Keeping our food safe

Every year, about four million Canadians are affected by a food-borne illness due to contamination at some point along the food processing chain. In Ontario, engineers are using their problem-solving skills to develop effective preventative food safety control systems and implement sanitary plant design as food producers try to meet the demands of a growing population.

Media reports of food recalls, often because of bacteria like listeria, salmonella or E. coli, or undeclared allergens, have heightened Canadians’ concerns about the integrity of the products they toss into their grocery carts. For engineers working in the ever-evolving food industry, safety is the most critical issue to address and solve. From the structure of a food manufacturing and processing building, to the mechanics of automated systems and robotics on the factory line, to temperature control in transporting produce and livestock across the country, the engineer’s multidisciplinary background is more vital than ever, when the stakes—and the steaks—are life and death, and the goal is the least amount of human contact possible in processing what Canadians eat.

“When you are shopping at the grocery store for your favourite foods, you would not believe the amount of engineering that is required to deliver them to those shelves,” says Carlos A. Daza DonosoP.Eng., engineering manager, Conestoga Meats. “We are not only looking at the construction of the [food processing] building itself but also at the design of a proper process flow that supports a vast array of good manufacturing practices (GMPs). These GMPs support food safety, specific trade regulations and, of course, Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regulations. It’s the combination between sanitary design of the facility itself and a sound process flow that enable us to distribute our products across Canada and markets around the world. Starting from the design phase to commissioning and start-up of a food plant, there are many factors we take into consideration: air flow and balancing, lighting, temperature, cross-contamination points, sanitation and chemical resistance, and harbourage points. Each sector within the food industry—produce, dairy, fresh ready-to-eat salads, bakery, etc.—face similar food safety challenges, as well as challenges that are unique to that sector.”


Daza Donoso’s experience as an engineer in food safety is exemplary. He worked with the dairy, vegetable oil, sauces and ready-to-eat meats industries before moving to fresh pork with Conestoga Meats, including six years with Maple Leaf Foods, hot on the heels of the ground-breaking listeria outbreak at the latter’s Toronto plant in the summer of 2008. The event was linked to 57 cases of illness and 22 deaths. An independent investigator was appointed in January 2009 to determine the cause of the outbreak and to set up preventative recommendations for the future.

“I was with Maple Leaf Foods from 2009 until 2015,” says Daza Donoso. “I was fortunate to be able to get mentorship from engineers who had not only experienced the outbreak but who had also contributed to drive the change towards a multidisciplinary, cross functional approach to food safety. When I extrapolate the impact of the engineering work we are responsible for to the thousands and thousands of consumers who rely on whatever measures we put into the design of any food processing facility, it really sets the relevance and importance of our role as professional engineers into place.”

Following the 2009 investigation, Health Canada altered its risk assessment turnaround time from 24 hours to eight hours for cases known as Health 1, and new anti-listeria agents were enforced for use in plant facilities. New information and education sources were put in the public domain for consumers. Maple Leaf Foods implemented numerous improvements, including a doubling of their testing sites as well as doubling the frequency of sampling on all production lines of their ready-to-eat food plants. Engineers were involved in the reconstruction of slicing equipment to help eliminate points of bacterial harbourage.

When it comes to the point of processing, challenges arise with traceability of contamination. Today’s systems are geared toward avoiding human interaction.

“Newer food plants are becoming more streamlined than the older plants, which allows less manual handling and transportation of material,” says Kim Todd, P.Eng., who worked at Maple Leaf Foods from 2006 to 2017 in continuous improvement, asset reliability and industrial engineering roles. “Less handling means less opportunities for contamination. In situations where manual touch points do exist, one needs to make sure people are wearing their protective personal gear. Another control is to have a meaningful food safety program. For example, knowing where and the frequency of when swabs are taken for checking the equipment for bacteria.”

In an overnight sanitation shift, engineering also comes into effect in terms of temperature control and air flow. Todd says that, while sanitation is paramount, it can also pose obstacles.

“During sanitation, water temperature and pressure need to be high enough to kill bacteria but low enough to not damage the equipment, which can be sensitive to humidity with all the added automation features,” she explains. “Environmental control design should be a consideration in meat processing and packaging. Production rooms warm up significantly during the sanitation shift. This same room needs to be cold prior to [the next] shift start up. The transition from a hot, humid room to a cold room creates condensation that can drip onto the food from the ceiling or pipes or other overhanging sources. It’s a matter of understanding how to engineer dehumidifiers and air flow.”


Observing the structural and agricultural environment of a variety of food sources has also been a driving force behind the job of Karen Conrad, P.Eng., who is an inspection supervisor at the CFIA, the country’s regulatory agency tasked with mitigating risk to food safety and enforcing health and safety standards related to food under various acts and regulations, including the Food and Drugs Act. With more than a decade as an inspection supervisor and food specialist with the CFIA, Conrad has focused her skills on manufacturing inspection as well as being a food specialist.

“You want to create traffic patterns that allow people to not pull contamination through the plant,” says Conrad.

The age and mechanics of an old plant can lead to difficulties in functioning safely.

“Some older plants are going to have challenges,” adds Conrad. “A lot of it is related to the fact that they built the plant of a certain size, a hundred years ago in some cases, and they expanded it over time—they’ve added rooms. What that will mean is that the flow of traffic through the plant is not ideal. There have also been big advances in materials for walls and floors. When you need to replace your walls and floors, those are not easy fixes. In terms of equipment, you can adapt newer equipment into an older plant. Some engineers would be focused on the specific instrumentation or equipment improvements that could be made or adapting a new piece of equipment into an old processing line.”

Attention to the critical points of equipment design are ongoing, according to Todd: “Over time, equipment needs to be changed to accommodate product innovation, volume demand, productivity costs, or maybe the equipment is at the end of its life cycle,” she says. “Engineers may replace equipment or modify existing equipment design. We need to be diligent about learning from past experiences. For example, knowing where potential harbourage locations are, and why these locations promote bacterial growth, enables the engineer to apply effective countermeasures to equipment design or modification, including the required sanitation procedures.”

Todd is passionate about how engineers can continue to use their problem-solving expertise as food safety innovators look to the future.

“As engineers follow their respective career paths, they must keep risk management at the top of their minds,” says Todd. “Being diligent to food safety and employee safety concerns can save lives and limit injury. Engineers must understand where there is risk and build that into future design. If we want to be innovative, go above and beyond. Learn where things went wrong and build that into your new designs. Consider how you can apply early detection of contamination before it impacts product safety.”

Optimizing a food type’s environment prior to packaging is integral to the precarious paradox engineers face in this vastly challenging field—prolonging shelf life while reducing additives and preservatives to a product.

“Shelf life and packaging technologies are driven by two opposing forces,” explains Daza Donoso. “One is the demand for longer shelf life, and the other is the demand for less and less additives and processing. Traditionally, we’ve always directed engineering interventions for food safety mainly toward food contact surfaces. Now, we know all areas of a facility have a direct impact on bacterial counts. Food safety is achieved in plants that treat it as an overall operating system that starts with proper construction materials, adequate flow of personnel, defined paths to dispose of garbage, etc. Undoubtedly, food safety represents a high capital investment to food manufacturers but when you achieve those longer shelf lives and when you guarantee wholesome and safe products to consumers, the reward is easily quantifiable.”

In learning from incidents like the Maple Leaf Foods listeria outbreak of 2008, among others, engineers are exceptionally careful to observe trends related to bacterial load. If they can reduce the initial bacterial load of a product prior to packaging, an excellent shelf life is possible. Proper handling, proper transition points, temperature and air control and even proper lighting are the main factors here, which mean minimizing human contact through automation.

“The most popular trend you’ll see in the food industry now is the adoption of six-axis robots,” adds Daza Donoso. “These articulated robots have been used in the automotive industry for decades and can perform the hardest jobs in the production line with much precision and repeatability. Operators can now be transitioned to more ergonomic and dynamic tasks, reducing human contact with the product. I’m involved in all stages of robot implementation, from the design of reinforced footings and foundations for robot bases, all the way to fine-tuning program parameters that control their performance. A robot promotes food safety because, for example, if it is programmed to sterilize its tool between each carcass to avoid cross contamination, it will indisputably do so every time.”


Experts like Valerie Davidson, PhD, P.Eng., university professor emerita, School of Engineering, University of Guelph, whose current research is focused on food safety and risk assessment, are pointing to the role of bioengineering in the future. 

“I’m always interested in modelling systems that have biological components,” says Davidson. “In teaching biological engineering, it’s about looking at how microorganisms grow in systems. In terms of risk assessment, it’s about looking at how hazards, both biological and chemical, get into food, and then how they might change as we process the food. At the end of that process, you’re trying to figure out if there’s enough of a particular hazard in the food to make someone ill and, if so, how many people would likely get ill. So, it’s a systems model that can become fairly complex. In focussing on the future of the processing of foods, you’re processing foods to make them something that the consumer wants to eat. Things like the colourflavour and texture are all things you want to maintain at high quality.”

Davidson applies over 30 years of experience to her work, now mainly in a consultancy capacity with organizations like the CFIA. Both Daza Donoso and Conrad are her former students. Like Davidson, Daza Donoso is continuously investigating the biological and chemical components of food—and its contaminants—when he looks to the future.

“The future, I think, is more based on bioengineering,” says Daza Donoso. “One day we will be able to grow a steak in an incubator. Biomolecular journals and food engineering journals are starting to publish this kind of research.”

While such claims may seem cinematic in their capacity, Daza Donoso is not far off. Studies referenced in multiple publications, including The Washington Post, Wired and Vice, suggest that lab-grown meat may be in grocery stores within the next few years. Just five years ago, the first lab-grown hamburger was created by Mark Post in his lab at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. It was sampled in London to much bemusement but Daza Donoso suggests that cultured meat is a serious antidote to environmental and health burdens that meat processing places on our world.

“What we see as a food plant today will remain as such in the future,” adds Daza Donoso. “It’s just the difference between a live animal unloading off a livestock truck, and a series of incubators and bioreactors, with raw materials coming in and meat being produced. This is looking many, many years in the future. What I can say is that with population growth and how we’ve seen bacteria adapt and become resistant, it’s simply not sustainable to continue doing what we’re doing now in the long term. The industry has to look at bioengineering as the alternative way to mass produce what our consumers want.”