Nooks and crannies are fine for things like charming old houses and toasted bread – not for equipment used in the handling of meat and poultry.
There can be many such nooks and crannies in belts and conveyor systems that move perishable and, often, raw meat and poultry products along the line at processing plants, posing issues with bacteria buildup and potential contamination. To lower food safety risks, processors and equipment suppliers focus on minimizing vulnerabilities in conveyors that come into contact with food products.
The cost of not addressing vulnerabilities can be steep, especially for large processors with multimillion and billion-dollar businesses. “If they lose one brand name over a recall, that can do some serious damage, so processors are being very cautious,” says Rick Spiak, vice president of sales and marketing for Wire Belt Co. of America, Londonderry, New Hampshire.
Spiak says safety is at the top of the priority list for those in the meat and poultry business. “Speed isn’t as much of an issue as hygiene for safety and for human capital. It’s been incrementally changing and goes up a bit every year,” he reports.
Sanitary design also has been top of mind in recent years because of increasingly stringent standards and regulations. The North American Meat Institute’s “10 Principles of Sanitary Design” address a host of issues that impact belting and conveyor systems, including the design of equipment that does not promote the accumulation or pooling of liquid on equipment. Going into even more specifics, NSF International, a provider of risk management solutions, released detailed international and US standards for hygienic requirements for the design of mechanical belt conveyors used in meat and poultry processing. HACCP standards and regulations by the US Dept. of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration likewise outlines ways that the production process can be checked for microbiological hazards and reviewed for hygiene risk.
Kenneth King, commercial support manager for Ashworth Bros. Inc., Winchester, Virginia, echoes the broad demand for hygienic design in belting and conveyor systems. “A lot of meat and poultry manufacturers are trying to eliminate problems where water and sanitation chemicals have difficulty penetrating and removing food debris from ‘sandwich points,’ as they are called. With conveyors, we want to eliminate cracks and crevices,” he explains.
Bryan Hobbs, North American sales and service manager at Ashworth, says safety-driven design provides the ability to sanitize those conveyors and belts with fewer nooks, crannies, cracks and crevices. “Our customers are looking for something they can clean relatively easily and in a timely manner, because they often have to change over their lines and they want to minimize time and maximize production,” he points out.
The emphasis on hygiene is evident in a range of belting and conveyor designs. According to Spiak, Wire Belt has been working on systems that are in line with hygiene standards. “We’ve looked at NAMI’s criteria for sanitary design and NSF specifications that include tough standards: the weld has to be smooth, surfaces of conveyors have to be drainable, and if there is a hollow leg, it has to be hermetically sealed,” he says.
Addressing such standards, Wire Belt has moved to features like open leg design, hinges that can be taken apart without tools and other features.
“We are meeting with some of our largest end users and OEFs that we work with to put out hygienic conveyor designs that are sealed, self-draining and easily sanitized,” he notes. Wire Belt’s straight conveyor, for example, works well in hygiene-sensitive industries like the meat and poultry industry with an open construction.
Ashworth’s conveyor components reflect hygienic design trends as well, including its new Omni-Grid 360 Weld grid-style spiral/turn-curve conveyor belts with 360-degree button-less welds that utilize a “zero tension” design, free from cervices and surface imperfections and allow for a higher load bearing capacity.
“It’s the only grid-style belt that has a 360-degree weld to eliminate cracks and crevices,” Hobbs points out. Ashworth utilizes the same weld technology for its new PosiDrive Spiral system.
Other new conveyors and conveyor systems are designed around the priorities of cleanliness and risk reduction. Intralox, New Orleans, launched a hygienic system last year that includes hygienic belts and components. The modular plastic design and belting system combine a tensionless belt system with a homogeneous solid thermoplastic structure; the belt materials are high-impact and metal/x-ray detectible and made with components that support sanitation efforts, such as angled sprockets, scrapers, belt lifters and clean-in-place spray-bar systems.
In addition to preventing the spread of pathogens from pooled liquid, ensuring food safety and adhering to tough standards encompass efforts to reduce contaminants during the conveying process. “There have been a lot of recalls from plastic pieces, and as a result, a lot of plastic components are being switched to blue plastic, so if anything comes off, it’s visible to the human eye,” Spiak says.
At Ashworth, Jonathan Lasecki, chief engineer, states that “our plastic Advantage belt is blue in color because it’s an uncommon color in food and gives you a visual reference.” At the same time, the construction of plastic materials is improving making it easier to detect using inspection equipment, he adds.