In an era defined by the growing urgency of environmental concerns, one resource stands as a profound global challenge: water. As one of the planet’s most precious and scarce natural resources, water ranks as a top environmental, social, and governance (ESG) concern. While various industries worldwide grapple with the challenges of resource scarcity and environmental degradation, the food and beverage processing sectors require substantial water consumption for their everyday operations.
The Hidden Costs of Water Consumption
Whether used as an ingredient, an essential component of food preparation and production, or a tool for upholding workplace hygiene, the quantum of water consumed by a processor’s operations can quickly add up. According to Food Northwest, poultry processing can utilize anywhere from 3.5 to 7.0 gallons of water for each four-pound bird. For tasks like carcass washing and cleanup, beef processing can require a range of 350 to 550 gallons per animal. Meanwhile, contingent on their respective efficiencies, breweries can use between seven and 10 gallons of water to craft a single gallon of beer, and cold soft drink plants generally require between 1.3 and three gallons of water per gallon of packed soft drink.
The intricacies of the water–energy nexus further compound the cost of water. When water needs to be heated—for activities such as cooking, pasteurization, or cleaning—energy is expended to raise its temperature. This correlation holds true for various processes in the food and beverage industry, such as heating, cooling, pumping, mixing, and more. In essence, the greater the volume of water involved, the higher the concurrent energy consumption will be.
Amidst these complex dynamics, the consequences of substantial water consumption extend not only to food and beverage processors, but also to the environment. As ESG concerns rise to the forefront of many corporate agendas, food and beverage processors find themselves under growing pressures to align their operations with sustainable practices to manage water responsibly.
Safeguarding Operational Efficiency, Food Safety, and Hygiene
As the industry looks for ways to reduce water consumption, the quality of water used in food and beverage processing also has a significant impact on a facility’s long-term success. From the perspective of operational efficiency, pristine water quality ensures that equipment remains free of excessive scaling and fouling, which not only helps to extend the lifespan of machinery, but also reduces the need for frequent maintenance. In turn, this can lead to improved process efficiency and minimized downtime.
Additionally, water used for processes such as heating and cooling is more effective when it’s free from impurities or those impurities are managed properly. Clean water heats and cools more quickly and requires less energy to reach the desired temperature, leading to energy savings and more streamlined processing. According to the Bureau of Standards, steam boiler systems with only 1/16” scale formation can result in 11% efficiency losses, while cooling systems with biological film as thick as a piece of scotch tape are four times more insulative than mineral scaling and can reduce heat transfer efficiency by 7% to 10%.
Even more critical than operational efficiency is the importance of water quality in upholding the strict standards of food safety. Because water serves as an essential component for cleaning and sanitizing, it’s critical to keep this water free from harmful microorganisms. Contaminated water can introduce pathogens into the processing environment, leading to compromised products and the potential for an outbreak of foodborne illnesses—a grave scenario that no processor can afford to overlook. Furthermore, a clean processing environment, supported by high-quality water, contributes to a safer workplace for employees.