Coming Clean
by Lynn Petrak
Dairy processors keep plants spotless, thanks to the latest sanitation supplies and services.
She dairy industry may have its challenges, but one thing it has long enjoyed is a fair reputation for cleanliness, a standing grounded in the industry’s early and consistent focus on the safety and shelf life of its perishable products.
“Sanitation has always been important to the dairy industry. There are very few consumers who worry about getting sick from dairy products, and that is a credit to the industry,” says Tom Arata, vice president of marketing for St. Paul, Minn.-based Ecolab Inc., a global developer and marketer of cleaning, sanitizing, pest elimination, maintenance and repair products.
David Wildes, director of sales and marketing for Madison, Wis.-based sanitation technology supplier Sani-Matic Inc., agrees that dairy operators have been attuned to sanitation for decades, for personal hygiene as well as equipment and work surfaces. “Obviously, that has always been a focus in the food industry. If you look at any food or regulatory product, including dairy and cheese, they are very sensitive to cleaning issues,” he says.
Mandatory and voluntary measures have contributed to the ongoing prioritization of sanitation. “Strict industry standards promote a higher level of quality control that has to meet quality standards and enhances the need for a well thought out and documented sanitation approach,” says Steven Nelson, product market specialist for Nelson-Jameson Inc., a Marshfield, Wis.-based integrated supply source for the sanitary processing industry.
Michele Colbert, director of sales and marketing for Centennial, Colo.-based employee hygiene equipment supplier Meritech Inc., underscores the fact that the regulatory environment for dairy, stringent for decades, continues to impact facilities. “More recently, dairy processors have developed and incorporated a team of employees which specialize in food safety, quality assurance, HACCP procedures, new technology researchers,” she says. “By developing this type of team in combination with outside private consulting firms, these dairy processors have a much better chance of ensuring the safety of their products to their customers. This team is also better prepared to meet the requirements set forth by regulatory agencies.”
The industry’s longtime commitment to sanitation notwithstanding, there have been improvements in sanitation products and services. Some upgrades have centered on detergents and sanitizers, while others are related to delivery systems, storage and verification programs, among other aspects.
The availability of new technology is a driver of some of these changes. In other cases, dairy processors’ needs and demands are spurring new methods for keeping operations clean and (at least relatively) simple.
For one thing, consolidation has had a ripple effect that includes sanitation processes. “There is a strong need for coordination across multiple plant locations and there is a unique opportunity for us to help service plants locally and on a corporate level,” says Kristen Gray, Ecolab’s senior market manager for dairy.
Her colleague Arata concurs that acquisitions and mergers have heightened the focus on sanitation processes. “Our customers are trying to achieve synergies and consistency from plant to plant. They are working with partners like us to transfer expertise in best practices from plant to plant,” he says.
Nelson, too, says that the industry’s structural shakeout has resulted in a range of effects. “Consolidation allows for standardization and more uniformity of programs such as HACCP, GMPs, SOPs and QA/QC, and the ability to tap into a wealth of knowledge from multiple locations and the diversity they represent,” he says.
Another broad trend with a trickle-down effect on sanitation is new product development. “Dairy product innovations have accelerated. With that, you are bringing in different products and ingredients, so having a strong sanitation partner becomes pretty important,” Gray says, citing issues like equipment changeover and handling of new or different ingredients.
Beyond the changing nature of the industry’s processes and product lines, basic operational issues spur sanitation improvements, too. “One thing that is driving the industry is margin pressure. In today’s environment, they [processors] are looking at pennies in a lot of areas of operation,” Wildes says. “In clean-in-place, for example, it can translate into thousands of dollars a week.”
Indeed, the “time is money” adage rings ever true these days. “We are seeing efficiency improvement needs through almost all of our customer base,” Gray says. “Offerings that help them improve cleaning or processing time is something they are interested in pursuing. Many of our accounts are stretched for capacity.”
Time-Saving Systems
To help manufacturers keep operations running efficiently and cleanly, sanitation suppliers have developed a variety of new products, delivery systems and verification programs.
Sani-Matic, for its part, is increasingly focusing on clean-in-place (CIP) capabilities, Wildes says. “CIP is definitely not new in dairy but what we are trying to do is improve understanding and education of the operating costs of these systems,” he says. “We are finding that a lot of people in their CIP systems don’t necessarily know the condition of it and are wasting a lot of chemicals and water.”
To that end, Sani-Matic is providing manufacturers with tools to optimize cycles and processes, including new data acquisition and software packages. “We can monitor the operating cost and compare it over time. If they can capture this information, it builds justification for CIP or could change a system to build or change CIP,” Wildes explains.
In addition to tracking technology, improvements geared around time and efficiency are evident in other new types of products and services. Meritech, for instance, recently launched a new ProTech® Walk-Through system, a high throughput system designed to wash and sanitize the hands and boots of up to 30 employees per minute. “The system actually washes and sanitizes hands while sanitizing the boots or shoes at the same time,” Colbert explains. “By combining these two procedures, our customers save labor costs and time it takes to maintain traditional methods while ensuring each employee is properly washed before entering the work area.”
Meritech also recently introduced a CleanTech® Model 500EZ to the market, which provides a totally automated method of washing and sanitizing employee hands in 10 seconds. According to Colbert, the system was designed to be a wall-mounted installation that is water-tight and compact in size. “This model is now Meritech’s most cost-effective system to address the concerns of handwashing,” she says.
Even the most basic processing and sanitation tools can be tweaked for greater efficacy. For example, Remco Products, Zionsville, Ind., offers a series of color coded block-and-bristle squeegees. “If you find a chip missing from a white block, that could come from any area in a facility. By using a color-coded block, it reduces your tracking for the problem,” says Steve Hawhee, vice president of sales. “It also makes it very comfortable for QA and sanitation mangers to see from a distance whether right brush is in the right place.”
Meanwhile, Remco’s Ultra-Hygiene line of squeegees — which includes three styles, four widths and five colors — features a double-bladed, fixed-head squeegee. “The head is molded in one piece and there are no fasteners, but it has a replaceable cartridge to sanitize the whole unit,” says Hawhee, adding that the unit was engineered to quickly and cleanly clean and be cleaned.
Advancements Emerge
Industry demands are one thing, but available technology is another key driver of sanitation innovation.
Nelson-Jameson, for example, regularly pursues and incorporates new cleansers, tools and delivery systems for employee hygiene and equipment sanitation. “We offer an expanded line of products with antimicrobial properties built into them,” Nelson says. “We also offer vacuum units or systems which are used for dry cleaning applications and mechanical application equipment that save water, time and energy as well as reducing wastewater volume.”
Ecolab, for its part, regularly invests in new materials and capability. The company unveiled a new state-of-the-art research and development center late last summer.
That facility already is bustling with activity. A new sanitizer technology, with patent pending, is slated for a 2006 release, Arata says. “We think of it as the next generation of sanitizer technology,” he says, adding that Ecolab presented a technical paper on the new product line at the 2005 Worldwide Food Expo. Among other benefits, the new sanitizer utilizes electro-conductivity to allow customers to more easily trace dosing and usage.
As suppliers invest in new technologies, they also are keenly aware that their customers have to walk a fine line with their own constraints. Ecolab, for example, has worked with processors in certain geographic regions as they grapple with regional issues such as limits on electro-conductivity or the level of certain compounds that can be discharged in effluents. “We make continuous effort to meet and exceed our customers’ needs through product innovations and service advancements,” Gray says.
Other constraints are linked to operating budgets. With that in mind, Sani-Matic recently started a leasing program for some of its technologies. “We looked at it and realized the economic constraints in the dairy industry. Also, energy costs continue to climb and there are environmental issues with water,” Wildes says. “This allows them to avoid using a capital budget.”  
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.