Best Practices for Food Plant Design and Construction

Most U.S. consumers are unaware that food safety begins with the design and construction of the plant that produces the food. And, if you’ve ever been a part of a food plant project team, you know how critical the facility design and engineering phase is to how the plant will ultimately operate.

Food Plant Design and Construction 

Most U.S. consumers are unaware that food safety begins with the design and construction of the plant that produces the food. And, if you’ve ever been a part of a food plant project team, you know how critical the facility design and engineering phase is to how the plant will ultimately operate. It is not enough to build a shell and then decide where equipment will be set and how production lines will flow. To truly maximize your investment, plant operations must be top-of-mind during the visioning phase, and that is especially true for food plants.

Because of the sensitive nature of food processing and the risk of contamination, many food safety experts believe the earlier they become involved in the planning for a new plant or expansion, the better. Like Rod Bowling, a seasoned agribusiness consultant whose experience dates back to the first documented E. Coli outbreak. Bowling has been enlisted by dozens of food processors to help plan for and optimize food safety practices in food plant design. He says the first step is to identify any potential hazard within a given plant design.

“I work with plant engineers to design the flow of the product,” began Bowling. “We design the interventions; we design the measurements of the system so that we make sure food safety is considered in every step all the way down the line.”

Vital Considerations in Food Plant Design

Bowling says the food and beverage industry’s strict food safety control program called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, or HACCP, is the most vital thing to consider in food plant design.

“HACCP is the discipline of designing the product, designing the process, designing the critical control points, and making sure that your interventions respond in the appropriate manner, and that you verify and show that,” he said. “You’ve got to recognize the limitations and the hazards inherent to the raw material.”

Walkable ceilings reduce the risk of contamination from equipment breakdown and maintenance. 

Many in the food plant construction industry share this sentiment. Mark Shambaugh, P.E. is the CEO and president of Shambaugh & Son, L.P., the sixth largest MEP contractor in the U.S. that specializes in food plants. He says one of the biggest considerations when his team designs a food plant is how the plant materials and mechanisms could pose a hazard to the food products. One plant feature he says is becoming the “new normal” in preventing this type of contamination is the installation of walkable ceilings.

A walkable ceiling, Shambaugh explained, is a ceiling made of four or six-inch panels above the process floor. All of the plant’s utilities and other fixtures are contained above the ceiling so maintenance can be done without the risk of contaminating the plant’s food products or equipment.

Shambaugh says another critical component of planning for food safety is red-zoning.

“Basically, red-zoning is the segregation of the workforce and plant visitors to the plant’s hygienic areas,” he said. “Certain people are only allowed to go certain places, and they can only badge in through a red zone or a green zone or a blue zone—depending on their purpose—and you can’t cross over or even down to the work rooms, lunch and locker rooms.”

Like Bowling, Shambaugh says that perhaps the greatest priority should be involving the right people at the right times in plant design, and that includes government regulators.

T. Marzetti, Horse Cave, Ky.

“Get the inspectors involved during the early design process, and get their buy-in,” he advised. “Because if you do it later, it’s going to cost more money if you end up with a problem to fix.” Shambaugh & Son collaborated with Gray to build a salad dressing plant for T. Marzetti, a leading specialty foods company in Horse Cave, Ky. This plant was named Food Engineering’s “Plant of the Year” in 2007. Tom McGirty, director of quality assurance for T. Marzetti, was involved in designing the plant and says planning for food safety goes hand-in-hand with planning for operational efficiencies.

“The really good thing is when you start to design for efficiencies in terms of one-piece material flow—or never having to backtrack your material—you tend to then also design for food safety,” McGirty said.

McGirty gave the example of a redesign of the company’s mixing tanks for the new Horse Cave facility. Traditionally, these tanks sit high up off the floor and workers are required to stand on a platform to access the tanks. This creates both a food safety and inefficiency concern because the platform must be thoroughly cleaned on a regular basis to ensure a foreign source doesn’t enter the tank, and the food materials had to be lifted by a forklift to be accessible to workers on the platform. In the Horse Cave plant, these tanks were instead set down into pits, making them waist-level. This eliminated the need for the platform and its need for sanitation, and made the mixing process more efficient by eliminating the use of forklifts.

“If you’re thinking about both food safety and efficiency at the same time, you are probably going to have a successful plant design,” he said.

April 20, 2012

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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