LAS VEGAS — Designing a food processing, packing or production facility with food safety in mind can be both complex and expensive.

At least, that’s what a group of executives and engineers from a Sioux Falls, Iowa builder had to say during a seminar the second morning of the 2009 Pack Expo Oct. 6 at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Three executives from Gleeson Constructors & Engineers LLC, which touts itself as the fourth-largest builder of facilities in the food industry, described and discussed critical issues relating to the 11 principles of sanitary design of food facilities as posited by the American Meat Institute. They involved issues involved with the movement of water through and away from the facility, to the movement and separation of personnel, to what kind of windows and lighting were best for keeping the food inside the facility sanitary and safe.

Harlan VandeZandschulp, president of Gleeson, said his company builds on average 7-10 food facilities per year at a cost between $2 and $20 million. Advance Foods, Enid, Okla., and ConAgra Refrigerated Foods, Quincy, Mich., are just two clients.

VandeZandschulp said companies should get out in front of food safety facility issues before they’re ultimately forced to.

“The government is not going to keep letting people get sick from lettuce and spinach,” he said. “Tighter regulations are coming.”

About 30% of food safety problems occur during maintenance of the facility, VandeZandschulp said, which goes a long way toward justifying principles Nos. 1 and 2 on the AMI list.

Principle 1: Maintain district hygienic zones. Basically, Ron Rens, executive vice president at Gleeson, said, maintaining physical separations is critical in reducing the likelihood of transfer of hazardous organisms. That means separate entrances for employees working in the plant and office employees, separate locker rooms, break rooms and the like.

Principle 2: Personnel and material flows controlled to reduce hazards. Again, control movement.

“By controlling what and who enters food space can greatly enhance food safety,” Rens said.

Other principles involved the flow of water away from the edges of a facility with proper draining, maintaining the right types of floors, and making sure that no water pools or accumulates, drawing pests or insects into the facility. Room temperature and humidity control was another key to food safety, along with airflow and air quality.

“The dryer the room, the less bacteria grows,” VandeZandschulp said.

Another issue many facility owners might not think about, said Gleeson vice president James Black, is keeping trees from growing in proximity to a building. They attract birds, he said, which leaves behind waste.

Windows should not be contructed with glass (“They can break and don’t keep a facility sealed properly,” VandeZandschulp said) and all windows, doors, utility piping, joints, anything leading to the outside, should be fully sealed.

“Wherever you see light is a place where insects can come in,” Rens said.

Principle 8: Interior space design promotes sanitation.

“You should provide space for cleaning and maintenance,” Black said. “The recommended ceiling height is 18 feet.”

The Gleeson executives also recommended stainless steel or coated steel be used as much as possible to prevent rust.

Principle 11: Sanitation integrated into facility design. This basically tops off all the previous steps in Gleeson’s design scheme – the integration of proper hot water sanitation systems, hose stations, automated boot-wash systems and keeping hazards to a minimum.

“Food safety is the most important thing to look at these days,” VandeZandschulp said. “It helps the shelf life of food and keeps regulators from hounding you.

“Construction was down this past year, but I think food safety issues are so important that it will lead the industry through tough times in the future.”

Engineers discuss building design for food safety at Pack Expo