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Leveraging Food Safety Chain Management Technologies for Better Outcomes
by Barbara Levin and Dan Bernkopf
Today’s food safety and quality assurance (FSQA) professionals face a multitude of challenges when it comes to the goal of providing consumers with safe, high-quality food while remaining profitable. On the safety side, challenges come in the form of compliance with ever-expanding regulatory, non-regulatory, and customer-based requirements, as well as managing materials and ingredients from a growing global supply chain. On the quality side, challenges center around keeping the cost of goods made in line with key performance indicators, while continuing to maintain the consistency and quality that protect your brand and keep customers in your supply chain—along with consumers—coming back for more.
To achieve both safety and quality assurance in light of these challenges, food suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and services companies are turning to emerging software technology in growing numbers. These tools fall into two categories:
- Reactive. When noncompliant supplies, production materials, and/or finished goods enter the supply chain, these trace-and-recall solutions are designed to find and remove products from the chain in the fastest manner possible before they reach and possibly endanger consumers.
- Preventative. These technologies help prevent noncompliant materials and raw ingredients from coming in and noncompliant finished goods from going out. The key part of this emerging technology is food safety chain management.
This article focuses on prevention, explaining how new software helps participants in a food supply chain save time and money by creating efficiencies and promoting safety and quality compliance.
The Basic Principles
There are five basic principles of food safety chain management:
- Prevention. Food safety chain management focuses on prevention because it carries a lower cost than reaction—think about the cost of a smoke alarm vs. the cost of repairing fire damage. The business case for food safety chain management can be based on return on investment, which makes it easier to gain executive buy-in.
- Safety and quality. Food safety chain management functionality covers both safety and quality assurance. Preventing safety issues is critical; just one major problem that reaches consumers can have dire health and financial consequences. But ensuring consistency and compliance with quality attributes on a day-to-day basis is what protects your overall brand and market value by maintaining consumer confidence.
- Globality. All participants in a company’s supply chain, upstream and downstream, from anywhere in the world, must be connected to ensure safety and quality transparency and visibility.
- Real time. To focus on prevention, food safety chain management is designed to take place in real time—whether it is receiving and analyzing data or sending alerts when noncompliance is detected.
- Farm to fork. Food safety chain management addresses the entire supply chain: inbound, during production, and outbound.
Food safety chain management focuses on prevention because it carries a lower cost than reaction—think about the cost of a smoke alarm vs. the cost of repairing fire damage. The business case can be based on return on investment.
How does it work?
The overall purpose of food safety chain management technology is to create efficiencies that help to ensure regulatory, non-regulatory, and customer-driven compliance along every point in the supply chain. Although functionality will vary by solution, its six key areas include:
- Automation. The ability to automate the scheduling of all FSQA activities, with alerts when tasks are missed, ensures critical control points and quality standards are met.
- Real-time data collection. FSQA testing and other data can be entered electronically from any source, including suppliers, third-party labs, plant equipment like weighing machinery, and mobile devices in real time.
- Real-time data analysis. All FSQA test results and other data are compared to specifications in real time.
- Real-time issuance of certificate of analysis (COA) and alerts. When data and results are within specification, a COA can be generated automatically to move a product to its next point in the chain. If a noncompliance issue is detected, text or e-mail alerts are immediately sent to the relevant stakeholders so that corrective actions can be taken at the earliest point possible.
- Finished product communications. All finished product COAs and other appropriate data can be sent to customers automatically if finished goods are in compliance. In the case of internal hold-and-release programs, reviews can be completed automatically, and real-time acceptance alerts can be sent to enterprise resource planning systems or shipping departments.
- Performance analysis. All data and documentation, including supplier information, production data, corrective action documentation, and finished product testing, are time stamped and available for audit readiness, benchmarking, and performance analysis.
When effectively implemented, FSQA will help companies reap important benefits, including:
- Time saving. This is achieved through both labor and speed to market in the execution of FSQA tasks and programs.
- Economic gains. Hard-dollar ROI, including increasing yield, risk mitigation, speed to market, trending and performance analysis for continuous improvement, and prevention of withdrawals, rejections, and recalls, is possible.
- Process efficiencies. This will help ensure FSQA compliance.
Food safety chain management functionality covers both safety and quality assurance. Preventing safety issues is critical; just one major problem that reaches consumers can have dire health and financial consequences.
Technology at work
There are many scenarios and examples of how food safety chain management can work in your environment. For the purpose of this article, we follow a chicken fillet sandwich served at a fast food chain.
- At the farm. Growers who provide lettuce for the finished sandwich often wait for harvest inspectors to issue reports from the field. Hand-written reports on field safety observations and quality attributes such as color, size, and signs of insect infestation are typically filed the day after inspection. Using food safety chain management methods, however, inspectors can enter data, including digital photos, into mobile devices immediately.
QA managers receive this information in real time on computer dashboards or on mobile devices, enabling immediate, best-practice decisions. For example, a QA manager can decide whether to harvest a particular growing area if the lettuce does not meet specifications for the fast food chain customer but meets the requirements of another customer.
If lettuce quality meets the fast food chain’s standards, electronic product information stored in a COA or another form can be forwarded to the packaging plant and uploaded into the food chain’s supply chain management system, allowing the processing facility to better anticipate production scheduling, plan for crop replanting, and optimize inventory control for product rotation schedules of outbound shipments to customers.
- At the plant. The suppliers of ingredients in the sandwich’s special sauce send their safety test information to the FSQA team on COAs. The team holds the ingredients while they examine dozens of e-mails, faxes, PDFs, and spreadsheets to analyze the results prior to approving the ingredients for production. Not only does this take time and add costs, the process is also prone to errors, creating the potential for a noncompliant result. With food safety chain management techniques, all test results are entered into a software solution and analyzed against specifications in real time. If noncompliance is detected, an immediate alert is sent to the appropriate stakeholders, preventing the ingredients from entering and possibly contaminating the sauce production. Not only is a safety or quality issue prevented, but the cost of destroying an entire batch is potentially avoided as well.
- On the Road. Once processed, the chicken fillets are frozen and packaged for shipment to the fast food chain’s regional warehouses. To meet safety standards and the retailers’ quality specification, shipping temperatures should not exceed 15°F. When the trucks arrive at the warehouses, receiving inspectors take temperature samples. If they find that samples exceed critical or quality limits, they consult with the QA manager to determine the appropriate actions. In the meantime, drivers are asked to leave the dock and are not allowed to deliver the shipment, resulting in delays and cost overruns. With a food safety chain management solution, the trucks can be equipped with temperature probes that send continuous readings to distributors’ QA managers, the receiving and FSQA managers at the warehouses, and others. The system can be programmed to issue alerts if the temperature in any product on the truck exceeds 12°F, allowing corrective action to be taken before the maximum limit of 15°F is reached and the entire shipment is compromised in quality and safety.
- At the FSQA office. With food safety chain management in use at every point in the supply chain, all safety and quality data are now time stamped and easily accessed through a single, centralized repository. This allows for in-depth trending and analysis against key performance indicators. Heads of FSQA can use this information to identify best-in-class vendors for all safety and quality attributes; focus FSQA testing on the highest-risk ingredients; request supplier credits where corrective actions are taken on a noncompliant but usable ingredient (correcting sauce viscosity, for example); and adjust processes to keep manufacturing costs within budget.
And, because all safety and quality records are 21 CFR-compliant and can’t be altered, they are available on demand for audits under FDA, USDA, and GFSI schemes such as BRC or SQF, as well as for customer audits.
With food safety chain management techniques, all test results are entered into a software solution and analyzed against specifications in real time. If noncompliance is detected, an immediate alert is sent to the appropriate stakeholders
Consider the above scenarios for every component that goes into that final chicken sandwich and how they meet regulatory and non-regulatory safety requirements, from the grain fed to the chickens to the cooking temperature. Each step along the way will affect the following:
- Consumer Confidence. Consumers need to be able to trust the safety of the finished product as well as product consistency. They know that, regardless of the store location, the lettuce in the sandwich will be crisp and fresh and the sauce will taste familiar.
- Profitability. Throughout the supply chain, yield is maximized, labor is effectively utilized, and vendors with the highest safety record and lowest cost are identified. The fast food chain is able to offer consumers consistent products at an affordable price while remaining profitable. This achievement protects its brand and, ultimately, its market value.
Food safety chain management helps the food and beverage industry promote prevention-based FSQA while delivering safe, high-quality, and consistent products that are affordable to consumers and profitable for shareholders. By minimizing reactive steps to quality and safety issues, this approach will surely help companies enhance products and better identify problems before they occur.
Barbara Levin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a frequent author and speaker on the strategic use of emerging technologies to execute business initiatives. Dan Bernkopf (email@example.com) has spent more than 30 years as an innovator in the food safety and quality industry, with extensive front-line experience leading integrated safety and quality assurance initiatives.