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Preventing cross contamination in heat exchangers.

Heat Exchangers are a vital resource for any food processing facility, helping to increase energy efficiency and streamline the manufacturing process. However, cross contamination between food products--especially those in liquid states--and the fluid used in the heat exchangers themselves can pose serious risks to food safety. Rick Rohwer from Thermaline talks to Food Manufacturing about some simple, easy-to-follow techniques food processors can use to better understand their own equipment and reduce the risk of potential cross contamination.

Q: What challenges can heat exchangers present in food processing environments, and what can food processors do to meet those challenges?

A: Heat exchangers rarely fail. Because they are reliable, most of them do their job in relative obscurity. This reliability generally results in no redundancy. When heat exchangers have serious issues, plant operation is jeopardized. In many cases, this means the entire plant shuts down until the heat exchanger is fixed.

Q: Specifically addressing concerns about cross-contamination, how can food processors ensure the safety of their product while still benefiting from the increased efficiency provided by heat exchangers?

A: Some industries are regulated and routinely tested by state and federal agencies. Watch for symptoms of cross contamination--foulant in media tanks, high coliform counts, or changes in product characteristics. If you suspect cross over, have the heat exchanger tested. Testing can be done without opening the unit. Develop and maintain good records.

Q: Do different applications for heat exchangers pose different or varying risks of cross-contamination?

A: The highest risk associated with cross contamination occurs when processes intended to reduce or neutralize pathogens through heating (pasteurization) allow untreated colder product to transfer energy with hot pasteurized product. In this instance, the opportunity exists for high levels of active pathogens to mix with presumably safe food products. Unlike other cross contamination issues that can be recognized by finding food product in the media tanks or by rapidly declining media supply, this product-to-product cross contamination in regeneration sections of heat exchangers holds the highest risk of becoming ongoing and therefore the highest liability of harm to the public.

Cross contamination risk is not as high and easier to spot when it results in the mixing of product with media that isn't product. When possible, food processors prefer to use food grade or sterile media as the primary media inside the heat exchanger producing the final product.

Lastly, the risk associated with cross contamination between two media, neither of which are food, puts the process machinery at risk but doesn't result in a direct threat to the product quality.

Q: What advice would you give to food manufacturers seeking to ensure that their heat exchange equipment is not compromising the safety of their food products?

A: Take the opportunity, when possible, to learn what each of the heat exchangers in your plant does. The more you know about the process, the more valuable you are to your employer.

Document everything you do on your heat exchangers. Test or have heat exchangers tested routinely. Keep organized records of test results, heat exchanger issues and maintenance.

Rick Rohwer, Thermaline Inc.
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Title Annotation:questions and answers
Author:Rohwer, Rick
Publication:Food Manufacturing
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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