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Separating wheat from chaff

Challenges for seals within the food and beverage industry

Product recalls plague the food and beverage industry, harming both consumer and manufacturer. That’s why the industry has very stringent cleanliness standards, as well as high compliancy targets. Seals play a big role in meeting both – so why are they so often the cause of production failures?

Whether it’s horse meat in a beef burger or plastic shards in a yoghurt, no-one wants to be surprised by the contents of their lunch. However, beyond the headline scandals of the food and beverage industry, there are more unpleasantries lurking: toxic bacteria or allergen crossovers that mean a product never leaves the factory, machinery faults, unplanned shutdowns, and more. And behind these, often enough, lies a substandard sealing solution.

When compliance leads to complacency

Sealing solutions which comprise FDA-compliant standard materials or SKF approved sealing materials are suitable for use with cleaning chemicals and other materials used in food and beverage. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that automatically makes them high-quality. Contamination from industrial oil lubrication or pieces of the seal itself definitely still occurs. The good news, however, is that food grade components pose no threat to human life. In summary: Dangerous? No. Unacceptable to taste and damaging to a reputation? Absolutely.

Nestlé UK Ltd recalls various date codes of Milky Bar Buttons due to possible rubber contamination.

Tough on contaminants, (not) gentle on seals

So, why are the seals not performing their function? One answer is cleaning. The extremely high standards rife across the food industry merit a strenuous hygiene regime which can take its toll on seals. Some processes use caustic soda for sterilization, risking crystallization. Should caustic crystalize on the surface of a seal, the abrasive material – not to mention the propensity for corrosion – significantly lower the life span of a seal and compromise the sealing capacity. Acid, too, can have a corrosive effect over time.

To reflect the seriousness of food product recalls, Kellogg’s recent recall of two ​cereal products following a metal mesh contamination scare will cost the firm between $20 and $30m and​ will hit consumer trust in the short-term, an analyst says.

Different food grade sealing materials cover a wide service temperature range and allow the selection of an appropriate sealing solution.. However, extreme processes such as pasteurization in dairy, or simply steam cleaning and pressures beyond normal parameters can still cause damage and leave the seal brittle and vulnerable to breakage. Of course, it is possible to purchase seals specifically designed for these conditions – but therein lies the issue. Many companies don’t.

Choose right, choose once

A seal implemented without holistic consideration of its uses is frequently the root cause of failure. The solution may withstand high pressures but not low temperatures. It might be inert with one sterilizing method but react to the other. Our SKF industrial seals experts were once consulted on a beverage processing plant which had deployed an inappropriate material alongside a fully ineffective seal design lacking guide rings. Together, the design and material led to loss of pressure and a costly turnover rate for the seals. The solution provided by SKF meant a scheduled replacement once a year – a big improvement on unplanned replacements once a month.

In an industry where different foodstuffs, allergens, or liquids may pass through the same machinery one after the other, it is critical to have the right sealing solution. Avoiding contamination or unscheduled downtime can make a huge difference in output and profit, and for that it can really pay off to find an individualized, high-quality solution. If you require seals for a pre-existing application or are looking to set up processes from scratch, check out the full range of SKF food and beverage seals.