Compressed air is a critical utility widely used throughout the food industry. Being aware of the composition of compressed air used in your plant is key to avoiding product contamination. Your task is to assess the activities and operations that can harm a product, the extent to which a product can be harmed, and how likely it is that product harm will occur. Assessing product contamination is a multi-step process in which you must identify the important risks, prioritize them for management, and take reasonable steps to remove or reduce the chance of harm to the product, and, in particular, serious harm to the consumer.
According to the Compressed Air and Gas Institute (CAGI) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the three major contaminants in compressed air are solid particles, water, and oil. CAGI promotes proper use of air compressors with various educational tools, while ISO 8573 is directed at the very specific areas of compressed air purity and test methods, which this article will address. Microorganisms are also considered a major contaminant by CAGI, but will not be discussed in this article.
Health and safety issues are a major concern in the food industry. Not only can contaminated food products endanger consumers, but they also can cause significant damage to a company’s reputation and bottom line. Contamination can come from many sources—industrial lubricants among them. With the abundance of lubricated machinery used in the food industry, lubricant dripping from a chain or escaping through a leak in a component can prove catastrophic. Even with the most prudent maintenance and operating procedures, along with a strict HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) plan, contamination may still occur.
Any modern food manufacturing facility employs compressed air extensively in the plant. As common as it is, the potential hazards associated with this powerful utility are not obvious and apparent. Food hygiene legislation to protect the consumer places the duty of care on the food manufacturer. For this reason, many companies often devise their own internal air quality standards based upon what they think or have been told are “best practices.” This is no wonder, as the published collections of Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) that relate to compressed air are nebulous and difficult to wade through.
Compressed air is the most common utility used in a typical industrial facility. It encompasses most operating aspects of the plant. The compressed air system can end up being the most expensive utility due to the focus that if production is running - then leave the system alone. Processes and machines are added and as long as the compressor can handle the increasing load - all is good. This brings us to our subject matter. The plant adds a process, a specialty coating line, requiring respirator protection. The plant determines supplied air respirators are the best choice. They want to be responsible and do the right thing so they start by reviewing what OSHA has to say on the subject.
SQF is a food safety management company that conducts audits and reports its findings on companies that voluntarily subscribe to its services. Once an audit is performed, SQF releases the data; from this data, other companies can determine who they want to use for packaging and manufacturing. To facilitate the process, SQF has released a guide that provides directives for processes used in manufacturing.
It was the Fall of 1997 in Germany. I was just another guy working in the German compressed air industry. East Germans were still being looked down on - seven years after unification, the Euro was launching in little over a year - forcing marketing managers like me to scramble and create unified european Euro pricing strategies, European Cohesion Funds were flowing out of Germany and into the Mediterranean (not literally), and the diminutive Mercedes “Smart Car” was the cool car for space-challenged urban dwellers. With this going on, you can imagine the surprise of the compressed air industry when compressed air was featured in “Der Spiegel”, a “Newsweek-like” weekly magazine in Germany with national distribution.
Compressed air is a key utility supporting the food packaging and food processing industries in North America. Compressed air must be contaminant-free to ensure the protection of the food products processed in each facility. The U.K. Code of Practice for Food-Grade Air helps define three types of compressed air systems and air purification specifications required for each.
The next time you sit down for dinner, take a good look at your food. There’s a very good chance compressed air played an essential role in preparing your meal for consumption.
Industry standards serve a very important purpose for the end users of compressed air equipment. If the standards are well written, they can help to promote the equipment that they govern, as long as the equipment manufacturers properly apply and promote the standards.