Food Industry: High Risks, few Precautions

The high concentration of resources for the production process and the resulting stock means that the risk of fire damage in the food industry has risen sharply. Protective measures that have long been common in other sectors thus also need to become standard in the production of food and beverages.

FeuerTrutz International 1-2019: Food Industry - High Risks, few Precautions
Fig. 1: Water mist system in test operation: The finely distributed droplets deliver the maximum cooling effect. They even make it possible to bring dangerous grease fires under control. (Photograph: Johnson Controls)

By Olaf Schilloks. The statistics for fire damage in the European food industry showed an unprecedented rise of almost 100% in 2013 and 2014 to €1.1 billion [1], although the number of cases of damage declined. This trend towards major damage has also continued in the subsequent years up to the present day. Such damage can quickly threaten the very existence of many companies because it is in no way certain that business operations can continue again after a fire.

In particular, indirect damages, such as ruined customer relationships, which are not usually possible to insure mean that 43% of companies affected by a fire are unable to start up business again [2]. The fact that a major fire can even happen in the food industry appears unlikely to many at first glance. Most argue that these involve primarily wet operations, the overall fire loads are low and there has been no damage due to fire at this location for decades.

Indeed, the statistics indicate that there has not been any particular rise in the cases of major damage above the half million euro mark in the last few years. According to data from the German Insurance Association and calculations made by the Association of German Property Insurance Companies, there was a relatively constant number of cases below 25 per year from 1985 to 2015.

The amount of damages is rising rapidly

The bad news: The amount of damages per year is always subject to extreme variation – and already reached nearly the €400 million mark in 2015. The situation doesn‘t look much better internationally: The Association of German Property Insurance Companies uses an internal database to evaluate all cases of fire damage of more than €1 million. They considered incidents in, amongst other places, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Scandinavia, Great Britain and Spain. There were a total of 427 cases of damage with a total volume of €8.2 billion in the period from 2001 to 2016. If a fire does break out in the food industry, it can prove very expensive. The highest amount of damages recorded in these negative statistics was a colossal €313 million. Due to the huge fluctuations, the arithmetic mean of €20 million says little about the risk in an individual case. If we analyse the market situation, the causes of these high damages quickly become clear. As is the case in most sectors, the food industry faces considerable cost and competitive pressures. This has resulted in ever greater concentration of production in increasingly larger operations.

Fire loads – higher than assumed

The fact that meat and fat can burn very well under certain circumstances is well known. Anyone who has witnessed the impressive flames that can shoot up from a small chip pan can also easily appreciate what happens when a production line for fried goods – containing more than 1,000 litres of grease – overheats. The problem is compounded by substances such as flour, which can cause violent dust explosions under unfavourable conditions, and other powdery foodstuffs with their large surface areas. Large, easily flammable fire loads are also formed by the increasing amount of packaging materials that are stored and processed, e.g. PET for drinks bottles or PP, EPS and PE for packaging trays and films. Different types of plastic can also be found in the wall claddings and insulation. These materials emit large volumes of smoke so that even small fires can contaminate large areas. And it can even get hot in deep-freeze warehouses if auxiliary materials or packaging ignites.

Causes of fire – the usual suspects

Traditional culprits such as short circuits and overheating are also the main causes of fire in industrial food production.

In addition, there are specific causes such as sparks being generated by foreign metal objects in grinders. Careless maintenance work hugely increases the risk of fire. This is because many powdery foods tend to be spread and deposited on conveyor belts and ventilation systems and thus increase the danger of a dust explosion. Grease vapours also condense in extraction systems. Dangerous fire loads thus accumulate in an uncontrolled manner and even small ignition sources are sufficient to cause a major fire under certain circumstances. Large fire compartments and openings for conveyor technology in fire screens are necessary for operational reasons but also help to spread the fire.

Extinguishing systems – insufficient or not even installed

However, the fact that incipient fires in the food industry can often quickly spread unnoticed is not just due to structural deficits. A survey conducted by the company VdS Schadenverhütung GmbH, Cologne, and the German Insurance Association, Berlin, in 2014 resulted in alarming findings. 17,000 operators across various sectors of the industry were examined. The survey showed that, depending on the type of business, 70 to 90% of factories did not even have a fire detection system, while 98% had not installed a fire extinguishing system. Of the few systems that were found, 79% of them also proved to be ineffective or undersized [3].

Prevent and detect

Food Industry - High Risks, few Precautions
Fig. 2: A large production line in the food processing industry: The stainless steel surfaces of a new system should not distract from the fire risk that exists due to large amounts of hot grease or flammable deposits. (Photograph: Johnson Controls)

The fire risk can be reduced by e.g. rigorous maintenance and cleaning. Organic residues must be removed from plants as quickly as possible. This makes it significantly easier to restrict a fire and avoid a dangerous build-up of heat. Improvised repairs using thick insulating tape increase the risk of fire and of the system breaking down. In contrast, perfectly functioning thermostats, especially on production lines for fried or roasted goods, make an active contribution to fire protection. In this context, the maintenance staff are the ones responsible for safety. The food processing industry has also experienced the trend towards automation and thus unmanned factories.

For this reason, it often takes too far long before an incipient fire is discovered. An automatic fire detection system should thus go without saying. Modern fire detectors work according to the multiple-criteria principle: They detect e.g. visible smoke as well as other types of combustion gases and heat.

In the difficult environment of thermal food processing, fusible links act as a safe and tried-and-tested detection device. It also makes sense to connect the detection system directly to the fire brigade in many cases. However, even if the fire brigade are informed immediately: A minimum of 20 minutes from the fire breaking out until extinguishing starts should be expected as there are only very few companies in the food industry with their own fire brigades.

Combustion gases can spread during this time and result in the best case in large-scale contamination of the production hall. The most important first line of defence against an incipient fire in the food industry is therefore to install mobile and stationary extinguishing systems on-site.

Fire extinguishers – immediately retrofittable

Experience has shown that up to 80% of all incipient fires can be contained with mobile fire extinguishers – if the right model is available to use in the right location. For example, special extinguishers are required in areas in which there is thermal processing of grease. These extinguishers not only combat the fire physically but also chemically using so-called saponification.

Extinguishers should be selected in accordance with the workplace guidelines ASR A2.2, in combination with the company’s own risk assessment. Even the best fire extinguishers are of little use, however, if they are not used by trained personnel. Fire protection officers and fire protection and evacuation assistants are a statutory requirement in these businesses. Yet there are huge differences in quality when it comes to training: Extinguishing exercises should be carried out on real fires, for example, as part of the training and not just using fire simulators.

Stationary extinguishing technology – as diverse as the fire risk

A practical extinguishing concept needs to be oriented to the fire loads and scenarios described above, as well as taking in account the special features and requirements of the food industry. For example, it is necessary to take account of the hygiene requirements in the sector in order to keep any secondary damage caused by fighting the fire to a minimum. In particular, this means that pure water and carbon dioxide are suitable as extinguishing agents.

CO2 extinguishes a fire without leaving any residue but is not necessarily the preferred choice as it is potentially dangerous to people and has more complicated storage requirements. Water has proved a good solution in various different sectors.

Sprinkler systems use stainless steel pipes and nozzles to exclude the possibility of impurities in the extinguishing water. Dry sprinklers are often an alternative especially in the food industry. The pipeline between the sprinkler head and the alarm valve station is filled with compressed air in these systems. The pipeline is only flooded with water after the sprinkler head has been activated.

Dry sprinklers are suitable for deep-freeze areas but also offer general advantages because they work without standing water and thus prevent germs being spread.

 Water extinguishing systems are even suitable for grease fires. However, the size of the droplets is then decisive. Normal sprinklers would cause a real explosion on grease fires because the water droplets sink into the burning grease which causes overheated grease to be expelled due to the huge expansion in volume as the water evaporates.

However, fire tests using a water mist system (Aquamist ULF from Johnson Controls) at the Training and Test Centre operated by Johnson Controls in Ladenburg have demonstrated that even large chip pan fires can be combated very well with water. ULF stands for Ultra Low Flow: The system has an operating pressure of 7 to 16 bar and uses relatively little water.

The large surface of the fine droplets causes quick cooling and evaporation so that the liquid extinguishing agent does not penetrate into the burning grease, thus preventing any dangerous grease explosions.

The system was tested with class K cooking oils – which corresponds to a 3B classification for flammable liquids.

The tests were carried out using rapeseed oil, with a flash point of 316 °C and spontaneous combustion at 354 °C (FM Approval according to class 5560, annex J., width of chip pan 2.40 m, length unlimited).

Corn oil and olive oil have similar characteristics, although the system is not suitable for peanut oil and cotton seed oil.

Water mist extinguishing systems are also the right solution for packaging lines because the fine mist bonds with the smoke gases. These smoke gases are not only life-threatening for people but also contaminate the production facilities and thus result in longer interruptions to production. Moreover, this bonding power of the mist makes water mist systems a very good choice for particularly dusty areas such as near mixers or in smoking rooms.


The hard facts of the statistics for fire damage over the past few years are forcing the food industry to rethink. Increased market concentration has resulted in very large production and storage areas – and thus to more concentrated fire loads and risks with which fire protection technology and concepts cannot usually keep pace. Major fires can quickly threaten the very existence of a company. It is thus in the interests of companies and fire protection experts to re-evaluate the risks and take appropriate action.


Olaf Schilloks: Solution Manager CE ­Fire Suppression at Johnson Controls – Building Technologies & Solutions


[1] Dipl.-Ing. Leo Ronken, General Reinsurance AG, Cologne; VdS Specialist Conference on Fire Extinguishing Systems; 7 and 8 December 2016 in Cologne; summarised and published in the handbook for the conference VdS: 3773

[2] Dr.-Ing. Mingyi Wang, GDV German Insurance Association; VdS Specialist Conference on Fire Extinguishing Systems; 7 and 8 December 2016 in Cologne; summarised and published in the handbook for the conference VdS: 3773

[3] VdS Specialist Conference on Fire Extinguishing Systems; 7 and 8 December 2016 in Cologne; summarised and published in the handbook for the conference VdS: 3773

The article was published in FeuerTrutz International, issue 1.2019 (January 2019).
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