If Karl Thorson had a bucket list, his first wish would be that the bucket never contains water when it comes to cleaning bakeries and snack operations. For Mr. Thorson, food safety and sanitation manager at Minneapolis-based General Mills, water may be the source of life, but then again, maybe that’s the problem. All types of living things grow because of it, and not all of them — like Listeria — are necessarily good.

“If we’re going to make a change in the food industry, especially in the production of low-moisture foods, we are going to have to control water,” he said. “It is the root of all of our evils, especially when related to pathogen risks.”

It’s not only uncontrollable but also often unstoppable in even the best-run operations. “Water has historically been a demon when it comes to bakery reliability,” explained Mike Pierce, president, The Austin Co. “When electrical panels are not properly sealed, either through design or employee practice, water can enter and cause havoc. We think about instances where shorted-out motors or controls have caused big problems, but the conductivity through the water back to the hose holder creates a safety issue that is often overlooked. The cleaning crew is at risk when the water and the electrical components connect.”

That’s not the only safety issue, according to Mr. Pierce. “Water and some flour dust or dough remnants on the floor can cause employees to lose traction and have a slip-and-fall accident,” he observed.

All too often, water pops up almost anywhere due to unexpected leaks, faulty piping and persistent pooling because the floor isn’t properly sloped to a drain, and nobody thinks to mop it up.

In his “war on water,” Mr. Thorson explained that the battles must be urgently fought on every front. “I like to use the kitchen analogy,” he said. “If you went home tonight, saw your sink dripping water, standing water on your kitchen floor and condensation from your cold-water pipes, you would immediately correct all of those things before going to bed.”

Good to the last drop

For Mr. Thorson, wars are always won when there’s nothing left to fight, so the best solution is to eliminate water altogether. During the past few years, he’s developed a hierarchy of cleaning methods. “Our ultimate goal is zero cleaning,” he observed. “That’s the ideal state. We don’t want to have to clean. It doesn’t add any value to our processes for consumers.”

Flushing out materials between changeovers on a production line — especially if it involves flavors, colors or other sensory attributes — is an option. Mr. Thorson pointed out that switching from a dark chocolate coating to a lighter variety can be done easily on many systems with little or no waste, or noticeable differences in product attributes.

In other applications, flushing a system with salt or another abrasive ingredient can loosen up debris and facilitate dry cleaning that includes vacuuming, brushing or scraping material off surfaces. In areas where a material is stubbornly caked-on, he suggested using alcohol-based sanitizers to loosen it up. “If that’s not enough, then I would need to use a wet-cleaning process,” Mr. Thorson said.

Here, he explained, the best alternatives are clean-in-place systems followed by controlled spot cleaning with buckets, brushes and towels. Moreover, removable components can be shuttled to a remote, enclosed washing area for cleaning them away from the production floor. For the latter, Mr. Thorson compared it to a NASCAR pit-stop mentality. “You don’t change the tire during a race,” he said. “You change the tire at a later date and just put on a new wheel.” Granted, having duplicate equipment requires a higher initial investment, but time is money in the long run.

“The worst-case scenario, in my mind — and at the bottom of the list — is flood cleaning and dragging out the hoses and doing what one does in the meat industry by washing down the ceilings, walls and equipment with copious amounts of water,” Mr. Thorson noted.

Making more of less

Ryan Danhour, design project manager for Stellar, encouraged bakers to dampen expectations for using water in dry production areas of a plant. While there isn’t a magic formula or technology for water reduction, he suggested training line operators to minimize the “mess” created in processing. “If you reduce the mess you make, you reduce the amount of water needed to clean it up,” he observed.

Additionally, use the proper ratio of chemical solutions, water temperature and water pressure for cleaning. Be careful about what chemicals are used. A heated, chlorinated solution — above 140˚F — will corrode stainless steel over time. Relying on water restrictors will lower water pressure and the amount used. “However, employees may sometimes remove these restrictions to make cleanup faster, but of course, the trade-off is that they use more water,” Mr. Danhour said.

Mr. Pierce recommended that bakeries convert — or explore the option of — dry-steam cleaning. “This method can be used on product surfaces, packaging equipment and building finishes,” he said.

When switching to dry-steam or controlled-water cleaning, make sure walls, floors and their junctions are compatible to the process. If a baker is using peanut butter or other allergens in a formula, this might require acid-proof or temperature resistant floor coatings to make cleanup easier. “Floor-to-wall junctions are critical in a wash-down area so you don’t have a crevice where water or debris can hide and cause bacterial growth,” Mr. Pierce pointed out.

In most low-moisture facilities, restricting water usage pays off because it limits the ability of cleaning crews to flush dough, flour and other effluent down the drain so there will be no issues with municipalities or regulators. Slashing water usage also prompts sanitarians to consider other options that would require a closer, more hands-on approach and potentially deliver cleaner equipment, product surfaces or floors, according to Mr. Pierce.

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