Globally, food allergies and intolerances are rising fast. According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) in the U.S., researchers estimate that up to 15 million Americans now have food allergies – including 5.9 million children under age 18 – while in the EU that figure reaches some 17 million, according to figures published by the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EEACI).
The statistics are telling, the bakery and snacks sector has certainly not escaped this worrying trend. Gluten, nuts, lactose, soya, dairy items such as milk and whey, for example, all have the potential to cause harm to certain consumers, therefore when a product is labelled as ‘free-from’ specific ingredients it is paramount that brands can stand behind those claims 100 percent.
From a manufacturing perspective this poses several challenges, particularly given the ever more stringent regulatory landscape, brought about by legislation such as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in the US and the EU General Food Law and Food Hygiene Legislation in Europe. Hygiene has never been more important, and the responsibility is on the manufacturer to ensure every measure possible is taken to safeguard the health and well-being of consumers where their products are concerned.
The potential dangers posed by sub-standard hygiene practices
As consumers continue to drive demand for ever greater choice, the variety of products being manufactured on bakery and snack production lines naturally continues to increase in line with this proliferation. For vertical systems, this does not necessarily mean completely different product styles are switched during a changeover, as the setup requirements would not make this viable, but even subtle changes to a muffin, for example, or a cookie recipe could have severe consequences should cross-contamination occur as a result of insufficient sanitary practices.
A product which is gluten free, for example, could be run directly after a product that is not, therefore that line must be sanitized thoroughly to ensure the free-from product is absolutely safe to enter the retail supply chain from an allergens perspective. Failure to do so could have far-reaching consequences for both consumer and brand.
First, there is the obvious risk of harm to a consumer as a result of consuming an irritant unknowingly. Instances of this have the potential in certain circumstances to lead to legal action. Then, there is the damage a brand’s reputation could suffer as a result of a product recall. Recalls are expensive to implement and could represent just the tip of the iceberg where financial impact is concerned. Given the access consumers have to outlets such as social media, a negative experience could spread far and wide in a matter of hours, leading to loss of trust in a brand which could have long-lasting effects in terms of sales.
Hygienically designed systems help mitigate risks
Hygienic, or sanitary, design is the process of developing and delivering a system or machine that is able to be cleaned effectively to eliminate any potential allergens or bacteria from the production process – particularly ahead of a product changeover. Any system placed into a food production environment must have the cleanability necessary to withstand the appropriate cleaning regimes, which should be factored into the decision-making process from the outset.
Given the demands consumers are placing on brands for variety, as outlined earlier, batch sizes and frequency of product changeovers has increased exponentially. As a result, more frequent sanitizing of equipment is required, which must be carried out quickly and efficiently in order to minimize associated downtime.
Areas such as ease of access to parts for sanitation should be considered, as well as tool-less removal of those parts, as the ability to remove, clean and replace a component with ease can contribute greatly to uptime. Everything, down to the very smallest detail, must be considered – from how the framework, increasingly stainless steel versus painted carbon steel, reacts to cleaning methods, to how work surfaces can be rounded, tilted and redesigned to minimize flat parts, leaving no corners or crevices to trap foods, significantly reducing bacterial build-up.
Select the correct sanitation method
For bakery and snacks manufacturers, cleaning is typically undertaken with either a dry wipe down or a bucket and damp cloth wipe down. This is a controlled way to sanitize a system and to be certain of the effectiveness of those processes.Both are non-aggressive in approach.
Vertical systems designed with rounded edges, reduced holes and an open workspace make them particularly ideal for the packaging of products that can be simply wiped from the surfaces – which are common in the bakery and snacks sector.Dry products, such as nuts, dried fruits and powders can all be wiped away quickly and effortlessly, allowing optimal hygiene levels to be achieved.
Tracking done correctly
Another trend in the bakery and snacks industry is for the use of advanced tracking systems to double check that the correct label is applied to the correct product batch. As a result, we have witnessed a greater use of bar code scanners. The scanner monitors and confirms that the correct packaging film (UPC code) is being used with the corresponding product. The intention is to prevent a product with allergens from being accidentally packaged into a non-allergen packaging material. Protecting brand and consumers remains high on the agenda for manufacturers around the globe, and this is a prime example of technology enabling that in the bakery and snacks sector.
Running to running is key to success
Whatever processes a bakery and snacks manufacturer decides to adopt, it is important to work with an expert supplier from the outset to ensure the best possible advice is given based on individual needs and requirements. An example of that advice would be to always step back and think about the potential for downtime and what that actually means in terms of lost production. Downtime must be, and often isn’t, calculated from the time the system stops to the time it is producing viable product again – anything in between is either non-productive time or wastage.
What is also critical to consider is that no stone must be left unturned in the pursuit of efficient and effective sanitary processes. An expert supplier will be more than capable of giving counsel in this area, which in turn could save manufacturers the need to engage an entirely different form of counsel should a sub-standard product enter the retail supply chain.