According to Food Safety magazine, compressed air is an often overlooked source of contamination within the food industry. If you work in or manage a food manufacturing facility, it is important that you understand the various ways that air compressors can contaminate the food you process and package. Here's what you need to know.
Why air compressors are used
Compressed air is in food manufacturing and packaging facilities to provide energy. The air from the compressors is used to clean parts and equipment. For example, in a bread packaging facility, air compressor nozzles are used by employees to blow away bread crumbs from assembly lines.
Compressed air is also used to blow air into a wrapper so the food product can easily be placed inside from the conveyor belt. Since this air comes in contact with food or the surfaces the food touches, the air and compressors need to be clean and free from contaminants.
3 contaminants that can spoil food
There are three main contaminants that can be found in air compressors and the air they create: moisture, particulate, and oil. If any of these three contaminants are found, they can cause spoilage and illnesses in people who eat the contaminated food.
Moisture in the compressed air can cause fungi, bacterium and microorganisms to grow in the facility, which can easily contaminate the foods that are being processed and packaged. Also, moisture in air compressor lines can cause the equipment to malfunction.
Since air contains water vapor, condensing air creates condensation. To combat moisture in air compressors, special fluid control valves are used. Sensors are used to determine if there is moisture present inside the air compressors and in the air that blows from them.
When sensors determine there is moisture, the valves open and a humidity control device removes the moisture. However, as with most things, sensors and valves can be faulty and need replacements. This is why the equipment needs constant monitoring and maintenance.
The humidity control device is a desiccant dryer that is used to absorb the moisture from the air. Desiccant dryers have filters that are like cartridges, which need to be replaced when they become full.
Particles can contaminate air compressors. Particles can come from anything, including food products, dust, and minute fragments of faulty parts. Fungi, bacterium and microorganisms are particles and can reside within the air compressors and the hoses and nozzles that are attached to them.
The ambient air that the compressors take in through the intake valves can contain particles that can get into the food. This is one reason why product labels say if a food allergen is manufactured in the same facility as the packaged food, even if that food does not contain the food allergen as an ingredient.
Sensors detect when there are particles present. If so, air control valves are opened to remove the particles from within the system. A large, sudden amount of particles can affect the strength of the compressed air as it comes out of the nozzles. The compressors are designed to sense these issues and sound an alarm.
Many food manufacturing and packaging facilities do not use oil-operated air compressors due to the contamination risks. However, oil can come from vapors that get into the intake vents of air compressors and, therefore, contaminated the compressed air. Air compressors have a oil-water separator to remove the oil.
This fluid needs to be discharged into special spill containment receptacles and disposed of properly. The fluid cannot be discharged into open drains, the public sewer, any natural resources, or dumped on the ground.