The FDA recalls almost a hundred million units of food every quarter, according to Statista. These recalls hurt not only the brands that produce the products, but the retailers who sell them. Commerce is moving faster than ever before, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the supply chain and labor force. With these ongoing challenges, it's vital that retailers and food processing facilities not let food safety and sustainability efforts slip while keeping up with increasing demand.

New food safety innovations can help retailers avoid food recalls, whether they adopt the technology in their own facilities or source products from brands that utilize it. These new possibilities bring ancillary benefits, such as labor reduction and sustainability improvements, offering retailers and food brands a way to bounce back from the disruptions of COVID-19.

The Impacts of a Food Recall

For retailers and brands alike, recalls can have severe consequences, from a damaged reputation to lost revenue to devastating deaths associated with foodborne illness.

However, a product recall amid the COVID-19 crisis would be even more damaging. The food industry still faces labor shortages, food safety concerns, and tightened sustainability regulations, but now those challenges are exacerbated.

Brands have to address these concerns while finding ways to reduce the usage of water, chemicals, and utilities. These issues make it imperative that brands and retailers work together to mitigate food safety risks, starting with the product and processing facility.

The Role of Labor Shortages

COVID-19 has disrupted the supply chain and labor force, driving product costs up and putting more pressure on workers to maintain an unrealistic pace with a limited team. Food operations continue to expand to match increasing demand, but food processors can’t find enough skilled workers to operate the facilities, creating severe staffing concerns that are affecting the bottom line throughout the industry.

The labor shortage means existing employees have greater responsibilities than before COVID-19, meaning they might miss crucial steps in sanitation. An untrained workforce may lack the knowledge to sanitize equipment properly or the experience to ensure quality control. These scenarios can create a perfect storm in which pathogens are more likely to spread.

How Automation Helps

Automating food safety practices provides a crucial opportunity for the food industry to improve food safety and sustainability and combat the tight labor market. By incorporating automated equipment into your facility, its one-time cost can provide coverage, reliability, increased productivity, and reduced waste.

Overall, automated equipment creates more consistency and makes difficult tasks easily repeatable. With staff spending less time on menial tasks, and automated equipment providing improved performance, more essential duties and responsibilities can be assigned to a limited team.

Advancements in sanitation and intervention equipment are particularly promising. While antimicrobial chemicals and applications have remained relatively unchanged for several years, scientists and engineers were recently able to apply electrostatic technology—usually used to paint cars and metal objects—to the food safety process.

Electrostatic Technology and How it Improves Food Safety

Electrostatic coating is the process of using an electric charge to attract liquids such as paint or chemicals to a surface. This method results in an even coating across an entire area with minimal overspray.

The ultimate goal of using electrostatic technology in antimicrobial intervention is to achieve a higher level of transfer efficiency. In other words, electrostatics have the potential to greatly improve how well a processor can cover a product with food safety chemistry over a 360-degree surface with little to no overspray. The Elite 360® electrostatic intervention system reduces chemical and water usage by 95 percent. The system can also process anywhere from 250-750 pounds of meat products per minute, keeping up with consumer demand.

Bob Ogren, president of Birko’s equipment division, shares:

"Consider a traditional spray cabinet or conveyor in meat processing. An antimicrobial is sprayed continuously into that cabinet or conveyor, and about 30% will hit the intended target. When it does hit the product, it likely runs off. Electrostatics create almost a fog that wraps around 100% of the product, where traditional application would not. You see better, more consistent outcomes with equipment using this technology."

Rigorous testing reveals that the Elite 360 system provides 10 times the improvement compared to typical methods. Using approved levels of peracetic acid (PAA), in-plant pathogen log reductions are in the range of 2.0 to 2.6 or better, which easily meets or exceeds USDA requirements (compared to typical log reduction of 1.0 to 1.75 obtained using a conventional spray cabinet).

In other words, equipment like this can help food processors and retailers gain peace of mind knowing that their brands are protected, and their consumers are safe.

"Electrostatic application of interventions is going to be the path forward in making food products safer," says Elis Owens, director of technical services at Birko. "Electrostatics allow us to take existing, proven chemistry and apply it in a new way to give it a greater efficacy. Antimicrobial intervention processes haven't changed much in the last 15 to 20 years, and it's these new technologies that will harbor in the next generation of food safety."

Automated Sanitation Equipment: Addressing the Labor Shortage

To combat the labor issue, processors are implementing short-term solutions, resulting in more downtime, increased spending, and safety and sanitation risks. For example, hiring unskilled workers to repetitively spray a hose from side-to-side for hours on end, can cause physical fatigue and a lack of alertness, which could lead to inadequate sanitation.

In hopes of retaining more control over costs and quality, some processors are taking a hard look at automation because it can provide coverage, repeatability, increased productivity and reduced waste.

The Birko by Lagafors® cleaning system, for example, removes human error by creating fast, reliable and repeatable processes that workers may not be able to provide manually. The cleaning and sanitation system also provides optimal water pressure to reach all facets in hard-to-reach areas. And with the web-based reporting, the automated equipment is proven to reduce water usage by up to 50 percent and chemical and labor by up to 35 percent.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the pandemic has brought about a “Great Reassemessment” of work in America. Workers are reassessing where they want to work and how. This has caused a mismatch between the jobs that are available and what workers want. As our economy struggles to recover from massive labor shortages in key roles while increasing sustainability regulations, it will be food safety innovations like automated sanitation equipment and electrostatic technology that will help processing plants continue to sustain safe practices to protect our country’s food supply from recalls.

Drew Mohnen is director of equipment sales – East Region for Birko.