Today’s meat and poultry processing plants are beginning to resemble cold lockers, and that’s a good thing. 

Stainless steel is a popular material for walls today. And sophisticated, layered proxy floors are a necessity now — all to keep plants safe and pathogen-free. 

Due to companies like Wal-Mart requiring Safe Quality Food (SQF) compliance and other retailers requiring processors be compliant with Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and British Retail Consortium (BRC) standards, meat and poultry processors are improving their sanitation and pest control initiatives more than ever.

“GFSI came out of the BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease] scare in Europe during the ‘90s when consumers lost confidence in the government to regulate industry, and they now have morphed across the world,” says Keith Belk, Ph.D., professor, Department of Animal Sciences, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colo.

Processors are creating a more hygienic and secure envelope with their floors, doors and walls by reducing the seams between panels; improving surface finishes for soil release, cleaning and antibacterial properties; and reducing water transmission and retention, says Tim Bowser, Ph.D., food process engineer, Oklahoma State University, based in Stillwater, Okla. 

“New techniques for joining stainless steel material have vastly improved the quality and cost of stainless steel components,” says Bowser.

This initiative requires stainless steel surfaces or panels that are easier to clean and have fewer seams, improved curbs for better drainage and smoother transitions between walls, floors and ceilings, antibacterial coatings and materials (stainless and plastic), and epoxy or polyurethane wall coating systems that have no seams. 

“Bacteria can hide in floor drains, and in cracks and crevices in walls, floors and doors where it can grow and thrive,” says Bowser. “For example, years ago no one worried about bacteria in drains. During normal plant operations, some of these bacteria can be released and may find its way into product. New technology and materials are making it possible to attack this issue head-on to make plants cleaner and safer.”

Creating a safer seal

Processors continue to improve their food safety with changes to water supply and treatment, energy supply and management, waste treatment and handling, cold chain integrity, superior packaging (primarily plastics, but also glass and metal) and quality management and assurance systems, says Bowser. 

High build epoxy materials and acid (or dairy) brick are the most common floor and wall materials today. “Both [materials] have improved greatly over the years,” he says. 

In addition, “the integrated circuit, LCD displays, wireless communications devices and digital hardware or software are now ubiquitous in food plants,” says Bowser.

To combat pests, smart traps now exist that identify collected pests and wirelessly let processors know how many have been collected.

“If a numbered station is reporting increased activity, for example, and is by a cornfield, then the processor can take remedial steps to prevent the area from getting action, such as putting extra traps in that area,” says Belk.

Downspouts are being screened off and new doorway systems don’t allow daylight — or rodents — to get into the plant, says Belk.

Going forward, there are still areas that can be improved with floors, doors and walls in processing plants. First of all, materials and coatings could be improved so they resist soil attachment under a wider range of process conditions. 

“Comprehensive automated cleaning solutions that include walls, floors and ceilings need to be developed,” says Bowser.

Lighter, more efficient and environmentally friendly insulation materials are still needed. And pre-made panels that are assembled on-site need better joining techniques to reduce cost and improve cleanability. 

“Faster, safer, more reliable automated doors are needed,” says Bowser. “Also, better climate control equipment is needed to help prevent bacterial growth and general decay of walls, floors and ceilings.”