Controlling the quality and flow of air through a food processing plant is vital to food safety, especially air that flows to the “heartbeat zone” of the plant where the product initially becomes ready to eat. Air quality in this zone must be of the highest quality. Food at its most vulnerable point in the process is where operations need to be the cleanest. Also, air from raw-product zones in the facility must travel in the opposite direction and exit directly from the plant. These important requirements can be accomplished by designing and installing HVAC and refrigeration systems that adequately filter air to control contaminants, provide outdoor makeup air to maintain specified airflow, minimize condensation on exposed surfaces, and capture high concentrations of heat, moisture, and particulates at their source.
Chemical contaminants of most concern are allergen proteins. Some of the most common and significant allergen contamination concerns for food manufacturers include eggs, soy, wheat, milk, fish, peanuts, and tree nuts. Proteins are often left behind as residue on production surfaces, which can result in cross-contamination and cause severe allergic reactions. One facility design strategy to minimize this hazard is to establish distinct hygienic zones and maintain physical separation that reduces the likelihood of contamination from one area of the plant, or from one process, to another area of the plant or process. There are also other benefits to this strategy, such as the ability to keep one line operational while another line is down for maintenance or the ability to separate allergens on adjacent lines to diminish cross-contamination concerns. While previously the FDA urged manufacturers to avoid the unintended presence of allergens in food, the industry is now required by FSMA to avoid the unintended presence of allergens in foods through a series of specific preventive controls. If these preventive controls fail, are not followed, or are followed but undocumented, the food may be considered adulterated and misbranded by the FDA and subject to mandated recalls.
Finally, one of the most important principles of good sanitary plant design is to incorporate interior spatial design that enables ample space for inspection, cleaning, and maintenance. It is often difficult to justify additional space in the design phase because equipment dimensions are rarely well known; therefore, initial layouts may seem sufficient but frequently as details are filled in, space becomes tight. At the same time, costs almost always rise and the easy way to cut costs seems to be to reduce size. This is quite often a mistake. Incorporating FSMA’s rules is likely to require additional costs and could affect project management scheduling. In the long run, however, the up-front cost to ensure FSMA compliance will be less expensive than non-compliance.
FSMA is the first major overhaul of our nation’s food safety practices since 1938, and includes sweeping new regulations for facilities that process food. This new preventative approach will affect many aspects of food production—including the design of commercial facilities—all of which will mean substantial change for food manufacturers. By understanding the requirements of FSMA and incorporating them into the design and operation of food processing facilities, manufacturers can ensure their commercial real estate strategies are aligned to help them meet the requirements of this new law.
Tolliver is head of industrial research, Americas, at Cushman & Wakefield. Reach him at email@example.com.