Food and beverage manufacturing is without question taken for granted in everyday life – that is until the COVID-19 pandemic.
How our food was produced and distributed was brought to the forefront in 2020 and the scenes of empty supermarket shelves are still etched in our memories. The impact of the pandemic on these companies behind the scenes was enormous and as a result, many are re-evaluating everything about how they do business. This will be even more necessary where the transit of goods across international borders is concerned, in the post-pandemic marketplace of the future.
Product safety has become more of a priority than ever. Regulations are expected to tighten in the marketplace to match international standards. These standards are determined by both the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and Food Standards Australian New Zealand (FSANZ). For those in food and beverage production, there’s a sense of inevitably that changes will come around the use of oil-injected compressors in food and beverage production.
It has been a point of growing contention for some (especially for those exporting to heavily regulated overseas markets) and ambivalence for others, that the Australian food industry has no mandated standards around oil-free equipment in food and beverage manufacturing. Internationally, this is not the case – ingestible products are produced under strict regulations and must be manufactured using oil-free machines. ISO 8573-1:2010 “specifies purity classes of compressed air with respect to particles, water and oil independent of the location in the compressed air system at which the air is specified or measured.”1 In fact, this standard specifically “provides a classification system for the main contaminants of a compressed air system”2. In many countries, standards around oil-free status are strictly enforced. Companies uniformly must provide evidence of being certified to this standard for their products to be legally allowed on the market, to cross borders from one country to another, and to be protected for the purposes of insurance, to name a few examples.
This kind of tight regulation protects manufacturers as much as consumers. Food contamination of any kind is not just a health and safety issue for consumers – the negative impact on a company’s reputation and its brand would be significant if consumers were alerted to the level of contaminant risk in their product. Australia currently lacks overarching standards around the use of oil-injected compressors within the food and beverage industry, and as a result the details embedded within existing standards differ from seafood to dairy, poultry to seeds and so on. The concept behind standards and regulations is to minimise risk as much as possible. However most risks can never be completely eliminated, so can be managed (and ideally mitigated) through comprehensive standards and regulations to ensure public safety.
Given the lack of Australian standards on the topic, many food and beverage manufacturers currently operate in a grey zone of safety and contamination levels. Some manufacturers argue that the air is not always in contact with the food, so the risk is removed. Others continue to use oil-injected equipment but with filters to minimise (not eliminate) contamination. The use of well-filtered oil-injected equipment still comes with the risk of contamination, as filters saturate over time and aren’t always replaced on time. However in the majority of food production, compressed air must come into contact with food – think air being blown into bags for food to be inserted, or liquids being injected into cartons, filling deposited into cakes and pies – so the risk of oil contamination exists.
Sullair aims to always take on an advisory role on this subject. Supporting the customer with insights into best practice, whilst assisting them to make choices around the best equipment for their needs is paramount. New food and beverage clients are advised to choose oil-free, for reasons outlined, while existing customers are supported to upgrade if and when they feel the need arise. Some food and beverage manufacturers are already taking the initiative to switch to oil-free, even though regulations don’t yet demand it of them. This may seem overly cautious to some, but there is a sense that proactively making the change to oil free, will build in high levels of trust from their consumers and reduce everyone’s risk by design.
Until national and mandatory regulations around compressed air quality in food manufacturing in Australia are implemented, food and beverage producers must take it upon themselves to follow best practice production processes by using oil-free compressors. After all, the easiest way to avoid oil contamination risk is to remove oil entirely.