Bookmark and Share

From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, June/July 2012

Data Explosion Threatens Food Safety

by Susan Hancock, Keri Dawson

The food manufacturing and processing industry is experiencing the benefits of global sourcing and rapid distribution—but at a cost. With options for remote sourcing increasing, the rise in export and import of supplies, and the growing circumference and complexity of supply chains, food safety risks are at an all-time high.

In addition to the human cost of food safety incidents, episodes of food contamination can have grave implications for business—and these situations are no longer private. The explosion of social media has had sweeping effects on brand image.

Global regulatory bodies are intensifying efforts to eradicate such disastrous events through more stringent regulations and higher penalties. The increasing volume and complexity of regulation and risk demand foolproof and streamlined food safety and quality control processes that enable quick and effective response.

The FDA drives home the fact that food businesses are required to produce food that is not only high quality but also safe. Regulators and top retailers lay down high commercial standards and demand that food manufacturers, suppliers, and vendors exhibit complete compliance by implementing a food safety system that is continuously monitored and audited. And as today’s consumers grow increasingly aware of their right to completely safe food products, regulatory bodies tighten the legislative noose—affecting the entire food supply chain.

Businesses that fail to keep up with developments risk introducing serious hazards, which can lead to foodborne illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths. In addition to being a blow to an organization’s integrity, a large recall can put the company out of business. New regulations such as the FSMA aim to shift the focus of federal regulators from responding to contamination to preventing it. While most food companies are taking preventive measures against food hazards, the pressure will be on to intensify efforts.

Globalization means food products can move easily from country to country, widening the scope of food safety problems. Knowing and managing the network of suppliers across multiple countries, making sure that the right audits are used, and keeping up with international regulations can be extremely challenging. Under the FSMA, the compliance of domestic and international suppliers is the organization’s responsibility.

Where to Start

The explosion of standards, schemes, and supplier audits makes it hard to decide which schemes to pursue and implement. Single manufacturing facilities can average one or two audits per month, with costs rising into the thousands. It’s important to conduct the right inspections and audits while minimizing costs.

Tracking food safety-related information and activities is extremely complex. The permutations and combinations can form an intricate web of manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, retailers, and food service providers. Most retailers work with multiple suppliers, some suppliers are also manufacturers, and some supply other suppliers. Tracking all these entities can be a formidable task. Adding to the complexity, these organizations can range from multibillion-dollar companies to micro enterprises with a handful of employees.

Information sources, volume, and variation create a data explosion that makes drawing meaningful and actionable information from the raw data a huge challenge. Providing clients and regulators with reasonable and accurate incident and trend reporting is a tough requirement for food businesses.

With regulator and consumer expectations increasing rapidly, food businesses must prevent the rampant spread of remote food safety problems by tracing issues and expediting recalls quickly before a situation spirals out of control. The adoption of social media has added another layer to the recall system, forcing organizations to be on their toes and act fast.

Interweaving the food safety and quality program around a system or a framework that focuses on well-recognized mandates and initiatives has been a successful strategy in achieving food safety objectives. HACCP and the GFSI are examples of programs that, if implemented appropriately, demonstrate that food safety and quality initiatives have been incorporated into the organization’s food production processes. AIB International describes the requirements of a food safety management system in six component parts, falling into one of two categories: programs (prerequisite, food safety, quality) or management (training, culture, evaluation).

Prerequisite programs are oriented to achieve, maintain, and improve the environment for creating products that are compliant with sanitary and regulatory requirements. Foreign material control, chemical control, and allergen control are some examples of prerequisite programs. These programs are legal requirements; however, they are flexible and depend on factors that include the type of facility, country of origin, and target for export.

Evaluation is one of the key components of a food safety management system where automation can greatly enhance the organization’s ability to improve. Suitable technology can help senior management take a snapshot of current conditions.

Food safety: While prerequisites focus on environment, food safety focuses on the management and improvement of prerequisite programs. Traditionally, food safety is generally referred to HACCP. Like prerequisites, HACCP is non-negotiable, with hazard analysis and critical control points based in science. Food defense has been required in the U.S.—and for countries exporting to the U.S.—for some time, but with the advent of the FSMA, the focus on intentional contamination has grown.

Quality: Quality goals concentrate on achieving, maintaining, and improving processes to attain defined product quality. Quality is not truly a part of food safety because it’s entirely possible to create a safe food product that does not meet quality standards. Quality is obviously a critical component of operations, however, and has its place in any organizational management system.

Training: Senior management must put in significant effort to educate the staff and equip them with the necessary skills and knowledge to achieve food safety goals. Every member of the organization must know the food safety and quality objectives of the enterprise and how these can be accomplished. Also, the company needs to be able to move beyond mere execution of instructions and must gain knowledge of how to stay up to date, improve, and apply food safety approaches according to product type and environment.

Culture: Most importantly, in conjunction with a well-structured food safety management system, organizations need the right “tone from the top.” Building an organizational culture that focuses on food safety is the way to induce awareness and sense of responsibility in the enterprise. Skills applied in a vacuum will not change the behavior of employees.

Evaluation: The evaluation methods in a food safety management system should include inspections, audits, and data collection for key performance indicators. Evaluation is one of the key components of a food safety management system where automation can greatly enhance the organization’s ability to improve. Suitable technology can help senior management take a snapshot of current food safety conditions and analyze trends over time.

Putting it all together, the three programs of prerequisites, food safety, and quality are held together by management support systems of training, culture, and evaluation to achieve a sustainable food safety management system.


Understanding the complexities of today’s food safety environment and the uniqueness of clients’ food safety requirements and programs, AIB International decided to leverage technology to manage its own quality as well as to protect clients’ confidential data. AIBI’s goal was to implement a holistic system—processes, people, and tools—that supports all activities of audit management. To do so, AIBI implemented the automated quality management system using MetricStream’s comprehensive, web-based food quality and safety management solution deployed on MetricStream’s governance, risk, and compliance platform.

The volume and intricacy of the food safety audits AIBI conducts are immense. The AIB International Consolidated Standards for Inspection are customized to 11 facility types and are available in eight languages. AIBI’s team of 130-plus auditors conduct audits, inspections, and training at more than 10,000 manufacturing and distribution facilities in more than 120 countries. AIBI offers competent services in HACCP, proprietary supplier audits, quality systems, food protection, BRC, SQF2000, ISO 22000, and FSSC 22000, among others.

AIBI auditors, management, and support staff plan and schedule audits, establish inspection criteria, execute audits, submit and collect audit results, track findings and issues, and create audit reports with ease and efficiency. The interdepartmental coordination is streamlined, and many processes are automated. The team can add more processes as needed without exorbitant costs for the client.

Apart from optimizing audits, the solution has introduced transparency for AIBI management to evaluate business performance and identify services from which clients may benefit. This transparency is passed on to AIBI’s clients through more efficient single-event reporting and greater trend analysis. Later this year, AIBI intends to offer a web-based portal to clients who wish to slice and dice data in a variety of scenarios.

Identifying the framework most relevant to the nuances of the food business specific to the organization, implementing a food safety system woven around that framework, ensuring that all the structural as well as supervisory elements are in place, and supplementing the system with a robust and intelligent technology solution are some of the critical stages in achieving food safety and quality in today’s heterogeneous food industry. Placing food safety values in the center of an organization’s management philosophy ensures continuous strength and efficiency of the system in the long run.


Hancock leads development of performance improvement services, products, and platforms as head of instructional design and customer development at AIB International. Dawson is vice president of ComplianceOnline Advisory Services for MetricStream. A former director with KPMG, she has more than 14 years of consulting experience in audit, risk, controls, and compliance.



Current Issue

Current Issue

February/March 2015

Site Search

Site Navigation