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LIMS, laboratory information management system

Integrated Informatics: Optimizing Food Quality and Safety by Building Regulatory Compliance into the Supply Chain

By Kevin Smith
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LIMS, laboratory information management system

Global food supply chains offer consumers more choice than ever before. Thanks to international networks of producers, wholesalers, manufacturers and suppliers, many ingredients can be sourced all year round, meaning diets are no longer limited by what’s in season. However, the increasing complexity of these supply chains means many food and beverage products are potentially more exposed to biological and chemical contamination as well as food fraud issues, putting brand reputation and human health at risk.

With consumer trust and public safety of paramount importance, global food regulators have introduced strict rules to protect the quality and authenticity of products. Regulations such as the FDA’s Food Protection Plan, for example, seek to incorporate safety measures throughout food supply chains in order to better prevent and respond to potential issues.1 These regulations are complemented by standards such as the ISO’s recently updated ISO 22000:2018 guidelines that recommend the implementation of hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) to achieve the highest levels of quality control (QC).2 For businesses working within this regulatory framework, it is essential to take a coordinated approach to deliver the standards of food quality and safety that customers and regulators expect.

Every food supply chain will have its own set of product specifications and QC parameters. However, all these requirements demand that decisions on the release of goods are made using accurate and timely information. Given the growing attention from regulators on the safety and provenance of food, as well as the need for operations to run as efficiently as possible, supply chain stakeholders are reevaluating the digital platforms they use to manage, store and recall their data. Here, we consider how laboratory information management systems (LIMS) can help businesses integrate efficient data collection workflows across multiple locations to support robust QC testing and build regulatory compliance into their operations.

Meeting the Challenges Facing Modern Food Supply Chains

Assuring consistent product quality and safety is a constant challenge for food supply chain businesses, given the broad range of issues that can compromise these standards. Although most businesses adopt strict storage and handling protocols to minimize the risk of foodborne illnesses caused by bacterial contamination, high-profile public health stories regularly hit the headlines. The widespread use of pesticides and veterinary drugs in farming also means that ingredients are potentially exposed to a wide range of known and unknown chemical contaminants. Contamination can also occur during the handling, processing and packaging stages. Robust QC measures are therefore essential to identify issues as early as possible.

Equally, food adulteration and counterfeiting continue to be key challenges, with high-value products regularly targeted by food fraudsters. The Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that up to 10% of all commercially sold food products are affected by these practices, costing the industry between $10 and $15 billion each year and putting public health at risk.3 Comprehensive QC testing, supported by robust chain of custody data, is required to demonstrate quality and authenticity of goods, protect brands and safeguard consumers.

However, the extended nature of modern food supply chains can make delivering against these goals more difficult, especially if poorly integrated information management approaches are employed. As food supply chains have gone global, it has become increasingly common for businesses to operate storage, production and processing facilities across sites in multiple regions, countries and even continents. To deliver goods that meet well-defined safety and quality specifications, QC workflows must be built upon standardized protocols that are implemented correctly across the supply chain, regardless of the individual following them or the location in which they operate. These workflows must be supported by robust information exchange mechanisms that make sure the right decisions around product manufacturing and batch release can be made using accurate, complete and up-to-date information.

Improving QC Data Quality Using Integrated Data Management Solutions

With fragmented information management approaches often getting in the way of this ideal, many food businesses are looking to transform their poorly connected systems into informatics platforms that streamline operations, improve visibility and reduce errors. The latest LIMS allow businesses to bring all their QC data into a single integrated system, helping to harmonize processes and make information sharing more efficient to enhance product quality and safety.

Take the execution of standard operating procedures (SOPs) for pesticide residue testing, for example. By centrally connecting instruments and storing SOPs digitally on a LIMS, processes and parameters can be downloaded directly, eliminating the need for human error-prone manual set-up and supporting the consistent collection of data. Furthermore, because these SOPs are located in a centralized system, securely accessible to authorized users across all sites and facilities, the risk of SOPs becoming out of date or out of sync is greatly reduced. With guidance on residue levels regularly updated to reflect the evolving knowledge of these threats, ensuring the latest testing protocols are applied is particularly important.

Additionally, because LIMS capture and store QC measurements directly, as it is generated, they eliminate the need for labor-intensive transcription and data transfer processes. Not only does this improve measurement accuracy by taking human error out of the equation, it also boosts efficiency and reduces the administrative burden on those responsible for collecting QC data. As a result, experienced staff can spend less time on paperwork and data entry, and more time actively optimizing processes and finding solutions to other key challenges. With access to the most accurate and up-to-date information, businesses are better placed to maintain the integrity of the food supply chain and can act to resolve potential issues before they turn into more significant problems.

Supporting Well-Defined QC Processes and Regulatory Compliance

With international food regulators turning their attention to the methods used to assure the quality and authenticity of foodstuffs, supply chain stakeholders are now expected to have well-defined QC workflows that not only provide complete traceability of products from farm to fork, but also transparency around processes such as instrument calibration and data handling.

LIMS, laboratory information management system
Modern LIMS allow food businesses to visualize their workflow data using dashboards, process diagrams or facility maps. Image courtesy of Thermo Fisher Scientific.

LIMS allow food businesses to build regulatory compliance into their processes by providing a comprehensive overview of all supply chain data, including information associated with QC steps. As all data required to support proof of compliance is organized in a single system, it can be quickly and conveniently recalled for sharing or review purposes. Some of the latest systems allow users to visualize this data holistically on process diagrams or dashboards, helping to fulfill HACCP requirements and make keeping track of active workflows as easy as possible.

Furthermore, because LIMS can be used to capture and store data automatically, they also facilitate the real-time monitoring of supply chain processes, meaning out-of-specification QC parameters can be flagged and reported earlier. The sophisticated algorithms present in some of the latest LIMS can even be used to warn businesses of small but significant trends such as the decline in performance of an aging instrument, which could cause unexpected downtime or cause product quality standards to fall over time. These alerting capabilities mean potential issues can be remedied faster, helping stakeholders more proactively protect consumer safety.

Defensible data is central to protecting brand integrity, especially when it comes to issues around food adulteration and counterfeiting. As such, food businesses need robust data management tools that support complete traceability of actions. By automatically recording every interaction with the system to generate a comprehensive audit trail and facilitating the use of e-signatures to document review procedures, LIMS can safeguard the highest levels of accountability, from data collection all the way through to results reporting. Some of the most advanced LIMS also feature powerful audit trail search functionality, allowing authorized users to recall specific actions such as unusual QC activity or potentially non-compliant behavior. With a secure record of events and a single, integrated platform for supply chain data, food businesses can focus on what’s important—optimizing processes and delivering high-quality goods.

Optimizing and Safeguarding the Food Supply Chain Using LIMS

Modern LIMS allow food supply chain stakeholders to build regulatory compliance into their workflows by standardizing QC processes and giving authorized individuals full visibility over their data. By facilitating faster and more informed decision-making using accurate and up-to-the-minute data, LIMS are helping businesses meet current industry challenges head on to maintain the safety and integrity of the food supply chain.

References

  1. FDA. (November 2007). Food Protection Plan. Access April 7, 2019. Retrieved from , https://www.fda.gov/downloads/aboutfda/centeroffices/oc/officeofoperations/ucm121761.pdf .
  2.  International Organization for Standardization. (June 2018). ISO 22000:2018(en) Food safety management systems — Requirements for any organization in the food chain..
  3. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and A.T. Kearney. (2010). Consumer Product Fraud: Deterrence and Detection.

Technology Helps Your Food Safety Employees Work Smarter, Not Harder

By Maria Fontanazza
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As the use of technology in manufacturing and quality continues to expand, there are many opportunities to help food companies streamline operations and enhance efficiencies. During a brief chat with Food Safety Tech, Melody Ge, head of compliance at Corvium, Inc. talks about the benefits of using technology in manufacturing and why some companies may be hesitant to take the leap.

Food Safety Tech: Your recent Food Safety Tech article, “Changes in the Food Safety Industry: Face Them or Ignore Them”, highlighted the role of technology in improving efficiency. What are the top areas in which companies are challenged to streamline processes?

Melody Ge, Corvium
Melody Ge, head of compliance at Corvium, Inc.

Melody Ge: When talking about a company’s production process, the challenge usually comes from where to start. A company may have difficulty figuring out which areas in the processing line can either be automated or how they can use technology as an advantage.

The challenge could also come from the fact that only parts of the process can be automated with the current technology. For example, with hazard analysis or risk assessment—those processes still need the human brain. So within a process, part of it can be automated, and part of it can’t—that could be another challenge.

FST: What technologies can food companies use to better help them manage risk in manufacturing?

Ge: It depends on what’s out there and what products a company is producing. From a manufacturing perspective, they can use supply chain management software or document management software to help them manage their approved supplier program. Using technology can make it easier and more efficient for companies to manage the risks from incoming goods and suppliers as it centralizes their documentation to make it easy to access.

Technology also helps companies use online software to centralize training documents on one corporate site and deploy it to all employees at different levels.

And from a HACCP and Preventive Controls perspective, companies can use digital technology to document temperature, pH Value, humidity, pathogen testing results, etc.—all the types of data that help execute a HACCP plan can be automated and help manage risk. After all the information is centralized and digitalized, you can see the data and easily translate that to help manage risk.

FST: What are the current technology adoption hurdles, and how are you helping companies understand the value of technology versus a paper-based system?

Ge: I think some hurdles come from fear: What’s going to happen as a result of technology is unknown, and especially at this stage, how FDA will respond is unknown. FDA already announced that this smarter food safety era is coming, but no one knows whether there will be new requirements as a result. Will requirements change because manufacturers are using new technology? Those unknowns make manufacturers fearful about what’s going to happen.

Another fear factor is job loss. For example, if processes are automated, or AI is used to capture data, or record keeping is automated, then what am I going to do? Does the company still need me as a QA professional or supervisor? I think those can stand in the way of making changes. However, [companies or employees] shouldn’t think that way. Technology is not replacing QA professionals, but [rather it] helps them do higher-level jobs. For example, in the time saved by technology, QA professionals can read and digest the data results, and study the trends and recommend best practices to continuously improve their food safety management system. It makes their time more valuable to the company.

Another hurdle is understanding which steps in processes can be automated. There are so many technologies out there that have pros and cons, and whether it will fit with the manufacturer or the facility—there’s an overwhelming amount of information, and the QA technician needs time to digest and understand the process at the facility as well as the technology out there to then select the most suitable technology for a process.

As far as helping companies understand the ROI of technology, there are four areas where I think technology can add value:

  1. It provides increased efficiencies and accuracy of daily operations and data collection. It reduces human error. Let the technology help the food safety professionals document daily operational data.
  2. It streamlines the food safety management system for continuous improvement. Because technology helps the food safety professional do the job of daily data collection, the time saved can be used wisely to study the data and outcomes, and truly understand how they can bring their food safety management system to another level.
  3. It centralizes all the documents and records for management. Using technology, the food safety professional can see their SOPs, records and any related documents in one place. They don’t have to physically go to several places to see what’s happening operationally. This can also help increase efficiency during the audit process.
  4. Centralized data helps the food safety professional more easily see where the deficiencies are located.

Ultimately, the ROI is that advanced technology can help the food safety professional increase operational efficiency, reduce product waste and production downtime.

FST: Any additional comments about the role of technology in food manufacturing?

Ge: In echoing on FDA’s announcement, although the smarter food safety era comes with using advanced technology, the mentality has not changed as all—it’s always FSMA based and people led. We need people to use the technology, and that foundation isn’t changing. We are protecting our consumers from any potential food safety risk. We’re just using a more efficient way to help all of us achieve this goal. I believe in the future, all food facilities will use at least one technology out there to help them automate one or more processing steps. And if you start with one step at a time, it will generally take over the entire production process.

Visit Corvium at next week’s Food Safety Supply Chain Conference at USP in Rockville, MD. Unable to travel? Attend the program virtually!

Brian Sharp, SafetyChain Software
FST Soapbox

How Industry 4.0 Affects Food Safety and Quality Management

By Brian Sharp
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Brian Sharp, SafetyChain Software

The food and beverage industry is moving towards a fully connected production system with more methods available to automate data collection than ever before. But with all the promises of Industry 4.0, what are the true capabilities of communicating real-time plant floor insights? This article will explain how better capturing methods and analysis can drive data-driven decision making to optimize safety, quality and efficiency in food and beverage operations.

What Is Industry 4.0?

The term Industry 4.0 has many pseudonyms, such as Industrial Internet of Things, Manufacturing 4.0, and Smart Manufacturing, but they generally all refer to the idea that manufacturers will be able to connect all operations in their plants. Where the name Industry 4.0 comes into play is the thought that manufacturing is in its fourth wave of change. In the 1780s, the first industrial revolution started with machines and the “production line” and evolved to mass production in the 1870s; manufacturing entered into a new wave after the 1950s when automation was introduced.

In this current fourth wave of manufacturing, new technology is driving the change in production and the capabilities of what can be accomplished in facilities. A report from Deloitte Insights entitled “The Smart Factory” explains this new way of operations as “ a leap forward from more traditional automation to a fully connected and flexible system—one that can use a constant stream of data from connected operations and production systems to learn and adapt to new demands.”

By way of more sensors, connectivity, analytics, and breakthroughs in robotics and artificial intelligence, the future food and beverage plants will be able to meet customers’ demands for higher-quality products while increasing productivity. However, there is a stark reality that many food and beverage manufacturing facilities are over 50 years old and dealing with legacy equipment. And if an investment in new technology is made, often it is made because food and beverage plants need to reach compliance or fill a customer’s requirement.

“Regulatory compliance is huge,” says Steve Hartley of Matrix Control Systems during a recent SafetyChain webinar. “But if you are able to attach additional business value to that compliance, then incorporating technology into the organization becomes a lot easier.”

For instance, new technology that can help a facility follow regulated processes in food manufacturing can also help to create more consistency and increase the quality of your products. Additionally, if input from the entire organization is collected when investing in more technology and automation, then multiple departments will support the budget costs.

“One of the big things that we see happening with our customers is that they are digging into that production equipment,” says Hartley. “Lots of food manufacturing facilities are filled with all sorts of wonderful processing equipment, but leveraging not only the manufacturing capabilities, but also the data collection capabilities of that equipment is really powerful.”

What Automated Data collection Systems Can Do

Because large food and beverage companies sell a high volume of goods to a large number of customers, many have already automated their data collection. These facilities also receive goods from an intricate supply chain that spans vast distribution networks, thus making automated data collection from receiving all the way through shipping a necessity.

However, many companies are going beyond this and integrating production equipment on the plant floor to provide a deeper level of production and quality data. These types of operations are generally interested in going beyond just being in regulatory compliance, but working on their continuous improvement. What this data can do is to provide better data for better decision making. By knowing what parts of the plant are operating optimally and what areas aren’t, plant managers can to make changes that will unlock more potential from the production line.

Getting the most out of operations is one of the most frequently cited needs of food and beverage manufacturers. The best way to do this is to drive plant efficiencies, which means measuring performance, setting baselines and goals, and holding employees accountable. The key here is to not confine efficiencies to just one area of the facility, but to broaden the scope to include end-to-end processes, from supplier to customer.

“Take a scope that is relevant to everyone and that is relevant to the strategy of the company,” states Daniel Campos of London Consulting Group. A company’s overall strategy should drive the focus of all departments. No one lives in a silo, and every part of your operations affects all the other parts. So any one area that is falling below the goal set takes away value from the system as a whole. This becomes more crucial as the enterprise grows even more connected and dependent on data from each other.

Shortfalls of Industrial Automation Systems

When evaluating the scope of an operation, all areas of the plant should be assessed in terms of how data is being collected. Part of this information assessment is to learn what processes aren’t covered by automated data collection. This includes equipment without sensors that can record accurate measurements and readings.

Another area that should be identified as an entry point for possible faulty or incorrect data is where an operator is required to input information. Some of this might be simply validating that SOPs were followed, such as whether a piece of equipment was cleaned or not and if detergents were actually changed when required.

The quality and fidelity of the data is directly related to the effectiveness of the decisions made. As the saying goes, “Garbage in, garbage out.” But even good data alone doesn’t drive value, but rather information gleaned from the facts collected is where the true benefits can be harnessed to improve the food safety and quality of products produced.

So, if data is analyzed and found not to conform to a desired specification, then the goal is to find out why this is happening. Is the data being collected accurate? If not, why? If it is accurate, then what else is going on?
Additionally, the speed and complexity of today’s food processing plants requires this data to not just be in real time, but able to be captured in smaller increments to make better decisions. This type of data that is collected and analyzed infrequently can slip through the cracks because systems to collect and manage this category can be hard to find, unlike industrial automation systems.

One solution to this problem can be found in capturing data via mobile devices. Tablets and phones moving through the plant with operators can help collect information at the source. Plus, these devices enable managers and executives to see critical control point data as well as summaries of operational performance and out-of-spec occurrences, anytime and anywhere.

As food and beverage manufacturing plants continue to automate their data collection and increasingly connect their production processes, more data will come online in a multitude of ways, allowing for better decision making. Ultimately, this is the promise of Industry 4.0 and why digital transformation promises a higher level of food safety and quality in the future.

Nick Recht, TEKLYNX
FST Soapbox

Enterprise Label Management for Better Food Labeling

By Nick Recht
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Nick Recht, TEKLYNX

The concept of a food label is simple. Labels identify products, provide customers with necessary information and enable companies to receive and ship products worldwide. Yet growing customer demands, changing labeling regulations and an increasingly competitive global marketplace continue to have food and beverage manufacturers scrambling to maintain some semblance of simplicity in an increasingly complicated labeling environment. Furthermore, the stakes are high for managing labels. Food recalls continue to make headlines, and a growing number of consumers rely on identified allergens to be properly labeled so they can select food and beverages that are safe to consume.

Now, food and beverage manufacturers of all sizes are re-thinking how they manage their labeling environments to navigate this increasingly complicated labeling landscape. For these manufacturers, doing so often begins with a closer look at how labeling is viewed throughout their enterprise. When labeling is treated as a discrete operation within the food and beverage manufacturing process, the labeling environment often relies too heavily on manual processes and is prone to human error. By contrast, when labeling is viewed as an integrated component of the manufacturing process, food and beverage manufacturers greatly improve labeling accuracy, efficiency and agility.

So what does labeling look like as integrated component of the manufacturing process? Enter enterprise label management (ELM), a centralized approach to labeling that leverages existing business systems, eliminates manual process, and reduces IT overheard and the room for human error. It integrates label design, approval, security and print automation and holds the key to improving labeling speed, accuracy and agility.

ELM centralizes label management and integrates labeling with other business or ERP systems. It consists of these four primary label management components:

  1. The ability to create and print barcode labels used for shipping, inventory, products and more.
  2. Label approval, traceability, security, storage and version control for all labels created and printed.
  3. Print automation to remove human interaction from the printing process.
  4. A configurable browser printing interface for seamless label printing locally and around the globe.

Food and beverage manufacturers of all sizes can benefit from ELM. Typically, companies look to ELM when they are looking to reduce waste, mitigate risk or reduce disparate system management. ELM is also a natural fit within lean manufacturing initiatives because its integrated approach allows organizations to leverage existing business systems and often reduces IT overhead. And because ELM incorporates label approval, traceability, security and version control, food and beverage manufacturers that leverage it are better equipped to respond to and execute a food recall should that situation arise.

From an efficiency standpoint, food and beverage manufacturers realize many benefits from ELM implementations. ELM eliminates manual approval processes that often result in production delays. It also reduces manual, error-prone processes. The use of label templates allows food manufacturers to quickly adjust labels, making it easier to respond to changing label requirements such as the FDA’s new Nutrition Facts requirements or those items required by FSMA.

With ELM, the use of a configurable browser printing interface allows food and beverage manufacturers to manage labels at one location while enabling users to print labels at locations around the globe. This greatly improves a manufacturer’s ability to manage labels across its network of production facilities and distribution centers, and provides a labeling environment that can easily adjust as the company grows.

ELM can also serve as a competitive advantage for food and beverage manufacturers. For one leading consumer goods manufacturer, an ELM solution provided a way to become more competitive in the marketplace. The manufacturer was facing challenges, as its former labeling process relied too heavily on manual processes. Specifically, its manual data entry was time-consuming and error-prone. Its labeling environment was also unable to accommodate label changes without costly, custom development time. Labeling errors meant the company was at risk of losing customers and market share, and the inability to quickly accommodate label changes negatively impacted its ability to comply with changing customer requirements.

With ELM, the manufacturer realized a 75% reduction in label development time, resulting in an equal decrease in labor costs. In addition, access to label templates gave them complete flexibility to quickly respond to business and customer requirements. And because its label creation was now automated and integrated with its existing SAP system as part of the ELM implementation, the company was able to increase labeling efficiency while reducing errors.

For food and beverage manufacturers, the benefits of ELM are too compelling to ignore. Here are four signs your company may benefit from ELM:

  1. Your barcode label printing is manual and disjointed, with many clicks.
  2. Your label templates are decentralized and difficult to manage.
  3. You have manual label approval workflows and can’t apply securities and controls for design vs. print users.
  4. You have many local print installations.

If you’ve answered yes to one or more of these signs, ELM warrants a closer look. ELM implementations can run smoothly when you partner with an experienced barcode labeling solutions provider, and your company will be better positioned to navigate what has become a very complicated food and beverage labeling environment.

Martin Flusberg, Powerhouse Dynamics
Retail Food Safety Forum

Automating Food Safety Processes in Restaurants: How 1+1 Can Equal 3

By Martin Flusberg
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Martin Flusberg, Powerhouse Dynamics

With the recent death of Anthony Bourdain, the topic of restaurant food safety is once again on the minds of many people. It has been 19 years since Bourdain’s exposé in The New Yorker (Don’t Eat Before Reading This) and 18 years since his memoir Kitchen Confidential, which became a TV series and has rocketed to the top of the Amazon best seller list since his death. Bourdain identified many issues that restaurants struggle with, including those that affect the safety of the food being served.

While many of the issues chronicled by Bourdain probably continue to this day, there has been a push by the restaurant industry to address food safety over the intervening years, and particularly in the last two or three.

Many restaurant chains have taken steps to automate the HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) food safety reporting process—or at least are exploring that option. The first and most common approach has been to replace time consuming, error prone, manual data collection processes with mobile apps that digitize tasks, may include digital probes to replace manual temperature data recording, and may even track corrective actions. These systems deliver more accurate data than fully manual processes and are faster. They also ensure that the data is easily retrievable, both for management review and for the times that inspectors visit the facility. And, they generally address a broader set of food safety processes than temperature monitoring.

Another approach that has begun to catch on is the installation of fixed temperature sensors—usually but not always wireless—into refrigeration and food warming equipment. These systems will capture and report on temperature at regular intervals—in some cases as frequently as every minute. This eliminates the need to manually check temperatures in monitored equipment as part of HACCP reporting. Moreover, these systems generally offer real-time alerts that can help avoid food safety problems. The more advanced systems track corrective actions and deliver escalating alerts to notify additional team members about issues that have not yet been addressed.

Automated temperature monitoring systems don’t fully take the place of the mobile systems described above since they cannot capture all temperatures and do not address aspects of the food safety process other than temperature monitoring.

Interestingly, the vast majority of restaurant brands that have automated food safety reporting—or are looking to do so—with whom we have spoken have implemented one but not both of these approaches. And yet, the approaches are inherently complementary.

As noted, automated temperature monitoring systems don’t address all aspects of the food safety process, while mobile technology cannot provide real-time warnings about food safety issues so that they can be addressed before they turn into major problems. Moreover, while mobile apps are faster than paper and pencil, they still require staff time. By contrast, automated temperature monitoring systems require no labor for monitored equipment—other than to address problems that are flagged in real-time.

To illustrate the potential of combining these two approaches, consider these results reported to us by one of our customers, a major restaurant chain. This brand started with fixed temperature sensors in refrigeration and other equipment, while continuing to perform manual data collection. They recently added a mobile digital task list app as a test in a group of restaurants. Their findings: What had been a 17-minute HACCP data capture process was now down to two minutes! Not needing to manually capture data now being automatically collected was part of this story, but savings also resulted from the shorter distances the staff now needed to cover to complete the process. Over the course of four checks a day, these savings were significant.

The market for automating food safety tasks and reporting is still in an early stage but appears to be accelerating. The technology is here today and constantly being improved. We would encourage all companies on the retail side of food services to explore technologies that cover the broadest range of capabilities for automating food safety processes.

Three Ways Sanitation Automation Helps Food Processors Reduce Costs

By Bob Ogren
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Sanitation in a food processing plant is a large-scale effort that many organizations see as an added cost of doing business. Yet, it’s essential and can have costly consequences if done improperly.

Because time is money and facilities want to avoid any necessary downtime, the window for completing proper sanitation procedures is small. Many food processors simply put more people on the job while requiring them to work third shift, hoping to get things done faster.

Automating certain sanitation procedures in your plant can provide real benefits, many of which will help reduce the costs associated with food safety and keeping your facility clean. Here’s a look at the three main ways food plants can save by implementing automated sanitation solutions.

1. Resource Management

When you invest in sanitation automation, one of the biggest advantages is the increased understanding of how resources are being used. This knowledge and improved visibility gives you control of how resources such as water and chemicals are used during sanitation.

Butcher cleaning the floor at meat factory. Image courtesy of Birko.

Perhaps the most significant area in which facilities experience savings is through reduction of water usage. Automated solutions improve the efficiency of rinse cycles while ensuring appropriate water pressure is being used. Every plant has unique water needs, but you should expect water savings between 30% and 50%, depending on the solutions that are applied.

Sanitation automation will also lead to a reduction in energy costs. Using less water means less energy is required to heat that water. Advancements in sanitation technology have made certain solutions more energy efficient. Features such as multi-stage pumps for full alternation, motors that allow pumps to ramp up and down as needed, and flow switches that send pumps into “hibernate” mode help reduce electricity usage.

Waste water from food processing also needs to be treated before it goes down the drain. Less water treatment means fewer chemicals are needed.

Food processors that introduce automated sanitation solutions will use cleaning chemicals more efficiently. Automation ensures chemicals are dispensed precisely where they are needed at the correct concentration, without any over spray. Again, while every situation is unique, most facilities can expect a 20–30% reduction in chemistry costs.

In the end, you will have a very clear picture of the amount of water and chemistry needed to complete sanitation, and you’ll know the amount of time it should take. That means you can plan for more uptime.

Overall, not only can automation help food processors make efficient use of resources, it also makes them more sustainable.

2. Labor Costs

Labor is yet another resource that can be more effectively managed when there’s an investment in sanitation automation. The labor market is tight, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to hire the people needed to carry out sanitation work.

Sanitation often involves menial and tedious tasks that also require attention to detail. It usually entails working overnight when production stops, and certain responsibilities can be dangerous. At the same time, minimum wage is rising, and many organizations are looking to reduce labor costs.

Introducing sanitation automation can certainly cut labor expenses and remove the need to hire more people, but more importantly, it can make the workers you do have more productive. Automation should be used to eliminate menial tasks from sanitation workers. For example, instead of a person standing in front of a conveyor belt and spraying it down with a hose for hours on end, the job could be easily automated.

We worked with a brewer who was having two employees take as long as three hours to clean a filler. By automating that task, they turned it into a 45-minute job and allowed those employees to refocus their efforts. Plus, the before and after pictures of the equipment show a visible difference in cleanliness.

You can trust an automation solution to do a consistent job, and it will never call in sick.
Still, you’ll always need to have “boots on the ground” and human eyes evaluating sanitation. Automating certain sanitation practices will free up employees to work on more important duties that add value and keep them engaged in their work.

3. Mitigating Safety Risks

The most important thing sanitation automation provides is more peace of mind. No one wants to lose sleep worrying about a failed inspection or the potential for a worker injury. Automation reduces the risk of product contamination and lessens potentially dangerous situations for employees.

For instance, spiral freezers are particularly precarious areas to clean. Automating its cleaning process eliminates the need for a worker to maneuver through an unsafe space, reducing the likelihood of a workplace injury.

Human labor can also lead to human error. But, when sanitation tasks are automated, they become more consistent and easily repeatable. This is especially important for cleaning hard-to-reach problem spots that become harborage areas for bacteria. There may be a tendency among human workers to skip areas they can’t reach, or fail to clean them properly, but a machine cleans everything the same every time.

The monetary risk of contamination inside your facility is significant. For example, if Listeria were to take up residence in a plant, it could cost your business millions of dollars.

According to a study from the Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association, the average food product recall will have direct costs of $10 million while indirect costs could reach into the hundreds of millions. That’s because you also need to consider the ongoing cost of a damaged brand reputation, not to mention lost productivity from business interruptions and lost profits from disposing of potentially contaminated product.

Sanitation Automation: The Future is Now

There are many reasons to start implementing automation into your food and beverage plant’s sanitation practices. Food processors in Europe have been quicker to adopt these solutions because many of the same issues U.S. manufacturers face, such as wages and resource scarcity, can be even more pronounced overseas.

As the labor market in the United States presents challenges for hiring managers, and drought conditions in some regions make water a scarce commodity, automation presents an opportunity to bring your facility into the future. Add to those concerns the increased regulations from FSMA, and there is even more reason to invest in dependable sanitation solutions.

Food processors need to find trusted advisors who can evaluate operations inside the plant and look for ways to implement automation in ways that make the largest impact.

While there is certainly an upfront cost in automating sanitation, the potential savings and added visibility these solutions provide won’t take long to pay for themselves. In most cases, facilities that invest in sanitation automation will see a return within a year to 18 months. If done properly, you can achieve impressive cost-saving results through automation.

Steven Burton, Icicle Technologies
FST Soapbox

Automation Is Happening—Don’t Miss The Boat

By Steven Burton
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Steven Burton, Icicle Technologies

Successful businesses move fast. They stay ahead of their competition by keeping their eye on the newest and most innovative emerging technologies. Failure to embrace the newest, fastest means of production and communication allows other businesses to muscle ahead of slow-to-change competitors, especially in the food industry. This is why embracing automation—even if it requires a commitment from you and your whole organization — is absolutely necessary for every food company.

Guarantee Growth and Compliance with the Internet of Things

The innovation at the forefront of automation technology is the Internet of Things (IoT): Multiple devices interconnected to monitor, communicate and control in real time. Today, a farmer can monitor a crop located in Australia from North America. Ingredients from anywhere in the world can be brought together in a matter of days and distributed just as quickly. Agricultural robots that reduce the risk of contamination and food safety expectations have risen as a result. As exciting as it is to be a part of a constantly innovating food industry, it’s also becoming more challenging to keep up and adapt.

It’s also becoming more necessary. Regulatory agencies are working to keep pace with technological innovations. The standards of food safety—more global than ever—have grown in complexity and will continue to grow as improved, real-time monitoring of products and facilities extends into every type and size of food production company. Properly planned and applied food safety programs are vital to ensuring that globally sourced ingredients and production facilities adhere to regulations to avoid the consequences of failed audits and expensive recalls.

Even for those on top of their regulatory requirements, IoT and other automation technologies are friends, not foes. Automation means that preparation for audits and inspections is reduced to bare minimum, eliminating the need for binders, spreadsheets and months of prep work. Furthermore, one of the greatest challenges of today’s food chain is ensuring not only your own compliance, but the compliance of your vendors. Dealing with hundreds or thousands of incoming ingredients and other materials at any given time is a massive undertaking, let alone dealing with vendor certifications. Integrated, automated systems for food production management streamlines processes and communication and reduces the risk of error and recall throughout the supply chain.

Don’t Be Paralyzed by the F-word: Fear

It is clear to see that staying competitive and staying in business in an interconnected world is possible only if the newest technology is embraced. Why are some companies reluctant to adapt, even when they know it is crucial to a successful future?

Some fear that their managers and employees may not adapt, that their functioning programs already in place may be interrupted, and that ever-present fear of a price tag.

To alleviate these fears and embrace the power of the future, it is vital that the company’s new automation and IoT utilize a software that is:

  • User-friendly so that employees, new or existing, can hit the ground running
  • Capable of building upon an existing food safety program and continue its success
  • Able to improve existing food safety programs to ensure updated compliance
  • Cost-effective and a good business decision when compared to the cost of manpower and recalls

One of the most common reasons a company chooses not to implement a new technology concerns the last point: Cost. To maximize the benefit of automation and IoT, expenses like laptops, tablets and phones are advisable in addition to software. The cost of the software itself when there is a paper or spreadsheet system that is working may seem unnecessary—after all, why buy a telephone when the telegrams are working just fine? In the high-speed world we now live in, a low-speed business approach is fatal.

There is good news when it comes to automation adoption: In response to the growing need for technology and the reluctance of companies to take on the expense, new incentives are being put in place in order support businesses and keep a country’s economy competitive. For example, the U.S. Tax Cuts and Job Act of 2017 allow write-offs of new automation technology in the first year of purchase, vastly reducing the initial cost impact of implementing automation technologies. Many state and provincial governments provide grants for updating technology to improve safety and traceability.

Automation Will Feed the World

Technology and automation in agriculture and food production make a company competitive, but it is also an unavoidable requirement going forward. Looking at the big picture, it’s also necessary to meet the demands of a booming global population. Food is, in many ways, the most essential industry to human life.

In The Future of Food: Food Production, Innovation, and Technology, authors David B. Schmidt and Kimberly Reed say it clearly:

“Each U.S. farmer feeds more people worldwide than ever before, at 155 people per farmer. In 1960, that number was 25.8 people. By 2050, the same farmer will need to feed 232 people… With finite resources, it will take innovation and a variety of technologies to meet the world’s food demand. This includes using new technologies. At every step of the journey from farm to fork, technology is helping us produce a safe, abundant, sustainable, and nutritious food supply.”

It took centuries for the writing of letters to be replaced by telegrams. It took only 130 years from the invention of telegrams to the use of email. A farmer with a shovel is now a robot, with the agricultural robot market expected to increase by more than fivefold to $12.8 billion over six years. 94% of packaging operations use robotic technology today. A recent survey found that half of food companies interviewed plan to increase their use of automation in the next two years.

Where will food production be in 2020? And where will your company be in that near future?

Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

How Automation Benefits the Food and Beverage Industry

By Megan Ray Nichols
1 Comment
Megan Nichols

During seasonal volume and demand peaks in the food and beverage industry, common practice is to increase labor and mobile equipment supplies temporarily. While this works great for small- to medium-sized businesses even in the current landscape, it’s not ideal for larger teams. This is primarily due to the evolution of technology, especially in the automation sector.

Adding more labor and machines can help increase volume, but it comes with a sizeable cost, one that could be shaved with the right process and system updates. As one might expect, adopting advanced automation systems, robotics and processes that can be controlled via machinery or software is the answer. Believe it or not, these systems can be made to work alongside and improve performance of existing laborers and teams.

In fact, automation is taking many industries by storm, and it’s about time food and beverage companies climbed aboard. Automotive, construction and healthcare are just three examples of industries already being disrupted by automation and AI.

But how is the technology being adopted or implemented in the food industry, and how will companies benefit from incorporating such systems?

Better Quality Control

Along the food and beverage supply chain, there are so many involved processes, workers and touchpoints that it can be difficult to not only keep track of food, but also to monitor its quality. As you know, quality is of incredible importance in the industry. You don’t want faulty or contaminated foods entering the market because it can be detrimental. Food must always remain traceable and safe, and it’s difficult to guarantee a system that has so many working cogs.

Automation, however, can change that completely. With the appropriate systems, defects and issues can be noticed much earlier in the supply chain. By detecting problems during packaging or processing, you can cut down on the total number of problematic goods that enter the market. Better yet, you can accurately identify when and where those problems are coming from and remedy the issue for improved performance in the future. If something along your supply chain is the culprit, automation will help you hone in.

Eliminating contamination can be controlled — and achieved — by deploying the appropriate cooling and air compressor systems. However, that also means understanding where this hardware must be utilized for maximum reliability. Automation and analytics systems can be helpful in discerning this information, better protecting foods and goods along the chain.

It’s not a pipe dream, either — systems are already being adopted and implemented to achieve such a thing.

End-To-End Traceability

While we touched on the idea of traceability a little in the point above, it’s the lion’s share that’s really going to make a difference. Automation and modern analytics tools can be deployed to track products and goods from inception to fulfillment. Because the systems in question are designed to track and monitor on their own with little to no input, you can tap in anywhere along the chain to seek the information you need.

Have a contaminated shipment that was discovered too late? You can use the modern analytics and automation tools at your disposal to find exactly where they are shipped or headed. This way you can head off a massive health problem before it even starts.

This, in turn, can help alleviate compliance costs and stressors, as well as improve the overall performance of the supply chain and various key processes. You could, for example, see how long a particular stop or touchpoint along the supply chain is taking and use the information provided to speed up performance.

End-to-end traceability and all the data that comes with it is about more than just watching where food comes from, where it is handled and where it goes. You can use the data provided to build an accurate profile and predictive system for future gains.

Improved Worker Safety

Automation systems, AI and modern robotics are often used to control rote, repetitive and sometimes even dangerous tasks. In this way, you can save human laborers from the dangers of a particular activity or even the monotony of busy work. It frees them up to handle more important demands, which is another benefit.

Of course, increased safety and protection for your loyal workforce can also work to alleviate operation or maintenance costs in the long run. It can lead to faster and more widespread adoption of new standards and regulations for your workforce at large as well. Traditionally, such a change might require additional training, new equipment or even better protection for your workers.

In the case of automation, you can simply update the existing hardware and software to be compliant and save the trouble of maintaining everything else, such as updating safety gear for your workers, which would no longer be necessary.

Efficiency Boost

It’s no secret that when deployed and developed properly, a machine or automation system can perform work faster and better than human laborers, at least in some cases. A machine never tires, never gets bored and can never slack off—unless it has a malfunction. That’s not to say modern technologies will be used to replace workers outright, but instead, they might be deployed alongside them to help them work faster, better and safer.

Take Amazon, for instance, which has deployed an army of AI and automation robots inside their warehouses to improve the efficiency of their order fulfillment process. It has the added benefit of speeding up the entire system, so customers get their items faster. It also improves safety and performance for the workers, effectively eliminating unsafe tasks or rote work.

Automation can provide benefits across the board for the food and beverage industry. It will be interesting to see how technological developments unfold.

Randy Fields, Repositrak
FST Soapbox

Technology’s Role In The Future Of Food Safety

By Randy Fields
1 Comment
Randy Fields, Repositrak

As we have all read in the media, when a food safety emergency occurs, a company’s reputation stands to take a significant hit that may be unrecoverable. This phenomenon isn’t going away soon, nor are compliance requirements that pose a threat to the personal freedom of executives. If these aren’t enough reasons to get busy automating your food safety programs, read on.

Learn more about the future of food safety and technology at this year’s Food Safety Consortium, November 12–16 in Schaumburg, IL

The trends toward social and health-related product claims, like organic, the ‘free-froms’ and locally-grown, have had the impact of adding dozens if not hundreds of new suppliers to a retailer’s procurement list. And, it’s important to note, that these generally smaller suppliers are just now approaching their compliance deadlines for FSMA, and if they are very small, still have another year. New trends appear every year, and they will compound the challenge for retailers and wholesalers of knowing exactly who all of their suppliers are, which in turn will worsen compliance issues.

Our studies show that at least 12% of documents that certify organic, ‘free-froms’ and other product label claims have some level of discrepancy or inaccuracy making them invalid, and rendering the systems that rely on vendor self-disclosure near useless. With sales expected to skyrocket within these categories during the next few years, companies need to leverage technology to protect the supply chain, and consider having the system hold purchase orders generated for vendors who are not compliant with requirements.

An alternative is to have the system add a compliance fee to the purchase order that escalates over time or swiftly replace suppliers if they are not willing or not able to comply. That also speeds compliance as news travels quickly if there is a hard-hitting consequence for non-compliance. Either way, it’s important to be able to substantiate any claims to the consumer, since if those assertions are deemed unreliable, retailers and their suppliers risk a breach in consumer confidence and will suffer economically when shoppers turn away from them at the shelf.

And while retailers and wholesalers have begun to turn the Titanic on regulatory and business compliance, they need to continue to diligently find the risks in their supply chain, working even more aggressively to automate their current food safety and quality programs using new technology and procedures. Otherwise, their reputation and their existence are in jeopardy.

Cloud-based compliance management solutions that help retailers, wholesalers and suppliers meet the new food safety requirements can be configured to manage documentation requirements by supplier type vs. requiring the same documents from all suppliers. These systems also go beyond just storing digital copies of documents, and actually manage any form of compliance by reading inside the document to confirm it meets requirements. The benefits of these compliance management tools extend to streamlining new vendor approvals, which can save time and enable the redeployment of resources to more productive business-building activities.

Make no mistake: business and regulatory compliance will continue to be a focal point in the future. This includes addressing potential safety, certification and quality challenges throughout the extended supply chain as nearly one-third of all recalls are due to ingredient suppliers. We believe that in less than three years, retailers will require supply chain visibility from the shelf all the way back to “dirt”. It’s been proven too risky not to have that kind of visibility for ultimately everyone’s customer – the consumer. And now technology companies are on the hook to deliver it.

Clive Longbottom, Quocirca

The Internet of Things: What the Future Holds

By Clive Longbottom
1 Comment
Clive Longbottom, Quocirca

While the Internet of Things (IoT) is already having a major impact on safety in the food supply chain we’re only just scratching the surface of what connected devices can do to make the industry safer and more efficient. What strikes us as unique and innovative today will likely become standard across the food industry in the years to come as we find new and better ways to apply the technology in all aspects of the business.

One area we can expect to see the impact of the IoT grow is in a broader adoption of automation across the food supply chain. In the context of farming, we’re likely to see autonomous tractors supplant manually driven tractors as the primary equipment used to prepare land. Automated aerial drones will be able to assess the health of crops and deliver highly targeted applications of fertilizers, insecticides and weed killers to cut down on damage caused to crops by excessive use of those products. Transportation, too, is likely to see the impact of automation as driverless trucks take on the majority of shipments of goods.

Another key benefit the IoT will bring to the food industry is improved access to valuable data and in-depth analysis. This will allow more accurate tracking of shipments, better monitoring of quality throughout the supply chain and more useful prediction of potential problems. It’s here that we’re likely to see the biggest impact on pest management, as a broad network of connected sensors will be better able to identify and track pest populations, monitoring their movement and growth in a way that allows pest management professionals to target treatments more effectively. A recent survey of food professionals conducted by Quocirca and commissioned by Rentokil Initial shows that 20% of respondents think IoT will help them deal with cyclical problems such as pest swarms and seasonal flooding, while 19% believe it will provide the most benefit by alerting them to immediate issues such as unexpected pest infestations.

One thing we know for sure is that the technology will become more widely adopted throughout the industry as innovation drives costs down. Initially it will be difficult for smaller organizations with lower margins to invest in cutting edge technology, but as iteration and innovation push the boundaries of what IoT can do, they will also make more basic applications more affordable, as we’ve seen with technology across many industries in recent years.

While it’s easy to speculate and imagine a sci-fi-inspired future of driverless trucks, automated farm machines and limitless access to deep analytics, accurately predicting the exact applications of the IoT as it develops proves more difficult. What we do know is that we can expect the adoption of these technologies to grow at an increasing rate as more innovative and cost effective applications of the IoT are developed.