MCLEAN, VA. ― The Food Processing Suppliers Association’s (FPSA) Food Safety Network hosted a webinar Sept. 2 to discuss what has changed in pet food processing plants in light of COVID-19 and how the crisis could likely redefine the future of food and operator safety for the broader food processing world.
The panelists were Mitch Felderhoff, owner and president of sales and marketing for Muenster Milling, Muenster, Texas, Billie Johnson, Ph.D., food safety/regulatory compliance manager for BHJ North America, Omaha, Neb., and Robert Long, pet food safety expert specializing in sanitation and hygiene program development and execution. The conversation was moderated by Darin Zehr, FPSA Food Safety Network chair and general manager for Commercial Food Sanitation, Harahan, La., and Nehemiah White, FPSA Food Safety Network vice-chair and market manager for Deville Technologies, Quebec, Canada.
The immediate impacts of COVID-19 included restricted supplies of sanitation equipment and consumables, reduced production capacity due to social distancing adjustments and communication barriers between shifts.
“There were a lot of challenges early on… and probably one of the primary things that we experienced in the work environment was really the communication piece right up front,” Johnson said. “It became very hard and very time-consuming because of the separation of our shifts. One shift couldn’t talk to the other and one shift had to wait in their cars until everyone was out of the building… There were a lot of challenges right up front with communication, with the design of our equipment and with the workstations overall.”
"There were a lot of challenges right up front with communication, with the design of our equipment and with the workstations overall,” said Billie Johnson, Ph.D.
With demand for pet food high ― especially during the beginning months of the pandemic — processors were challenged to improve safety while still pushing ahead. Muenster Milling was in the process of having two new systems installed that couldn’t wait. The company had implemented temperature screenings and separated shifts to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
“We went from day/night shifts to basically an A/B shift, so we were staggered three days for one shift and then three days for the next shift,” Felderhoff said. “We knew there was a possibility that someone could get [COVID-19] and then we would have to quarantine basically half of the operations team for 14 days. If that happened then obviously production would take a hit, but there wasn’t really anything we could do about that. If we all stayed six feet apart, the machine didn’t come in and didn’t get installed, so it was take the precautions you can take and just know there’s inherent risk that, if something does happen, you’ll have to take actions afterward.”
Keeping shifts separated continues to hinder overall production efficiency. Felderhoff said Muenster is running at around 80% of the efficiency that it was before COVID-19 due to keeping everyone separated from a shift level and not allowing any overlap. Johnson agreed that shift separation and the simple challenge of getting people into and out of buildings and through health screenings is time consuming.
Having adequate supplies not of ingredients for production but for employee safety has required ongoing attention during the pandemic. Long said that maintaining adequate sanitation supplies and protective gear such as cleaning chemicals, sanitizers, wipes and masks for employees proved to be a challenge but also offered a lesson.
“We spent quite a bit of time trying to identify second, third and fourth-level sources to get those types of materials that we were using just to keep the plant itself meeting the standards for the risk,” Long explained. “It’s a small industry and you live or die by your relationships and your reputation, both in the food world for food safety and in how you staff and manage your business. I think one of the key learnings we had was, you have to continue to develop those local relationships at the site level because once you’re isolated you may be on an island, you may not be able to get something from corporate or some another sister plant because of restrictions, and those local relationships you have can make or break your ability to continue to function.”
"It’s a small industry and you live or die by your relationships and your reputation, both in the food world for food safety and in how you staff and manage your business... Those local relationships you have can make or break your ability to continue to function," said Robert Long.
The “new normal” in processing environments is protecting people to protect processes. The primary focus of sanitation has been centered around production areas. Now the focus is squarely on the ancillary areas of a plant – the break rooms, office areas, entrances and exits.
“The sanitation practices we’ve developed over the years for the processing areas are going to become more for the entirety of the building, not just the processing areas,” Johnson said. “We’re going to make zones, if you will, for the break rooms, for the restrooms, for the various areas and we’ll treat those zones the same way we would any sanitary preventive control. So we’re basically saying that this is a part of our process and it’s not just about making the final product, but it’s about having our employees that are there to help us make that final product – if we don’t have the employees, we’re not going to be able to make anything.”
Processors are accustomed to employing labor to address processing challenges. Long anticipates more employees will be restricted to zones and processors may be more willing to turn to new plant designs and technology to address problems.
“We’re probably going to get a little more granular on people risk zone controls,” Long said. “For example, your quality tech is not going to be going from end to end doing inspections, you’re going to have to zone out those responsibilities.”
Long anticipates production lines will be spaced further apart, which requires more square-footage, but if an employee on one production line tests positive for COVID-19, that line can be sanitized without requiring the other line to shut down. Going forward, the extra space could also allow a processor to zone clean one line while the other stays in production.
Investments such as a larger facility or additional automation may be easier to justify. Companies may be more willing to consider investments in automation, not necessarily to eliminate employees, but rather to protect them. For example, where a company would typically use labor because it’s more cost-effective to hand-pack pallets at the end of the line, it might consider the initial investment for robotics.
“Now that we have the COVID risk that could shut the whole end of your line down, I bet we see more robotic and more palletizing automation put in,” Long said. “You might have more automated blending and depalletizing and staging of your materials up front. You might see an increase in some of the automated forklift capabilities so that you don’t have the same warehouse person coming into different zones.
“We’re going to take the understanding, knowledge and expertise we’ve already used for controlling product risk and expand it at a more granular level for the people risk,” said Robert Long.
“We’re going to take the understanding, knowledge and expertise we’ve already used for controlling product risk and expand it at a more granular level for the people risk,” Long added. “We’re going to see more of the isolation technique and preventive controls put around people like we have around product.”
By protecting the people working in a facility, manufacturers will be protecting the process.
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