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Engineering and Maintenance’s role in Food Safety

BY Rolf Uys

When I present food safety training, I always note the job functions that attend. It off course, depends on the training course itself but in general I find that there would be only about 1 maintenance personnel for every 10 Quality and 10 Production personnel that attend. The explanation is always that they are too busy. Its seems as if Quality can be put on hold for training, but not Maintenance. Yet, maintenance personnel are very intimately involved in food safety and often are the leading contributor to food safety incidents. Consider the incident in 2006 at a UK chocolate manufacturer where a pipe leak led to Salmonella contamination and a R260M recall. Or the 2009 scare at Jensen farms melon processors in the USA where 25 people died from Listeria due to poor drainage and poor cleaning. Locally, during my years of being an auditor, I have seen many maintenance originated foreign material complaints. Interestingly, it’s often just after the annual factory maintenance shutdown. It sometimes feels one can re-stock the maintenance stores with all the nuts bolts and other maintenance items that comes back from the customers.


In South Africa, we have the added difficulty that most food processing equipment is manufactured overseas. When the exchange rate against the weak Rand is factored in, good, hygienic equipment comes almost unaffordable. One of two things happen. Either equipment is ran well past its shelf life and it starts deteriorating, or less inferior “home made” equipment/ lines are put together that does not necessarily conform to modern food safety requirements. Its not just the equipment itself, it’s the spares and fittings as well. There are food safe and non-food safe transfer pipes, gaskets, seals, filters etc. that need to be considered. Either way, food safety needs to be planned from the design stages. There should be a formal program for designing, commissioning or modifying food processing equipment in a way that food safety is not compromised. The reality is very few companies have such a system.


A further “disease” in our food industry is the neglect of preventive maintenance because of production pressures. Most of the food processors I know, would typically run non-stop for one, sometimes two weeks and then do preventive maintenance on only a Saturday and Sunday. The precious little time available is then also shared with cleaning, training and other functions that can only be done when the line is standing. Small and medium food processors generally do not do preventive maintenance. They run the factory until something breaks. There would typically be a checklist were equipment is supposed to be inspected pro-actively. But because maintenance personnel are caught up with other things, this is generally not done properly and the facility lapses into reactive maintenance. The problem with reactive maintenance is that it becomes a viscous cycle. Maintenance personnel get in a spiral of trying to get ahead of breakdown jobs that there is no time for preventive maintenance. With a significant effect on food safety.


In order to manage any problem, one needs to measure it. If your facility has any of the problems mentioned above, step one is to measure it. Put measures in place to calculate cost of reactive maintenance. This may include labour cost, parts cost, down time cost, etc. Get a Rand figure per month, per year. Offset that cost against employing a maintenance planner, buying preventive maintenance software and allocating time to plan. You will be amazed by how many salaries can be paid by preventing one serious breakdown. The days are over of having a roaming handyman for reactive maintenance. A modern food factory that is serious about food safety should have a well-planned, coordinated strategy, that is part of its business objectives.


Once equipment design and preventive maintenance systems are in place, this will buy time for maintenance personnel to be more strategic. For planning better and not “fighting fires” the whole day. Hopefully this would also free up some time to attend training sessions, so maintenance mistakes could be prevented in the first place.


How can Entecom help you? We have a very practical training course that covers, equipment design, preventive maintenance and the role of the maintenance personnel in a food safety program. Ask us at rolf@entecom.co.za or clarice@entecom.co.za

 August 27, 2015
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Food Safety
Rolf Uys

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