19 Mar 2020

How to Stop Bacteria Growth from Ruining Your Food Products

A conversation with Andrew Schneider

From bird flu to swine flu to the global spread of COVID-19, outbreaks of zoonotic diseases like these make many food manufacturers very nervous about controlling the spread of bacteria between animal products and humans. And with good reason: the average adult man has around 39 trillion bacteria living in and on their body. Past studies have found harmful bacteria on around 97% of chicken breasts sold on supermarket shelves. That’s a lot of potential problems and combinations that, unchecked, could cause harm to your customers and workforce, or bring production at your facility to a halt.

“A lot of companies underestimate the costs of bacterial growth,” explains Andrew Schneider, Aggreko Business Development Manager. “They’re focused on the direct cost of wastage if damaged and spoiled products end up being discarded. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The bigger picture is that your people are in danger, your production timelines are set back, and you could end up with a potential reputational fall-out in the public arena. That’s when you really need to worry.”
Controlling bacteria growth is a pressing problem for any kind of food and beverage manufacturer, but some types of food products are more badly affected than others. The more perishable your products or ingredients, the more susceptible they’ll be to spoilage. If you produce meat or poultry products, the risks become much more severe. Pathogenic species like Salmonella and Campylobacter, in particular, pose a major risk to human health if they’re given a chance to spread and grow on poultry meat. No company wants to be responsible for a major foodborne outbreak!
Ensuring microbial safety of carcasses and cuts is of paramount importance if you’re to avoid contamination and bacteria growth. That starts right at the slaughtering stage when bacteria from animal microbiota, as well as the slaughterhouse environment and equipment, can find their way into carcasses and ultimately the end products. It doesn’t stop here, though – at every stage in the process, the product runs the risk of exposure to new bacteria. 
Even when these don’t pose a serious health risk, depending on their growth and metabolic rate, they can strongly impact the taste, smell, color or texture of the product, undermining the quality and putting off customers. If they fail quality testing and have to be discarded, that means wastage and a financial hit for your business. If they make it to the supermarket shelves but aren’t up to scratch, that can mean disappointed customers that will be very hard for you to win back. Either way, it’s an outcome you want to avoid.
What’s more, exposure to harmful bacteria can create dangerous conditions for workers, too. That’s a frightening enough outcome in itself, but it also means you may face major blows to your business. If workers need to take time off, or you need to stop work to investigate the source of an infection, that means putting productivity on hold, missing orders, and losing revenue for every day of disruption.
Clearly, it’s vital to nip these problems in the bud. But what’s the best strategy to achieve this?
Well, first of all, you need to do everything you can to limit cross-contamination in the first place. Among other interventions, that means thinking carefully about the most appropriate PPE for your workforce, ensuring any microbes and bacteria they carry can’t make their way into the food products. 
It’s also a good idea to run a thorough audit of your facility, looking out for equipment that could inadvertently contribute to the spread of bacteria. For example, let’s say that, in your facility, workers feed chicken carcasses onto a conveyor belt to transport them to the next stage of processing. Sometimes, these are pushed along by rubber “fingers” – which means that, if the fingers pick up Salmonella bacteria from just one carcass, they could then be depositing that bacteria onto every other poultry carcass that follows it, before you have a chance to clean anything! The more you can do to limit connections like this, the better placed you’ll be to keep things under control. 
Equally, though, it’s vital to ensure that any nasties that do inevitably get onto the factory floor don’t have a chance to grow and spread. Bacteria and pathogens thrive in warm, damp conditions. For the food and beverage industry, this means keeping facilities cool and dry is incredibly important – but it can also be a complex challenge. 
After all, this isn’t an issue that remains constant all year round. You may find it easy enough to control environmental conditions during the winter months, when it’s pretty chilly outside anyway. As soon as things start to get hot and humid, though, many production and packaging facilities discover that their permanently installed equipment can’t cope with the extra seasonal pressure.
Plus, you may need to create and stabilize very different conditions in different parts of your facility, depending on whether you are preparing food, packaging or storing the products in this area. If some areas are much colder than others, this creates a brand new problem: condensation forming that can drip into products or equipment. “A lot of facilities don’t have the right drying or dehumidification systems in place to stop this,” says Schneider. “Once this condensation gets into your production equipment and the products themselves, it’s too late. You need to shut down and conduct urgent sanitation steps, and that gets really expensive.”
In short, this isn’t a simple problem with an easy, one-size-fits-all solution. You will likely need a custom installation for your facility that responds to your precise challenges, as well as to seasonal fluctuations in weather conditions and production demands. 
You may be thinking that this sounds cripplingly expensive. And you’re right – if you’re thinking about buying permanent equipment that you may only actually need to use for two months of the years. For this exact reason, many food and beverage producers are looking at cutting capital expenditure by renting just the equipment or utilities they need, when they need them. 
If you partner with a provider that really understands the challenges of your industry, this is an excellent approach, not least because you can draw on the depths of their expertise as well as relying on their top-notch equipment. 
“These challenges aren’t something you simply address once and move on,” says Scheider. “Meat and poultry facilities have to confront condensation and temperature variance on a daily basis. That’s really hard to do without expert support, and the ability to scale up and down your cooling and dehumidification capacity whenever you need it”.

Want more detailed, in-depth advice on preventing bacteria and pathogen growth in your facility? Sign up here for Andrew Schneider’s FREE webinar on this very topic.