8 FSMA Food Safety Risks Processors and Manufacturers Must Know

FSMA food safety risks

The Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) created stricter food safety rules for farmers, growers, and food processors of all kinds. Compliance means preventing or dramatically reducing the chance of contamination, while non-compliance can result in FDA fines, consumer illnesses, and legal battles. Process design, planning, and controls play a key part in FSMA food safety compliance, as well as the everyday activities for food processors. The following are common FDA food safety risks that food processors and manufacturers face, many which can be prevented or minimized through proper process and system design.

8 FSMA Food Safety Risks Processors and Manufacturers Must Know

1. FIFO System Not in Place

When it comes to mixing and coating, perishable ingredients should be used on a first-in-first-out (FIFO) basis. This seems easy and logical at first glance, but a system that is not designed to ensure FIFO can easily pose FSMA food safety risks. A common and easy way to use bulk materials on a FIFO basis is through a silo or hopper which is refilled at the top and opened at the bottom. Gravity pulls the oldest materials towards the bottom, so they can be used first. However, there are some risks to this concept that must also be taken into account (see the next section).

Another common method to add ingredients is through bulk bags or super sacks. When bulk bags are shipped, they may be stored on the plant floor or loading dock until they are ready for use. If bulk bag shipments accumulate, the most recently delivered may be the most accessible, leaving older bags sitting for long periods. This can allow bacteria, mold, or pests to proliferate. The system for storing and using bulk bags and similar items must be clearly marked and employees should be aware of the importance of the FIFO system.

2. Dead Spots in Storage Tanks

Silos and hoppers appear to be the ideal FIFO system; filling from the top and taking from the bottom creates an automatic FIFO process. However, the tank must be designed to ensure that all the material is moving simultaneously, or dead spots can create FSMA food safety risks. Material segregation problems and flow problems can slow or stop movement in certain regions of the tank. This allows newer material to move through the tank too quickly, and causes older material to sit, inviting mold and bacteria over time. This will also create product consistency problems, as the ingredient may segregate based on particle size, viscosity, density, or other factors.

An angle of 70 degrees can help to ensure material flows evenly through a silo or hopper. Teflon coatings and stainless steel coatings can also help to promote flow. Highly disparate mixes that segregate within the storage unit may need additional mixing, smaller storage tanks, or separation prior to processing.

3. Equipment is Not Suitable for Clean in Place

Clean in place (CIP) equipment can be easily sanitized and decontaminated on-site. FSMA food safety regulations require that food processing machines be regularly cleaned. This prevents bacteria and mold from accumulating on wet, powdery, or greasy surfaces. It also prevents cross-contamination between batches.

CIP can be a challenge for equipment that also utilizes sensitive electronics, like load cells, or equipment with hard-to-reach places, like conveyance. Instead of avoiding the electronics in a machine while washing it—and thus creating potential for bacteria build-up—use hermetically sealed devices that prevent washing water from entering the enclosed device. Proper system planning and design can ensure that the system is equipped with sanitary, CIP conveyance, usually made from stainless steel.

4. High Oil Content Resists Microbial Heat Treatments

If you rely on heat to eliminate microbes, it is important to know the oil content of the product or ingredient mix. Oil creates a protective effect around some types of bacteria, making them harder to eliminate through heat alone. Soybean oil, olive oil, other vegetable oils and liquid paraffin, among others, are known to create this effect. This is an especially important consideration for animal feeds with high fat content. The build-up of oil on equipment or in the product itself due to inconsistent mixing can create harbors for bacteria.

Sterilizing washes designed to use on oil can eliminate heat-resistant microbes. Consistent mixing and regular testing can help to prevent pockets of oil from developing in the product which can shield bacteria.

5. Electronic Lot Tracking and Process Controls Don’t Integrate

Lot tracking is a critical FSMA food safety protocol. It helps to track the ingredients used in food processing, and it allows manufacturers, distributors and retailers to remove any contaminated products quickly. While electronic lot tracking systems have automated this process and helped to increase food safety enormously, they can be difficult to program or reprogram when the process or ingredients change.

Batch process controls that can be easily reprogrammed and integrate with your lot tracking system allow you to accurately track your products while giving you the flexibility to change your recipe as needed.

6. Food Safety Plan is Not Adaptive

Once you have a plan required by FSMA food safety rules, it’s tempting to consider the boxed checked and move on. However, just as your businesses and processes change to become more efficient, you food safety plan should also be able to recognize new threats and challenges. This might include new machinery and cleaning processes, new ingredients and potential cross-contamination or allergen risks, adding manual processes and increasing staff training, adding automated equipment, expanding processing operations or storage, and a number of other things.

If you have changed your operation in any way that affects how your product or ingredients are mixed, stored, handled or processed, it is important to also assess your food safety plan.

7. Insufficient Staff Training

FSMA food safety regulations require a safety plan and hazard analysis from a Process Control Qualified Individual. Some businesses contract with outside companies for this, others have a staff member dedicated to this role. However you choose to do it, this person should be trained to identify hazards, prevent them from happening, and change processes where appropriate.

Staff who handle food and ingredients or clean equipment should also receive training on the importance of FSMA food safety regulations. While it is important to explain what FSMA is, it is perhaps more important to explain why staff participation matters. This might be a common precaution such as using hair nets and clean gloves, or a job-specific duty such as adherence to FIFO, as mentioned in the first point.

8. Increased Mycotoxins Threats for Feed Producers

Mycotoxins produced by fungi in grain are particularly critical risks for animal feed producers, including livestock as well as pets. Recent increases in rainfall have increased the risks of mycotoxins in grains, making testing, sanitation and prevention even more important. All of the above FSMA food safety precautions, especially lot tracking and proper storage tank construction, can help to prevent the spread of harmful mycotoxins.

FSMA food safety regulations were designed to keep consumers safe and prevent the spread of illness. Food processors of nearly all sizes are now responsible for FSMA adherence, though there are many ways to accomplish this. Food processors and manufacturers should take note of these FSMA food safety risks, and pay close attention to system design when upgrading, expanding, or designing new facilities.

Hermetically Sealed Load Cells Explained

hermetically sealed digital load cell

Though they’re often used in highly durable scales and heavy equipment, load cells themselves are somewhat delicate, and can easily be damaged by surrounding elements. This is what makes hermetic sealing so important. Hermetically sealed load cells are air- and water-tight, protecting the delicate measurement components inside from damage. In this blog post, we’ll explain further what hermetically sealed load cells are, why they’re important, and how you can ensure that your load cells are sealed properly.

Hermetically Sealed Load Cells Explained

What is a Hermetically Sealed Load Cell?

A hermetically sealed load cell is an air- and water-tight weighing instrument. The load cell is contained by a welded seal around the gauge, which prevents dust, moisture and other materials from disrupting it. The connecting cable also uses a welded header to maintain the seal.

Hermetic sealing is slightly different for a capacitive load cell compared to a strain gauge load cell, which we will explain later in the blog post, however the principal of completely sealing the weighing elements remains the same.

Are Hermetically Sealed Load Cells Necessary?

strain gauge load cell
A simple diagram of a strain gauge load cell

Load cells, including both strain gauge load cells and capacitive load cells, can be disrupted by changes in conductivity. This means that any conductive element can contaminate the load cell, and disrupt the measurement, or cause the cell to stop working all together. The load cell may be exposed to many different conductive materials, the most common being simply water. The inner workings of the load cell are very delicate, and can be damaged by water from washing down equipment, contact with other liquids used in the process, or even changes in humidity.

Other conductive materials such as metallic dust or salt can also disrupt the load cell. Finally, corrosive chemicals and vapors can erode the exterior and damage the load cell. Hermetically sealed load cells made from laser-welded stainless steel offer the best protection from all of these threats.

If you are washing your equipment, or it is exposed to salt, metallic dust, notable changes in humidity, corrosive chemicals or chemical vapors, hermetically sealed load cells are necessary. The load cell will last longer, and it won’t need to be recalibrated or replaced as often as a non-sealed cell. The additional cost of hermetic sealing will be lower than the costs associated of repeated maintenance and replacement of a non-sealed cell. A non-sealed cell is also at much greater risk of sudden failure, which can cause expensive downtime.

Hermetically Sealed Load Cell Technology: Strain Gauge vs Capacitance

a strain gauge
A closer look at the delicate strain gauge

In a strain gauge load cell, the strain gauges themselves are comprised of arrangements of thin, conductive metal and an insulated backing, which are very delicate. The fine interconnecting wires and electrical circuits measuring resistance are also very fragile. These components depend on electrical conductance to work, so any conductive material can contaminate the load cell and disrupt the measurement. This includes water and moisture in the air, as well as conductive dust. If the load cell is not hermetically sealed, water, dust, and even changes in humidity can damage it. The external output must also be directly connected to the load cell, so this connection area must also be hermetically sealed. This is the most common area where a hermetic seal might fail.

capacitive load cell diagram
A simple example of how a capacitive load cell works.

A capacitive load cell uses capacitance instead of conductance to measure the load. In a capacitive load cell, a change in charge between two metal places and a dielectric material in between measures the load. These elements can also be disrupted by conductive materials. The capacitive load cell, however, can be more easily self-contained, since it does not require complex circuits, namely a Wheatstone bridge, to measure resistance. A capacitive load cell also uses a coaxial cable for an external output, which is separated from the hermetically sealed load cell itself. This means seal around the external output does not endanger the hermetic seal of the load cell. A coaxial cable connection is also less prone to connection interruption and damage. For these reasons, hermetically sealed capacitive load cells offer more advantages in many risky environments.

Learn more about digital capacitive load cells » 

How to Detect an Low-Quality Hermetic Seal

As previously discussed, the best type of hermetically sealed load cell is made from laser welded stainless steel. Some believe that a stainless steel load cell is adequately sealed and protected by itself, but only hermetic sealing will completely protect the load cell.

For strain gauge load cells, the output should also have a welded cable header. In some cases, the cable may be sealed using foam, adhesive, or epoxy. While these may provide adequate protection for a time, they will eventually break down and expose the load cell to dust and moisture. A welded cable header and seal will not break down prematurely and it will prevent dust and moisture from building up in cracks or pockets.

Hermetically sealed load cells are requirements in many facilities, and advantageous in most others. There are many different types of load cells that can be hermetically sealed, including many different designs, configurations, weights and tolerances. With a high-quality hermetically sealed load cell included in your weighing system, you can extend the life of your machine and reduce maintenance and risks. Download the brochure to learn more about hermetic load cells.

8 Advantages of Capacitive Digital Load Cells

In our previous post, we discussed problems engineers and scale dealers often face when working with traditional strain gauge scales and load cells, and solutions that can improve accuracy and durability. In many cases, utilizing capacitive digital load cells can help to avoid problems posed by the strain gauge. In this post, we’ll explore the capacitive digital load cell, how it works, and advantages it provides to scale dealers and their customers.

How Do Capacitive Digital Load Cells Work?

While strain gauge load cells use resistance to change voltage and therefore measure weight, capacitive load cells use changes in capacitance. Inside a capacitive digital load cell, two plates with opposing charges stand a small distance apart. When a load is applied, it forces the plates closer together. As this happens, current moves between the negatively- and positively-charged plates in an effort to establish equilibrium. A charge is then stored between the plates, creating capacitance. This then produces voltage output which can be transferred to a reading on a digital scale.

Capacitive digital load cells are simpler to construct than strain gauge load cells, and this simple design makes them less susceptible to many of the issues that often disrupt strain gauge load cells. Other advantages also make capacitive digital load cells easier to use, and more affordable to manufacture.

8 Advantages of Capacitive Digital Load Cells

1. Fewer Start-Up Costs

Capacitive digital load cells are already calibrated at the factory, and do not need to be recalibrated when they are installed. To install in the field the engineer or operator must only zero off the dead load of the system and check for binding.

2. More Sensitive

For strain gauge load cells, detecting small changes and measuring small loads means utilizing very small changes in resistance. This requires the load cell to be more sensitive, which also makes it more susceptible to damage and requiring more frequent recalibration. Thanks to their simple design and versatile materials, capacitive digital load cells retain their durability even at high sensitivity. Since a smaller amount of movement can be easily sensed with a capacitive cell, then the metal can be thicker and able to withstand more load, with the same amount of sensitivity. This makes the cell less susceptible to overload.

3. Simple Maintenance

The delicate cables and wires that interconnect strain gauge load cells are not required with capacitive digital load cells. This means field wiring of small connections in difficult arrangements is a thing of the past. The only cables needed are communication and power transfer cables, which can be replaced in the field without the need for recalibration.

4. Versatility

Capacitive sensors can be built from a wide variety of materials, and in many different shapes and sizes. They are also suitable for very large and very small loads, with many levels of accuracy. This makes it easy to design and manufacture a capacitive digital load cell for any application. Digital capacitive load cells may be designed in beam, compression buck, tension or single point configurations, as well as specialty configurations like on-board weighing, tensioning, force measurement and more.

5. Less Noise

Capacitive load cell output is completely digital. Since it does not use DC signals in milliVolts, which are easily disrupted by ambient noise, the signal is less susceptible to interference. This also means there is no need for an analog to digital converter to convert the signal to a digital format.

6. More Affordable

Reducing the noise levels, eliminating the need for an analog to digital converter, and utilizing a wider range of materials with a simpler design allows manufacturers to produce capacitive digital load cells that are more affordable, when comparing feature for feature.

7. Durable and Hygienic

Many capacitance digital load cells are ATEX certified for hazard zones 1, 2, 21 and 22. These load cells can also be hermetically sealed (rated at least IP 68 and some at IP67) without significant additional expense, unlike the strain gauge load cell, which can be difficult to completely seal. This makes it suitable for hygienic applications such as food and pharmaceuticals.

8. Additional Features

The reduction in noise, simpler design, and digital output makes it easy to augment the capacitive digital load cell with additional features. Ethernet IP, EtherCAT, Profibus DP, ProfiNet, DeviceNet, Serial outputs and analog outputs are all available in neat compact packages.

Capacitive digital load cells are replacing strain gauge load cells in a number of applications. If your strain gauge load cells are making processes more difficult or less efficient, or if you’re looking for a competitive advantage as a scale dealer, consider the digital alternative. Learn more about capacitive load cells and talk to an expert to find the right load cell for your application.

5 Strain Gauge Scale Problems and Solutions

Load cells are essential devices used in many processing systems, though we seldom think about them. Only when the load cell malfunctions and the scale is inaccurate do we think about the workings behind the measurement. When it comes to measuring ingredients, from fine pharmaceutical powders to silos full of grain, understanding how strain gauge scales and traditional load cells work, and common strain gauge scale problems, can help prevent inaccuracies.

How do Strain Gauge Scales and Traditional Load Cells Work?

Strain gauge scales use traditional load cells, also called resistive load cells or strain gauge load cells, to measure weight. Strain gauge load cells operate on the principle of piezoresistivity. When voltage is applied to the strain gauge within the strain gauge scale, and then a weight is applied, the strain gauge senses changes in piezoresistivity, and this creates a change in voltage output. For this to work, several strain gauge sensing elements are often used throughout the load cell, and these are connected with wires. For the sensing elements and the strain gauge scale to be accurate, the wires must be able to transmit small changes in voltage, so the wires can be very delicate.

A strain gauge scale relies on mechanical forces to change piezoresistivity and voltage output. When a load is applied, the conductive material within the strain gauge is deformed, causing changes in resistance, and therefore changes in voltage output. This can introduce a number of challenges to both large and small loads. If your scale is repeatedly inaccurate, and you have determined that other aspects of the system are not to blame, look for the following issues with the load cell.

5 Traditional Strain Gauge Scale Problems and Solutions

Low-Quality Manufacturing or Construction

Small mechanical changes within the strain gauge are responsible for changes in voltage, which creates the reading on the scale. If flaws in the strain gauge’s construction prevent the material inside from moving properly, the reading will not be correct. For this reason, the process to manufacture an accurate strain gauge-based load cell is delicate. If this isn’t done correctly, the load cell won’t deliver adequate readings. This can be particularly problematic when working with discount scale dealers, who rely on fast manufacturing and testing. Working with a reputable scale dealer with references can help you to avoid load cells with faulty construction.

Temperature Changes

Temperature changes effects the conductivity of metals, which will change the output of the strain gauge. Once the load cells are built, they need to be tested at different temperatures in order to ascertain their drift with temperature. When the traditional strain gauge is needed to measure particularly small amounts, temperature changes can be especially problematic. Thermistors installed prior to the final test and calibration stage will reduce the temperature effect.

Wrong Type of Load Cell

There are many types of load cells using traditional, strain gauge technology, and certain types are better suited to certain applications. Capacitive load cells, which use changes in capacitance instead of resistivity, can also be used in many different applications. Finding the right load cell for your application can make significant differences in accuracy, longevity and efficiency.

  • S-Beam Load Cell: Instead of a load sitting on top of the load cell, an S-Beam load cell hooks the load on one side and uses the pulling force to measure the load.
  • Beam Type Load Cell: The beam type load cell uses compression to measure weight, and it is often used in tank weighing and platform scales.
  • Single Point Load Cell: The single point load cell works similarly to the beam load cell, except it is ideal for loads that are not centered.
  • Button Load Cell: The button load cell also uses compression, but measures load applied axially.
  • Pancake Load Cell: These load cells are used for high-capacity loads up to 500 tons, such as silo weighing or structural loads.
  • Capacitive Load Cell: Since capacitive load cells operate on a different principle, they are not as affected by noise and interference as strain gauges, and they can be more sensitive with less need for delicate manufacturing. Capacitive load cells are highly effective for a variety of applications, and are also available in all of the above configurations.

Exceeded Sensitivity

Smaller, more precise strain gauge load cells are much more delicate than their larger counterparts. The nature of strain gauge technology requires that the strain gauge be much smaller, and its components more delicate, to be more accurate. This makes the strain gauge and the load cell much more susceptible to disruption from physical impacts, electromagnetic interference, dust, temperature changes, and other issues. More frequent calibration of traditional load cells can help them to maintain their accuracy. Capacitive load cells can also be used in lieu of strain gauges for these applications.

Improperly Sealed

If your traditional load cell must operate around water, dust, or other debris, it must be hermetically sealed. For traditional strain gauge load cells, hermetic sealing raises the price significantly, and some scale dealers may cut corners in this area. If your traditional strain gauge is significantly cheaper than other comparable models, it might not be properly sealed.

Careful attention to detail and working with a reputable scale dealer can help traditional scale gauges to maintain accuracy. Utilizing the right load cell designs, as well as newer technology like capacitive load cells, can also help to solve many common load cell problems.

Batch Process Control: No Programming Required

batch process control

For many operators, batch process controls are a black box—it’s unclear what’s inside them, how they’re programmed, or how exactly they control the rest of the system. This presents problems for both operators and engineers. Making even a small change or upgrade requires a service call, or someone on staff with programming knowledge. To service multiple systems or brands using custom languages, engineers need a library of programming knowledge on top of mechanical expertise. Many operators and engineers wonder why batch process controls can’t be accessible, as well as functional and durable. Is it possible to control and change the system with the functionality and integrity of a PLC, without an extra layer of complexity?

Batch Process Control Simplified

No Programming Required

It’s a common scenario: you want to update your process, change a recipe, or replace a machine to improve your product or process. Your field service tech or your own engineers are buried in ladder logic or proprietary programming. Making one process improvement shouldn’t take this long or cost this much.

Instead of learning your machine’s language, the computer should learn your language. The Batch Box integrated batch controller does it. BatchBox allows technicians or operators to install, program and reprogram the entire batch mixing, weighing and measuring process with word-based commands. A simple interview process removes the layer of complexity that makes batch process control programming so inaccessible. The BatchBox controller asks you about your system in plain English, then takes care of the programming for you.

Program or reprogram your automated process system with no programming required.

Learn more about BatchBox

Complete System Control

Process visibility is a common problem for many manufacturers. Scale instruments control dosing and measurement, but can’t control metered liquids or mixing. PLCs can coordinate more parts of the system, but can’t communicate the results with operators. When it comes to comprehensive batch process management, there’s always a roadblock.

Upstream and downstream process visibility and control is essential. If one process isn’t correct, every subsequent process will also be off. The BatchBox solves this problem with complete system control built in. Mixers, metered liquids, feeders, scales, motors, alarms and every other part of the process are all connected and controlled from one secure, but accessible device.

Gather System Data

Simply controlling and coordinating ingredients and mixing is no longer enough. Optimizing your product and your process requires data: volume, time, maintenance, accuracy, quality and defects. However, an archive and database aren’t built in to the brains of most systems, leaving operators without any knowledge of their batch process system day-to-day.

The BatchBox is programmed to gather and archive batch process control data. From production volume to no-flow conditions, maintenance time, measuring accuracy, product defects and more, you have a full record of what your system is doing. If something goes wrong, you know what, when, and why. In the long-term, you have the tools to uncover problems and optimize your system.

Change Your Recipe At Any Time

Some recipes are tried and true, and stay the same for years at a time. But most of the time recipes change slightly; flavorings, vitamin mixes, colorants, and dozens of other changes. In order to accommodate all the ingredients and recipes that are required, you need a database, but traditional PLC’s do not have enough memory storage to accomplish this. Using an industrial computer in conjunction with a PLC rack of I/O gives you the best of both worlds. A system that is hardened for rough industrial environments, and a PC that is capable of storing all of the recipe and ingredient information.

Everything Off-The-Shelf

When upgrading your system controls, replacing a faulty board or making other periodic fixes, operators, technicians and engineers encounter a common problem; the parts or information they need is only in one place. This means accepting one price, one timeline and one configuration, no questions asked.

All control systems inevitably require some maintenance or repairs, but you do have options about how to make those repairs. The BatchBox is built with all off-the-shelf components, so you can make repairs or replacements at any time. This also gives you more freedom to shop around or select a dealer with the fastest lead times.

Value Added

Previously, PLCs and scale instruments have been black boxes, with only a few experts knowing what is in them or how they work. However, batch process controls do not have to be a mystery or a point of frustration. BatchBox is value-added technology giving end users simplicity and functionality, and giving distributors a competitive value proposition.

BatchBox is designed to work with the most popular existing equipment and scale instruments, including Mettler-Toledo, Cardinal, Hardy, Rice Lake, and many more. Designed with both end-users and distributors in mind, BatchBox allows anyone to become an expert on their batch process systems, with no extra training or tools required. Take a look at the spec sheet to learn more about BatchBox for your system or your customers today.