors, lobbies, and office spaces, as they will still provide the necessary properties to keep these parts of the building clean and free from contaminants.
HACCP International Certification
In North America, the USDA, FDA, and CFIA legally mandate facilities operating in the meat, poultry, and seafood sectors to implement food safety management systems based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles and hazard prevention. HACCP management systems help safeguard facilities from such things as spoiled produce and tainted equipment while protecting consumers from outbreaks of foodborne illness.
These guidelines state that a seamless and impervious finish must be maintained at all times, even when the floor is being subjected to a large-scale food processing facility’s intense working environment. To comply with HACCP, floors also need to allow for adequate drainage and cleaning.
Building materials that have attained HACCP International Certification have been evaluated to international standards and have been established as providing a set of key safety criteria for potential physical, chemical, and microbiological safety risks by a team of degree qualified food technologists and product assessors. This means that food and beverage producers operating a HACCP based food safety program can specify flooring materials, safe in the knowledge that they will meet the relevant regulatory authority’s standards for safe procurement, production, and processing as well as the requirements of the world’s leading quality and food safety standards.
HACCP International certification is a globally recognized benchmark of food safety, and as such is an important set of criteria for businesses eager to gain access to lucrative export markets.
Cost and Consequences
If a facility is going to be involved in processing, packaging, producing, or storing food and beverage produce, then the impact of the site’s future activity on the floor needs to be carefully considered to ensure that the everyday operations won’t deteriorate the floor finish and lead to an unhygienic, unsafe, and unsightly environment.
Failing to choose the right floor finish can have a long list of unwanted consequences for a food producer. Not only could a cracked, porous, or failing surface become a prime site for unsanitary bacteria buildup, but it can also make the site unsafe for staff and unable to meet government regulations, thereby incurring expensive renovation costs.
Once identified, it is important to discuss the demands that will be placed on the floor with the supplier and contractor to ensure that the specified solution will be able to provide a clean, safe, and effective surface for an extended period of time.
McNeece is managing director of Flowcrete Americas. Reach him at 936-539-6700.