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Rub­ber and plas­tics in the food sec­tor —

what is important? 

02.02.2022   | Tim Eltze

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When­ev­er plas­tics and elas­tomers come into con­tact with food, strict reg­u­la­tions apply to avoid health risks or injury haz­ards for con­sumers. This pos­es chal­lenges for com­pa­nies, who must take spe­cial care in design and mate­r­i­al selec­tion. The fol­low­ing arti­cle is an overview of the most impor­tant aspects that are rel­e­vant in the con­text of food safety.

What risks do plas­tics and rub­ber pose in the food sector?

A major risk is that the mate­ri­als used con­t­a­m­i­nate the medi­um. There are two cas­es to con­sid­er here.

First, coarse par­ti­cles large enough to cause injuries to the throat and phar­ynx (for exam­ple, plas­tic splin­ters) can detach. This is main­ly caused by abra­sive stress­es, for exam­ple when the medi­um rubs against a sharp edge and wears it away over time. How­ev­er, improp­er treat­ment of the mate­r­i­al can also cause par­ti­cles to become dis­lodged. For exam­ple, some types of plas­tic become porous when per­ma­nent­ly exposed to UV radiation.

On the oth­er hand, there is a risk of con­t­a­m­i­na­tion by micropar­ti­cles. Although these do not pose a risk of injury, many mate­ri­als can cause symp­toms of poi­son­ing if they enter the human organ­ism. Here, too, abra­sion can be the cause, when minute par­ti­cles are abrad­ed from a com­po­nent. But chem­i­cal reac­tions can also cause a rub­ber or plas­tic part to release ingre­di­ents into food, trig­gered for exam­ple by high tem­per­a­tures or con­tact with cer­tain media.

Anoth­er risk is con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of the medi­um by deposits. If, for exam­ple, residues accu­mu­late in cracks in the tank dur­ing the pro­cess­ing of fresh milk, they will spoil over time and con­t­a­m­i­nate the remain­ing goods. Deposits that are harm­ful to health are often caused by errors dur­ing clean­ing. In some cas­es, how­ev­er, they are also design-relat­ed, caused by hol­low or dead spaces that are dif­fi­cult to clean.

Notice 

Con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed food is not only risky for con­sumers. They can also have seri­ous con­se­quences for the man­u­fac­tur­er. These range from cost­ly recalls and loss of rep­u­ta­tion to law­suits by author­i­ties, con­sumer pro­tec­tion asso­ci­a­tions or individuals. 

How can com­pa­nies min­i­mize these risks?

Com­pa­nies oper­at­ing in the food sec­tor must take spe­cial care dur­ing pro­duc­tion. This applies to the entire man­u­fac­tur­ing process, from devel­op­ment to qual­i­ty con­trol. When deal­ing with plas­tics and elas­tomers, two aspects are par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant: mate­r­i­al selec­tion and design.

When select­ing mate­ri­als, it is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant to avoid mate­ri­als that are harm­ful to health. Mate­ri­als that are sus­cep­ti­ble to abra­sive stress are unsuit­able in food pro­cess­ing, too. How­ev­er, require­ments of this kind are rel­a­tive­ly easy to take into account, since they are includ­ed in legal spec­i­fi­ca­tions and reg­u­la­tions any­way. Plas­tics and elas­tomers used in the food indus­try must have a num­ber of cer­ti­fi­ca­tions (includ­ing FDA approval and EU stan­dard 10/2011) that exclude cer­tain types of mate­r­i­al from the outset.

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Yoghurt bot­tling

It is also impor­tant to keep in mind the clean­ing of a rub­ber or plas­tic com­po­nent. Dur­ing clean­ing, these parts are often exposed to envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors that dif­fer sig­nif­i­cant­ly from their pri­ma­ry appli­ca­tion. For exam­ple, they come into con­tact with acids, sol­vents or hot steam. This must be tak­en into account in the course of mate­r­i­al selec­tion. Oth­er­wise, there is a risk that the component’s prop­er­ties will change and it will release ingre­di­ents into the processed medium.

Notice 

Not only the medi­um and the plas­tic or rub­ber com­po­nents should be tak­en into account when select­ing mate­ri­als, but also all metal­lic ele­ments of the machine sys­tem. These include fit­tings, pip­ing and tanks. The inter­ac­tion between met­al and plas­tic must not be neglect­ed, oth­er­wise there is a risk of unde­sir­able side effects. 

For qual­i­ty assur­ance pur­pos­es, it is also advis­able to use detectable mate­ri­als. These are mate­ri­als that are designed in such a way that they can be eas­i­ly iden­ti­fied in oth­er mate­ri­als. These include elas­tomers, for exam­ple, which clear­ly stand out in col­or from the processed medi­um, mak­ing it eas­i­er to visu­al­ly iden­ti­fy and sort out con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed arti­cles. Anoth­er exam­ple includes plas­tics that are read­i­ly mag­net­ic when met­als are added, allow­ing them to be detect­ed by auto­mat­ed sen­sors. Detectable mate­ri­als like these reduce the risk of con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed goods mis­tak­en­ly pass­ing through qual­i­ty control.

In design, the main con­cern is to avoid weak points where par­ti­cles can detach and con­t­a­m­i­nate the media. If pos­si­ble, noth­ing should stick out that could break off. Sharp edges are also sub­op­ti­mal, because they can be ground smooth over time, caus­ing mate­r­i­al to detach. The same applies to cav­i­ties, dead spaces and sharp cor­ners. Sub­stances can be deposit­ed there that spoil over time and are there­fore harm­ful to health. This effect is exac­er­bat­ed by the fact that these areas are dif­fi­cult to clean.

Spe­cial case drink­ing water

In this con­text, spe­cial atten­tion must be paid to the pro­cess­ing of drink­ing water, which is strict­ly reg­u­lat­ed in Ger­many. The require­ments are even high­er than in the gen­er­al food sec­tor. The rea­son for this is the fact that con­t­a­m­i­na­tion in drink­ing water is often dif­fi­cult to detect due to its mass. In addi­tion, the sub­se­quent fil­ter­ing of con­t­a­m­i­nants is a chal­lenge, as they usu­al­ly con­sist of very small par­ti­cles (e.g., microplastics).

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Cou­plings with hoses

Puri­fy­ing drink­ing water is usu­al­ly cost­ly and time-con­sum­ing. For this rea­son, pro­tec­tive mea­sures are pri­mar­i­ly aimed at pre­vent­ing con­t­a­m­i­na­tion — for exam­ple, through strict hygiene reg­u­la­tions or strin­gent spec­i­fi­ca­tions for mate­ri­als that come into con­tact with water. The basis for this is the statu­to­ry Drink­ing Water Ordi­nance (TrinkwV) as well as the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of the Ger­man Tech­ni­cal and Sci­en­tif­ic Asso­ci­a­tion for Gas and Water (DVGW).

Con­clu­sion

The utmost care is required in the food sec­tor, because errors or mal­func­tions can have health con­se­quences for peo­ple. There­fore, when han­dling rub­ber or plas­tic com­po­nents, man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pa­nies should take care to obtain the nec­es­sary cer­ti­fi­ca­tions and to com­ply pre­cise­ly with all spec­i­fi­ca­tions. This applies in par­tic­u­lar to mate­r­i­al selec­tion, but also to design. Qual­i­ty assur­ance is a top pri­or­i­ty in the food indus­try. If you keep that in mind, deal­ing with plas­tics and elas­tomers is no big deal either.

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Author: Tim Eltze

Tim Eltze has been work­ing in the field of rub­ber and plas­tic prod­ucts for more than 20 years and has in-depth exper­tise in these areas. He is cur­rent­ly employed by Jäger as Region­al Man­ag­er North and Site Man­ag­er Hamburg. 

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