In August of this year, a California beef packer recalled more than 800,000 pounds of ground beef linked to an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella that has sickened people across nine states.

In May, an Illinois meat processing company recalled more than 95,000 pounds of ground beef products that were possibly contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

Fears of E.coli, salmonella, and other bacteria invading the perishable product cold chain are a growing concern for supermarket managers and food processors.

During this time of increased service demands, food preservation and sanitation represent an opportunity for commercial refrigeration contractors to expand their full-service offerings.

“A large percentage of food contamination takes place in the store, especially with something that's packaged and processed in the store,” says Dr. Norman Marriott, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Food Science and Technology, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Blacksburg, VA.

“Two factors responsible for product degradation are improper temperature control and sanitation. With less rigid sanitation, you immediately start out with a higher microorganism count, so there's going to be trouble sooner rather than later,” Marriott says. “If contractors can do something to improve sanitation in the stores, it's going to improve their image, and there will be less blame placed on refrigeration equipment.”

ContractingBusiness.com discovered three products that are leading the pack in air and surface sanitation.

Two-Stage Process for Air & Surface Sanitation

Ingersoll-Rand (IR), Piscataway, NJ, recruited David Anderson, global product manager for Ingersoll-Rand's Climate Control Technologies division, after it had obtained the worldwide rights to a patented air and surface sanitation technology originally developed by Chile-based AirOcare.

The product was reengineered to IR safety and reliability standards, and was rechristened the “Environment Management System” (EMS).

Anderson is building a global EMS brand throughout Ingersoll-Rand's worldwide business units, including the industrial refrigeration segment, grocery stores, refrigerated trucking (Thermo King), and HVAC products (Trane). He says EMS is the only technology that effectively and safely treats both air and surfaces.

“We started with the stand-alone products in single rooms, such as a grocery store, a fresh-cut flower room, a meat preparation room, or a walk-in cooler,” Anderson reports. “We've been installing them in meat processing rooms, and at grower/packer/shipper outlets. We've seen and documented outstanding results.”

EMS uses a two-stage sanitizing process. In the first stage, the existing oxygen molecules in the air are transformed via a cold plasma and then used to oxidize and destroy airborne, carbon-based organisms including molds, bacteria, viruses, ethylene and volatile organic compounds as air circulates through the unit's reactor. In the second stage, the air diffuses from the unit into the room and a low level of remaining reactive oxygen species continues to effectively sanitize the surfaces of the environment — including product surfaces. The end result is a cleaner, safer environment, which helps to extend the shelf life and reduce the risk of a food safety outbreak in perishable products. EMS reportedly contributes to an average 30% longer shelf life, and as a result, reduces product shrinkage significantly.

Stamoules Produce, Mendota, CA, outfitted more than 1,750,000 cu.ft. of its main facility with the technology, and reduced bacteria and mold levels by 78%.

“Any mold on the produce we cool is reduced substantially with the EMS technology, and we know that the sanitizing air acts as a very effective agent against the possibility of shipping any of our produce with bacterial contamination,” says Tom Stefanopoulos, vice president.

EMS units treat areas from 400 cu. ft. to up to 250,000 cu.ft. Units can be piggybacked to treat larger refrigerated spaces. hussmann.com/Pages/FoodSafetyEMS_FS.aspx; david_anderson@irco.com.

NASA-based Technology for Air-only Sanitation

KES Science & Technology, Inc., Kennesaw, GA, markets the AiroCide PPT® food safety air sanitation technology. The technology was developed by NASA scientists to kill airborne bacteria, mold and remove ethylene gas that cross-contaminated plant growth experiments in their space program. The NASA design requirements specified the technology be energy efficient and environmentally friendly and easy to maintain, and that it keep refrigeration coils cleaner and more efficient. KES Chairman John Hayman, Jr., says KES saw the benefits the technology could offer consumers, and purchased the intellectual property rights from NASA.

The patented AiroCide technology integrated with photocatalytic oxidation (PCO) work in unison to destroy harmful airborne microbes. Sources say the system produces no ozone and is not a filter. As contaminated air is processed through the reactor chamber, hydroxyl radicals and super-oxide ions are formed. These elements act to oxidize volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like ethylene gas, into harmless carbon dioxide and water vapor, and kill and mineralize airborne pathogens. In addition, foul odors are reduced.

With food recalls hitting the news almost daily, it's no surprise that food purity is high on store managers' to-do lists.

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“I've been doing this for 10 years now, and I've seen a 180-degree change in people who want to be proactive with food safety or quality assurance measures,” says Jimmy Lee, KES director of sales and marketing. “Recently, we've had many cold storage business owners asking for help, because they know airborne cross-contamination can inflict irreversible damage to their perishables. It's an insurance policy.” kesscience.com; airocide.com

Easy to Install

Terry Campbell, refrigeration sales manager for Central Washington Refrigeration, Yakima, WA, tried a variety of different sanitation units for his customers' fresh produce processing plants. He eventually settled on the Purfresh Cold Storage system, manufactured by Purfresh, Fremont, CA (Purfresh.com). A patented, science-based solution generates ozone from oxygen in the air on-site and delivers defined, low-dose specific concentrations of gaseous ozone into the atmosphere, for use as a powerful but safe disinfectant in controlled atmosphere (CA) and regular atmosphere (RA) storage rooms. “It's very easy to install,” Campbell says. “You run communication cable and line in such a way that it ties in to the defrost cycle. Purification is distributed across the room.”

CWR plans to expand its Purfresh installations in 2010. “This is a natural for our industry. I'm sold on it,” Campbell says. He also suggests contractors will have better success selling sanitation units if they focus on larger chain stores.

“The smaller stores aren't going to spend the money on this. It has to be a corporate-wide decision,” he says.

Proactive Opportunity

Refrigeration contractors might want to take a look at air and surface sanitation as a valuable add-on service, before they're forced into it. Lee, for one, believes air sanitation standards will eventually fall under closer government control.

“It's coming. It might not be tomorrow, but air sanitation will be a mandate very soon,” Lee predicts. “Right now, it's an optional choice. I think contractors will have to come on board, and eventually make it available. It's another great way to differentiate themselves from competitors, and help their customers enhance not only food safety initiatives, but better control traceability and sustainability programs.”

Sanitation Basics Include HVAC

“A three-word definition for food sanitation is ‘protection from contamination,’” says Dr. Ronald Schmidt, professor and food science extension specialist at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

Schmidt says that for the most complete sanitation in food storage areas, the surrounding HVAC systems must be designed and installed to prevent build-up of heat, steam, condensation, or dust, and to remove contaminated air. Schmidt, who is right on target with his understanding of HVAC principles, adds that positive air pressure is required in microbiologically sensitive areas, and HVAC systems should be designed to be cleanable. Air intakes should be located to prevent introducing contaminated air. A sanitary operations facility has a preventive maintenance program which monitors equipment maintenance procedures.

“Such a program specifies necessary servicing intervals, replacement parts, and more,” Schmidt advises.

Visit edis.ifas.ufl.edu/FS076 for Dr. Schmidt's “Basic Elements of a Sanitation Program for Food Processing and Food Handling.”