How food processors can optimize their water treatment processes

Oct. 3, 2023
With rapid advancements in AI, biotechnology and materials science, the water treatment landscape in the food processing sector is on the verge of transformation.

Water treatment in the food processing industry stands at the crossroads of two essential aspects: the commitment to provide high-quality products and the duty to ensure environmental integrity. As the global food processing industry expands, optimizing the water treatment process becomes increasingly important.

It is imperative for food processors to understand this vital process, not merely to meet regulatory standards but to pave the way for a sustainable future that melds industry growth with environmental conservation. A precise understanding of water treatment, thus, becomes the foundation upon which food processors can construct a legacy of quality, trust and sustainability.

The significance of water in food processing

The estimation for the consumptive water footprint, which refers to the total volume of fresh water used and not returned to its source (green water for rainwater and blue water for surface and groundwater), globally ranges from 5,938 to 8,508 km3/year — it is projected to increase by as much as 22% due to climate change and land use change by 2090.1

In food processing, water is used throughout the entire production process, influencing product quality, operational efficiency and environmental impact. Its multi-faceted roles in the food industry are diverse and indispensable.

Here are just a few key uses for water in food processing:

  • Ingredient: Water is more than just a filler. As a primary component, it directly influences the taste, texture and shelf-life of many products. The purity and mineral content of water can have subtle yet significant effects on the final product's flavor and consistency.
  • Cleaning agent: Beyond basic sanitation, water's role in cleaning ensures that equipment remains free from contaminants, preventing cross-contamination and ensuring consistent product quality across batches.
  • Transport medium: Water's properties allow it to effectively transport various materials, from raw ingredients to finished products, within the manufacturing facility. Its utility in this capacity streamlines production processes and aids in waste management.

After its initial applications, water leaves the production floor carrying various residues. How this water is treated post-use, however, offers insights into a manufacturer’s commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship. 

Common water treatment challenges in food processing

Wastewater, emerging from food production processes, carries with it a complexity reflective of the vast spectrum of food products. From dairy to processed meats, from beverages to baked goods, each sub-sector introduces its unique challenges in wastewater treatment.

  • Organic and nutrient concentrations: The inherent organic nature of foods means that wastewater is rich in nutrients. Without appropriate treatment, this can lead to environmental challenges such as eutrophication, where excessive nutrients lead to dense plant growth, subsequently depleting oxygen and harming aquatic life.
  • Fats, oils and greases (FOG): Commonly known as FOG, these components demand special attention. Left unchecked, they can accumulate, hindering water flow and reducing the efficiency of treatment processes.

Recognizing these challenges is merely the first step. Addressing them demands a blend of advanced technologies, innovative strategies and continuous oversight. The efficiency with which these challenges are tackled can serve as a benchmark for a food processor's commitment to excellence and sustainability.

Key strategies for optimizing water treatment processes

As the challenges loom large, so do the strategies and technologies poised to address them. The roadmap to optimizing water treatment in food manufacturing is paved with a blend of time-tested methods and cutting-edge innovations.

Advanced filtration techniques

Before we delve into specifics, it is worth noting that advanced filtration techniques represent the confluence of technology and biology, aiming to purify water at a molecular level.

  • Membrane bioreactors (MBRs): MBR technology combines conventional activated sludge treatment with a membrane liquid-solid separation process. This dual approach ensures efficient biological treatment and physical filtration, resulting in high-quality effluent.
  • Advanced oxidation processes (AOP): AOPs employ a combination of oxidants to break down pollutants at a molecular level, offering a solution for the most stubborn of contaminants.
  • Reverse osmosis (RO): RO uses a semi-permeable membrane to remove ions, molecules and larger particles from wastewater. It is particularly effective in desalinating and demineralizing water, ensuring that the purified water meets stringent quality standards.

Post these filtration techniques, the treated water emerges not just as a byproduct but as a testament to technological prowess and environmental commitment.

Resource recovery

The paradigm is shifting: what was once considered waste is now viewed as a potential resource, waiting to be harnessed.

  • Waste transformation: The principle here is elegant in its simplicity — converting waste into energy. Anaerobic digestion facilitates this transformation, turning organic waste into biogas, a potential energy source.
  • Recycling and teuse: Embracing the circular economy model, recycling ensures that water, once used, is treated and reintroduced into the manufacturing process, minimizing wastage and promoting sustainability.
  • Nutrient recovery: Modern wastewater treatments now allow for the extraction of valuable nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen from wastewater. These nutrients can be recycled for agricultural applications, creating a circular loop of resource utilization.

Emerging from this approach is a renewed understanding of resources, one that sees potential even in waste, advocating for its efficient use and reuse. 

Process control and automation

The digital revolution has not spared water treatment. Automation and control mechanisms provide real-time solutions, enhancing efficiency and predictability.

  • Smart sensing: Sensors, equipped with advanced algorithms, ensure real-time data collection and analysis, flagging inconsistencies, and ensuring optimal process control.
  • Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT): Beyond isolated sensors, IIoT creates an interconnected web of devices and networks, ensuring holistic oversight, and enabling predictive maintenance.
  • Machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) integration: Advanced data analytics using machine learning can predict treatment failures, offer insights into optimization and even guide the design of new treatment strategies based on historical and real-time data.

The above, combined with advancements such as connected worker technology,2 creates a system that is not just responsive but also predictive, redefining how water treatment is approached and managed.

Chemical treatment innovations

Chemicals have been allies in water treatment for decades. However, modern innovations have made them more efficient and environmentally friendly. 

  • Coagulants and flocculants: These agents promote particle clustering, making it easier to separate solids from liquids. Modern variants ensure this without introducing additional pollutants.
  • Environmental safety protocols: It is imperative that the use of chemicals does not introduce new environmental challenges. Modern treatments prioritize this balance, ensuring efficacy without compromising ecological safety.
  • Natural and biodegradable alternatives: Recent advancements have championed the use of natural substances and biodegradable chemicals as alternatives to traditional treatment agents. These are not only effective in treating wastewater but also have minimal environmental footprints.

After diving into these strategies, it is evident that water treatment is not just a reactive process to address challenges but a proactive endeavor aiming for excellence and sustainability.

The future of water treatment in food manufacturing

The process of water treatment is not static; it is dynamic and ever-evolving. Today’s advancing technologies offer the potential for greater efficiency, lower environmental impact and innovations that can redefine the industry.

The water treatment landscape in the food processing sector is on the verge of transformation. With rapid advancements in AI, biotechnology and materials science, future strategies might look remarkably different from today's methodologies. Moreover, there will be a growing emphasis on integrating sustainability at every step, ensuring that water treatment processes not just comply with regulations but set new industry standards.

Yet, as with all innovations, their success and integration will depend on collaboration. Engineers, technologists and stakeholders will need to come together, share insights and work towards a collective goal: optimizing water treatment not just as a process, but as a commitment to the future.

The journey of water through the food manufacturing process is a narrative of challenges met with innovation, of commitment matched with capability. As the industry marches forward, water treatment will remain its silent, yet crucial, partner, ensuring that every droplet, every molecule, aligns with the promise of quality and care.



For over 30 years, Eric Whitley has been a noteworthy leader in the manufacturing space. In addition to the many publications and articles Eric has written on various manufacturing topics, you may know him from his efforts leading the Total Productive Maintenance effort at Autoliv ASP or from his involvement in the Management Certification programs at The Ohio State University, where he served as an adjunct faculty member.   After an extensive career as a reliability and business improvement consultant, Eric joined L2L, where he currently serves as the Director of Smart Manufacturing. His role in this position is to help clients learn and implement L2L’s pragmatic and simple approach to corporate digital transformation. For more information go to   

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