Humidity Monitoring in Food Manufacturing
How humidity affects perishables and frozen foods, and what food manufacturers can do to manage it.
Humidity is the amount of moisture present within a given environment, and it negatively contributes to the longevity and safety of perishable and frozen food. Humidity presents specific challenges to food manufacturing, including:
- High variability based on product and transport conditions
Perishable goods require different environments for different items. In general, fruits and meats prefer drier climates, while vegetables prefer more humid environments. Food manufacturers aim to provide consistent environmental conditions, but unsealed entryways, ice-buildup on equipment, and varying production temperatures create challenges maintaining uniform humidity levels.
- Quality assurance and product loss
Fungi and bacteria thrive in humid conditions, creating opportunities for quality assurance incidents and product loss.
- Freezer energy consumption
Humidity drives ice build-up in equipment, increasing energy costs through excess defrosting cycles.
This article will dive deeper into how humidity management affects both perishable and frozen foods and how humidity monitoring equipment can help food manufacturers manage their facilities.
How does humidity affect perishables?
Poor humidity management affects perishables by encouraging the growth of fungi and bacteria. Fungi appear like mold growing on groceries, and when operators notice fungal growth, the contaminated product is thrown away.
Another way humidity affects perishables is through bacterial growth. Bacteria is invisible to the eye, so manufacturers perform microbiological testing on their products. However, manufacturers rely on samples to perform these tests. Sampling is an effective method to ensure food safety, but given the manufacturing scale, there is always the risk that contaminated products may go unnoticed.
One particular bacteria, Salmonella, thrives in food stored in humidity intensive environments. Salmonella is one of the leading causes of foodborne illness in the United States, causing 1.35 million infections every year. The repercussions of a Salmonella outbreak are expensive, with the average recall costing about $10 million. While QA checks won’t always reveal Salmonella’s presence, monitoring storage for conditions that increase its likelihood allows manufacturers to re-inspect potentially spoiled items before it’s too late.
How does humidity affect frozen foods?
Humidity also affects frozen food quality and facilities. Product quality is affected when an excess of moisture is present in processing. At warmer temperatures, food is more porous and absorbs moisture. When the product falls below the freezing point, ice crystals form from the absorbed moisture, negatively affecting products’ taste and texture. Ultimately, customers can taste how humidity affects frozen food. “It tends to be on the chewy or tough side” said Bob Schrader, a consultant for food humidity solution, MicroGold.
Poor humidity management causes various challenges in frozen facilities, such as ice build-ups on equipment. To combat ice build-up, operators rely on freezer defrost cycles, which generate power surges that drive up electricity costs. The chart below illustrates the occurrence of defrosting cycles over 24 hours from a Therma customer in food manufacturing:
To verify optimal storage conditions, food manufacturing staff should perform environmental checks every hour. However, traditional thermometers don’t always give accurate readings, and staff can’t monitor facilities after-hours. Therma’s humidity monitoring equipment provides automated, NIST certified reporting and alerts for cold storage conditions. Our customers, such as NOW Foods, use Therma’s humidity monitoring equipment in the following ways:
- Therma’s alert system prompts staff to perform thorough area inspections when environmental conditions start to vary, allowing them to identify factors like moist air seeping through doors and other entryways.
- A spike in humidity often indicates cooler breakdown. When this happens, Therma’s alerts allow staff to relocate inventory to alternate storage areas. Additionally, these alerts provide insights into whether inventory was stored in conditions that promoted bacterial growth. In this situation, further microbiological testing can be performed before manufacturers distribute spoiled food.
- With Therma’s automated humidity reports from freezers, operators can decrease the frequency of energy-intensive defrost cycles.
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