“What we’re identifying is the importance of a complete system that provides accurate results to be verified by the customer and has a fast time-to-result,” he says. “Accuracy is most important factor. An Achilles heel can be a moving target in some plants, while others stay awake at night because they can’t find a problem.”
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Explore This IssueOctober/November 2013
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Eliminating the Cracks
One approach to minimizing bacteria and other organisms is to limit the places they can hide. This involves designing conveyor belts, drums, and other pieces of equipment and components that have fewer exposed surfaces, and in some cases, that use smoother metal.
Conveyors in the past were built in such a way that they had many areas where food could catch or water might pool, for example on belts and motors, notes Jim Monaweck, project manager at Walker Custom Sheet Metal in Grand Rapids, Mich. Monaweck, a 40-year veteran in the food processing business, began working on a sanitary and tool-less conveyor about five years ago, and the company has been marketing it for about a year. Monaweck says it can be snapped apart quickly and has fewer exposed parts to accumulate food and germs.
He says conveyors years ago were cleaned with air and then washdowns with hot water and chemicals became popular. Recently, foaming agents were added to the mix. The equipment was then swabbed to see if there were leftover microorganisms. “In the past a lot of sanitation departments would go in and look with flashlights to see if they were clean, but conveyors are dark [areas] that could be harborages,” he says. “They can be an area where food gets trapped or falls off.” The way to get to the hard-to-reach areas is to take them apart completely, but that has been a cumbersome and slow process requiring a mechanic and downtime for the line personnel.
Monaweck figured out a design that he says is quick and easy to disassemble. “It’s designed so every part can be taken off, leaving a frame that is open for sanitation and inspection,” he says. The company’s product, called the W.O.W. (Walker Original Washdown) Conveyor, can be taken apart in minutes versus hours. Machines can be cleaned daily or even several times a day. According to Monaweck, the other advantage is that disassembly doesn’t require the plant mechanic; a regular line worker can take it apart.
While he notes that his company’s conveyor can cost around 15 percent more than conventional conveyors, he says there are savings in sanitation, maintenance, and downtime as well as in the amount of sanitizing chemicals used.
One company that benefited from the improved conveyor system is El Matador, a Michigan-based corn tortilla chip maker. The company states the tool-less conveyor helped it quadruple output while keeping safe sanitation standards.
Bill Stanley, El Matador’s maintenance manager, says in a write-up about his company’s application that the sanitation team performs all of the conveyor disassembly and reassembly in less than 10 minutes compared with 30 minutes for previous conveyors. The company’s sanitation manager, Bill Mourer, adds there also is an overall reduction in food safety risk because it’s easier to remove the belts. The machine has an open, cantilever style and it’s easier to clean areas around bearings and pulley shafts that the company couldn’t clean before.
Monaweck says the equipment design helps reduce plants’ risks to pathogens. It also can help with factories that run allergen and non-allergen food on the same conveyor. “Plants are trying to get ahead of FSMA to prevent issues in the future. They need to pay attention to design and have a greater degree of cleanliness,” he says.