Adapting to change

Stephen Harding looks at how the food health revolution is affecting the food processing industry

Consumers across the globe are becoming increasingly health conscious. This means that food processing plants are having to change the ingredients, recipes and machinery used to meet the demand for healthy food products.

Social media has played a pivotal role in the surge of health consciousness. Nutritionists and lifestyle bloggers use platforms like YouTube and Instagram to educate consumers about eating healthier and draw attention to what exactly is in popular food products. Given their platform and following, the advice shared by nutrition and lifestyle figures has a profound impact on consumer behaviour. In fact, a 2016 survey from the International Food Information Council found that 47 per cent of consumers check the ingredients when making a purchasing decision.

Many food manufacturers are reviewing their current processes and production lines in response to this piqued consumer interest in ingredients. In particular, manufacturers must focus on eliminating the possibility of cross contamination and improving existing products to ensure compliance with food safety regulations. For the latter, this can result in a change in the product recipe. This would be true for a food manufacturer looking to reduce the volume of ingredients like salt and sugar, which are harmful when digested in copious quantities.

So, what should manufacturers be considering in their production lines to adapt their production processes and meet the expectations of the health food revolution? A key consideration should be on the legal and regulatory landscape of the food industry, which is constantly changing based on the release of new scientific research and developments.

Regulatory landscape

The introduction of the nutrition facts label in the US is one example of how the food industry is reacting to consumers’ demands to know about where the ingredients of their food have come from and how the final product was manufactured.

From 1 January 2020, large manufacturers must disclose if any food ingredients used are genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Businesses with sales under 10 million have an additional year to alter their labels.

Failure to comply with these food safety regulations can result in costly recalls, which can be financially damaging to a company in the food sector. This is because the food industry is predominantly time sensitive. Every food item needs to be processed, shipped and stored within a certain timeframe otherwise the item is no longer safe to consume. In addition to this, the prevalence of food allergies has increased dramatically since the 1960s, particularly among children. Ensuring food safety and reducing the likelihood of cross-contamination with food products is fundamental to retaining a credible reputation among consumers.

Cross-contamination

One of the main causes for cross-contamination in a food processing plant is the traditional conveyor belts that are used to move products along each stage. Contamination occurs because the more complex the conveyor is, the more difficult it is to clean, which increases the possibility of bacteria growing.

Screw conveyors, for example, use a rotating helical screw blade within a tube to move liquid or granular materials and are designed with a closed casing to protect employees from harm. This makes it difficult to carry out a thorough clean as some of the components are not accessible, which increases the possibility of bacteria growing.

To overcome this problem, it is in the interest of food manufacturers to invest in conveying equipment that can be thoroughly cleaned and therefore mitigate any potential contamination issues between flavours and allergens. Gough Engineering’s Easy Clean conveyor, for example, has a removable belt allowing the equipment to be easily dissembled and cleaned, so manufacturers can comply with hygiene standards.

In addition to this, manufacturers can also use process control systems to monitor food products through different stops in the supply chain. This means that if a food recall does occur, manufacturers can identify the specific products that have been affected and find ways of eliminating any issues throughout the process, ensuring food production remains safe.

Traceability also allows manufacturers to improve their production lines as the data collected shows if there are any gaps or issues that could be altered to improve the plant’s efficiency. This is especially valuable when a plant needs to adjust its production lines to change recipes and meet market expectations.

Minimising disruption

With 60 per cent of UK shoppers reportedly choosing what supermarket to shop at based on its product range, manufacturers need to be flexible at integrating specialist equipment. This is so they can produce a wide variety of products and adhere to any food trends, eliminating any mechanical issues.

The increased demand for protein shakes, for example, has required manufacturers to adjust their plant’s production process. This is because handling these types of ingredients means the equipment in food processing plants now faces the same issues as powders in the pharmaceutical industry.

Powder granules must be a particular size to ensure accurate measurement of nutritional values in the end product, which means powders require a screening process. When screening or sieving these products, granules often clump together and cause blockages in the screening system’s mesh, meaning production is slowed down while plant engineers tend to the mesh and remove any clumps, disrupting the process.

Instead, plant managers should invest in ultrasonic screening systems, like those offered by Gough Engineering, which use high frequency vibrations to shake the powder during the screening process. This motion significantly reduces the likelihood of powders forming blockages in the mesh, providing a consistent rate of throughput.

Ultrasonic screening like this also means that the need to remove the whole screen for manual cleaning is greatly reduced, as are the chances of production downtime. This is just one example of how a food fad requires manufacturers to invest in the right equipment to maximise the flow of product and keep ahead of market demand.

Meeting demand

Consumers are more discerning in their product choices as they search for organic, vegetarian and free-from options. With a growing vegan population also impacting the food industry, it’s estimated that the global organic food market will reach $262.85 billion by 2022. This is an increase of nearly 50 per cent from figures reported in 2016.

As Nil Zacharias, co-founder and editor-in-chief of One Green Planet, puts it, “A whole new conscious food economy is rising, consisting of companies that are working to disrupt our food system by offering healthier, more sustainable foods.”

With the healthy food revolution not looking to simmer down anytime soon, food processing plants must adapt their production lines quickly and effectively. By seeking the assistance of experts in food handling management in the initial stages of a trend, manufacturers can make sure they are prepared to meet demand.

Author

Stephen Harding is managing director at Gough Engineering.

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