Are you experiencing shelf-life issues or increased numbers of Listeria findings in a Ready-to-Eat foods environment? If so, you may want to take a deep dive into your equipment.

Largely, as a consequence of Listeria control efforts, most of us have at least a basic knowledge of hygienic equipment design. In truth, though, we often find inadequacies in the design of the equipment in our facilities, which are magnified with age and/or inadequate maintenance. Couple this with the widespread use of high-pressure water hoses and their ability to drive product residue, microorganisms and water deep inside equipment, and you have all the components needed to create a microbial growth niche.

Investigations of L. monocytogenes (LM) outbreaks have frequently pointed to the presence of persistent LM organisms that have adapted to an equipment or environmental niche within the food processing facility. Similarly, spoilage organisms can develop robust populations within growth niches. Niches are typically located deep within equipment, with the relocation of microbes from the niche to direct or indirect product contact zones occurring with equipment operation.

One of my favorite niche-busting tactics is to walk through the processing area several days after the last wet sanitation activity, such as over a holiday weekend, and scan equipment with both my eyes and my nose. I’m looking for odors indicative of a growth niche and for water puddles, typically under equipment, suggesting that water is trapped inside.

I’ve lost track of the number of times that my questions about equipment disassembly are met with an answer that, “the manufacturer says that it doesn’t come apart.” When equipment fittings are readily apparent, this is clearly untrue. My recommendation is to utilize progressive levels of equipment disassembly and sanitation at different frequencies, such as daily, weekly and monthly, to expose potential growth niches.

Begin with the daily equipment disassembly procedure and then do a deeper dive, paying special attention to compound structures, such as stainless steel bolted to Ultra High Molecular Weight (UHMW) drive shaft seals and sleeves. These parts can often be removed relatively easily and should be fully disassembled prior to sanitation. Product conveyors, especially those with hollow rollers, present more of a challenge, especially if they have long belt spans. Periodic belt removal is critical as are the removal of UHMW supports and guides as well as disassembly of hollow rollers. Photos or videos of different levels of equipment disassembly are invaluable for training mechanics, sanitors and individuals performing pre-operational visual inspection.

Removing equipment parts allows greater access to the equipment framework and structures for sanitation activities. Parts and fittings should be intensively cleaned, such as in a COP tank. Whenever possible, deep cleaning of equipment framework and parts should be followed by treatment with a biofilm-removal agent, such as a peroxide/quaternary ammonium sanitizer combo.

Utilization of niche-busting measures, such as those outlined above, will help to safeguard product safety and shelf-life. Mérieux NutriSciences can provide assistance in a number of areas to help you develop an effective sanitation program. Our expert consultants can assist in creating and evaluating your sanitation or environmental monitoring program. Our EnviroMap software solution allows manufacturers to easily coordinate the mapping, scheduling and testing of environmental swabs across their facility to identify areas that need additional sanitation. And for manufacturers struggling with product shelf-life, our shelf-life studies offer laboratory testing of microbiological, chemical or sensory indicators within a food over time. Contact us now to learn how we can customize our services to meet your sanitation needs!


Meet the Author

Jennifer L. Johnson, Ph.D
Technical Consultant, Mérieux NutriSciences

Jennifer L. Johnson has more than 25 years’ experience working in and around the food industry in roles including regulatory, consulting, research and Food Safety & Quality management. She currently consults on pathogens and spoilage organisms, HACCP, FDA Preventive Controls, environmental monitoring, and meat/poultry processing and provides assistance with regulatory issues.

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