Of all the variables that food safety leaders in pet food production operations need to account for, the inherent limitations and flaws of their facilities present some of the most intractable. Aging facilities — and the production environments and equipment within them — gradually introduce new and increased food safety risks. Most facilities are retrofitted for new workflows, traffic patterns, new demands or entirely new purposes through the years, and these ad hoc retrofits leave a facility with fundamental deficits from a sanitary design standpoint.

But plant leaders know… they’re not likely to get a brand-new plant anytime soon. Rather, they need to change how they think about evaluating sanitary design — making it an integral part of continuous risk assessment and mitigation efforts.

Outgrowing your facility

Here’s a scenario many have experienced and all can imagine: A growing family begins to outgrow their house. Spaces get cramped and the day-to-day family “workflows” are no longer working smoothly. They don’t just need additional space; they need additional equipment (i.e., another shower). This is on top of the regular growing pains of an aging house — the cracks, leaks, drafts, etc.

The family might do a renovation or build an addition. But these retrofits come with their own issues. They’re often done ad hoc and not always with an eye toward needs in 10 or 20 years. And they’re typically limited by the footprint of the foundation, lot size, building code, etc. — not to mention budget. And, above all, there’s the issue of “uptime”: the family needs a place to live, so renovations can’t be too comprehensive.

Even new facilities have growing pains

The dream is to build your own fully custom house, designed from the ground up, right? Unfortunately, not only is this not practical for the vast majority, but it also doesn’t eliminate growing pains (as anyone who has ever built or bought a brand-new home can attest). That new home, and everything in it, begins aging on Day 1. Infrastructure and equipment breakdown quickly becomes an issue. Your needs and “use cases” change, too — often in ways you didn’t expect, didn’t consider, or couldn’t have predicted (an extra kid, a dog, working from home, etc.).

These issues are what every pet food production facility deals with — no matter how new. As infrastructure ages, food safety risks evolve and increase. It becomes harder to clean and disinfect aging equipment and infrastructure. Surfaces degrade and more nooks and crannies develop. As production demands evolve, plant layout and production workflows are retrofitted in ways that are often far from linear or ideal, making it more difficult to maintain delineated zones to guard against cross-contamination and other risks.


Sanitary design can’t be an occasional consideration

Anyone who works in food safety and quality in a pet food processing facility knows these challenges and pain points all too well. But the trouble is, most plants only do a robust and formal evaluation of sanitary design when it comes time to make a major change, such as making a significant addition or renovation or replacing essential equipment or infrastructure.

The reality is that the majority of the risk of aging and retrofitted facilities happens on a much more incremental and insidious basis. Risk creeps up through the small tweaks and changes in a facility’s layout, workflows and equipment — and those small risks add up to big problems.

Food safety and quality leaders can’t afford to wait for a major change to do a thorough evaluation of their facility and equipment. They need to incorporate sanitary design reviews into standard risk assessments.

Moreover, risk shouldn’t be allowed to build up until it triggers the need for major renovation or rebuild. Pet food production facilities need to find ways to address incremental changes with incremental improvements to food safety practices to mitigate new and increased risks. Fortunately, these sanitary design risks can be attacked continuously, through smarter processes, better cleaning and disinfection technologies, and consistent staff training.


Three tips on how to mitigate sanitary design risks in any facility

  1. Evaluate existing equipment against NAMI principles: The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) principles of sanitary design have served as the standard for the past two decades. In 2021, the Food Safety Equipment Design Task Force (FSEDTF) expanded the existing principles and checklist to highlight food safety and foreign material. But these principles are often applied only when building out a new facility or when evaluating major equipment replacements. Food safety and quality leaders should use the NAMI principles and checklist to regularly evaluate existing equipment — to proactively identify functional food safety issues that require repair, maintenance or replacement.
  2. Optimize CIP: CIP protocols have a long history in food production as a way to accelerate cleaning and sanitization while actually reducing time and mitigating contamination risks. Newer facilities are typically built specifically to optimize CIP applications, but it’s wrong to assume that older facilities cannot leverage CIP in new and powerful ways. Food safety and quality leaders need to be actively looking for ways to deploy new technologies and retrofit equipment to leverage CIP whenever and wherever possible.
  3. Double down on water management: Mitigating residual moisture is an ever-present goal in any food processing environment, though it’s particularly critical in the production of “dry” pet foods. Water management gets more challenging with aging equipment, retrofitted facilities, and other changes that make it more difficult to not just maintain sanitation, but also ensure minimal residual moisture remains. Plants of any age should look to implement “dry” cleaning and sanitization products and protocols that can dramatically reduce overall moisture in the production space. Low moisture methods, along with new innovations like 2-in-1 cleaner-sanitizer wipes and dry floor treatments, make it easier and more cost-effective than ever to move toward a full-on dry cleaning and sanitization program.


Build your foundation on a culture of food safety

Growing pains are inevitable in any pet food processing facility. You can’t stop the aging of your infrastructure and equipment, and you can’t avoid future changes in demands and workflows. But more than any material change in food safety practices, food safety and quality programs come down to people: Leaders need to take charge of building food safety accountability into the core culture of the business.

Food safety is an inherently cross-functional objective, and you need to ensure that every team and every individual understands their role and responsibilities. We need to do more to ensure a collaborative, rather than adversarial, environment around food safety. Workers need to feel safe and supported in escalating concerns — aligned on prioritizing food safety, even if it comes at a temporary expense of production or performance metrics. That cultural commitment gives you the momentum to make changes — big and small — to continuously adapt and improve food safety in your pet food production facility.

Andy Dean is the executive area technical support coordinator at Ecolab.