Food Processing in a Clean Environment

Producing food in a sterile environment is crucial for extending its shelf life and ensuring the highest quality.

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28 June 2024 Cleanrooms

Consumers are placing increasing demands on food products, presenting many companies with ever new challenges. The objectives are wide-ranging and demanding. From sensor technology and clean labelling to the longest possible shelf life under undemanding storage conditions. The demand for natural and minimally processed foods is often at odds with what is technically feasible. 

The question about preserving food has occupied mankind for a long time. In the beginning, food preservation was achieved by drying, heating and pickling, but nowadays people rely on inventions such as the refrigerator or the autoclave. These technical milestones gave rise to a range of other possible solutions to the fundamental problem. However, all methods are based on the same idea: how can we slow down the growth and multiplication of microorganisms in food?

There are basically three strategies for preserving food. The main preservation methods available are chemical, physical and biological. Specific examples are as follows:

Many preservation methods – applied in their entirety – change the food to such an extent that sensory properties such as appearance, odour, taste, texture and/or consistency are also significantly altered. The original freshness and sensory properties are partially or even completely lost. Nowadays, consumers are often unwilling to accept this.

The idea of combining different processes to create a combination effect is therefore obvious. In practice, manufacturers specifically combine two or more preservation processes in a defined, logistical network. These processes can also be referred to as hurdles in the sense of a microbiological reduction in bacterial counts and stabilisation of the food. This is known as the hurdle effect. Figure 1 shows some examples of standard market hurdles. The figure illustrates that although microorganisms experience a quantitative reduction, they can ultimately ‘jump over’ all hurdles.

 

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Figure 1: Exemplary visualisation of the hurdle effect

Very few of the preservation methods described achieve the complete destruction of all microorganisms. This is a problem because even the survival of a single microorganism can ultimately lead to spoilage. If this one microorganism multiplies, exponential multiplication and thus spoilage can occur again within a certain time frame. It is therefore much more interesting to consider another solution: the production of food under the cleanest possible conditions, i.e. in a clean room. This key principle for extending the shelf life of food is considered in detail below.

One hurdle listed in the example is the initial bacterial count. The lower this is, the longer the spoilage of a food is delayed. The microbiological status of all ingredients must be considered here if no preservation process is planned or possible on or in the end product after the food has been processed. A microbiological sum effect would probably occur here, i.e. the initial microbial counts of each individual ingredient would ultimately flow together in the end product, so that a large number of different microorganisms would be found here in large quantities. These may accelerate spoilage as a whole and shorten the shelf life.

At this point, the production environment can make a significant contribution to keeping the total microbial count in the end product as low as possible. This is because the cleaner or less microbial the production environment is, the fewer microorganisms from it will end up in the end product. Therefore, in a microbiological assessment, only the initial microbial counts of the individual ingredients would have to be taken into account in the risk assessment. 

Figure 2 shows the hurdle effect described above with the addition of the clean environment as an additional protective measure in the food production process.

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Figure 2: Exemplary illustration of the hurdle effect with the addition of the clean environment factor

By producing under clean conditions, several manufacturers have already created a market advantage for themselves. This enables them to fulfil consumer expectations for freshness and minimally processed food in combination with a longer shelf life. 

In this context, cleaning the production environment and machines plays an intrinsic role that is often underestimated in practice. The status of a clean environment can only be established or maintained through regular cleaning and disinfection. The use of suitable, approved cleaning agents and disinfectants in conjunction with equally suitable equipment and systematic cleaning techniques at defined intervals is indisputable. At this point, it is important to emphasise the legal obligation to document all work carried out in accordance with specified instructions. 

Setting up production under the cleanest possible conditions, living and maintaining them daily can be a challenge. This is where the Cleanroom Academy offers customised coaching and training. Find out about topics such as behaviour and hygiene in the cleanroom or professional cleanroom cleaning at one-day training courses in Dreieich, Leipzig or Marburg in Germany. These training courses not only provide information on the origin, spread and effects of various contaminants in the clean environment: our graduates receive comprehensive information on how to control and minimise contamination. They are given the opportunity to test various materials/equipment on site and apply appropriate methods. 

Alternatively, you can have one of our experts show you the pitfalls and special features of your field directly in your production facility in order to put an end to operational blindness. Tips and tricks are included. To train your employees in detail and in line with your company's internal circumstances, we come to you and

  • create a customised training concept
  • analyse your processes
  • work with you to develop possible solutions for your problems and weak points and 
  • optimise your cleanroom, processes and employees. 

Contact us for a non-binding training offer: