The modern food production industry has reduced the cost of food and drink products, making them more available, but the overall trend toward the centralization of the food supply also increases the potential for food safety issues, such as contamination with pathogens or toxins, to affect a larger number of people. To prevent this problem, food producers implement strict systems such as hazard analysis critical control points (HACCP), but the design and manufacturing standards of food processing equipment are also of vital importance and are not always considered or understood.
Types of Contamination
Contamination of food and drink products can cause anything from minor quality issues to severe health outcomes and, at the most extreme level, death. The main types of contamination that can affect food and drink products are microbial, chemical (including allergens) and physical.
Microbial contamination is caused by microorganisms including pathogenic bacteria, viruses, mold, fungi, and toxin-producing organisms such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, and E. coli. Microbial contamination is the most common source of food poisoning globally. Control measures to prevent microbial contamination include the implementation of strict hygiene measures, ensuring separation between raw and cooked ingredients, and the use of techniques to reduce the microbial load in the product, such as pasteurization, sterilization, or irradiation.
Chemical contamination can arise from the poor control of products used to clean and disinfect equipment and surfaces. If chemical residues remain on food preparation or contact surfaces, or if chemicals are used in the vicinity of food and drink products, then contamination can occur. Another source of chemical contamination may be the production of primary food ingredients, such as the incorrect use of pesticides and medicines on farms. Poor design of equipment may also allow for chemicals such as lubrication grease from moving parts to come into contact with ingredients or finished products.
Physical contamination is caused by the presence of foreign bodies and can include anything from stones and pests to items made of plastic or metal. Within food processing facilities, poorly maintained or badly designed equipment can itself become a source of physical contamination in the form of items such as flaking paint or loose screws. Physical contaminants may also carry harmful bacteria, increasing the overall contamination risk presented in the final product.
The last source of contamination on the list is allergenic contamination, which can occur when a food that causes an allergic reaction comes into contact with another food that does not include the allergen on the label. There are 14 recognized allergens, including gluten, peanuts, eggs, mustard, soy, and fish, and the reactions caused can range from mild discomfort to fatal anaphylactic shock.
Start with Food Processing Equipment Design
Food processing businesses adopt a range of processes and procedures to prevent these forms of contamination from occurring. These measures may include cleaning and maintenance procedures, pest control, personal hygiene, protective clothing, and dress codes, among others. Many of these procedures will have been implemented as a result of a HACCP assessment of the facility and the production methods employed, but there is another equally important aspect of avoiding contamination which is not always given such a high profile: the design and construction of food processing equipment.
Hygienic equipment design enhances cleanability, decreasing the risk of biological, physical, and chemical contamination. Equipment that is designed and constructed to meet hygienic principles will also be easier to maintain and will reduce the risk of physical hazards contaminating the product. Overall, the operating costs of hygienically designed equipment are usually lower than costs for equipment that has not been designed with the same level of care, and such lower running costs must be considered when comparing the investment costs of different systems.