When Land O’Frost, Inc. poured the concrete for the foundation of its new processing facility this May in Kentucky, one might say it was a ground-breaking groundbreaking. The new ready-to-eat (RTE) meat processing plant will be the nation’s first building designed and constructed to wholly incorporate the 11 Principles of Sanitary Facility Design recently defined by the American Meat Institute (AMI) Sanitary Facility Design Task Force. For this nationally recognized family business, which boasts the fourth largest selling brand of RTE luncheon meats in the nation, the role of forerunner is one that suits the company.

Since its establishment more than 40 years ago in Chicago’s Roseland district, Land O’Frost is no stranger to innovation of the groundbreaking kind. After emigrating from Holland to the U.S. following World War I, company founder Antoon Van Eekeren wasted no time in laying a foundation of his own in the refrigeration repair business. When Van Eekeren saw a significant rise in consumer demand for freezer space during World War II, he purchased a vacant meat distribution center on Chicago’s south side, growing his new venture into the largest frozen food locker in the U.S. When the market slowed, the industrious founder converted a part of the facility to the manufacture and sale of frozen roast beef and gravy for local restaurants. When fire destroyed part of the facility, he rebuilt, expanding to include frozen meat pies and TV dinners for area retail stores—a product line that marked the birth of the brand name “Land O’Frost.”

In the 1950s, Land O’Frost adopted new packaging and processing technology that enabled the company to refocus the business and expand its product offerings to include smoked sliced beef, ham and turkey. After relocating its headquarters and manufacturing facilities to Lansing, IL, in 1969, new products were added to the product line. With the 1976 purchase of a vegetable processing plant in Searcy, AR and its subsequent conversion to a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspected meat plant, Land O’Frost had even more reason to innovate.

In the 1980s, Land O’Frost’s pioneered the use of retort technology, once the domain of the canning industry, applying the room-temperature, shelf-life extending process to flexible pouches and plastic trays. This allowed the company to seize the opportunity to provide meals to the U.S. military’s Meals Ready to Eat (MRTE) program, as well as individual meals for the dietary market, catalog and retail sales.

Land O’Frost continued to break new ground in the ’80s and ’90s in the area of food safety and sanitation, introducing a pasteurization kill step and one-way product flow during production, developing the Seek & Destroy program as a proactive way to find and eliminate foodborne pathogens from the plant environment, and implementing one of the meat industry’s first Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs. “Our commitment to food safety is an integral part of Land O’Frost’s history and corporate culture,” says John Butts, Ph.D., vice president research with Land O’Frost, whose 31 years of leadership in the company’s development and application of proactive food safety systems has recently been recognized by NSF International with the 2005 Food Safety Leadership Award (p. 82). “Designing and building our new plant from the ground up using the principles of sanitary equipment and facility design are just additional examples of that commitment—and of our commitment to our customers to continually find better ways to produce high-quality, safe products.”

Today, Land O’Frost produces sliced lunchmeats in the Illinois and Arkansas plants. The new state-of-the-art facillity in Kentucky will add another 190,000 sq. ft. of manufacturing space, increasing the production capacity of the RTE meat processor’s popular Premium brand one-pound Deli Pouch, Deli Shaved and Deli Style Thin Sliced meats, and Dagwood and Taste Escapes brand products distributed to grocery stores, and its complete line of prepackaged diced, sliced, stripped and ground meats used as industrial ingredients by restaurant, prepared food manufacturing and institutional customers.

The new plant, says Butts, is expected to be up and running within a year. “We’re continuing to work closely with our colleagues on the AMI Sanitary Facility Design Task Force, and our architects, engineers and contractors as construction of the facility gets underway. And credit should go to AMI, its members and partners for developing sanitary design guidelines that industry can use as real-world building blocks to improve product safety efforts in actual food production environments.”

Food Safety is Not a Competitive Sport
Following on the heels of the task force that brought the meat processing industry the AMI 10 Principles for Sanitary Equipment Design—a model that has been gaining more than passing interest by other food processing categories—industry leaders joined forces again, setting aside competitive issues to establish clear sanitary design principles for the planning, construction and renovation of RTE meat processing facilities. The AMI Sanitary Facility Design Task Force—comprised of representatives from AMI, Land O’Frost, Hormel Foods, Sara Lee, The Stellar Group, Hendon Redmond, Middough Consulting, Tyson, McClier, Carter & Burgess, The Haskell Company, Tyson, Bar S, Kraft Foods, Middough Consulting Inc., Hixson, Ram Market Solutions, and Smithfield—is a unique coalition of experts from processing, construction, consulting, engineering and architecture, perhaps opening lines of communication between these fields for the first time in the area of food safety, says Butts. “I don’t know any prior time when people from all of these groups sat together to address problems from a sanitary design standpoint,” he states. “No one person or company had all the expertise. We’ve all learned a lot from each other.”

“We all agreed that food safety would not be used in our industry for competitive advantage,” adds Dr. Skip Seward, AMI vice president of regulatory affairs and facilitator of the sanitary facility design task force. “Everyone brought their best practices for sanitary design and their knowledge of where things can and have gone wrong in the past to create a set of principles that will ensure the safety of the production process. It was a remarkable experience.”

The task force spent months defining the basic principles, and designing comprehensive checklists that could be used by processors, designers and architects to communicate about critical food safety issues and where these need to be addressed in the design or retrofit of a facility for enhanced sanitation and food safety. In September 2004, the AMI 11 Principles of Sanitary Facility Design were unveiled at an AMI Foundation-sponsored workshop, signalling the success of the task force’s mission to define principles for facility design that will result in improved sanitation and food safety in the food processing environment. The list has the potential to radically reduce the most common food safety hazards currently faced by sanitation personnel.

“Key to the principles,” Seward says, “is that they establish a point of discussion between the company in need of the facility and the design/architect firms in charge of the design and construction of the facility. It gives them a forum for their decision-making processes and provides a rationale for certain design decisions.”

The task force also created a 107-point questionnaire that designers, contractors and processors can use during their planning stages as an auditing tool to assess a blueprint for food safety design standards—before they begin construction. “Whether you are building a new plant or retrofitting an existing one, the questionnaire helps you assess potential hazards,” Seward says, “and it helps corporate management understand what areas of the plant need attention.”

Things Will Get Hot in Land O’Frost
Butts and Bill Marion, vice president of operations with Land O’Frost, were given the responsibility to identify what needed to be included in the plans to ensure the highest level of food safety and Carter & Burgess, the design/architect firm for the project, was instrumental in helping them make sound design choices. “Every discussion we had regarding the facility plans centered on sanitary design concepts,” says John Schook, manager of the food and beverage group for Carter & Burgess, which was one of the first architectural firms to join the sanitary facility design task force. “Our goals were simple: it should be dry, clean and cold.”

Elemental to achieving those goals was the need to control air and condensation; to keep the space free of extra equipment and materials where bacteria could take hold; to eliminate nooks and crannies; and to avoid L-shaped rooms where dead air gets trapped.

From the outset the designers paid particular attention to creating an environment in which they could control moisture. “Microorganisms transfer more easily on wet floors than dry floors, so we put a tremendous amount of thought and effort into managing moisture,” says Matt Henderson, Land O’Frost’s food safety manager for the new plant.

The solution involves adding large critical air handling units in high-risk areas of the plant where exposed product will be handled, sliced and packaged. The air handling units control humidity and will dry the facility after every daily sanitation process is complete.

When the facility shifts into clean-up mode, the air handling units will automatically switch from their normal mode, using burners to rapidly heat fresh air and push it into the rooms while removing the moisture from the room and exhausting it through the roof. The room temperature will rise during the sanitation cycle and stay at the target temperature until water is no longer needed in the sanitation process. “It would be a fog bank in there without these units heating the air,” Henderson says. “How can you clean what you can’t see?”

Before the end of the cleaning shift, the air handling units will switch modes again, using cooling coils to condense out the remaining moisture and push cool dry air into the plant, dropping the temperature back to normal within 20 minutes.

Sleek Design Controls Risks
Along with moisture control, the new Land O’Frost plant will incorporate many specific design strategies that resulted from the 11 principles. Some of them were simple material decisions, such as eliminating in-process wooden pallets for raw materials, while others had to do with the layout of the facility, Schook says. Key to the design is to keep traffic of any kind—people, power, water and ingredients—away from the high-risk processing spaces where product is open and exposed. “There will be absolute separation between raw and RTE products, and there will be no flow-through areas.”

To do this, Land O’Frost selected a linear flow design, which will result in a long, lean facility, with shipping at one end and receiving at the other. “We looked at the cost, food safety issues, expandability needs, and product and people flow and determined that a linear design made the most sense,” Schook says. Using a linear configuration will allow for future expansions to the left or right, and the administration and utility plant will be placed in the middle of the facility. “It’s a simple flow. Nothing doubles back.”

All raw material brought into the facility will travel in identified paths outside of the processing space to eliminate the chance for cross contamination. In the corridors, associates will move from left to right through the plant, also without moving through the processing spaces. Utility corridors will be located above double ceilings that are accessed from above, and pipes and wires will be dropped vertically into the processing areas, minimizing their exposure in processing areas. If the wiring conduits pass cold to warm, they will be wrapped with insulation to prevent temperature variances and sealed with seal-offs at the wall. “Cleanliness is enhanced by designing the interstitial space above the process area ceilings to be used for utility routing,” explains Steve Mitchell, design project manager with Carter & Burgess.

Adds Schook, “It’s a sleek design that will be easy to clean.” That sleek, clean feel will permeate the facility through the intentional reduction of any superfluous materials, equipment or detailing that could create harborages for bacteria. All rooms will be simple square designs, with good air flow and controlled access points to avoid inappropriate traffic by unauthorized personnel. The processing areas will have independent stainless-steel drains to avoid potentially harmful backups from the raw material side; the ceilings will be smooth, continuous, sealed, cleanable surfaces; and the HVAC units will be installed on the roof, eliminating potential sources of moisture and harborage niches.

There will be built-in sanitation rooms where hoses and chemicals will be stored out of sight, and built-in equipment rooms will store spare parts not currently in use in the processing rooms. “The only thing in the processing area will be the vats of raw material and the equipment that is being used,” Schook says. “All other ancillary materials will be out of there.”

The walls will be built with thermal breaks using a curb design at the base with 4-inch thick insulated metal skin wall panels on top to maintain temperature and condensation control between rooms with dramatically different temperatures. Metal wall panels were chosen over fiberglass because fiberglass buckles during temperature changes, creating voids that could harbor bacteria, says Bob Hunt, A&E project principal for The Haskell Company, the design/build firm doing the construction for the Land O’Frost project, adding that the stainless steel panels used in critical areas are durable enough to stand up to the extreme temperature fluctuations.

Conundrums Require Common Sense
By approaching the facility design with food safety in mind, many of the choices were decided using a commonsense approach. However, other food safety issues arose that were unexpected and not as easy to solve, requiring designers to search for solutions that were both efficient and cost-effective.

For example, along with standing up to temperature changes, the wall surfaces in the processing areas need to be coated with extraordinarily durable paint that can stand up to extreme daily abuse. “That took some research to find,” admits Hunt, adding that the surfaces have to endure all of the cleaning and sanitizing chemicals used in the plant, withstand the extreme heat and radical temperature changes that will occur during cleaning, and not chip or break if they are knocked by heavy equipment. “Epoxy paint flakes and stainless steel was cost-prohibitive,” he says.

To find a solution, Hunt took a list of all the chemical agents to be used in the facility to every panel and paint manufacturer looking for suggestions. He found only two coatings that met his criteria and determined that siliconized polyester paint was the best solution. “It’s more durable. It can withstand all the chemicals used and it won’t chip or flake.” The paint will be used in all of the new Land O’Frost facility’s processing rooms and will be applied under controlled conditions before the panels are erected.

Hunt has not been as fortunate in his search to find doors for the processing spaces that meet the sanitary design criteria. They have to be cleanable and sanitizable without any harborages. The motors have to be washable without short-circuiting and they can’t have any wooden parts. “Doors with pull cords are convenient but we never considered them from a sanitization perspective,” Hunt says. And throwing a hood over the door parts when you clean is not a satisfactory solution.

Hunt went to the door manufacturers and asked them how they could get rid of all the nooks and crannies to make the doors and their attachments cleanable to a microbial level. He is still working with several potential vendors to find the best design that meets both the AMI sanitary design criteria and Land O’Frost’s budget goals.

Auditing for Assurance
Even though the entire design phase centered on creating a facility with minimal food safety issues, the Land O’Frost building design team knew there would be issues they missed. So, in December of 2004, once the initial blueprints for the facility were completed, the Land O’Frost team met with the design architects and contract builders to go through the 107-question audit process for each of the 20-room groupings in the raw and RTE sides of the plant. “The use of the audit questions helped drive and keep on course the sanitary design of the facility,” Butts says. “It made us take a hard at our blueprints to assess our food safety.”

Through that process, they identified a number of design elements that presented potential food safety hazards they might never otherwise have noticed. For example, they discovered that a common wall design, used for years for visual effect, would actually create a major food safety risk, Hunt points out. In a typical metal trim wall design, the trim angles are shiplapped—laid one partially over the next instead of butting edge to edge, he says. To hide the layering, the lapping is usually done in a cascade from ceiling to floor, but that creates ledges where dust and bacteria can land.

Fortunately, Hunt says, the problem was easy to solve. They reversed the detail, layering the angles bottom to top, eliminating the ledges, so that anything that lands on the walls will naturally roll down. “The audit forced us to look deeply into our design and we got rid of a problem that didn’t fit our sanitation program,” he says.

Canopies over employee walkways and doorways also presented unexpected food safety challenges, Hunt says. “The louver ledges, with their nooks and crannies, give birds and rodents a place to settle and nest, creating contaminated debris that can fall onto personnel or get stuck to their shoes as they pass by.” To solve the problem, they eliminated the canopies over the walkways and created a curved glass canopy with a solid steel edge for the main entrances. Because there are no flat ledges or crevices, it discourages birds and rodents from settling on them, which reduces the collection of harmful detritus. “The great thing about this audit process is that we were able to ward off these problems ahead of time instead of trying to fix them later on,” Hunt says.

“Some of these design elements are more expensive, but we asked more questions in many areas and raised the bar on many design standards,” Butts adds. “Food safety is built into everything we do, and we expect these efforts to result in a safer product.”
“This facility will be the testing ground for the AMI Sanitary Facility Design Principles,” he says. “The proof will come in a number of years when we can compare this facility to existing facilities and see evidence that through our designs we were able to prevent many common food safety problems.”

For now, the Land O’Frost team will focus on the step-by-step task of making its vision of sanitary facility design a concrete reality.

Sarah Fister Gale is associate editor of Food Safety Magazine.