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Sanitary Conveyors in Food Processing: A Complete Guide

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The food industry is one of the most important and highly regulated industries worldwide. A key component in maintaining safety and quality standards is the use of sanitary conveyors in food processing. These play an integral role in ensuring the clean and efficient transport of food items throughout the processing cycle. The importance of cleanliness, sanitation, and the right machinery, such as sanitary conveyors, cannot be overstated – from raw ingredients being stored and moved under sanitary conditions, through processing, to the final packaging for consumers.

What Are Sanitary Conveyors?

Sanitary conveyors are specialized conveyor systems designed to meet the stringent hygiene and cleanliness standards required in certain industries, most notably the food and pharmaceutical industries. They are built with materials and design elements that promote easy cleaning and minimize areas where dirt, bacteria, and other contaminants could accumulate.

The purpose of sanitary conveyors is to ensure the safe and hygienic transport of products, preventing contamination that could pose a risk to consumer health and safety. Given the critical importance of sanitation in food processing and pharmaceuticals, these conveyors play an integral role in maintaining the quality and safety of the products in these sectors.

Why Is Sanitation Important in Food Processing?

According to the CDC, food-related illnesses and outbreaks caused by contaminated food cost the US economy $15.5 billion each year. The CDC estimates that there are 48 million cases of foodborne disease annually, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths per year on average in America alone.

Food contamination is a major public health concern not only for developed countries but also for developing regions, where it is often difficult to maintain proper sanitation standards. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that foodborne diseases result in an estimated 600 million illnesses and 420,000 deaths annually worldwide.

The Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) by the FDA is a major step forward in improving food safety requirements and preventing contamination of the US food supply. The FSMA establishes new controls for human and animal food to prevent intentional adulteration while also focusing on strengthening import/export inspection programs, among other initiatives.

The food processing industry is a place where cleanliness and sanitary conditions are absolutely critical, as the potential impact of contamination can be significant. Sanitation efforts must focus on ensuring that food processing equipment and facilities do not come into contact with contaminated products or other materials that could potentially transmit harmful bacteria or viruses from one location to another.

A lab worker holding a petri dish with bacteria

Diferences Between Cleaning and Sanitation

Although people often use cleaning and sanitation interchangeably, it is important to understand that there are differences between cleaning (washing) and sanitation. The term “sanitary” suggests that an object or process has the capacity to reduce microbial levels on a surface, which plays a vital role in safeguarding individuals from foodborne illnesses.

The key difference lies in whether cleaning products kill microbes (sanitation) or merely eliminate them from the surface (washing). The appropriate level of sanitary protection will vary depending on the type of food materials being transported. However, it is essential to understand that even after cleaning, a conveyor may still harbor microorganisms. Therefore, a well-designed sanitary conveyor system should be gentle enough to avoid damaging fragile foods during transport, while also ensuring the safety of workers and consumers by effectively removing and killing any potential pathogens.

Sanitary Standards for Food Processing

So, what are the sanitary standards for conveying in food production? The USDA and FDA have strict guidelines for sanitary frame designs and maintenance of conveyors in food processing facilities. The FDA has a set of Recommended Good Manufacturing Practices that outline specific components required to maintain product safety, including:

  • The design must not allow any contaminants into the product stream during operation.
  • Hazardous materials cannot be used when constructing or assembling the components of a conveyor belt system. The FDA recommends stainless steel industrial conveyor belt systems or those made from other corrosion-resistant materials.
  • The belt conveyor system must be easy to clean and sanitize at all times, ensuring that there is no chance of product contamination or adulteration during transport.
  • The structural design should allow for the cleaning and disinfecting of any crevices between moving parts, such as chains and sprockets, without requiring disassembly by hand (which could lead to product contamination).
  • The conveyor belt and any rollers should not have areas where product residue can collect, as this may result in cross-contamination of incoming goods while being processed.

These are just a few of the important considerations that companies must take into account when designing their conveyor systems. The FDA recommends consulting with a food safety expert to ensure compliance and best practices are met at all times, as product contamination can easily happen if these guidelines aren’t followed properly.

3-A Sanitary Standards

A useful set of standards to consult when designing a sanitary conveyor system is the 3-A Sanitary Standards. They are voluntary guidelines for the construction and design of processing facilities in the food industry. The standards are extremely thorough in their description of sanitation requirements, with many illustrations included to better understand a wide variety of components involved in sanitary conditions within these different sectors.

Even though 3-A Standards are not regulatory, some state regulations may reference them. The standards were first introduced in the 1920s and have changed over time to reflect new technologies, best practices, and lessons learned from field experience. The four associations in charge of the standards are the American Dairy Products Institute, International Dairy Foods Association, Food Processing Suppliers Association, and the International Association for Food Protection, with support from both trade associations, government agencies like USDA and FDA, as well as various equipment manufacturers.

Some examples of 3-A Standards include specifications for materials that conveyor systems can be constructed with, proper installation and maintenance of equipment that comes into contact with food products, and procedures for receiving new conveyor systems to ensure they are sanitary. The standards also include specifications for design elements like the slope of a floor (to avoid water accumulation), types of doors on an enclosure (for ease in cleaning), light levels inside processing areas or storage rooms (for safety and to more easily see and inspect the processing environment), and more.

A woman using a microscope

Features of Sanitary Conveyors

Keeping the above-outlined guidelines and conveyor knowledge in mind, there are several features that sanitary conveyor systems should have in food processing facilities. Some of them must be included in such a system.

The entire conveyor system must be enclosed to ensure a contamination-free production line. By enclosing all areas where the product is handled or transferred (for instance – ingredient feeders and discharge points), as well as any open spaces along the length of the conveyors, will help to keep the system sanitary.

Minimizing the number of moving parts in the conveyor system makes cleaning and sanitizing easier. To reduce the risk of product buildup, it is essential to have as few nuts, bolts, screws, and joints as possible. Additionally, the conveyors should feature smooth and seamless surfaces, leaving no hiding places for food residue to accumulate.

Using stainless steel connectors in the construction of the conveyors is best to use when constructing the conveyors, as they are resistant to corrosion and rust, ensuring the system’s longevity and cleanliness.

Incorporating CIP technology into the conveyors enables automated cleaning with chemical solutions. This system allows food processors to implement a thorough sanitization program based on pre-set cycles and schedules. The application of chemicals during the cleaning process effectively removes any residual product particles or residues that may have accumulated over time in the system. Another advantage of CIP is that it eliminates the need for disassembling the conveyor system during cleaning, resulting in reduced downtime and a more efficient cleaning process.

Best Sanitary Conveyor Options

Which conveyors are the most sanitary for food processing? To sum up our features from above, the best option would be a stainless steel conveyor system (or one made from other corrosion-resistant materials) that is enclosed, has few moving parts and crevices, and is equipped with CIP technology. The following conveyor systems would meet some or all of these requirements:

  • Belt conveyors – These are one of the most common types of conveyors used in industries today. Food-grade conveyor belts should be made of non-porous material, and they could also be enclosed if need be. However, they do require quite a bit of floor space because they can only operate on the horizontal or near-horizontal plane.
  • Tubular drag cable – Depending on what type of food material you are transporting, tubular drag cable and disc conveyors can be the best option. The cable is often made of stainless steel coated in smooth nylon where food products are in contact with it. Nylon is resistant to acids and other chemicals, so it is a good choice for food processing. The cables are enclosed in tubes to further protect the product from contaminants. Material is moved with the help of solid discs that have no crevices, nuts, or bolts. The system can be designed with many options to accommodate different types of food products, making it versatile.
  • Chain drag conveyors – The chain drag conveyor is similar to the tubular cable drag conveyor in that there is a stainless steel chain, and the system itself can be enclosed. The main difference between this conveyor type and tubular drag cable, however, is that the chain is not the best option for transporting food material. The chain can accumulate product residue, which can cause contamination issues down the line if not cleaned properly.
  • Pneumatic conveyor systems – A pneumatic tube is usually made of stainless steel, and it can be either horizontal or slightly inclined (for gravity flow). The top end should have a filter to eliminate any particles that might make their way in during operation. Pneumatic tubes could also be equipped with CIP technology, which makes them sanitary conveyor options. However, without the CIP technology, the pneumatic tube is largely inaccessible and could make cleaning difficult.
How Is A Tubular Conveyor Different From A Screw Conveyor?

Cleaning Processes

Regardless of the conveyor system chosen, a comprehensive cleaning process should be an integral part of the overall cleaning and sanitation program. The paramount focus when cleaning conveyors is to ensure complete removal of all remnants from the transported products, regardless of how small they may be.

Implementing a regular cleaning schedule offers numerous benefits, such as safeguarding products from contamination, extending the conveyor’s lifespan, and ensuring the safety of workers. There are two primary choices for cleaning conveyor systems: manual cleaning and automated cleaning.

Manual Cleaning

Unfortunately, many facilities still rely on manual cleaning methods. In this approach, cleaning personnel wear gloves and use brushes or scrapers to eliminate visible residues. The frequency and specific procedures for manual cleaning can vary based on the type of food product being transported, such as snack foods, frozen foods, specialty grains, etc., and the amount of residue left from previous runs.

However, manual cleaning has some drawbacks. It is not always effective in removing all contaminants, and it can be time-consuming. Moreover, there is a risk to employees if they do not use the proper safety equipment or follow sanitary guidelines while using brushes and scrapers during cleaning.

CIP and COP Cleaning

Automated, easy cleaning comes in the form of CIP, or Clean-In-Place, systems. Compared to manual washing, CIP doesn’t require too much time and effort, and it can be done without the risk of contamination. The food product does not come into direct contact with any tool or machine outside of its normal conveyance process. 

Another significant benefit to CIP technology is the fact that conveyor systems don’t have to be dismantled to be cleaned (no tools required). The system is hooked up to a CIP unit, and the product runs through it, which means that there’s no downtime during cleaning.

Cleaning out of Place (COP) systems are also an automated option for conveyor clean-up. The difference between this technology and CIP is that COP has smaller pieces that are removed from the conveyor and taken to a separate area for washing. The time required is greater when using COP instead of CIP, but it’s still more efficient than manual cleaning techniques.

Cleaning Protocols

Every conveyor manufacturer has its own set of cleaning protocols that must be followed when it comes to sanitizing their conveyors. The manufacturer should also provide thorough instructions on how to install and operate the system, as well as perform regular cleaning procedures. For example, Cablevey offers two types of cleaning for their systems: wet and dry cleaning.

Dry cleaning may include one or several of these items:

  • Air knife – Using compressed air to blow off the conveyor line.
  • Brush box – A line insert with brushes used for cleaning.
  • Sanitizing cleaner and sponge box – A combination of sponges and sanitizing chemicals.
  • Urethane wiper disc – The wiper disc is used to wipe off any remaining residue from the inside of the conveyor.

In contrast, wet cleaning consists of the steps shown in the table below. And another note – before you settle on a new conveyor system, make sure to do some research first on the cleaning protocol capabilities of each manufacturer.

Cleaning StepDescription
Water rinseA high-pressure water spray rinses the conveyor, getting it ready for the next wash step.
Foaming agentThe purpose of the foaming agent is to clean the inside of the conveyor, removing any remaining residue.
Sanitizing agentThe sanitizing agent is used to kill any microorganisms that may still be present on the conveyor.
Second water rinseThe last step in the cleaning process is a water rinse, which makes sure all residues and chemicals are removed from the system before it can start operating again.

Validation, Monitoring, Verification

A cleaning and sanitizing protocol cannot be effective without proper validation, monitoring, and verification methods. The purpose of validation is to make sure that the protocol will actually yield the desired results. The monitoring step consists of checking if all protocol steps are being completed successfully, while verification is used to determine if there are any remaining residues left on the surface that should have been removed by the cleaning and sanitizing process. Validation consists of microbiological and non-microbiological tests for assessing the cleanliness or contamination of a conveyor surface.

Microbiological Tests

Microbiological tests include culture cultivation and molecular methods. The purpose of these tests is to determine if any microorganisms are left on the surface after cleaning. The most important aspect of this process is minimizing test variables, which means ensuring that there isn’t any other source of contamination around when testing takes place.

Non-microbiological Tests

Non-microbiological tests include visual assessments, ATP tests, protein tests, and other assessments. The purpose of these is to determine if the surface has been properly cleaned and rinsed, which results in a system free of residual soil. Without proper validation and verification, you cannot be sure that your conveyor system is hygienic. The consequences of not properly validating and verifying can be extremely dangerous to the end user, as there may still be some types of bacteria and residual soil present on the surface, even after cleaning and sanitizing.

ATP Tests

One of the best ways to test whether or not your cleaning protocol is effective is by testing the surfaces on the conveyor belt for food for molecules of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP represents a source of energy in a living organism – it can be found in food residue, bacteria or mold, and even human skin. ATP surface tests are highly efficient and sensitive. 

A simple swab of (vertical or horizontal) surfaces after the cleaning process (but before sanitization) is enough to verify whether the cleaning process is working. If there is a high amount of ATP, then the cleaning protocol needs more tweaking.

A unique feature of this testing process is that there is not one acceptable range for ATP that can be applied to every single surface or conveyor. The pass and fail numbers depend on the age of the surface, the material of the surface, what type of product came into contact with the surface, how it was cleaned, and more. To set a reasonable ATP limit for your specific surfaces, you will need to perform intensive ATP swabbing and testing for a period of time (two or three weeks) to establish baselines for your use case.

A man working in a laboratory

Contact Cablevey Conveyors for Your Custom Conveyor Belt

In the food processing industry, sanitary conveyor systems are paramount for the safety of consumers. The best way to ensure that your system is fit for purpose, and can be cleaned thoroughly without having too much of an impact on productivity, is by doing research beforehand. The manufacturer should also provide detailed instructions regarding all aspects surrounding the installation and regular cleaning procedures of each particular bulk material handling equipment.The ideal sanitary conveyor for food processing should have an enclosed system and no holes, crevices, nuts, or bolts for residue and bacteria to hide in. The conveyor should also be easily accessible for cleaning purposes, ideally without needing to be disassembled completely. If you are interested in an efficient conveyor belt for a warehouse or generally in conveyors that are enclosed, with proper cleaning mechanisms, which are gentle on the materials, and energy-efficient, please contact us at Cablevey. We will be happy to help you find the best solution for your company.

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