Safer food with Intermediate Bulk Containers

Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBCs) can help food manufacturers better handle a portfolio of products with a range of ingredients, including allergens. Steve Hewitt, regional manager, Matcon, explains

Typical process flow

A major challenge facing food manufacturers is how to handle an ever-increasing portfolio of products that use a diverse range of ingredients, including allergens, all within the context of reducing manufacturing costs, minimising product waste, and achieving superior product quality and safety for the consumer.

An allergic reaction to food or recipe ingredient can result in various symptoms ranging from very mild to severe anaphylaxis. There are over 170 foods known to provoke allergic reactions, with the most commonly found in everyday sources such as milk, eggs, shellfish, wheat, nuts, seeds, fruit and soya.

Even small traces of the allergen can cause a reaction, so strict controls and regulation compliance need to be present from the source, throughout manufacturing and on to the point of sale, ensuring the total integrity of the final product.

The only successful method of managing food allergens is to control the ingredients containing these causative protein

Guaranteeing food safety is becoming increasingly difficult in the context of changing food habits and the globalisation of supply. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is promoting efforts to improve food safety from farm to plate, while the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system (HACCP) identifies where hazards might occur in the food production process and puts into place stringent actions on prevention.

Whether to trace ingredients back as far as the field or take the strictest approach to product integrity, the manufacturer remains responsible for the product sold to the consumer. It is a series issue: a contaminated product can cause sickness or even death for the consumer, significant financial losses for the company along with long-term reputational damage.

Food allergens used as ingredients or processing aids must be declared on food packaging; 14 of these are now recognised. However, there are still gaps and acceptance of thresholds required at consumer, regulator and retailer levels. Therefore, it becomes a question of integrity. Do manufacturers take the time to ensure the product is what it claims? And, how far back through the supply chain do they go to ensure that what they say is in the product really ends up in the hands of the consumer? The only successful method of managing food allergens is to control the ingredients containing these causative proteins. Here, we look at the management of allergens during the manufacturing process.

As many manufacturers look to maintain high operational efficiency, they may run larger batches (campaign manufacture) to avoid regular downtime due to cleaning. This, however, can result in an increase in stock while additional inventory ties up cash and becomes a risk. When it is not stored correctly, or in accordance with allergen handling best practice, the stock becomes waste and a further danger. In some cases, manufacturers have been penalised for producing extra stock and then storing it in the same room as the allergen it should be separated from. This is an obvious mistake, but something that regularly occurs when overproducing, as storage options can be limited.

Handling of powders

As well as focussing on prevention, there has been a strong market growth of products to suit a range of diets including gluten, vegan and lactose-free. Many of these product alternatives require changes to recipes that are made up of ingredients in powder form.

Powders are especially challenging; visually they can be very similar and some are common to handle. Manufacturers handling powders as part of a food production process, therefore, need to consider all aspects of food processing to put safeguards in place, such as:

  • Clear specs and labelling of raw materials
  • Recipe/specification compliance
  • Equipment hygiene and maintenance
  • Personal hygiene of staff and training
  • Production planning including quality control
  • Supplier approval and monitoring as far back as required
  • Stock intake and segregated storage

IBCs also give manufacturers the ability to perform efficient cleaning activity

Manufacturers that produce for high-demand markets are always under increasing pressure. They must produce to meet demand, reduce the amount of product waste and minimise any factory downtime. If they provide a range of products that require recipes to be swapped on a regular basis the challenge increases.

How do manufacturers increase operational efficiency if they need to regularly turn off machinery for a deep clean and then test the separate parts for signs of contamination?

Campaign manufacturing or fixed production lines will not allow the manufacturer to meet the ever-increasing product ranges, smaller order sizes and reduced lead time demands that many manufacturers are faced with today. Unfortunately, there is often a lot of downtime associated with blending-related activities, namely filling, emptying and cleaning the blender.

Traditional, fixed mixers and conveying systems can increase the amount of downtime due to complicated cleaning activity that may include both wet and dry processes. The operating line must be shut down and parts removed for cleaning, resulting in wasted resource time and loss of throughput. To ensure that all traces of allergens have been successfully removed from fixed systems, some manufacturers will also flush the process line with a product such as salt; testing and cleaning will be needed if there are still contamination issues. Both results in further production time loss, additional manpower and further problems if the allergen manufacturers are safeguarding against, is still present.

Reduce downtime

IBC blending can eliminate the typical downtime associated with filling; emptying and cleaning a static blender

The challenges presented are often caused by the manufacturing process, with fixed lines being hard to clean and open processing steps subject to higher contamination risks. By using IBCs, the vessels separate process steps allowing each manufacturing action to be performed simultaneously instead of sequentially.

IBCs also give manufacturers the ability to perform efficient cleaning activity, removing contamination risk without excessive downtime. To reduce the amount of time that the machinery is out of operation, parallel processing can be achieved. IBCs can also be found attractive when compared to more manually intensive methods (drums or bulk bags) when throughput, efficiency, hygiene and ergonomics are important. Moreover, IBCs are attractive when compared to more automated options, such as pneumatic and mechanical conveyors, when fast changeovers, product integrity and overcoming powder handling issues are important.

IBC blending can eliminate the typical downtime associated with filling; emptying and cleaning a static blender. These functions are done offline of the blender, which optimises the intended use of this type of equipment, to blend products. This is an approach that can truly revolutionise the efficiency and throughput of a production facility. Blending takes place within the IBC itself. The IBC is loaded onto the blender, which tumbles it on an asymmetrical axis to create a homogenous mix. Because the ingredients are blended within the IBC itself, there is no need to clean the blender between recipes; even when using allergens.

Improving efficiency

An agile IBC approach to a manufacturing process that uses in-bin blending can improve the efficiency of the production line and solve many of the challenges presented by allergens.

IBCs can be cleaned offline. Cleaning each IBC takes on average between 6-10 minutes (air wash) or 40 minutes (wet wash), which means that there is no bottleneck at this stage. Ultimately, it means that downtime is significantly reduced and batch changeover can be synchronised to meet demand. Manufacturers can, therefore, produce what is needed, reducing the amount of stock held onsite and then potentially discarded. With various cleaning options available, from simple wash lances through to fully validatable and recipe-driven wash booths, the majority of allergens can be cleaned away. Air washing systems are also on offer in the marketplace, proving useful for applications posing a waterborne bacteriological risk such as milk powders.

Switching from fixed equipment to the right IBC system can provide a flexible and agile production process. This will enable manufacturers to maintain product integrity and provide an ideal platform to minimise the risk of product and allergen cross contamination throughout the manufacturing process. This, in turn, will also provide greater scheduling flexibility, allowing a ‘made to order’ rather than ‘made to stock’ approach to be adopted. Changing the approach could save manufacturers time, money and their reputation.

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