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Minimizing microplastics in the food processing line

This article was originally published on JBT’s Plant-based Protein Blog.

Scientists have recognized plastic pollution as an environmental problem for a long time, but recently it has increased substantially and become more urgent to manage. Besides the visible plastic pollution, like bags and bottles, the focus also has come on the invisible form – the microplastic particles. 

The study of microplastic contamination of food products and its impact on human food safety is an emerging field, but a lot is still unknown. Ingesting microplastics into the human body constitutes a probable hazard. For the food processing industry, the use of plastic parts that will wear down must be avoided in the food zone. 

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic material that vary greatly despite their similarity of being very small in size. The smallest parts are not visible to the naked eye. Their composition can be any kind of plastic material, such as polyethylene (PE), polybutylene succinate (PBS), or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). They can also have different shapes, colors, sizes, and densities.

The small pieces of plastic can be grouped into primary and secondary microplastics based on where they come from before they end up in nature. Primary microplastics are already tiny when disposed of, coming from cosmetic products and various industries. Secondary microplastics come from larger pieces of plastic such as bags, bottles, and fishing nets that are disposed of and are subjected to weathering and then fragment into micro and nano plastics. Secondary microplastics account for most of those found in the oceans, ingested by marine animals.

Minimizing plastic usage in freezers: the Frigoscandia GYRoCOMPACT

Chemical contaminants
Microplastics may act as vehicles or carriers for environmental contaminants and other chemicals added during manufacturing. Chemicals such as styrene, toxic metals, phthalates, and bisphenol A, may be absorbed on the surface of microplastics and may act as “substrates.” These pollutants and additives can be transferred from ingested microplastics to animal tissues and cause impairment of crucial body functions.

Food and beverage operators need robust and accurate characterization tools and methodologies to understand the scale of microplastic contamination and reduce consumer exposure. Taking a proactive stance on microplastics is also a positive step from a brand reputation perspective.

Minimizing risk
Microplastics can also originate from pieces in the food processing equipment. Using plastics in moving parts in sections that are in direct contact with the food increases the risk for contamination. As the parts are exposed to wear and tear, it can generate microplastics directly in food zone 1.

Conventional spiral freezers, for example, are based on plastic wear strips to achieve acceptable friction. When the belt moves alongside the drum on plastic-coated guides, the friction wears on the plastic and releases small microscopical parts. These wear strips has a typical acceptable wear of 1-2 mm over 20,000-30,000 hours of operation. A conventional 35 tier 700 mm wide belt spiral freezer has a total length of 1,250 m belt wear strips in tier carriers. The total area with 14 mm wear surface is 18 dm2. That gives a total volume of worn off plastic (1.5 mm wear) equivalent to 27 liters of microplastic, not counting wear strips in center drum.

Besides the apparent hazard, microplastic may also act as a vehicle or carrier for chemicals. That means that the processed ingredients also can get contaminated with oil from the machine and create black spots on the food. With this in mind, JBT designed the Frigoscandia GYRoCOMPACT® self-stacking freezer. Its unique Self-Stacking stainless steel mesh belt has no plastic parts in the food zone that can generate microplastics.

The GYRoCOMPACT has 25 meters of belt wear strips which is only 2% compared to the 1,250 m belt wear strips of the conventional spiral freezer. With the industry’s only self-contained 100% cleanable freezing zone, ease of accessibility throughout the enclosure, and easy evaporator access offering exceptional cleanability, it provides you with the ultimate performance in product hygiene.

At JBT, we know that the design of food processing equipment is essential for food safety. That’s why we always design to minimize all unnecessary surfaces and use as little material as possible to avoid dirt traps. We call it Hygiene by Design, and it is crucial in food zone 1, where the equipment has direct physical contact with the products. We also have specialists just focusing on reducing the use of unwanted materials like plastics.

JBT’s COOLCAT: putting excessive energy bills on ice

Looking for a re-chiller that performs above the industry standard without sky-high energy bills? The COOLCAT Re-Chiller could be the option you are looking for, thanks to high performance efficiency and a system that builds energy savings into its design.

One of the finest re-chillers available on the market today, the COOLCAT combines superb reliability with one of the most economical systems commercially available; a system which utilizes two hermetically sealed ammonia pumps, one for principal use and the other for back-up in case of unforeseen contingencies. 

Built-in savings
“A lot of savings have been built in to the design,” explains Dustin Huggins, JBT’s Product Manager for Chillers and Re-chillers. 

“The unit is a recirculated system and utilizes a small pump to move the refrigerant vs. hot gas injection. The refrigeration system sees a significant reduction of load with this method. The result is a pretty big savings for any plant that has the Re-Chiller installed.”

Each COOLCAT unit comes with hermetically sealed ammonia pumps for minimum energy consumption, as well as C.A.T.’s unique, patented “U” bends – manufactured using an exclusive proprietary process – which do not leak. 

As well as this, the Re-Chiller includes state-of-the-art PLC control packages as standard on each unit to regulate temperature.

Freeze protection
Using two pumps and the ammonia system, the water going through the piping is cooled to 32℉ (0℃); as close to freezing as you can get without the water solidifying, Huggins explains. However, as an extra level of assurance, the Re-Chiller features built-in freeze protection, and the machine will shut down as a safety measure if the amount of water entering the system reaches too high a pressure. Additionally, it has floating tubes which are not fixed into position which allows both for thermal expansion and gives the tubes room the breathe.

ASME rated at 250psi, each COOLCAT Re-Chiller is tested at C.A.T.’s Russellville, Arkansas factory before being shipped out to customers worldwide. Featuring stainless steel frame and stainless steel components, every model comes completely pre-piped including all refrigerant valves, pre-wired, and pre-insulated, with all necessary isolation valves and pressure gauges included.

LEARN MORE about the JBT COOLCAT Re-Chiller

Sustainability was in focus when Norsk Kylling built one of the world’s most modern factories 

When Norway’s leading poultry producer Norsk Kylling planned its new production facility, the goal was clear: They wanted to create a signature building for sustainable food production and Norwegian agriculture. But they also wanted all suppliers involved in the project to be committed and engaged in developing the industry further. 

JBT had the food processing machines, experience, and innovation that measured up to the requirements and put together a dedicated team of experts that worked in close collaboration with Norsk Kylling. As an innovative part of the project, JBT redesigned their Stein® TwinDrum Spiral Oven so that it could use electric heat from renewable sources. 

“We wanted to create one of the world’s most modern and efficient factories in terms of quality and logistics,” says Håvard Staverlökk, Project Leader at Norsk Kylling. 

For Norsk Kylling, animal welfare is at the center. At the same time, they must ensure that production can meet the increasing demand for poultry products without it being at the expense of the climate and the environment. They work with circular thinking throughout the value chain, everything from what fodder the chicken eats to using the by-products from the slaughterhouse and taking advantage of biological diversity. In 2016, they began an extensive strategy work for their future development which, as a first step, led to them switching to another breed of chicken. 

“We replaced Ross, our existing chicken breed, with Hubbard,” says Håvard Staverlökk. “The Hubbard chicken grows more slowly and has a healthier appetite and better health, contributing to better animal farming. In addition, it gives a better taste. The change was an essential part of our sustainability work.” 

Early in the strategy work, it also became clear that several challenges were associated with the production facility. It was impossible to develop the existing factory to meet the sustainability standard required in the future, which led to the decision to build an entirely new one and the journey to find and select partners that could deliver machinery to meet the new standard.

Energy-smart solutions at the center 
The ambition with the new production facility was high in terms of sustainability. The goal was for it to be a model for other producers around the world when it comes to adapting to the energy systems of the future with increasingly unregulated power, such as solar and wind. 

“Among other things, we invested in electrification and focused on energy flexibility, primarily through energy storage,” says Håvard Staverlökk. “The plant is built for zero emissions and uses only renewable energy, and we have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 100 percent compared with our old factory.” 

The factory has several intelligent systems for storing, controlling, and purchasing renewable energy. It uses thermal energy storage for heat, but a project is underway to develop the technology so that it can also store coldness. It obtains district heating from Elkem’s smelter on the other side of the Orkdalsfjord, whose waste heat covers the entire factory’s warming needs. Thanks to the pipeline, other factories and offices in the area can also reduce their need for electricity and fossil energy for heating. 

“The plant is built for zero emissions and uses only renewable energy, and we have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 100 percent compared with our old factory.” says Håvard Staverlökk, Project Leader at Norsk Kylling 

“The pipeline results from a collaboration between local industries, energy companies, and the municipality,” says Håvard Staverlökk. “This type of cooperation is central to our ambition to be a driving force in the climate field. We have designed our environmentally friendly energy solutions so that they can share energy with other factories and offices to reduce the climate footprint further. Our ambition is for the entire area to have lower CO2 emissions than before we established ourselves here.” 

Sustainable production with a unique electric line 
Norsk Kylling has a production that includes everything in the poultry segment, from producing fresh pieces to cooked products. At the further processing side of the new plant, JBT established two integrated, electric-fed production lines with one Stein M-fryer, two Stein TwinDrum Spiral Ovens, and two Frigoscandia GYRoCOMPACT® Spiral Freezers. However, the creative challenge was modifying the Stein TwinDrum Spiral Oven to use electric heat, says Erland Leide, R&D Manager at JBT. 

“Production plants today often use ovens with thermofluidic heat transfer, which means that oil
is heated with electricity or gas and then pumped around in loops. Norsk Kylling wanted an oven that used direct-acting electricity. The advantage of electric heating is that the efficiency is higher and the temperature control faster, which means the oven consumes less energy. They can access entirely fossil-free and renewable electricity, which makes it a sustainable solution.” 

Even when JBT first developed the Stein TwinDrum Spiral Oven, they thought about using electricity as an alternative. However, the assessment was that the technical challenges of using electric power in hot and wet areas were significant. Therefore, it was initially designed only for heating by thermofluid. Based on Norsk Kylling’s extensive requirements specification, JBT modified its basic design, making it their largest electric oven in Europe. 

“The advantage of electric heating is that the efficiency is higher and the temperature control faster, which means the oven consumes less energy.” says Erland Leide, R&D Manager at JBT. 

“A challenge with using electricity for heating is the power requirement. There is a lot of high current energy that has to go into the oven”, says Erland Leide. “Thus, for example, eight thick cables were required to enter and feed the heating elements. In other electric heated ovens, the cables are run from the ceiling down to the hood where heating elements are located, making them move when it lifts, which we wanted to avoid. We designed a solution that made it possible to run the cables inside the oven instead. In this way, we kept them static and reduced wear and tear to increase service life and minimize maintenance.” 

A developing collaboration for both parties 
JBT had an ongoing dialogue with Norsk Kylling about where to locate the equipment, install the connection to the electrical system, and meet other requirements.   

“We tailored the location of the control cabinets and the connection, but the solution for the oven itself is more standardized,” says Erland Leide. “Even when we originally designed the oven, we thought modularly, so there was no need for special adaptations. The collaboration with Norsk Kylling led us to develop the oven further as we adapted it based on their actual needs and input. Their detailed requirements specification and our dialogue gave us valuable information on how to develop our equipment better to meet our customers’ requirements and needs.” 

Norsk Kylling had a clear vision for how they wanted the solutions to work. They also wanted everyone involved in the project to understand it, be commit- ted, and develop the industry further. For them, JBT was a supplier who had the experience and food processing systems that could measure up to their requirements while at the same time being flexible and innovative enough to be able to deliver value to the project. 

A partnership without prestige 
To make sure the project would be as hassle-free as possible, JBT had set up a dedicated team that worked closely together with the team at Norsk Kylling, creating a personal yet professional relationship. 

“During the whole installation and start-up phase, we were almost constantly at the site, which created a real team spirit and a lot of engagement,” says Teddy Svensson, Engineering Manager at JBT. “For us, the main focus is the customer. If there were any problems and we weren’t there, we immediately traveled up to Orkanger to solve it.” 

It’s essential to focus on problem-solving to maintain a good relationship and create a successful project. “When we all work as a team without prestige, we can find the optimal solutions and learn from each other.” says Teddy Svensson. 

JBT also helped Norsk Kylling develop recipes for the highest yields and trained its staff to use the CIP systems to optimize the water, detergent, and energy consumption. 

“The collaboration with JBT has been perfect, although I think we sometimes both felt this was a demanding project,” says Håvard Staverlökk. “You have to acknowledge that there are challenges and find solutions together. I would say that both JBT and Norsk Kylling have taken turns solving our challenges in the project, and in this way, we have together managed to complete it in the best possible way.” 

JBT acquires Alco-food-machines

JBT has announced the acquisition of Alco-food-machines GmbH & Co. KG (Alco), a leading provider of further food processing solutions and production lines, which is expected to help JBT expand its solutions for ready meal and plant-based protein processors.

“Alco has been a family business for generations and over time has built an excellent reputation in the market for providing leading further processing technology solutions with strong ties in the DACH region,” said Brian Deck, JBT President and Chief Executive Officer.

“Alco represents the ideal fit for JBT where our family of brands approach and our broad food and beverage platform offers a compelling succession opportunity for companies with leading technology and food domain expertise.”

“We are excited about the possibilities in the next phase of growth for Alco,” said Alco Managing Director, Thomas Kleine-Ausberg.

“The acquisition of Alco complements and expands our product offering in further processing, in particular, expanding our offering in convenience meal lines as well as alternative and plant-based protein technology,” said Bob Petrie, EVP and President, Protein.

“Bringing our companies and technologies together supports our vision to be the preferred solutions partner for our customers, backed by unparalleled application expertise and best-in-class local service support. Alco also further strengthens our presence and capabilities in the important German market,” added Petrie.

Alco was founded in Bad Iburg, Germany in 1977 based on the idea from Heinz and Gertrud Algra to make the best machines in the industry, which today, produce everything from noodle sauces, and pizza to convenience and snack foods.

“JBT has always been viewed as a leader in food processing, and its approach to preserving the Alco brand and continuing the family legacy of technology and service was of the utmost importance in finding the right partner to acquire the business,” said Isabelle Kleine-Ausberg, former shareholder of Alco.

Alco expects 2022 revenue of approximately $35 million with EBITDA margins in the low double digits prior to synergies.

FIND OUT MORE about Alco-food-machines

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