Testing Compressed Air Systems for Contamination in the Food Manufacturing Environment

Testing Compressed Air Systems for Contamination in the Food Manufacturing Environment

Without question, food manufacturing facilities face a non-stop battle against a wide array of biological, chemical and physical contaminants in the processing environment. From water to raw ingredients, the common sources of in-plant contamination are addressed at great length in food safety management programs and Hazard Analysis and Critical Point (HACCP) plans.

In recent years, growing factions within the food industry have increasingly shone the spotlight on a somewhat overlooked contamination source: compressed air systems. Contaminated compressed air, according to industry experts, can impact the color and taste of products, shorten product shelf-life, affect the overall safety and quality of food, and instigate costly product recalls.

Integrated Component Testing

For the most part, the food processing environment is a wall of noise marked by the monotonous whirr of compressor driven equipment, tools and utensils in pneumatic operations.

Compressed air, which is generated on-site by pulling in ambient air and compressing it, has many applications across the food industry. Some of its more common uses include: sorting and moving product; peeling and cutting products; filling pastries; cooling products; mixing product; freezing products; creating packaging; nitrogen generation, cleaning and filling packaging: and maintaining cleanliness.

As denoted above, compressed air is an integrated component in food facilities, coming in direct or in-direct contact with products as they pass through various stages of the manufacturing process. To protect the quality of products and the health of consumers from hazardous contaminants, it is inherent upon food manufacturers to follow industry best practices for the selection, installation, operation and maintenance of compressed air systems.

Testing Exit Points                                                                                

Contaminated compressed air can take several forms and have multiple sources which are discussed extensively in readily available technical reviews, regulatory documents and industry literature.

In short, intake air impurities and the compressor itself are cited as the two primary sources of contamination in compressed air systems. Other significant sources include distribution piping, storage receivers, and point-of-use items such as valves, gauges, flexible tubing, and fittings. Contaminants, such as liquid oil, oil aerosols and oil vapor, can also enter compressed air due to leaks in worn seals, orifices and O-rings within the compressor.

The damp, warm and dark conditions in manufacturing facilities provide the ideal environment for microbial growth. Bacteria, yeast, mold and spores can live in compressed air systems, such as compressor coils and compressed air piping. These microorganisms are released at system exit points where air comes into contact with food, packaging, or food contact surfaces.

Mandatory Compressed Air Systems Testing Requirements                                   

Since 2019, manufacturers, who are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and utilize compressed air which comes in contact with food and food contact surfaces, have been required to test their system annually.

Moreover, a contingent of Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) food safety schemes, including Safe Quality Food (SQF), PrimusGFS, and BRC Global Standard for Food Safety, have gone on record stating that compressed air should present no risk to food safety.

In pursuit of this critical food safety objective, many GFSI schemes have instituted mandatory testing of compressed air at a minimum of once a year for accredited companies.

Convenient and Fast Microbial Testing                                                                   

Microbac Laboratories, a leading network of ISO accredited testing laboratories and a trusted partner of food manufacturers for five decades, offers prompt and reliable microbial testing for compressed air utilizing the Compressed Air Microbial Test Unit (CAMTU).

Developed by Parker Hannifin, a corporation specializing in motion and control technologies, CAMTU is widely recognized as the most cost-effective solution for testing compressed air on the market today.

Weighing less than a pound and ergonomically designed for ease of use, CAMTU is easy to transport, requires no electrical connection, and provides test results in approximately 20 seconds with minimal training required. The device includes connection tubing, pre-filled petri dishes with specialized tryptic soy agar, a shut-off valve, and a specially designed pressure regulator and metering orifice. The unit, which includes detailed testing instructions and a pre-paid shipping return label, can be requested by contacting your local Microbac customer success representative or emailing us at Baltimore_food@microbac.com

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