The food and beverage (F&B) industry includes all companies involved in processing raw food materials, as well as those packaging and distributing them. This includes fresh, prepared foods as well as packaged foods, and both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
The food and beverage industry is divided into two major segments, which are the production and the distribution of edible goods. The first group, production, includes the processing of meats and cheeses and the creation of soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, packaged foods, and other modified foods. Any product meant for human consumption, aside from pharmaceuticals, passes through this sector. Production also covers the processing of meats, cheeses and packaged foods, dairy and alcoholic beverages. The production sector excludes foods and fresh produce that are directly produced via farming, as these fall under agriculture.
The manufacture and processing of food and beverages create substantial risks of fire and toxic gas exposure. Many gases are used for baking, processing and refrigerating foods. These gases can be highly hazardous – either toxic, flammable, or both.
Secondary food processing methods includes fermentation, heating, chilling, dehydration or cooking of some kind. Many types of commercial food processing consist of cooking, especially industrial steam boilers. Steam boilers are usually gas-fired (natural gas or LPG) or use a combination of gas and fuel oil. For gas-fired steam boilers, natural gas consists mainly of methane (CH4), a highly combustible gas, lighter than air, which is piped directly into boilers. In contrast, LPG consists mainly of propane (C3H8), and usually requires an on-site fuel storage tank. Whenever flammable gases are used on site, forced mechanical ventilation must be included in storage areas, in case of leakage. Such ventilation is usually triggered by gas detectors that are installed near boilers and in storage rooms.
The F&B industry takes hygiene very seriously, as the slightest contamination of surfaces and equipment can provide an ideal breeding ground for all kinds of germs. The F&B sector therefore demands rigorous cleaning and disinfection, which must meet industry standards.
There are three methods of disinfection commonly used in F&B: thermal, radiation and chemical. Chemical disinfection with chlorine-based compounds is by far the most common and effective way to disinfect equipment or other surfaces. This is because chlorine-based compounds are inexpensive, fast acting and effective against a variety of microorganisms. Several different chlorine compounds are commonly used, of which include hypochlorite, organic and inorganic chloramines, and chlorine dioxide. Sodium hypochlorite solution (NaOCl) is stored in tanks while chlorine dioxide (ClO2) gas is usually generated on site.
In any combination, chlorine compounds are hazardous and exposure to high concentrations of chlorine can cause severe health issues. Chlorine gases are usually stored on site and a gas detection system should be installed, with a relay output to trigger ventilation fans once a high level of chlorine is detected.
Food packaging serves many purposes; it allows food to be transported and stored safely, protects food, indicates portion sizes and provides information about the product. To keep food items safe for a long time, it is necessary to remove oxygen from the container because otherwise, oxidation will occur when the food comes into contact with oxygen. The presence of oxygen also promotes bacterial growth, which is harmful when consumed. However, if the package is flushed with nitrogen, the shelf life of packaged food can be extended.
Packagers often use nitrogen (N2) flushing methods for preserving and storing their products. Nitrogen is a non-reactive gas, non-odorous and non-toxic. It prevents oxidation of fresh food with sugars or fats, stops the growth of dangerous bacteria and inhibits spoilage. Lastly, it prevents packages from collapsing by creating a pressurized atmosphere. Nitrogen can be generated on site using generators or delivered in cylinders. Gas generators are cost effective and provide an uninterrupted supply of gas. Nitrogen is an asphyxiant, capable of displacing oxygen in air. Because it has no smell and is non-toxic, workers may not become aware of low oxygen conditions before it is too late.
Oxygen levels below 19% will cause dizziness and loss of consciousness. To prevent this, oxygen content should be monitored with an electrochemical sensor. Installing oxygen detectors in packaging areas ensures the safety of workers and early detection of leaks.
Refrigeration facilities in the F&B industry are used to keep food cool for long periods of time. Large-scale food storage facilities often use cooling systems based on ammonia (> 50% NH3), as it is efficient and economical. However, ammonia is both toxic and flammable; it is also lighter than air and fills up enclosed spaces rapidly. Ammonia can become flammable if released in an enclosed space where a source of ignition is present, or if a vessel of anhydrous ammonia is exposed to fire.
Ammonia is detected with electro-chemical (toxic) and catalytic (flammable) sensor technology. Portable detection, including single- or multi-gas detectors, can monitor instantaneous and TWA exposure to toxic levels of NH3. Multi-gas personal monitors have been shown to improve workers’ safety where a low-range ppm for routine system surveys and flammable range is used during system maintenance. Fixed detection systems include a combination of toxic- and flammable-level detectors connected to local control panels – these are usually supplied as part of a cooling system. Fixed systems can also be used for process over-rides and ventilation control.
Brewing and Drinks Industry
The risk involved in the manufacture of alcohol involves sizable manufacturing equipment which can be potentially harmful, both to operate and because of the fumes and vapours that can be emitted into the atmosphere and subsequently impact the environment. Ethanol is the main combustible hazard found within distilleries and breweries is the fumes and vapours produced by ethanol. With the capacity to be emitted from leaks in tanks, casks, transfer pumps, pipes and flexible hoses, ethanol vapour is a very real fire and explosion hazard faced by those in the distillery industry. Once the gas and vapour is released into the atmosphere, it can quickly build and pose a danger to the health of workers. It is worth noting here however, that the concentration required to cause harm to workers’ health has to be very high. With this in mind, the more significant risk from ethanol in the air is that of explosion. This fact reinforces the importance of gas detection equipment to recognise and remedy any leaks straight away, so as to avoid disastrous consequences.
Packaging, Transport and Dispensing
Once wine is bottled and beer is packaged, they must be delivered to the relevant outlets. This commonly includes distribution companies, warehousing and in the case of breweries, draymen. Beer and soft drinks use carbon dioxide or a mix of carbon dioxide and nitrogen as a way of delivering a beverage to the ‘tap’. These gases also give beer a longer-lasting head and improve the quality and taste.
Even when the beverage is ready to deliver, gas-related hazards remain. Those arise in any activity at premises that contain compressed gas cylinders, due to the risk of increased carbon dioxide levels or depleted oxygen levels (due to high levels of nitrogen). Carbon dioxide (CO2) occurs naturally in the atmosphere (0.04%). CO2 is colourless and odourless, heavier than air and if it escapes, will tend to sink to the floor. CO2 collects in cellars and at the bottom of containers and confined spaces such as tanks and silos. CO2 is generated in large amounts during fermentation. It is also injected into beverages during carbonation.
To find out more on the gas hazards in food and beverage production visit our industry page for more information.