Energy Efficiency Cooks up Savings and More for Food Processing Industry

The United States is the world’s breadbasket…not to mention its fruit bowl, vegetable bin and pantry. Countries around the globe rely on the US for everything from meat and dairy products to grains, fruits and vegetables. Nowhere is this breadbasket title more fitting than in California, the fifth-largest supplier of food products in the world and home to more than 400 different types of crops. California is also a leading dairy producer and the nation’s largest source of grapes for table grapes, raisins and wine. In fact, only Italy, Spain and France produce more wine than the state of California.

But all that growing, processing, packaging and shipping consumes an enormous amount of energy. A Natural Resources Defense Council study estimates that getting food from farm to table accounts for 10% of the nation’s energy budget. In fact, the entire country of Mexico could be powered by the energy America uses to produce and transport its food. The supply chain for food is a long one, going from farm to processing plant to distribution center to supermarket before reaching the kitchen table. Each step along the way uses different forms of energy for different purposes. Rather than trying to tackle it all, we’ll focus on one link in that supply chain: Food processing.

Food processing refers to businesses that take raw ingredients and turn them into finished food products. These businesses may take beef, pork and spices and transform them into hot dogs or mix cream, sugar and chocolate chips to create ice cream. Food processing takes up a significant share of the energy used in the food system, accounting for 16% of total amount of energy consumed in bringing food from farm to table.

Due to the wide variety of food processing businesses in this country and the vast array of energy-consuming machinery they use, it’s virtually impossible to talk about a “typical” food processor. The company that produces hot dogs is going to have far different energy needs than the one that churns out ice cream. But one fact is certain: A discussion about energy in the food processing industry is not the same as a discussion about energy for offices, schools or retail stores. That’s because the energy used by food processing businesses not only provides lighting, heating and air conditioning for their buildings but protects the health and safety of the public by ensuring that precise temperature controls are maintained for refrigeration, freezing and cooking. The difference of a few degrees either way could potentially result in exposing consumers to food-borne illnesses. The challenge for food processing businesses, then, is to identify ways of reducing their energy consumption without compromising the operation of equipment that keeps our food products safe.

Since food processing businesses are so different from each other, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to energy efficiency in this industry. Each business requires a customized approach to energy efficiency based on the type of equipment they use and the processes they follow to transform raw ingredients into finished products. The first step in this approach is a comprehensive energy assessment to identify the energy savings opportunities for the types of equipment and operations that may be unique to that individual business.

An ASHRAE Level II energy assessment offers the business owner a detailed energy analysis and building survey. But while a standard Level II assessment looks at insulation, ventilation, lighting, and machinery, an assessment performed at a food processing plant must also include refrigeration and freezing equipment, ovens, processing lines and the hot, cool, moist, and dry zones that food production often creates throughout the entire facility.

A certified energy assessor will begin the project by sitting down with the business owner and operations staff to fully understand the business’ functions, operations and procedures. The assessor will then examine all the energy-consuming equipment in the facility, noting the age, size, condition, type of technology and operating characteristics of each piece of machinery. The assessor will measure lighting levels inside and outside the building as well as temperature, humidity, airflow and air quality levels throughout the facility. These not only affect the performance of energy equipment but also impact the health, safety and comfort of employees.

When it comes to lighting, food processing plants that upgrade to LEDs benefit in several ways. First, of course, are the savings in energy costs produced LEDs, which use 75% less energy than incandescent lighting and 30% less than fluorescents. LEDs also save money because of their longer life, lasting up to 25 times longer than incandescents and three times longer than fluorescents, reducing expenses for replacement fixtures and the labor associated with installing them. But importantly for food processors, LEDs can help them meet lighting standards set by government organizations like the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and NSF International, an independent organization that develops food safety standards. For example, the USDA requires a Color Rendering Index, or CRI, of 70 in food processing areas and 85 in food inspection areas. CRI measures the ability of a lighting source to truly reveal the colors of the items they’re illuminating as compared with natural daylight. On the CRI scale of 1-100, LEDs generally fall into the 80-95 range while basic fluorescent lighting comes in at around 50, although more advanced forms of fluorescents will get higher scores. Since precise color is an important factor in assessing the quality of a food product (like whether red meat is truly red) LEDs are superior when it comes to color accuracy.

The same idea of installing energy efficiency measures that combine the dual benefits of energy cost savings with improved food safety also applies to refrigeration. Refrigeration can account for as much as 70% of the energy used in food processing plants, especially those that produce meat products. With employees constantly opening and closing refrigerating units or entering and leaving refrigerated storage areas, maintaining proper temperature and humidity levels can be challenging. Energy savings can be achieved by making sure the doors on refrigerating and freezing units are tightly sealed to prevent warm, moist air from leaking into the units, increasing their energy use and possibly leading to food spoilage. Door gaskets and automatic door closers should be checked regularly and repaired or replaced if they’re damaged or worn. Low-cost plastic curtain strips can be an inexpensive energy efficiency measure for walk-in refrigerators. Installing them behind the walk-in’s door lowers the amount of cooled air lost when employees walk in and out.

Some of the benefits of energy efficiency in food processing facilities may be less quantifiable than those noted above but are also important. For instance, many large corporations have adopted sustainability strategies that make them more appealing to environmentally-conscious investors and position themselves as good corporate citizens. According to a study by Nielsen, 66% of consumers said they are willing to spend more on products from companies that they consider environmentally conscious – a number that rises to 73% among millennials.

Energy efficiency makes sense on many levels, but for businesses in the food processing industry, it can do so much more than just reduce operating costs – it can literally be a lifesaver.