Avoiding product contamination is a cardinal rule of a food processing plant, but when the drastic temperature variations inherent in food processing operations lead to humidity levels upwards of 60% and the essential processes and equipment used for cleaning and sanitizing add to the problem, multi-surface condensation is unavoidable. Condensation can provide conditions that are conducive to the growth and formation of pathogens such as salmonella and listeria. Staying on top of the problem is a challenge but the real issue is that many of the surfaces affected are not subject to the same sanitation protocols as those that are in contact with food. One such surface is the ceiling.
Condensation that drips from the ceiling of a food processing plant is a very real threat to exposed product. Droplets that fall may be indistinguishable from the humidity that is already present in the plant and they can contaminate exposed food, food surfaces and processing equipment.
Not all condensation is problematic
Condensation may be prevalent in a food processing environment, but not all areas of condensation actually pose a risk to the finished product. For unprocessed food items, the risk varies according to where in the process the contamination occurs. If potential pathogen carrying droplets land on food that is not set to undergo any type of subsequent treatment (ex. cooking) that would render it unsafe for consumption, the item would need to be discarded.
But if condensation forms above an area containing canned goods in packed boxes or boxed foods wrapped in plastic; it is less of a concern because the product is sufficiently protected. Also acceptable is the condensation that forms when placing warm food in the cooked food cooler and steam dissipates before it has time to create moisture on the ceiling. Condensation that drips from pipes located at the back walls of the processing area also poses no threat, as long as the drops land on the floor, away from food, and, are not transported to a food contact area by employees or equipment. Other acceptable sources of condensation are the moisture that forms on the underside of stainless steel lids during cooking, and the condensation at the exit of cooling or freezing tunnels (assuming you are not transporting exposed product). Condensation collected from refrigeration and air conditioning equipment and discharged through a drain is also safe.
Ways to reduce condensation
Whether or not the condensation is avoidable, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recommends the following measures to minimize condensation and protect your product: Protect open food using covers. Move exposed food to a safe area. Set up drip pans; but be careful when moving them. Insulate cold surfaces and, if possible, try to improve the airflow and ventilation in your plant. Relocate wet equipment. Try sponging off surfaces where condensation gathers. Redirect employees or change the process flow of food or equipment. Lastly, do what you can to improve your sanitation procedures.