During the production process, physical hazards can contaminate food products, making them unfit for human consumption. According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the leading cause of food recalls is foreign material contamination. This includes 20 of the top 50, and three of the top five, largest food recalls issued in 2019.
As methods for detecting foreign materials in food have improved over time, you might think that associated recalls should be declining. To the contrary, USDA FSIS and FDA recalls due to foreign material seem to be increasing. During the entire calendar year of 2018, 28 of the 382 food recalls (7.3%) in the USDA’s recall case archive were for foreign material contamination. Through 2019, this figure increased to approximately 50 of the 337 food recalls (14.8%). Each of these recalls may have had a significant negative impact on those brands and their customers, which makes foreign material detection a crucial component of any food safety system.
The FDA notes, “hard or sharp foreign materials found in food may cause traumatic injury, including laceration and perforation of tissues of the mouth, tongue, throat, stomach and intestine, as well as damage to the teeth and gums”. Metal, plastic and glass are by far the most common types of foreign materials. There are many ways foreign materials can be introduced into a product, including raw materials, employee error, maintenance and cleaning procedures, and equipment malfunction or breakage during the manufacturing and packaging processes.
The increasing use of automation and machinery to perform tasks that were once done by hand are likely driving increases in foreign matter contamination. In addition, improved manufacturer capabilities to detect particles in food could be triggering these recalls, as most of the recalls have been voluntary by the manufacturer.
To prevent foreign material recalls, it is key to first prevent foreign materials in food production facilities. A proper food safety/ HACCP plan should be introduced to prevent these contaminants from ending up in the finished food product through prevention, detection and investigation.
Food manufacturers also have a variety of options when it comes to the detection of foreign objects from entering food on production lines. In addition to metal detectors, x-ray systems, optical sorting and camera-based systems, novel methods such as infrared multi-wavelength imaging and nuclear magnetic resonance are in development to resolve the problem of detection of similar foreign materials in a complex background. Such systems are commonly identified as CCPs (Critical Control Points)/preventive controls within our food safety plans.
But what factors should you focus on when deciding between different inspection systems? Product type, flow characteristics, particle size, density and blended components are important factors in foreign material detection. Typically, food manufacturers use metal and/or x-ray inspection for foreign material detection in food production as their CCP/preventive control. While both technologies are commonly used, there are reasons why x-ray inspection is becoming more popular. Foreign objects can vary in size and material, so a detection method like an x-ray that is based on density often provides the best performance.
Regardless of which detection system you choose, keep in mind that FSMA gives FDA the power to scientifically evaluate food safety programs and preventive controls implemented in a food production facility, so validation and verification are crucial elements of any detection system.
It is also important to remember that a key element of any validation system is the equipment validation process. This process ensures that your equipment operates properly and is appropriate for its intended use. This process consists of three steps: Installation qualification, operational qualification and performance qualification.
Installation qualification is the first step of the equipment validation process, designed to ensure that the instrument is properly installed, in a suitable environment free from interference. This process takes into consideration the necessary electrical requirements such as voltage and frequency ratings, as well as other factors related with the environment, such as temperature and humidity. These requirements are generally established by the manufacturer and can be found within the installation manual.
The second step is operational qualification. This ensures that the equipment will operate according to its technical specification. In order to achieve this, the general functions of the equipment must be tested within the specified range limits. Therefore, this step focuses on the overall functionality of the instrument.
The third and last step is the performance qualification, which is focused on providing documented evidence through specific tests that the instrument will performs according to the routine specifications. These requirements could be established by internal and industry standards.
Following these three steps will allow you to provide documented evidence that the equipment will perform adequately within the work environment and for the intended process. After completion of the equipment validation process, monitoring and verification procedures must be established to guarantee the correct operation of the instrument, as well procedures to address deviations and recordkeeping. This will help you effectively control the hazards identified within our operation.
There can be massive consequences if products contaminated with foreign material are purchased and consumed by the public. That’s why the development and implementation of a strong food safety/ HACCP plan, coupled with the selection and validation of your detection equipment, are so important. These steps are each key elements in protecting your customers and your brand.
Consumer safety is of paramount importance and product recalls are a necessary means to this end. Product recalls are a serious, complex, and costly issue affecting the food and beverage industry in the United States. The FDA estimates that there are around 48 million cases of foodborne illness each year—causing one in six Americans to get sick from contaminated food. In addition to affecting public health, recalls have a dramatic effect on manufacturers by creating economic problems, damaging a company’s reputation, and imposing potential legal penalties and liabilities. In the search for a business management solution to better prepare themselves for and reduce the risk of recalls in their operations, many food manufacturers have discovered that technology, specifically ERP software, is key to lowering the risk of food and beverage product recalls.
An industry-specific ERP solution is a centralized business system with key industry features providing a system of record-keeping, with the tools to support the preparation and reduction of recall risks. While a manufacturer is ultimately responsible for a product recall, an ERP solution is essential in supporting and championing overall recall readiness and reduction. With the streamlined and automated inventory, manufacturing, and quality control processes managed within the software, critical steps and data that assist in recall mitigation are documented—including supplier verification records, audit logs, receipt records, quality testing, lot tracking, and shipment logs. The key to prevention of a product recall is preparation, which can be handled efficiently through an ERP’s functionality specifically in the following areas.
An ERP facilitates best practices for supplier management and risk assessment within the solution to assure the acquisition of quality raw materials from trusted vendors. Its role is to maintain an approved supplier list for each product ingredient, documenting detailed supplier information, quality control test results, and risk level to ensure in-house and customer-specific standards are met. For approved or activated suppliers, information regarding materials that can be purchased through the vendor, applicable certifications, quality control results, and other pertinent supplier information is stored within the centralized data system of the ERP. A risk assessment for each vendor is also documented to ensure that any potential inherent risk(s) from vendor-issued recalls and to finished goods are limited.
In addition to activated suppliers, an ERP solution also assigns and manages qualified alternates to provide vetted selections should a primary supplier’s materials become unavailable. This positions a company well in the supply chain, as the investigative work has already been conducted on other suppliers, limiting the need and risk associated with onboarding an unknown supplier in a moment of crisis. Vendors are recorded within the system and ranked in order of preference and/or risk level so that they can be identified and put into use quickly if a supplier becomes unavailable—providing the preparation and leverage that companies need to mitigate the risk to safety in the supply chain. In a product recall situation, when a supplier notifies a customer of a contaminated ingredient, the supplier management feature within the ERP solution provides for a qualified replacement vendor that can fulfill the needed raw material quickly and efficiently.
An ERP system offers end-to-end traceability, maintaining a comprehensive record that tracks raw ingredients, work-in-progress, and final products throughout the supply chain using barcode scanning to link product and lot information to batch tickets, QC testing results, shipping documents, and labels. This full forward and backward lot traceability is necessary to provide a documented audit trail imperative to locating raw materials or finished goods quickly within the initial 24-hour time period of a product recall. With full manufacturing, inventory, and reporting integrations, the ERP supports sound manufacturing practices that assist with recall preparedness – maintaining current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP), FDA reporting, GFSI compliance, and other industry-specific regulations to provide a documented audit trail with the ability to adapt as compliance requirements change.
Managing protocols to ensure the quality of inbound and outbound materials is essential in minimizing recall risk across the entire supply chain—from raw materials to the delivered final product. With an industry-specific ERP solution, formulas, recipes and instructions are maintained, scaled and verified to ensure consistency of products within the manufacturing process. This instills preventative measures throughout the production cycle in the form of process steps and quality control test specifications to bolster safety and quality. Quality features such as quarantine status and other status capabilities permit the isolating, removing and disposing of raw ingredients and finished goods that fail to meet quality control standards—triggering an alert to notify the purchasing department to investigate the issue. Having the ability to remove ingredients and finished goods from inventory or production prevents contaminated items from reaching store shelves and consumers, which reduces overall recall risk.
Inventory control practices are an important part of the functionality within an ERP solution that help to reduce overall recall risk. This includes managing and reporting of shelf life and expiration dates to maintain precise and lean control of inventory and reduce variances. Automated inventory transactions with the use of an ERP’s warehouse management solution (WMS) follow industry best practices and improve efficiency to ensure the accuracy of shipments, transfers, and material returns. This real-time visibility allows for the maintenance of FIFO inventory practices necessary to reduce the risk of spoilage.
One of the leading causes of contamination for food and beverage manufacturers that results in a recall event is a lack of allergen control throughout the supply chain and production process. An ERP system helps to track, manage and record the handling, storage and batch steps of raw materials from farm-to-fork. This includes stringent sanitary practices, lot tracking, raw material segregation and process controls to avoid allergen contamination or cross-contamination. Accurate product labeling is also a significant factor in reducing risk and an automated system that generates nutritional and product package labels plays a key role in a company’s recall prevention. To meet the needs of consumers and regulators, an ERP solution automates label creation to include accurate ingredient and allergen statements, nutrient analysis, expiration dates, lot and batch numbers, and regulatory specifications. The labeling history documented in the software allows products to be identified and located quickly in the event of a recall.
Utilizing the recall functionality in the ERP solution allows companies to plan and test their recall process in advance. Performing mock recalls permits regular measurement and improvement of procedures to ensure rapid, accurate, and thorough responses by all company stakeholders in the event of a recall. A successful simulated exercise identifies 100% of recalled ingredients/products and notifies appropriate entities in a timely manner. Evaluation and documentation of mock recall exercises help expose inefficiencies, process gaps and procedural adjustments, which are designed to improve recall readiness and minimize consumer exposure to potentially dangerous contaminants.
As proof or documentation of adherence to specific processes, reporting is essential to demonstrate that these processes have been completed—without it, an integral component is missing. Across the supply chain and throughout the manufacturing process, documentation and reporting accentuate steps that have been taken to prepare and reduce recall risk. Risk-based assessments in supplier management, lot traceability reports, and mock recall reporting all provide a starting point of analysis to allow for adjustments to be made across the business. In a recall situation, the system is able to create lot tracking reports that encompass raw ingredients through shipped finished goods. These reports can be produced in minutes, rather than the hours it takes if data is stored within separate software programs.
Due to the amount of time and money that food and beverage companies invest in getting their products to market, it is imperative that preventative measures are taken in order to avoid a product recall. Forward-thinking manufacturers can help prepare for and reduce recall risks by utilizing several important features in ERP software—including supplier management, inventory control, and reporting. Using the tools at their disposal, a company can mitigate liabilities and protect their brand to turn a potential crisis into a future filled with opportunities.
With significant clusters of COVID-19 infection among employees—16,000 cases and 86 deaths documented by the CDC through May 2020 — the food processing and distribution industry faces significant challenges in reopening their facilities and ramping up to full capacity. Technology for health and safety access governance and intelligence, along with guidelines from the CDC and OSHA, can help support food companies in the automation of certain compliance activities and a safe return-to-work strategy.
Designated part of the essential critical infrastructure by the federal government at the onset of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, the food supply chain needs active solutions to protect its workforce. But there’s more to this back-to-work transition. Workers need to feel safe and trust that new security, safety and compliance processes have their best interests in mind—transferring to an overall positive experience with their employer.
In the age of contagion, the food industry requires ways to communicate better with the workforce, identify and isolate areas of contagion and also deal with the lingering presence of potential bioterrorism, insider threat and cyber-attack. It’s a multi-faceted and complex workspace we’re reentering, one that takes coordination of technology, people and processes. Without it, food suppliers risk plant shutdowns and loss of business continuity.
Bioterrorism and insider threat remain an active part of the supply chain landscape. In fact, according to a June 2020 Wall Street Journal Pro Research Survey of cybersecurity executives at nearly 400 companies, 67% were concerned about malicious insiders. Remote workers and lax controls have exacerbated the situation and rising threats include malicious employees, accidental negligence, contractor or vendor misuse and account compromise.
The Landscape of Collaboration
The ongoing coordination between human resources (HR) and security is a collaborative effort that bolsters food defense in a COVID-19 world. Fueled by digital transformation, converged physical security and HR management solutions are wound together tightly in a coordinated and analytical approach to keep food industry employees safe and operations running smoothly.
These departments, once siloed and co-existing without direct interaction, are benefiting from software’s move to the cloud and open operating platforms, which provides increased opportunity for real-time integration of HR, security and facilities technologies. Moving to a converged approach across all departments, including HR, IT/cyber and operational technology (OT)/SCADA—can effectively secure our most critical food production and distribution resources while actively enforcing compliance and company policies, including COVID-19 mandates. In addition, physical security access governance, in a holistic manner, protects food industry workers and processes from compromised identities, systems and insider threats.
HR and physical security now have the ability to share data-insights to prevent, detect and mitigate the spread of contagions. With this convergence, organizations have the information they need to actively defend and protect the workforce, focusing on the human side of security to yield a positive experience.
Enabling a Safe and Healthy Return to Work
This time of unprecedented change has triggered a tectonic shift in the way organizations have been dealing with the health, security and safety of their workforce. Sensing a coming tsunami, HR, corporate real estate and physical security leaders are realizing that they must stop operating in silos and embrace a holistic approach. Enterprise response and recovery plans have become a major catalyst for converged security, as it has proven to be the most effective way to manage workspace access, enforce workforce security, safety and privacy.
Reopening with Technology at Your Back
Physical identity access management (PIAM) software, including visitor identity management (VIM) are convergence platforms that deliver identity and access governance, health and safety intelligence and compliance validation across the enterprise. PIAM provides a safer work environment by managing physical, logical and operational technology access for employees and visitors, actively enforcing company policies, compliance and industry regulations with built-in best practices and regulatory controls. Automated policy-driven background checks yield real-time vetting of visitors, contractors and employees while validating and identifying any policy violations. PIAM and VIM keeps facilities and workers safe, making sure the employees and visitors only have access to the areas, data and assets they need, including vital food processing areas where deliberate sabotage needs to be kept at bay.
While prevention of bioterrorism and insider threat is ongoing at food distribution, production and processing facilities there’s been a notable shift during the pandemic that focuses on the health and safety of workers. Security is no longer simply about keeping the bad guys out; it’s about safety and protecting workers from unsafe behavior.
Workforce health and safety access governance software solutions help organizations open safely in a frictionless, controlled and secure way by automating and enforcing COVID-19 related policies and procedures. Automated batch email/text notifications with self-service links send requests to the remote workforce for self-attestation and self-reporting offsite and enable access by the worker to the facility based on health, travel and other company policies.
Here’s how it works: An employee completes the self-reporting health and travel questionnaire through a mobile app, which triggers automated workflows based on those answers. These health questionnaires collect data and document employee activity during lockdown, including infection, symptoms or exposure. The employee’s self-attestation request comes to the manager for action, and based on answers the worker is considered high risk and per policy their access to the facility is revoked for 14 days while they are in quarantine. A similar self-attestation and workflow then applies to reinstatement for the employee. This reporting and workflow can be configured specifically to the facility. Enterprises can further customize their visitor identity management to provide clear communication of current policies during the outbreak, reinforcing WHO best practices.
Focus on Health and Safety
Health and safety access governance and intelligence provides prescreening support of workforce site entry with automated policy enforcements. Pre-registered and onsite visitors/contractors check-in/check-out with prescreening, watch list and other checks prior to access. In the production or distribution facility, health and safety analytics track confirmed or potentially exposed COVID-19 workers, identify exposed areas for lockdown and/or sanitization, social distancing violation, location heat map and other actionable health & safety analytics.
PIAM also allows you to automate your communications and deliver clear expectations and procedures to your workforce, visitors and contractors pre-visit and onsite—adding to a seamless experience.
Security convergence delivers a comprehensive, holistic solution across the entire food value chain, from sourcing to production to retail distribution. Human resources and physical security have teamed up—yielding real-time data that can prevent, detect and mitigate the spread of contagions. With this convergence comes greater situational awareness that defends and protects the workforce, with a strong focus on safety and building trust between worker and employer.
The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated existing disconnects between food supply and demand. While some may be noticing these issues on a broader scale for the first time, the reality is that there have been challenges in our food supply chains for decades. A lack of accurate data and information sharing is the core of the problem and had greater impact due to the pandemic. Outdated technologies are preventing advancements and efficiencies, resulting in the paradox of mounting food insecurity and food waste.
To bridge this disconnect, the food industry needs to implement innovative AI and machine learning technologies to prevent shortages, overages and waste as COVID-19 subsides. Solutions that enable data sharing and collaboration are essential to build more resilient food supply chains for the future.
Data-sharing technologies that can help alleviate these problems have been under development for decades, but food supply chains have been slow to innovate compared to other industries. By reviewing the top four data-sharing technologies used in food industry and the year they were introduced to food supply chains, it’s evident that the pace of technology innovation and adoption needs to accelerate to advance the industry.
A History of Technology Adoption in the Food Industry
The Barcode – 19741
We’re all familiar with the barcode—that assemblage of lines translated into numbers and letters conveying information about a product. When a cashier scans a barcode, the correct price pops up on the POS, and the sale data is recorded for inventory management. Barcodes are inexpensive and easy to implement. However, they only provide basic information, such as a product’s name, type, and price. Also, while you can glean information from a barcode, you can’t change it or add information to it. In addition, barcodes only group products by category—as opposed to radio-frequency identification (RFID), which provides a different code for every single item.
EDI First Multi-Industry Standards – 19812
Electronic data interchange (EDI) is just what it sounds like—the concept of sharing information electronically instead of on paper. Since EDI standardizes documents and the way they’re transferred, communication between business partners along the supply chain is easier, more efficient, and human error is reduced. To share information via EDI, however, software is required. This software can be challenging for businesses to implement and requires IT expertise to handle updates and maintenance.
RFID in the Food Supply Chain – 20033
RFID and RFID tags are encoded with information that can be transmitted to a reader device via radio waves, allowing businesses to identify and track products and assets. The reader device translates the radio waves into usable data, which then lands in a database for tracking and analysis.
RFID tags hold a lot more data than barcodes—and data is accessible in remote locations and easily shared along the supply chain to boost transparency and trust. Unlike barcode scanners, which need a direct line of sight to a code, RFID readers can read multiple tags at once from any direction. Businesses can use RFID to track products from producer to supplier to retailer in real time.
In 2003, Walmart rolled out a pilot program requiring 100 of its suppliers to use RFID technology by 2005.3 However, the retail giant wasn’t able to scale up the program. While prices have dropped from 35–40 cents during Walmart’s pilot to just 5 cents each as of 2018, RFID tags are still more expensive than barcodes.4 They can also be harder to implement and configure. Since active tags have such a long reach, businesses also need to ensure that scammers can’t intercept sensitive data.
Blockchain – 20175
A blockchain is a digital ledger of blocks (records) used to record data across multiple transactions. Changes are recorded in real-time, making the history unfalsifiable and transparent. Along the food supply chain, users can tag food, materials, compliance certificates and more with a set of information that’s recorded on the blockchain. Partners can easily follow the item through the physical supply chain, and new information is recorded in real-time.
Blockchain is more secure and transparent, less vulnerable to fraud, and more scalable than technologies like RFID. When paired with embedded sensors and RFID tags, the tech offers easier record-keeping and better provenance tracking, so it can address and help solve traceability problems. Blockchain boosts trust by reducing food falsification and decreasing delays in the supply chain.6
On the negative side, the cost of transaction processing with blockchain is high. Not to mention, the technology is confusing to many, which hinders adoption. Finally, while more transparency is good news, there’s such a thing as too much transparency; there needs to be a balance, so competitors don’t have too much access to sensitive data.
Cloud-Based Demand Forecasting – 2019 to present7
Cloud-based demand forecasting uses machine learning and AI to predict demand for various products at different points in the food supply chain. This technology leverages other technologies on this list to enhance communication across supply chain partners and improve the accuracy of demand forecasting, resulting in less waste and more profit for the food industry. It enables huge volumes of data to be used to predict demand, including past buying patterns, market changes, weather, events and holidays, social media input and more to create a more accurate picture of demand.
The alternative to cloud-based demand forecasting that is still in use today involves Excel or manual spreadsheets and lots of number crunching, which are time-intensive and prone to human error. This manual approach is not a sustainable process, but AI, machine learning and automation can step in to resolve these issues.
Obtaining real-time insights from a centralized, accurate and accessible data source enables food suppliers, brokers, distributors, brands and retailers to share information and be nimble, improving their ability to adjust supply in response to factors influencing demand.8 This, in turn, reduces cost, time and food waste, since brands can accurately predict how much to produce down to the individual SKU level, where to send it and even what factors might impact it along the way.
Speeding Up Adoption
As illustrated in Figure 1, the pace of technology change in the food industry has been slow compared to other industries, such as music and telecommunications. But we now have the tools, the data and the brainpower to create more resilient food supply chains.
Given the inherent connectivity of partners in the food supply chain, we now need to work together to connect information systems in ways that give us the insights needed to deliver exactly the rights foods to the right places, at the right time. This will not only improve consumer satisfaction but will also protect revenue and margins up and down food supply chains and reduce global waste.
- Weightman, G. (2015). The History of the Bar Code. Smithsonian Magazine.
- Locken, S. (2012). History of EDI Technology. EDI Alliance.
- Markoff, R, Seifert, R. (2019). RFID: Yesterday’s blockchain. International Institute for Management Development.
- Wollenhaupt, G. (2018). What’s next for RFID? Supply Chain Dive.
- Tran, S. (2019). IBM Food Trust: Cutting Through the Complexity of the World’s Food Supply with Blockchain. Blockchain News.
- Galvez, J, Mejuto, J.C., Simal-Gandara, J. (2018). Future Challenge on the use of blockchain for food traceability analysis. Science Direct.
- (2019). Crisp launches with $14.2 million to cut food waste using big data. Venture Beat.
- Dixie, G. (2005). The Impact of Supply and Demand. Marketing Extension Guide.
The coronavirus pandemic has turned so many aspects of businesses upside down; it is changing how companies approach and execute their strategy. The issue touches all aspects of business and operations, and in a brief Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Mike Edgett of Sage touches on just a few areas in which the future of food manufacturing looks different.
Food Safety Tech: How are food manufacturers and meat processors using AI and robotics to mitigate risks posed by COVID-19?
Mike Edgett: Many food manufacturers and meat processors have had to look to new technologies to account for the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. While most of these measures have been vital in preventing further spread of the virus (or any virus/disease that may present itself in the future), they’ve also given many food manufacturers insight into how these technologies could have a longer-term impact on their operations.
For instance, the mindset that certain jobs needed to be manual have been reconsidered. Companies are embracing automation (e.g., the boning and chopping of meat in a meatpacking plant) to replace historically manual processes. While it may take a while for innovations like this to be incorporated fully, COVID-19 has certainly increased appetite amongst executives who are trying to avoid shutdowns and expedited the potential for future adoption.
FST: What sanitation procedures should be in place to minimize the spread of pathogens and viruses?
Edgett: In the post-COVID-19 era, manufacturers must expand their view of sanitation requirements. It is more than whether the processing equipment is clean. Companies must be diligent and critical of themselves at every juncture—especially when it comes to how staff and equipment are utilized.
While working from home wasn’t a common practice in the manufacturing industry prior to March 2020, it will be increasingly popular moving forward. Such a setup will allow for a less congested workplace, as well as more space and time for bolstered sanitation practices to take place. Now and in the future, third-party cleaning crews will be used onsite and for machinery on a daily basis, with many corporations also experimenting with new ways to maintain the highest cleanliness standards.
This includes the potential for UV sterilization (a tactic that is being experimented with across industries), new ways to sterilize airflow (which is particularly important in meatpacking plants, where stagnant air is the enemy) and the inclusion of robotics (which could be used overnight to avoid overlap with human employees). These all have the potential to minimize the spread of pathogens and, ultimately, all viruses that may arise.
FST: How is the food industry adjusting to the remote working environment?
Edgett: While the pandemic has changed the ways businesses and employees work across most industries, F&B manufacturers did face some unique challenges in shifting to a remote working environment.
Manufacturing as a whole has always relied on the work of humans, overseeing systems, machinery and technology to finalize production—but COVID-19 has changed who and how many people can be present in a plant at once. Naturally, at the start of the pandemic, this meant that schedules and shifts had to be altered, and certain portions of managerial oversight had to be completed virtually.
Of course, with employee and consumer safety of paramount concern, cleaning crews and sanitation practices have taken precedent, and have been woven effectively and efficiently into altered schedules.
While workers that are essential to the manufacturing process have been continuing to work in many facilities, there will likely be expanded and extended work-from-home policies for other functions within the F&B manufacturing industry moving forward. This will result in companies needed to embrace technology that can support this work environment.
FST: Can you briefly explain how traceability is playing an even larger role during the pandemic?
Edgett: The importance of complete traceability for food manufacturers has never been greater. While traceability is by no means a new concept, COVID-19 has not only made it the number one purchasing decision for your customers, but [it is also] a vital public health consideration.
The good news is that much of the industry recognizes this. In fact, according to a survey conducted by Sage and IDC, manufacturing executives said a key goal of theirs is to achieve 100% traceability over production and supply chain, which serves as a large part of their holistic digital mission.
Traceability was already a critical concern for most manufacturers—especially those with a younger customer base. However, the current environment has shone an even greater spotlight on the importance of having a complete picture of not only where our food comes from—but [also] the facilities and machinery used in its production. Major budget allocations will surely be directed toward traceability over the next 5–10 years.
Around the world, countries are beginning to take tentative steps toward a return to normalcy following months of stay-at-home mandates and other restrictions in light of COVID-19. Slowly, we’re starting to see employees return to their offices, retail stores open their doors, and restaurants welcome back patrons. However, many will find themselves in a world dramatically different from the one they left before quarantine.
Namely, on top of social distancing and disinfection measures to control further spread of the virus, entire industries are re-examining their legacy processes and systems—especially ones that presented operational challenges at the pandemic’s outbreak—the food manufacturing industry included.
In truth, food manufacturers have gone to great lengths to maintain productivity and output to meet demand throughout the pandemic. But they have done so in the face of unprecedented circumstances, with many plants operating with limited workforces and key employees like quality professionals and plant managers shifted to remote work. Lacking connectivity between those on the plant floor and at home due to long-held manual processes, a growing number of manufacturers must now take a hard look at their quality and safety programs and embrace digital tools.
A Wake-Up Call for Digital Transformation
Most technological investments in food manufacturing over the past several decades have centered on electro-mechanical automation designed to scale up the physical production process. Fewer investments, however, have been made on the equally important data-driven, decision-making process necessary for ensuring optimal performance, food quality and safety.
Even in the most heavily automated plants, it’s not uncommon to find manufacturers managing quality through manually updated spreadsheets, which are often only reviewed after the fact, when it’s too late for remedial correction. There are unfortunately also those who still rely on paper checklists, making it practically impossible to take proactive action on collected process data—much less get the information in front of remote quality professionals and managers. Meanwhile, others have gone as far as adopting software solutions for quality data management and process control, but these tend to be on-premises systems that employees can’t access outside of the four walls of the plant.
We have also seen many examples where, due to workforce restrictions and availability, employees from other parts of the manufacturing business (e.g., R&D, IT, and back-office teams) have been brought in to perform plant-floor activities like quality and food safety checks. The goal has been to prevent impediments to production output, just when demand has increased substantially. But ensuring that these employees perform the checks on time and in the correct way—with little time for training or coaching—has left many plant leaders in a precarious position.
The challenges seen with these capabilities and enabling geographically dispersed teams to work together through the pandemic have been a wake-up call of sorts for digital transformation. Manufacturers are coming to the realization that they’ll need data accessibility, actionability and adaptability along the road to recovery and in the post-COVID-19 world. And with social distancing and other workplace precautions expected to continue for the foreseeable future, the imperative is all the more urgent.
The Solution Lies in the Cloud
To digitally transform quality and safety programs today, food manufacturers should prioritize investment in the cloud. Notably, cloud-based quality management systems offer a way to standardize and centralize critical process information, as well as tools to empower employees at all levels of the enterprise.
For plant-floor operators struggling to keep up on account of reduced workforce sizes, such solutions can automate routine yet important activities for quality assurance, including data collection, process monitoring and reporting. If a team member needs to cover a different shift or unfamiliar task, role-based dashboards can help them to see required actions, while process workflows can provide guidance to ensure proper steps are taken even with a limited workforce. Further, automated alerts can provide timely notifications of any issues—whether it be a missed data collection or an actual food quality or safety concern present in the data.
Perhaps most importantly during the pandemic and for the post-COVID-19 world, the cloud makes critical quality data instantly and easily accessible from anywhere, at any time. Quality professionals, plant managers, and other decision-makers can continue to monitor and analyze real-time process data, as well as observe performance trends to prevent issues from escalating—all safely from home.
The scalability of cloud-based solutions also streamlines deployment so organizations can rapidly implement and standardize on a single system across multiple lines and sites. In doing so, it becomes possible to run cross-plant analyses to identify opportunities for widescale process improvement and align best practices for optimal quality control at all sites. This ability to understand what’s happening in production—through real-time data—to enact agile, real-world change is a hallmark of successful digital transformation.
An Investment for Whatever the Future Holds
Ultimately, investments in secure cloud-based quality management and the broader digital transformation of manufacturing operations are investments in not only perseverance during the pandemic, but also resilience for the future. Food producers and manufacturers who can readily access and make informed decisions from their data will be the ones best equipped to pivot and adjust operations in times of disruption and uncertainty. And while it’s unclear what the future holds for the world, the food industry, and COVID-19, it’s safe to say we likely won’t see a full return to normalcy but the emergence of a new—and in many ways better—normal, born out of digital solutions and smarter ways of thinking about quality data collection and monitoring.
Many food retailers are dependent on outdated methods of recording product food temperature that include pen, paper and trust given to employees to remember to complete inspections. Unfortunately, this style of inspection completion can be an outlet for foodborne Illness outbreaks. As technologies advance to offer real-time reporting, managing such vital inspections and reports has never been so simple while drastically reducing risk and increasing consumer safety.
Food service management should be asking the following questions on a daily basis:
- What food items passed & failed the cooling/cooking process?
- Why did these items fail and what is the monetary value of product loss?
- Have safety & operational checklist logs been completed on time?
- What corrective actions were issued?
- Have temperature-controlled cases failed within the last 24 hours?
With recent breakthroughs in food safety technology, the answers to the above questions can be found in your email inbox, online dashboard or mobile application. There are technologies available that give food service providers the ability to efficiently track and manage their food safety efforts by digitizing any type of food safety, quality assurance and sanitation inspections. One such technology uses a dual infrared/probe Bluetooth thermometer and real-time temperature sensors to help complete food safety temperature checks as well as bringing automation to cooling, cooking, and “time as temp” logs. This kind of technology can be integrated into food safety and risk management tools such as sensor monitoring or location-driven inspection technology.
Sufficient inspection software is not just a format for checklist completion. Software developed for the food service industry is behavioral based, meaning the software will guide inspectors to their next question and corrective action; or it automates the processes all together. This includes reminding inspectors when inspections are due in addition to providing snap shots to management on the status of said inspections with the ability to easily pull all data from the cloud.
Automated Logs for Cooking, Cooling and ‘Time as Temp’
Before taking a closer look at how new technology is shaping cooling logs, cooking logs, and time as a public health control; the following are a few terms to remember:
- Cooling & Cooking Logs: Recording of food product temperatures during cooking & cooling cycles that meet both time and temperature constraints outlined by the FDA.
- Time as a Public Health Control: Food product whose holding compliance is measured not by temperature but by time spent in the range of 41° F – 135° F after either being cooled below 41° F or heated above 135° F, as outlined by the FDA.
- Strategy: What is being done with the food product? Is it being cooked, cooled or held for Time as a Public Health Control?
- Phase: Time and/or temperature constraints set within the strategy. For example, cooling product from 135° F to 70° F within two hours or cooking to 165° F before being served.
As one of the most groundbreaking forms of food safety inspections, automated cooling and cooking logs create the ability to customize strategies for such processes. Cooling and cooking logs are an important aspect of food safety for their ability to complete the product lifecycle that can often times be overlooked. Such logs also help to ensure food product is cooked to proper temperatures before it is served to customers. Cooling log strategies look for product to be cooled from 135° F to 70° F within two hours and from 70° F to 41° F within four hours. Cooking logs are built in similar fashion but may vary on the type of product.
Proactive technology allows food service personnel to automate the cooling and cooking process with sensors that record and save product temperatures during cooking and cooling strategies. Once temperature thresholds are succeeded or anticipated to be missed, customized alerts can notify employees that the food is either ready to be served or that action is needed to avoid product loss.
For example, cooling a batch of rotisserie chickens would typically require an employee to manually check the product temperature every 30 minutes to ensure the rotisserie chickens are being cooled properly. With new technology, this same employee can insert a food-grade sensor probe into one or more of the chickens and walk away. The employee can reference a mobile application and real-time push notifications to ensure the chickens are cooling from 135° F to 70° F within two hours and from 70° F to 41° F within four hours. If the software’s algorithms predict that the rotisserie chickens will not meet the conditions set in the phase, proactive push notifications will be sent to the employee for specific action to ensure proper cooling, which avoids product loss and consumer claims related to foodborne illness. Using this method also allows for overnight cooling logs in addition to saving labor hours, all while eliminating paper.
As demand for increased food safety practices continues to climb, so will the capabilities of behavioral based inspection technology. Equipped with industry leading software engineers along with dual purpose customer support and onboarding services, this space will expand on its software and hardware capabilities to replace all outdated methods of inspection processes.
A 75-year-old feed manufacturer making more than 2,000 feed formulas is bound to have a lot of business complexities. Add to that several years of rapid growth combined with outdated, manual processes. Several years ago, this was the situation we faced at our family-owned feed manufacturer and egg/poultry provider in the mid-Atlantic region.
We needed a way to simplify and streamline key processes, such as activities involved with safety and compliance. After evaluating several enterprise content management systems in 2015, we eventually selected Laserfiche to digitize records, implement electronic forms and automate manual workflows. While we completed an initial Laserfiche software install in 2016, we were still tasked with the process of building out solutions the company wanted to use in house, and we therefore continue to work closely with the company today.
Meeting Regulations With Data Sheets
Our initial project focused on digitizing our collection of safety data sheets, standardized documents that contain occupational safety and health data. Prior to implementing this software, we relied on paper manuals across different locations. Managing the creation of new data sheets and ensuring old ones were removed became quite the task. This project couldn’t have come at a better time, as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) had recently mandated changes to the data sheets.
By digitizing data sheets and storing them in a central repository, the documents were made more accessible and searchable for mill managers, and compliant to the new mandated standard. Additionally, data sheets were easily retrieved for any first responders seeking to understand what chemicals were in a facility in the event of a fire. It now takes just minutes to search for and retrieve documents, helping the organization stay in compliance with state reporting. Having the ability to create and add new sheets immediately is a tremendous benefits as well. These new capabilities allow us to help keep employees safer than ever before.
Shortened Delivery Processes
The next process that needed to be targeted was deliveries. Delivery tickets at the feed mills were billed based on production weight in the company’s enterprise resource planning software, and delivery weight was entered manually when the physical tickets were returned to the office, which could sometimes be days after the product was shipped. When the shipped weight showed a different amount than the production weight, the finance team had to issue the customer a credit leading to more inefficiency and a wrinkle in customer confidence.
Laserfiche allowed the company to develop delivery tickets to be scanned at the mill. Tickets are now available in 24 hours, and the processing time for invoicing has gone from six hours to just three. Warranty costs have decreased while customer confidence has increased.
Mobile App to the Rescue
Finally, with the mobile app the organization was able to decrease the complexity for one of its farming divisions, Dutchland Farms, all while staying in legal compliance. This specific division contracts egg production and pullet growing. The FDA published its Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) regulations in 2015, a regulation that directly applied to Dutchland’s this team of growers and producer. The directive added to the list of antibiotics that required a veterinarian’s prescription to administer. In addition, flock owners now had to have a flock health plan and an established relationship with a veterinarian. We initially had a manual process to write and store the plans, but that process was digitized and automated with Laserfiche in 2017. Service technicians can now get electronic forms signed at the farm and be immediately transmitted to the company’s consulting veterinary practician, who lives out of the country. As a result, we were able to significantly reduce the time from farm signature to vet approval/signature of the Flock Health Plans, and saved on a huge amount of paper copies and mail costs.
What’s next? These days, we’re searching for a new ERP system, a multi-year journey that will include scanning capabilities and an expanded role for Laserfiche. Meanwhile, all the products developed are still a work in progress even as the software expands to teams like quality assurance and human resources.
Today’s food producers and retailers are in a constant race against time. This race starts within the four walls of the distribution center, where products must move from receiving, through storage and dispatch—with high speed and accuracy. While the goal (or finish line) is to get these products to stores as fast as possible and meet consumer expectations, speed of delivery also plays a vital role in ensuring the quality of foods—particularly easily perishable ones like fruits, vegetables, eggs, meats, certain dairy products and baked goods.
Namely, efficient product flow means companies can meet shorter lead times and thereby deliver fresher, safer food—with longer shelf lives—to market. It’s a seemingly easy concept, yet many organizations continue to stumble as a result of ongoing operational challenges that slow distribution down, especially in facilities that continue to utilize manual order picking.
Major challenges include:
- Continued reliance on physical labor with fulfillment speed highly dependent on the endurance of individual employees.
- SKU proliferation due to product diversification, where facilities must now store and manage more products than ever before in a seemingly shrinking amount of space.
- Seasonal spikes in business that require order picking staff to work harder and often longer hours to keep up with the influx of orders.
For organizations struggling to address these challenges and meet the need for speed in distribution, now is an opportune time to look at automation. There are now robotic order picking systems that can store, retrieve and move products effortlessly through a facility, ensuring rapid handling and very short lead times.
By choosing to automate, food producers and retailers can realize numerous benefits, including the following.
1. Accelerated Order Fulfillment
Naturally a robotic system can assemble orders and prepare them for outbound shipping far faster than humanly possible. Thus, an automated distribution center is often up to six times more efficient than a manual one. Notably, there are systems now that integrate order picking and product handling in a single solution, rather than separate functions (as traditionally done but which is too slow for fresh food distribution).
Such a system can perform both buffer storage and order picking in one simultaneous operation for significant time savings. Facilities can thereby prepare orders closer to the time of a truck’s arrival, instead of hours in advance. Foods then spend less time in transport and can maintain their quality and consistency. This also helps to reduce chances of spoilage, which in turn cuts back on waste and the supply chain’s impact on the environment.
2. Improved Ergonomics and Workplace Safety
In distribution centers that rely solely on manual order picking, employees have to run up and down long stretches of aisles and lift heavy crates or boxes. In addition to being inefficient, such manual operations make order picking a strenuous and injury-prone job. The risks for injury have only helped further the labor shortage problem seen nationwide, as job seekers show declining interest in material handling careers.
But when automated systems take over the majority of order picking processes, there is less human involvement—which can help fill in any gaps left by labor shortages. Order fulfillment speed also becomes less dependent on the physical capabilities of employees. Existing staff can then be elevated into new roles in managing and overseeing automated systems. These are safer and far more enriching positions that can draw a whole new pool of technical talent.
3. Better Space Utilization
As mentioned, there is a growing trend towards product diversification, where companies are now offering more options to consumers, such as additional sizes, flavors and health-conscious choices. As a result, the number of SKUs in most distribution centers is exploding. Some facilities once designed to house a few hundred SKUs are now dealing with thousands, leaving little room to spare.
Those challenged by SKU proliferation can consider an overhead robotic system that uses high-density, floor-based storage, where goods are stacked on the warehouse floor. This eliminates the need for racking or traveling around aisles. Plus, it reduces the number of movements required to pick an order. Facilities can store more products within their existing space, offsetting the costs of possible new construction. An overhead robotic system can also clear all products from the warehouse floor for easy, hygienic cleaning.
4. Flexibility to Keep Up During Seasonal Peaks
In all consumer goods industries, there are times of the year when demand spikes and orders come pouring in. For the food industry, companies tend to see spikes during the holiday season and in the summer months—times when people commonly host get-togethers.
Seasonal peaks can take a heavy toll on manual warehouse operations. Some try to hire temporary employees to get by, but that comes with challenges in providing proper training in a short span of time. But automated systems—particularly those with a modular design—are flexible and scalable, enabling facilities to adjust their number of robots to meet fluctuations in order volume—during seasonal highs and lows.
A notable example of a food company that is successfully leveraging automation is grocery leader Kroger. Namely, Kroger wanted to develop a state-of-the-art, automated plant and distribution center to achieve many of the benefits discussed above, including ensuring product quality and reducing employee risks of injury.
Built in Denver, Colorado, Kroger’s “Mountain View Foods” facility processes fresh conventional and organic milk, and packages aseptically processed milk, creams and juices. Within Mountain View Foods, Kroger has installed an end-to-end automated system that can store up to 36,000 crates and pick 32,000 crates per day. Cases are picked according to specified sequences on one end of the facility and then palletized for truck loading at the other, with significant storage buffering in between.
A warehouse control system (WCS) controls all robotic movements and serves as the brains behind the automation. The software also collects data on each processed order, giving Kroger traceable information to meet food safety requirements. Kroger benefits from orders picked with 100-percent accuracy, at faster speeds, which results in shorter lead times and optimal product freshness for shoppers.
Kroger’s story demonstrates the power of automation in enabling more streamlined order fulfillment. Those that choose to automate can overcome the many challenges that inhibit efficient product flow and thereby bolster their supply chain velocity. Simply put, faster fulfillment means fresher products in stores. And, fresher products are safer products for consumers to enjoy.