One of the greatest challenges facing the dairy industry is how best to supply safe and nourishing products as the global population continues to rise. From an increasingly complex supply chain to stricter regulations, a number of factors have led to a sharp increase in high-profile recall cases in recent years, proving an expensive and serious health risk for consumers and manufacturers alike. For dairy suppliers, regimented hygiene, cleaning and testing programs are essential to prevent the buildup of pathogens and allergens in the processing environment.

This is particularly true for enclosed systems, including the conveying of produce, which marks a critical point in the process to control safety and sanitation. Smart design, expert construction and new technologies can help conveying systems to maintain the highest standards in food safety and prevent dangerous and costly recalls.


Food recalls on the rise

A report from Public Interest Research Group shows that recall cases in the United States increased by 10% between 2013 and 2018, hitting a peak of 905 in 2016. Dairy products make up a significant chunk of this statistic, with undeclared allergens and bacterial contamination noted as the leading causes of recalls within this sector.

Approximately one in 10 U.S. citizens suffers from at least one allergy, with 32 million reported to have intolerances to certain foods. This year, the industry has already witnessed a handful of companies forced to withdraw products as a result of undeclared allergens, whether that be almonds, milk or eggs.

Another issue is pathogen contamination. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 48 million Americans get sick; 128,000 are hospitalized; and 3,000 die each year from foodborne illnesses, highlighting significant room for improvement when it comes to safe and hygienic food handling. E. coli, salmonella and listeria are three of the main concerns in regard to pathogen contamination in dairy food.


Prepare and prevent

Although a withdrawal doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for a manufacturer, a high-profile case could turn customers away. A report from the Plant Based Foods Association and The Good Food Institute shows that U.S. sales of vegan milk grew by 6% over the last year, while cow's milk sales declined 3% over the same period. Increased market competition means that dairy suppliers are under more pressure than ever to avoid recalls.

One of the ways to do so is to implement a robust preventative strategy. While many countries across the world must adhere to certain legislation depending on location, food safety is often based on or driven by the standards set out by the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act standards.

After the 2016 implementation of the Hazard Analysis and Risk-based Preventive Control (HARPC) act, many dairy manufacturers had to raise their standards in a bid to prevent potential hazards from occurring. The HARPC guidelines go beyond critical control points, calling on suppliers to document all potential risks and implement measures to avoid them. As well as planning for potential terrorist acts, cleanliness and sanitation are noted as key preventative steps that need to be controlled.


Implementing a food safety strategy

While no company can completely eliminate the risk of recalls, following best safety practices can help minimize the possibility. Manufacturers have a responsibility to establish a food safety plan to comply with legal requirements, with contaminant management being an integrated part of the program.

When specifying conveyors, dairy suppliers must consider higher frequency of cleaning with the use of chemical sterilization. To be free from residues containing pathogens and allergens, it’s paramount that conveyors are fully sanitized after handling all types of product.

Enclosed tubular systems are beneficial in keeping the product protected from atmospheric airborne contaminants, meaning the risk for recalls is significantly reduced. Ideally, clean-in-place technology is deployed to avoid the dismantling and reassembly of the equipment and provide a reusable, sanitized conveyor within a significantly shorter wash-down period.

In addition, for dairy producers, USDA-accepted equipment with FDA-approved components demonstrates high quality standards and due diligence on their part to use machinery with recognized certification. As well as providing manufacturers peace of mind that their system is microbiologically clean, machinery designed to a recognized standard typically requires less cleaning time, saving on water, product, labor costs and energy.

While the conveying system might comprise only one section of a dairy supplier’s much larger, complex manufacturing line, overlooking this integral part of the process could be the difference between risking allergens and pathogens making their way into the food chain — and maintaining a brand’s reputation as one that takes food safety seriously.