Gates Mectrol's international sales manager Agustin Loya discusses the effect of a conveyor belt on sanitary levels at meat processing plants, in the lead-up to Foodpro 2017.

I have spent all 39 years of my professional life around conveyor belts, first as a user in a can plant for the food industry, and then as a supplier of conveyor belts, in all types and materials, mainly in the meat processing segment.

I have seen the increasing importance of its effect on sanitation levels, from being a requirement in writing 30 years ago that few processors respected, to becoming a real requirement these days, impacting productivity and profit margins; therefore, becoming an important issue during the design and construction of food processing plants.

Since meat processes present the greatest sanitation challenges due to handling high protein products, an ideal substratum for exponential growth of bacteria in between sanitation, the selection of conveyor belts, which the product has contact with for 90 per cent of the processing time, passing from one machine to another, is a critical decision that will affect the results of the plant.

However, few users recognise this impact, devoting all their time to the selection of the main equipment, obviously for its cost and importance in the process, and relegating the selection of the conveyors to manufacturers of belt conveyors to connect this equipment, trying to achieve a sanitary design, but with an emphasis on low costs.

In the same way that times have changed in demands for sanitary levels, also the technology has changed in conveyor belts. Thirty years ago the "sanitary" belts prevailed, typically flat belts with fabric at the bottom and PVC or nitrile at the top.

These belts presented sanitation challenges due to being easily contaminated and frayed, contaminating the product.

They also had operating problems due to working under tension, suffering elongation and misalignment, and resulting in frequent shutdowns for repairs that became production downtime.

The perception was that they were easily cleaned due to its totally closed construction, although in fact the fabric became a shelter for bacteria and other pollutants.

The decade of the seventies witnessed the arrival of modular plastic belts, which became very popular due to positive traction, which does not require tensioning, and being easy to install and repair.

The use of high-performance polymers, as well as a variety of models, surfaces, colours, etc., contributed to this growing popularity, becoming the main choice of belt conveyor manufacturers and users, despite the difficulty in achieving acceptable sanitary levels due to the recesses and niches resulting from its modular construction.

In other words, the sanitary requirements were sacrificed for ease of use, until the current times arrived where it is recognized that this technology can’t achieve the high sanitary levels required in most food processes, even with excessive use of water, time and chemicals, especially in meat products from export.

The 21st century marked the arrival of a new technology that combined the positive traction of a modular plastic belt, with the ease of cleaning a flat belt; In other words, the best of both worlds.

This technology used polyurethane as a base material, but included traction teeth similar to those of the modular plastic belt, both in pitch (distance between teeth) and trapezoidal design, to facilitate the replacement of modular plastic belts, since they were used the same metal structures with minor changes.

This technology addressed the sanitation challenge, but created mechanical problems due to suffering elongation resulting from product weight and conveyor length.

This led to frequent belt trimming and repairs, forcing users to buy thermal bonding equipment, or pay for these repairs.

These shortcomings in the initial technology of positive traction urethane bands created a need for a more robust, still sanitary, but mechanically more reliable product: a second generation urethane belt produced by Gates Mectrol, using our extensive timing belt experience in co-extruding urethane with embedded aramid cords, still positively-driven and
with stronger teeth for better torque transmission, but one that does not suffer elongation over time and is capable of higher product loads and longer conveyors. These internal cords, in addition to increasing the tensile strength, impart a better stability across the width, eliminating the wavy edges suffered by other belts without reinforcements.

We do not know what destiny will hold for conveyor belts used in high-sanitation environments.

What we do know is that users will continue to demand increasingly sanitary solutions, but also mechanically reliable.

Gates Mectrol will be ready to answer with cutting-edge technology like the one used in our current food-grade conveyor belts.

Its subsidiary, Gates Australia, will be on hand at Stand A57 to discuss such new developments as its Poly Chain GT Carbon belts, at Foodpro.

To find out more about Gates Australia’s range of food grade belting, click here.

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