Dry Operations & Recalls

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By FoodReady

Dry operations are tricky. They are called dry operations not only because the finished product may indeed be dry, but also because water is the enemy of the products. Water creates a greater risk for the pathogen Salmonella in the environment. When I think of dry operations, I think of dry ingredients: powders, spices, gums, thickeners, vitamin and mineral blends, flour, salt, and sugar. All food companies have dry storage for these dry ingredients; I am not addressing storage here, but processing and manufacturing of these ingredients. For every dry ingredient purchased by a food facility, there is a food company making that dry ingredient.

Being from America’s Dairyland (Wisconsin), I have been in five different spray-dry facilities in the past two and a half years that were producing spray-dried milk or whey – or both. Dry. Nut roasting is dry. Peanut butter operations are dry. Chocolate – as an ingredient and chocolate manufacturing – are dry. Water is the enemy and creates an environment where the risk of Salmonella is greater.

This brings us to cleaning and sanitizing. For most of dry operations, production does not stop. (Everyone working in a wet-clean operation just gasped!) It’s true. If the equipment can keep running, it does. There may be short shutdowns for minor repairs or adjustments, but the equipment keeps running. Most of these dry-ingredient manufacturers do business on a small profit margin and can’t afford to shut down. When the equipment does go down for cleaning, it is a big deal and may take days or a week to clear the lines, make repairs, clean, sanitize, completely dry, and start back up. Most companies discard a substantial portion of the first product out in case a pathogen in the lines was cleared at start up. The cost to the company is significant.

Then there is the equipment that is never cleaned. In some operations, it is just not possible during a normal shutdown to take apart and open certain pieces of equipment for cleaning. In the event of a recall, it means that there never was truly a clean break. FDA looks to companies to inform them on when the last clean break occurred. With a clean break, a company has evidence to shorten the span of a recall back to that last clean break. This reminds me of a company I was in that had four large tanks of melted chocolates, and the different chocolates were drizzled on the top of the product. It was heaven for this chocoholic, until I learned that the large tanks were never emptied. Never. This is standard practice throughout industry. The company had a clever way of cleaning the equipment that dispensed the chocolate, but not the mother tanks. The question becomes: in the event of a recall, would the company recall all product in market with that particular chocolate?

Without a clean break, how does a company determine how far back to go for a recall? One way to determine the cut-off date is to stop production, call in a consultant to investigate, and collect hundreds of swabs for the determination of root cause. This takes time, and the company has an obligation to inform customers of the recall and may not have enough time.

My suggestion to owners of dry operations is to schedule an annual shutdown for repairs and complete cleaning and sanitizing. I know this is a huge cost. Your CFO can calculate the ultimate cost for this shutdown of production. Then calculate the cost of a recall. In addition to the cost of recalling all product from the market, what is the cost of loss of customers? This Cheesehead is going to continue to learn from clients of dry operations and formulate best practices for cleaning and sanitizing of dry operations. Please share your thoughts with me. Food safety is not competitive.