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IT Solutions for Food Safety Management
by George Howlett
The past decade has seen a major shift in how the safety of our global food supply is managed. High-profile food safety incidents have driven a regulatory response, increased consumer consciousness, and placed new demands on food business operators.
This shift can be characterized by three key events, the first being the European Union's establishment of 178 general principles and requirements of food law. Introduced in 2002, following the BSE and Belgium dioxin incidents, this regulation represented a radical shake-up in how food businesses in the EU operated by creating the European Food Safety Authority, establishing risk assessments as the basis for all food regulatory decisions, setting up the EU-wide rapid alert system, and mandating new obligations for food business operators.
The second key event is the emergence of the Global Food Safety Initiative as a core driver in defining the elements of an effective food safety management system. In May 2000, following a number of food safety incidents, the CEOs of a group of international retailers identified the need to enhance food safety, ensure consumer protection, and strengthen consumer confidence. The result was GFSI, which sets the requirements for food safety schemes.
GFSI benchmarks existing food standards against food safety criteria and ensure that these standards have the same core requirements. This facilitates mutual recognition among the requirements of participating standards, thus avoiding duplication of audits. GFSI-recognized standards include the SQF, BRC, IFS, and FSSC 22000. These are rapidly becoming the standards for food certification, and many businesses must use one of these approved schemes to manage safety.
Finally, and more recently, FSMA was signed into law in January 2011. The law aims to ensure the safety of the U.S. food supply by shifting the focus of federal regulators from responding to contamination to preventing it. The legislation represents a radical development of food safety efforts in the U.S. and will have wide-reaching impact, changing how the FDA manages food safety prevention, inspection and compliance, food imports, and food defense.
But what does all this mean? For governments, it means protecting the health of citizens, and for consumers, assurance that their political leaders and major food retailers are on the job. For food businesses, these events are a powerful motivator to invest in food safety systems to protect the health of their customers and the value of their brands. However, the practical impact of these events on food businesses can be distilled further. In short, they all require businesses to have a food safety plan in place.
For example, the EU 178 regulation requires food business operators to identify and regularly review the critical points in their processes and ensure that controls are applied at these points. GFSI standards place Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) at the core of the internal food safety management system. Moreover, FSMA will require 165,000 domestic and 254,000 foreign businesses to have a certified food safety plan in place. Herein lies the challenge.
On its face, this appears to be a reasonable and straightforward requirement. For the food technologist, quality manager, and consultant, the difficulties presented on the ground are clear.
For food businesses, recent legislation is a powerful motivator to invest in food safety systems to protect the health of their customers and the value of their brands. However, the practical impact of these events on food businesses can be distilled further.
So, what is a food safety plan? At its most basic level, it is a written plan defining how a food business ensures the safety and legality of the food it produces. It is developed from a process in which management defines how it produces food, what can go wrong in its production, and how the company can detect potential problems and take action to prevent them from reaching the consumer. This is a simple explanation for the complex process described in the principles of HACCP.
As any practitioner on the ground will tell you, this is just the beginning. You must also consider the need to base your plan on scientific data, develop numerous prerequisite programs (PRPs), implement management systems, establish document control, train employees, conduct reviews, and improve and revise. Soon the food safety plan develops into a full-blown management system requiring significant resources, time, investment, and energy. Then you are introduced to the newly created monster that is your food safety plan.
Growing consensus on the definition of a food safety plan or system and the emergence of web-based or cloud computing are accelerating the development and deployment of IT in food safety.
Back to Basics
An amusing story tells about a man who is lost and seeks directions from a stranger he meets on the road. After inquiring about the best route to take to his final destination, the stranger calmly informs the man, "Well, if it were me, I wouldn't start from here!"
In attempting to reach a precise definition of a food safety plan, we must learn from the simple wisdom of the stranger and start from a different place, a more fundamental definition. A food safety plan is, in essence, a management process that collects, collates, analyzes, and records data. In this sense, it is no different from any other management process. The data drive management decisions, demonstrate compliance, and are used to improve results.
Few would argue against the need for a clear legal and regulatory framework requiring robust food safety plans from those who produce and sell food products. The reasons are self-evident and supported by well-documented events. Nonetheless, it would be hard to find a CEO in the food industry who supports the application of significant resources or investment where there are already technology and tools available to do the job more quickly and effectively. After all, haven't almost all other management processes within food businesses benefited from the introduction of information technology solutions? Who would dream of operating their financial accounting, human resources, or payroll systems without the application of IT? Yet, the question arises: Why has food safety management remained the poor relation in the family? Given that the majority of food safety plans are paper-based, even those of large blue-chip food businesses, this question deserves some consideration.
A number of reasons exist, many of which are beyond the scope of this article. However, two stand out:
- Traditional software solutions have not addressed the real needs of the local food safety practitioner; and
- Enterprise software solutions have proven too costly for most food businesses, are sold in modules, and are often generic in nature. Even when these are used, certain paper-based systems must still be kept in place to maintain compliance.
The lack of agreement on what exactly constitutes a food safety plan or management system has prevented the development of a solution capable of meeting the needs of a global market.
In understanding that a food safety plan centers on data, we are taking a step closer to supporting those individuals who will ultimately have to implement the worthy aspirations of regulators and retail buyers.
For example, in developing a HACCP plan, the food safety manager must identify and collect data on hazards. This data must then be used to assess risk, a task that also depends on good data, much of which is found on various web-based sources. Validating information and data must be generated for critical controls, and records must be maintained to demonstrate compliance with the plan. Controlling potential hazards associated with sourcing suppliers and raw materials is another excellent example. Food businesses must collect significant volumes of data—HACCP plans, specifications, allergen data, questionnaires, audits, and certificates—to qualify and monitor suppliers. This situation can be replicated across the other elements of a food safety plan.
Where IT Comes In
Many of the requirements of food safety management are repetitive in nature, involve work flows that are well established, and require routine actions. On the other hand, they are living, breathing systems that need to be revised on an ongoing basis as new information and events come to light. Here again we see the role information and data play in meeting compliance.
All this lends itself well to the application of IT solutions. The obligations set out in global legislation and commercial standards will undoubtedly require acceleration in the development and use of IT. Two major changes make this a realistic possibility. The first is increasing agreement on what a food safety plan or system is. GFSI has provided a global standard and framework under which food safety standards can align, and this allows for the development of standard IT solutions. The second development is the emergence of web-based or cloud technologies as a viable platform upon which these solutions can be delivered. Web technologies change the economics of software and allow enterprise solutions to be delivered and used by both large and small food companies. Software can be quickly updated, and users can do work and maintain oversight anywhere in the world using a web-enabled device.
When we approached the task of developing our web-based software, we solicited input from users, such as food safety managers, consultants, auditors, and retailers. From this, we defined a number of core principles. The software solution needed to be:
- Easy to use, intuitive, and designed to meet the needs of the user—the food safety manager;
- Fully integrated, addressing all the requirements of global food safety standards and embodying best practices;
- Capable of being quickly updated in line with changes in global food standards and regulations;
- Designed around the needs of retailers, consultants, external inspectors, and certification auditors;
- Able to provide real-time data on key food safety events, such as recalls, outbreaks, and changes in legislation;
- Supported by real value-adding and time-saving enhancements;
- Capable of allowing real-time monitoring of multiple production sites within a large corporate structure;
- Able to allow users to access and work on their food safety systems remotely; and
- Able to generate pertinent reports quickly.
In May, we launched Safefood 360, a complete online food safety management system designed for food processing and service operations. The system contained all the core principles expressed by our users and was the product of a forensic analysis of global legislation and GFSI. The solution is fully integrated, covering the main pillars of a food safety plan, including HACCP, PRPs, management, and documents. Designed to provide users with a ready-made solution addressing food safety requirements and best practice, Safefood 360 is still flexible enough to assimilate the specific requirements of local food businesses.
The past decade has indeed been a busy time in food safety management, and more changes are on the horizon. Regulation is crucial for maintaining compliance standards in the industry, but this is only part of the story. The food industry is ultimately responsible for ensuring that its products are both safe and legal, and the adoption of new web technologies will increasingly play a positive role in meeting this challenge.
George Howlett is CEO of Safefood 360 and has more than 20 years of experience in the Irish food industry, working as both a manager and food safety consultant. He also lectures at the Dublin Institute of Technology on food safety management.