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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, February/March 2008

Remote Control

Video auditing can help optimize process controls in food manufacturing

by S. Neil Vineberg

Recent events such as last year’s Escheria coli outbreak at several well-known fast-food chains and in the California produce industry, which lost more than $100 million as a result of contaminated lettuce and spinach, have increased the level of skepticism being directed at food processors. While government oversight and public attention drive processors to adopt new food safety solutions, preventive strategies increasingly focus on new technologies that enhance process controls.

Process control is the umbrella term used to describe all controllable factors driven by safety, quality, and cost that positively or negatively influence finished products at all stages of production and preparation. Examples of process controls range from government regulation and hazard analysis and critical control point compliance to selection of raw materials, processing, storage and distribution, data collection, employee hygiene, and training.

Under the best circumstances, a vigilant and well-informed manager who is constantly monitoring line processes can pinpoint and remedy problems before they happen. Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible for a line manager to monitor all workers at all times, so a host of problems can occur. Food pathogens may result from a failure to monitor temperature variances during cooking procedures, and food contamination can occur when employees fail to wash their hands after using the restroom.

No matter how effectively we manage and comply with rules, regulations, and equipment alarms, it always comes down to the human element. Improving the effectiveness of labor is the most critical control point and offers the greatest opportunity for processors. Fortunately, there are tools available that enable management to monitor labor in ways that reduce risk and optimize processes.

Remote but Live

Remote Video Auditing (RVA) from Arrowsight (Mount Kisco, N.Y.) is a process optimization tool that combines remote auditors, video monitoring, live feedback LED screens, and daily and weekly reports so that plant managers can more effectively monitor labor performance controls across plants.

“The American food industry is extremely safe, even with all the recent problems,” says Mark W. Moshier, president of Arrowsight’s Food and Beverage Division. Moshier has 18 years of experience in the food and beverage industry, having served in senior level positions at Tyson Foods (Springdale, Ark.) and PepsiCo (Purchase, N.Y.). He was also vice president of operations at Keystone Foods Corp. (West Conshohocken, Pa.) for five years, where he was responsible for manufacturing, procurement, operations, security, process design, and operational food safety compliance.

“Line-of-site management needs to continue, and there’s never going to be a magic bullet that prevents every catastrophe from happening,” Moshier says. “With RVA, we’ve seen great success in benchmarking critical process controls points—identifying the actual performance threshold—and then improving behavior through proper feedback. Analyze, verify, and train are key elements of the program.”

Arrowsight’s mantra is that if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a million. According to Moshier, the company has established an annual 10-to-1 return on investment in plants where RVA is installed with process proof points in place in as little as 90 days. Since these facilities typically employ from 400 to 2,400 workers—many of whom are non-English speaking immigrants—video technology offers a competitive advantage.

“The nice thing about video,” Moshier says, “is that it doesn’t care where you come from, what language you speak, how long you’ve been here, or what size or shape you are. As a training and coaching tool, it is much easier to communicate with staff through a video format, and it’s a great leveler in terms of the language barrier and diversity that exist on the factory floor.”

Employee Performance

Utilizing video hardware and software, RVA analyzes employee performance at critical control points within a manufacturing facility—in real time—from different locations. By remotely viewing and reporting data back to management, Arrowsight’s off-site auditors can help to improve productivity dramatically, which leads to best practices and can also bring about significant improvement in individual skills.

“Traditional methods that are out there work, but the real challenge is bringing plants up to the next tier in terms of coaching, training, feedback, and reducing variability in performance,” says Moshier.

Remote video auditing addresses these areas. For managers, it’s similar to how a football coach uses post-game video to improve team performance, Moshier adds. “You are never trying to eliminate your athletes. Rather, you are ensuring that your blocking and tackling are as good as they can be, that you have got your athletes assigned correctly, that they know the game plan, and that they are following through. It is all about coaching.”

Images Communicate in Real Time

Off-site monitoring of facilities occurs through a review of a variety of images taken through video cameras. LED screens on the assembly line enable auditors to provide live feedback to workers in real time. Managers are e-mailed weekly score cards that summarize individual location performance. Reports include links to still images and video clips that provide visual documentation of the events noted by auditors.

Moshier says clients use RVA results to find solutions to challenges such as improving yields, reducing waste, and optimizing direct labor cost per pound. They also use the findings to develop a more comprehensive analysis of critical controls, including cooking and blending procedures and technical equipment maintenance.

“Inside plants we do two things,” Moshier says. “First, we can be very effective in evaluating how labor interfaces in the process, such as whether or not a quality control technician sampled the product properly, recorded the data accurately, and toured the area with proper frequency. Second, our equipment may be directly tied into specific types of machines and sensors. RVA can interface with any machine on the factory floor that has the capacity of an alarm output.”

Collective Responsibility

The responsibility for ensuring the safety of our food supply is a collective one. As the challenges to our food supply become increasingly complex, it is vital for processors to effectively and creatively combine process control technology, labor monitoring, and education.

Tools like RVA will continue to drive performance as the sense of urgency and the demand to optimize processes grow. The key for food manufacturers, however, is how well they utilize these applications within each discipline of the plant.

Vineberg is a freelance writer focusing on communications and technology. Reach him at neil@vinebergcommunications.com.

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