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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, August/September 2006

The Curtain of Containment

Separation Curtains Provide Flexible Allergen Control in Food Processing Environments

by Tony Goff

The number of people, who have to be alert to what foods they not only digest, but also often just come into contact with, is sizeable. Food allergies of some type affect about 2 percent of the adults in this country. If someone does not have to deal with this problem, chances are they have a member of their family who does. Nationwide, 8 percent of children need to be wary about what they put in their mouths.

The FDA identifies eight foods that cause 90 percent of the allergic reactions – milk and milk products, eggs, legumes (peanuts and soy), tree nuts, wheat, crustaceans, fish and mollusks. Sufferers can experience swelling of the lips, digestive tract problems, skin flare-ups and constricted breathing – which sometimes can be fatal.

Other than those children who grow out of their allergies, there is no cure and those afflicted live with managing the problem. Since much of what we eat is processed food, food processors have to be vigilant, in keeping these people clear of those ingredients that can lead to bad reactions.

Tricky Business

Food regulations dictate proper labeling to avoid these hazards so allergic suffers can steer clear of those ingredients, which are hazardous to them, but the real challenge happens on the food processing floor.

There are places where allergen control is easier than in others. For very large producers, teams are assigned full-time to targeting allergens. There are plants with large volumes of a single line. For example there might be one building where a product is run that has peanuts, and an entire other facility where it is run without.

Most operations do not have that luxury. The demands of many considerations bear down on the plant’s ability get on top of the allergen problem. The major issue is economic. With food processing having among the tightest margins in the business world, the pressure is always on to get more out of nearly every piece of equipment and every square foot of plant space in which a food processing company invests.

These are the realities in most plants that make allergen management tricky. Management wants to occupy as much floor space as possible with production equipment to maximize the use of the building. Processing lines snug up close to one another.

With many companies continually bringing on new food product lines to win the battle for retail shelf space, runs have become shorter, resulting in equipment being washed down in preparation for the batch with greater frequency. Facilities producing private label can be handling hundreds of product recipes in the course of months or even weeks.

The issue for allergen control comes down to a number of solutions, with the prime one being containment. Solid walls come to mind as being useful. But typically a food processing plant is a box. Within those four walls, management can reconfigure the processing layout to respond to changes in the product line and new approaches arising from continual improvement programs.

Keeping Allergens at Bay

Nevertheless, attention to allergens is just as important as these other issues if not more so. Bear in mind that even if just peanut dust happens to waft over onto a product not intended to have the legume, a minuscule quantity could prove fatal if indigested.

In this environment, vinyl curtain separation can be an essential means of keeping allergens in their place and the operation working efficiently during both production and sanitation. The big advantage of the curtains is they can separate production lines in the tightest spaces. The curtain can be hung to conform to the contours of floor area occupied by the equipment and the area needed to work around it.

The transmission of allergens happens unintentionally. The food product can ride on a worker’s shoes and clothing, carried into the adjacent area. Strategically placed curtains can direct traffic patterns so employees are steered clear of other production areas. The curtains can also block the flow of solid allergens – including powdered milk – as they can travel through the air over surprising distances, riding on air pressure currents.

It is in the cleaning process where these curtains provide the main line of defense.

Cleaning itself can have an adverse affect on productivity if the area is not enclosed using separation curtains. Overspray can contaminate other lines – whether the procedure uses solution or high-pressure air jets. Plants that do not use separation curtains in close quarters shut down production for the adjacent areas. Curtain separation on the other hand enables neighboring operations to run on their own schedule. Plants are efficient, getting the most out of their production lines and eliminating scheduling headaches dictated by the cleaning routine.

Separation curtains have been recently developed to meet the special needs of the food processing industry. The primary features of the curtains are a slick surface that sheds solutions and soils, welded seams that prevent the trapping of contaminants, with panels hung using stainless steel attachments and track. In short, food grade construction that stops the blasts of air or solution allowing them to go to drain.

The immediate benefit from using these curtains is that now plants can operate their processing equipment more often, in some cases tripling production while avoiding the cross-contamination problems associated with allergens. This arrangement of being able to divide off a large production area means that product lines that have different run times can be cleaned at different times.

Cleaning time, though necessary, is down time and drains revenue. Cleaning each line on separate schedule makes the most use of sanitation time and limits loss of production runtime. For a plant with flexible scheduling, increasing production line runtimes by several hours may eliminate one sanitation cycle per week and convert sanitation hours into production hours.

Basically, the type of plant that can benefit from hanging separator food curtains in their processing room has multiple lines running over multiple shifts, with many product changeovers and a need for flexible cleaning schedules. Co-packers tend to gain the most from using separator curtains.

The size of the cleaning area can be determined by the length of the curtain track hanging from the ceiling. The track can run in many directions around the various processing areas, and if the configuration is set up with a level of forethought, one curtain can be used throughout an area housing multiple processing systems. As a result, areas that have to run any of the eight allergens can do it under one roof.

When the curtain is not being used it can be folded up close to the wall, enabling unimpeded material handling from the receiving dock, through the processing/packaging area and then out to shipping. When a line has to be shut down for cleaning, the curtain can be run out along the track that encircles the area.

For an investment of less than $15,000, an area of thousands of square feet can be enclosed in different places at different times by a single separator curtain.

Continually morphing product lines and on-going lean production programs require flexible equipment floor plans to make both happen. This kind of thinking cannot be confined by walls. Taking down and reinstalling the curtain track can enable the track pattern to accommodate the workflow and new equipment placement.

The food curtains can be provided for any room height or to confine any size area. Curtain material can be PVC, USDA grade PVC or antimicrobial PVC, thick enough to prevent tearing from passing vehicles or carts. The material is transparent to allow overhead illumination of the working area.

Adjacent processing lines are not the only concern facing food processors when attempting to utilize floor space. The FDA will not allow processing to happen near storage areas. The food curtains can make a barrier between the processing lines and the racks, eliminating the creation of this “dead” area.

Processing operations have juggled many balls labeled production, profitability and employee management, with the largest one being allergen control. Vinyl food curtains give plant management the flexibility to handle all of those missions.

Tony Goff is president of Goff Enterprises Inc. (Pewaukee, Wis.) Reach him at 800-234-0337 or sales@goffscw.com.

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