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Designing a Pet Food Plant, From Tip to Tail

Nov. 10, 2022
Fido and Fuzzy's kibble calls for special building specs.

Doggie spas. Crystal collars. Dedicated pet bakeries. Canine-only cable channels. It’s no secret that Americans love their pets. So much so that in 2020, pet industry sales exceeded $100 billion for the first time ever, according to the American Pet Products Association (APPA) 2020 State of the Industry Report. All of that love and pampering is only expected to continue in the near future, with Morgan Stanley forecasting that pet industry spending will nearly triple to $275 billion by 2030.

A substantial amount of those consumer dollars will go toward pet food—wet, dry and freeze-dried. The manufacturing process for pet food in the United States is held to a similar standard as human-food production processes. The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for verifying that pet food is manufactured in sanitary conditions, free from harmful substances and truthfully labeled. The FDA must also approve any additives such as vitamins or flavoring, and will not allow any ingredients that could pose a health risk to pets. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stipulates that organic dog food must adhere to the same certification process as organic human food.

To ensure that safety and quality are prioritized—not only for pets, but also for people (like young children with a proclivity for dipping their hands into the ceramic doggie-food bowl)—there are five key provisions for designing a pet food manufacturing facility:

1. Separate Areas for Changing and Hygiene. As plant workers can transfer foreign materials and microorganisms like listeria and salmonella into a facility that can cause contamination, incorporating a hygiene room into the design for employees to change into personal protective gear and wash their hands before entering the production area is a vital step in achieving successful pet food safety and quality assurance. If employees leave the production area, they cannot re-enter without repeating this hygiene procedure.

To prevent employees from accidently walking into the production area, hygiene rooms often include a long bench that serves as an added barrier, extending along the wall. This safety feature allows workers to remove their street shoes on one side of the bench and then swing around to slip into their plant shoes on the opposite side.

2.  Easy-to-Clean Production Spaces/Materials. Although the perfect space for cleanability would be the inside of a Teflon-coated sphere, that is obviously not practical. Instead, strive for spaces free of corners, sharp edges and gaps, while facilitating easy access for thorough cleaning, washing and drying. Small, dark spaces tend to stay wet and dark and create the perfect breeding ground for mold, fungus and bacteria.

For ease of cleanliness, smooth floors are ideal, but they can create a slip hazard when wet and soapy. In a recent project, we used a seamless urethane floor with a silicate texture that was broadcast into the finish. It not only provided sufficient traction for slip resistance but also allowed for efficient cleaning. Additionally, an integral cove base continues the floor material up the wall several inches to create rounded-out corners and provides a seal between the walls and the floor. Minimized texture and smooth walls with minimum grout lines/control joints, which create an intentional break in the material that allows for small expansion and contraction movement, also promote cleanability.

Cleaning in production areas usually involves acidic and basic chemicals as well as high-pressured hot water. As the chemicals and thermal shock require the materials used for the walls, floors, ceiling, joints, sinks, etc., to be heavy duty and chemical-resistant, selecting materials requires careful thought and, ideally, coordinating with the chemist who works for the materials company.

Even outside of production rooms, it’s important to minimize horizontal surfaces to aid in cleaning procedures. Girts, beams, columns, kickers, tops of walls, etc., must be detailed to have rounded corners and as few horizontal surfaces as possible, so that dirt, dust and food particles fall off the surfaces and onto the floor where they can be more easily cleaned. Different shapes of material—such as tube steel versus wide-flange steel—can make a considerable difference. Tube steel is preferable since it has all outside corners with fewer surfaces that hold particles, making it much easier to clean than wide-flange steel, which features all inside corners.

3.  Separation of Raw and Finished Products. The raw ingredients for wet dog food, once processed, must be immediately placed in the freezer to reduce the risk of microorganisms. (Dry dog food relies more on the cooking process to eliminate microbes.)

Once raw food is cooked to a certain temperature, it is in a final product state that cannot “recontact” uncooked raw food. The equipment for the raw food and the equipment for the finished product must be maintained in two different rooms (or zones). A physical barrier, such as walls at the midpoint of the cooking equipment, should be designed to further prevent cross-contamination. Often, the design will incorporate floor levels between the raw and final areas that intentionally don’t align to prevent workers from accidently crossing over into the wrong zone and risking cross-contamination. Doors with access control can also help limit personnel flow, with added alarms for emergency access.

Through to the final packaging, hypoallergenic pet food lines must be housed in separate rooms with separate staff to prevent potential contact with allergens. If the company produces more than one hypoallergenic product, the line must be thoroughly cleaned between production of the different products.

4. Proper Storage of Ingredients and Chemicals. To ensure the safety of the building and its inhabitants, it’s important to conduct a hazardous materials analysis according to building and fire codes. Once all the materials information is determined, it can then be classified according to its International Building Code (IBC) classification (e.g., if a chemical is combustible, explosive, flammable, toxic, etc.).

Based on IBC classification, the fire code will specify whether different chemicals can be stored next to each other; how much can be stored in a controlled area; how many controlled areas are needed to hold the owner’s full quantity; or whether the areas with these chemicals will have to be classified as a hazardous occupancy—which could require specific fire detection, sprinkler systems, alarms and fire separations by hours and distance.

In most situations, there is a way to store all of the owner’s requested materials within the same building—sometimes you just have to be creative in terms of how and where to store it. It’s important to note, however, that the facility may require fire barriers or fire walls, special fire-suppression systems/ventilation, or even protected electrical equipment. Combustible dust must also be taken into consideration with the potential need for explosion venting. As all of these items will add to the cost of the building, owners often decide to store materials (not in active use) outdoors or in a separate building on the same site. 

5. Flexibility. When designing the building, keep in mind that products manufactured in the facility may change in the future. So, consider how walls, exit paths and chemical storage rooms are designed to allow flexibility. Use material that can be removed or moved at a later date, such as IMP (insulated metal panel) over CMU (concrete masonry unit) walls.

We often use IMP for interior room walls and ceilings since they are easily removed and reconfigured. If future openings are anticipated, coordinate structures such as rebar in CMU walls to allow for their installation. Giving more plenum space than currently needed can allow for new technology or utilities to be added in the future. Extra clearance above all overhead doors and equipment will allow them to be changed if necessary.

Ultimately, a team experienced in food manufacturing and processing facility design can help deliver a safe, efficient and cost-effective pet food manufacturing facility that produces the high-quality products that pet owners are increasingly seeking for their beloved four-legged family members.

 Poppy Hill, AIA, is an architect at Gresham Smith.

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