Tag Archives: food processing

Jason Chester, InfinityQS
FST Soapbox

Digital Revolution: Empowering the Remote Workforce and Resilience Post-COVID-19

By Jason Chester
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Jason Chester, InfinityQS

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.

Mice, pests

Pests Don’t Rest During a Pandemic

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Mice, pests

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the closure of hundreds of restaurants, food processors and other businesses nationwide. As weeks went on, increased rodent activity plagued many businesses, some of which has been attributed to a change in food sources and availability—so much so that the CDC released a warning about rodent control in restaurants and other commercial businesses that have either been closed or have had limited service during the pandemic. “Environmental health and rodent control programs may see an increase in service requests related to rodents and reports of unusual or aggressive rodent behavior,” the CDC stated last month.

As the American economy reopens, many food establishments and facilities must consider three key points that will affect pest management during this time:

  • Pest pressure continues. Rodents are on a never-ending search for food, water and harborage.
  • Change in business patterns. Different inbound and outbound shipments; changes in employee shifts and production schedules; new supply chain partners.
  • Service provider access. Access to facilities and secure areas; changes in facility structure, equipment and storage

Factoring the many changes that COVID-19 has prompted, the role of pest management is more important than ever. We invite you to join us for Food Safety Tech’s upcoming complimentary virtual conference, “Integrated Pest Management: Protect Food Safety and Prevent the Spread of Pathogens”, on June 30. Our Technical Service Lead, Joe Barile, will discuss pest management and risk mitigation in the COVID-19 world; he will be followed by Orkin’s VP of Quality Assurance and Technical Services, Judy Black, on the key components to successful IPM and pest management programs, and Angela Anandappa, Ph.D. of the Alliance for Advanced Sanitation on how an effective sanitation program can protect against pest and food contamination. Register now.

FDA

FDA, USDA Reach MOU to Prevent Disruptions in FDA-Regulated Food Facilities

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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FDA

This week the USDA and FDA signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in an effort to prevent disruptions at FDA-regulated food facilities, including fruit and vegetable processing locations. The agencies are also trying to prepare for the peak harvesting seasons that involve freezing and canning fruits and vegetables. The MOU provides a process by which the agencies can determine the instances when USDA would exercise authorize under the Defense Production Act (DPA) related to food resource facilities that manufacture, process, pack or hold foods.

“While the FDA will continue to work with state and local regulators in a collaborative manner, further action under the DPA may be taken, should it be needed, to ensure the continuity of our food supply. As needed, the FDA will work in consultation with state, local, tribal and territorial regulatory and public health partners; industry or commodity sector; and other relevant stakeholders (e.g. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to chart a path toward resuming and/or maintaining operations while keeping employees safe,” stated FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas in an agency press release. “We are working with our federal partners who have the authority and expertise over worker safety to develop information on protecting worker health. We are also working with other federal partners to assist the food and agriculture industry in addressing shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), cloth face coverings, disinfectants and sanitation supplies.”

Wendy Stanley, Radley Corp.
FST Soapbox

The Future of Food Production: IoT and Blockchain

By Wendy Stanley
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Wendy Stanley, Radley Corp.

Since the early 20th century, food safety has been a paramount concern for consumers in the United States. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which painted a bleak, brutal, and downright disgusting picture of turn-of-the-century food processing facilities led to the creation of some of the country’s first food safety laws. Today, federal agencies and statutes make up a comprehensive food safety system to ensure that the growth, distribution and consumption of foods are safe from start to finish.

While food safety has significantly improved in the century since Sinclair’s time, stories of major outbreaks of foodborne illnesses continue to pop up across the country. Over the past few years, a significant number of outbreaks as a result of pathogens have made the headlines. To mitigate the threat of public health crises and ensure food production and distribution is safe and secure, companies must rely on modern technology to trace the movement of food across the entire supply chain.

How Technology Is Changing the Food Industry

Technology is a powerful, innovative force that has changed the way even well established companies must do business in order to stay relevant. From easier access to nutritional information to digital solutions that make food manufacturing and distribution more efficient, greater consumer awareness driven by technology empowers consumers to make decisions that can greatly affect the food industry’s bottom line.

Technology-driven accountability is playing one outsized role in allowing consumers to make better choices about the foods they consume and purchase. Social media and smartphone apps connect consumers to a wealth of resources concerning the harmful effects of certain ingredients in their food, the source of products, and how particular items are made and produced. In 2015, for example, The Campbell Soup Company removed 13 ingredients from its traditional soup recipes as a result of a greater public demand to understand food sources. Neither food giants nor small producers should expect to remain immune from greater public scrutiny over food health and safety.

Nutritional research is also helping change the conversation around food, granting nutritionists and consumers alike greater access to food-related data. Through easily accessible scholarly journals, apps that provide real-time nutrition information, and meal tracking apps that help users log and understand what they’re eating, consumers can gain a better understanding of nutrition to make more informed choices about their daily food intake. Researchers can also use food-tracking apps to make discoveries about consumer behavior and foods that are eaten.

Technology is also being used to tackle food waste, one of the most pervasive problems facing the food industry. One-third of the total amount of food produced globally, amounting to nearly $1.2 trillion, goes to waste every year. Solving this pervasive crisis has become an industry imperative that is being tackled through a variety of innovative technologies to improve shelf-life, dynamically adjust pricing based on sell-by dates, and allow restaurants to automatically monitor their daily waste.

In the food manufacturing sector, digitally-connected supply chain systems are providing greater visibility into the production of foods and beverages. Supplier management technology delivers data that can be used to optimize processes and improve quality in real-time, making it easy to adjust to consumer demands, respond to logistics challenges, and boost government compliance. The enhanced operational benefits offered through improved supply chain visibility allows manufacturers to produce products faster, safer, and with greater transparency.

Online ordering has also ushered in a new era of food industry behavior. The growing assortment of online ordering apps has just given the consumer more control over quickly ordering their next meal. The trend in online ordering has also allowed restaurants to experiment with new business models like virtual kitchens that offer menus that are only available online.

Connected Factory, manufacturing
The IoT adds a layer of technology to the food manufacturing process. (All photos licensed through Adobe Stock)

IoT: The Future of Food Safety

From the farm to the carryout bag, the impact of technology on the greater food industry is already evident in daily practice. Through enhanced access to data, food producers can run an efficient supply chain that reduces waste, boosts productivity, and meets consumer demand in real-time. Using a variety of online resources, consumers are empowered to quickly make well-informed food purchases that are healthier, more convenient and more sustainable than ever before.

The Internet-of-Things (IoT) adds a layer of technology to the food manufacturing process to ensure greater food safety. A broad series of networked sensors, monitors, and other Internet-connected devices, IoT technology can oversee the entire food manufacturing and distribution process from the warehouse to the point of sale. Boosting transparency across the board, intelligent sensors and cameras can transform any food manufacturing operation into a highly visible, data-backed process that allows for better decision-making and improved real-time knowledge.

While IoT technology is a powerful tool that can improve the efficiency of restaurants and provide enhanced customer experiences, some of its greatest potential lies in its ability to safely monitor food preparation and production. Live data from IoT devices makes it possible to closely monitor food safety data points, allowing manufacturers and restaurants to reduce the risks of foodborne illness outbreaks through enhanced data collection and automated reporting.

Domino’s Pizza, for instance, embraced IoT technology to enhance management processes and monitor the food safety of its products. In the past, restaurants have relied on workers to record food temperatures, a practice that was occasionally overlooked and could lead to issues with health inspectors. Using IoT devices for real-time temperature monitoring, Domino’s automatically records and displays temperature levels of a store’s production, refrigeration, and exhaust systems, allowing employees to view conditions from a live dashboard.

In addition to boosting food safety, the comprehensive monitoring offered by IoT technology can help food companies reduce waste, keep more effective records, and analyze more data for improved operations.

IoT isn’t just a safe solution for improving food safety: It’s a smart solution.

Blockchain: The Future of Food Traceability

The ubiquity of QR codes has made it easy for consumers to quickly gain access to information by scanning an image with their smartphone. From accessing product manuals to downloading songs, QR codes make it simple to provide detailed and relevant content to users in a timely manner.

Blockchain enhances the safety of the business of food production itself.

Blockchain technology provides a powerful opportunity to provide consumers with similar information about food safety. Able to instantaneously trace the lifecycle of food products, blockchain can report a food’s every point of contact throughout its journey from farm to table. By scanning a QR code, for instance, users can quickly access relevant information about a food product’s source, such as an animal’s health, and welfare. Shoppers at Carrefour, Europe’s largest retailer, area already using blockchain traceability to track the stage of production of free-range chickens across France.

Walmart piloted a blockchain implementation by tracing a package of sliced mangoes across every destination until it hit store shelves, from its origin at a farm in Mexico to intermittent stops at a hot-water treatment plant, U.S processing plant, and cold storage facility. Real-time product tracing can be conducted in just two seconds, enabling Walmart and other vendors to provide consumers with access to food safety information that could easily be updated should an outbreak or contamination occur.

Blockchain’s inherent transparency not only makes it possible to identify the safety of food production; it also enhances the safety of the business of food production itself. Because blockchain is based upon an immutable, anonymous ledger, record keeping and accounting can be made more secure and less prone to human error. Payments to farmers and other food suppliers can also become more transparent and equitable.

The High Tech Future of Food

Unlike the days of Sinclair’s The Jungle, food transparency is the name of today’s game. As consumers continue to demand greater access to better food on-demand, food producers must continue to find innovative ways of providing safe, healthy, and ethical solutions.

IoT devices and blockchain present food manufacturers with powerful technological solutions to solve complex problems. Brands choosing to rely on these innovations, such as Domino’s and Walmart, are helping ensure that food is produced, prepared and distributed with a foremost emphasis on health and safety. As these technologies continue to become more intelligent, well-connected, and embraced by leading food producers, consumers should rest assured that they’ll always be able to know exactly what they’re eating, where it’s from, and whether it’s safe.

Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

How to Prevent Foodborne Pathogens in Your Production Plant

By Megan Ray Nichols
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Megan Nichols

Foodborne pathogens, such as bacteria and parasites in consumable goods, can result in illnesses and deaths, wreaking havoc on residents of states and countries. The companies at fault often face severe damage to their reputation as people fear that continuing to do business with a brand is not safe. Moreover, if the affected enterprises do not take decisive steps to prevent the problem from happening again, they may receive substantial fines or closure orders.

Statistics from the U.S. federal government indicate that there are approximately 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses in the American food supply each year. Fortunately, there are proven steps that production plant managers can take to minimize the risk of foodborne pathogens. Being familiar with the preventative measures, and taking steps to implement them prevents catastrophes.

Engage with Suppliers about Their Efforts to Kill or Reduce Foodborne Pathogens

Foodborne pathogens can enter a production plant on items like fresh produce received from farm suppliers. Agricultural professionals commonly use chlorine to decontaminate goods before shipping them. However, researchers used a chlorine solution on spinach leaves to assess its effectiveness in killing common types of bacteria. The team discovered that, even after chlorine exposure, some bacteria remained viable but undetectable by industrial methods.

Foodborne pathogens can originate at farms for other reasons, too. Failing to take the proper precautions during animal slaughter can introduce contaminants into meats that end up in food production facilities. Water impurities can also pose dangers.

All production plants should regularly communicate with suppliers about the actions they take against foodborne pathogens. Food safety is a collective effort. Practicing it means following all current guidance, plus updating methods if new research justifies doing so. If suppliers resist doing what’s in their power to stop foodborne pathogens, they must realize they’re at risk for severing profitable relationships with production plants that need raw goods.

Consider Using Sensors to Maintain Safe Conditions

The Internet of Things (IoT) encompasses a massive assortment of connected products that benefit industries and consumers alike. One practical solution to enhance food safety in a production plant involves installing smart sensors that detect characteristics that humans may miss.

For example, the USDA published a temperature safety chart that explains what to do with food after a power outage. Most items that people typically keep in refrigerators become dangerous to eat if kept above 40o F for more than two hours.

Food production plants typically have resources like backup power to assist if outages occur. But, imagine a cooler that appears to work as expected but has an internal malfunction that keeps the contents at incorrect temperatures. IoT sensors can help production plant staff members become immediately aware of such issues. Without that kind of information, they risk sending spoiled food into the marketplace and getting people sick.

Researchers also developed a sensor-equipped device that detects the effectiveness of hand washing efforts. In a pilot program involving 20 locations, contamination rates decreased by 60% over a month. Most restrooms at food preparation facilities remind people to wash their hands before returning to work. What if a person takes that action, but not thoroughly enough? Specialty sensors could reduce that chance.

Install Germicidal Ultraviolet Lights

With much of the world on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people want to know if germicidal ultraviolet lights could kill the novel coronavirus. Researchers lack enough information to answer that question definitively. They do know, however, that germicidal ultraviolet lights kill up to 99.99% of bacteria and pathogens.

Plus, these lights are particularly useful in food production because they get the job done without harsh chemicals that could make products unsafe. Ultraviolet lights can damage the skin and eyes, so you must only run them when there are no humans in the room. However, it’s immediately safe to enter the environment after switching the lights off.

These specialized light sources do not eliminate the need for other food safety measures. Think about implementing them as another safeguard against adverse consequences.

Teach Workers about Safe Practices

Food contamination risks exist at numerous points along the supply chain. Mishandling is a major culprit that could make several parties partially responsible for a foodborne pathogen problem. For example, if a person does not wear the proper gear when handling food or stores items intended for raw consumption in places where meat juices touch them, either of those things and many others could cause issues with foodborne pathogens.

As you inform employees about which procedures to take to manage the risks, emphasize that everyone has an essential role to play in keeping products free from contaminants. If workers make ready-to-eat foods, such as packaged sandwiches, ensure they understand how to avoid the cross-contamination that happens when reusing cutting boards or utensils without washing them first.

The FDA requires domestic and foreign food facilities to analyze and mitigate risks. Employee training is not the sole aspect of staying in compliance, but it’s a major component. If a person makes a mistake due to improper or nonexistent training, that blunder could have significant financial ramifications for a food production facility.

Widely cited statistics indicate that food recall costs average more than $10 million, which is a staggering figure in itself. It doesn’t include litigation costs incurred when affected individuals and their loved ones sue companies, or the expenses associated with efforts to rejuvenate a brand and restore consumer confidence after people decide to take their business elsewhere.

Ensuring that workers receive the necessary training may be especially tricky if a human resources professional hires a large batch of temporary employees to assist with rising seasonal demands. If a higher-up tells them that time is of the essence and the new workers must be ready to assume their roles on the factory floor as soon as possible, training may get overlooked. When that happens, the outcomes could be devastating. Efficiency should never get prioritized over safety.

Stay Abreast of Emerging Risks

Besides doing your part to curb well-known threats that could introduce foodborne pathogens, spend time learning about new problems that you may not have dealt with before.

For example, scientists have not confirmed the origin of COVID-19. However, since early evidence suggested live animal sales and consumption may have played key roles, Chinese officials cracked down on the wildlife trade and imposed new restrictions on what was largely an unregulated sector cloaked in secrecy.

Much remains unknown about COVID-19, and it’s but one virus for food producers to stay aware of and track as developments occur. The ongoing pandemic is a sobering reminder not to blame specific groups or ethnicities, and to avoid jumping to hasty conclusions. It’s good practice to dedicate yourself to learning about any production risks that could introduce foodborne pathogens. Read reputable sources, and don’t make unfounded assumptions.

A Collective and Constant Effort

There is no single way to combat all sources of foodborne pathogens. Instead, anyone involved in food production or supply must work diligently together and know that their obligation to prevent issues never ceases.

The Importance Of Cleanrooms in the Food Industry

By Steve Gonzalez
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The health and well being of millions depends on manufacturers’ and packagers’ ability to maintain a safe and sterile environment during production. This is why professionals in this sector are held to much stricter standards than other industries. With such high expectations from consumers and regulatory bodies, a growing number of food companies are opting the use cleanrooms.

Cleanrooms are sealed off from the rest of a laboratory or production facility. Through stringent ventilation and filtering systems, they protect against contaminants that might be found in an unrestricted environment. Mold, mildew, dust and bacteria are sifted from the air before they can enter the space.

Personnel who work in a cleanroom are required to adhere to rigorous precautions, including clean suits and masks. These rooms also closely monitor temperature and humidity to ensure the optimal climate.

Cleanrooms can be found in numerous applications throughout the food industry. Specifically, they are used in meat and dairy facilities, as well as in the processing of foods that need to be gluten and lactose free. By creating the cleanest possible environment for production, companies can offer their customers peace of mind. Not only can they keep their products free from contamination, but they can extend shelf life and increase efficiency.

If you want to learn more about cleanrooms and their classifications, take a look at the accompanying infographic. It details the essential requirements and standards for facilities in the food industry and beyond.

Cleanroom requirements, food safety
Infographic courtesy of Technical Safety Services
Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

Four Ways To Improve Your Food Safety Management System

By Megan Ray Nichols
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Megan Nichols

Foodborne illnesses cost billions of dollars each year in the United States. A lack of standards can lead to severe consequences, including loss of customers, negative impact on brand reputation and employees missing work due to illness. As a result, safety is vital for any brand that is committed to high-quality food and maintaining a positive brand image.

Food safety management systems—the processes and procedures that companies set up to prevent contamination—are essential in reducing the risk of foodborne illness and ensuring the safest products possible.

By FDA regulation, most food processors must have HACCP as well as corrective actions/preventive action (CAPAs) plans in place. Even with the right safety guidelines, however, contamination or exposure to food hazards can still occur. The following are four ways to improve the quality of your food safety management system.

1. Conduct Regular Audits

Even if your business’s HACCP is highly effective in theory, it won’t prevent contamination unless actual practice lines up with documentation. Regular audits can ensure employee practice complies.

HACCPs are structured around identifying both potential food hazards and critical control points (CCPs) where your system has the opportunity to prevent, mitigate or eliminate a potential issue. Usually, this means storing food items or performing some biological, physical or chemical action to a target limit— like a specific temperature—to prevent or mitigate contamination.

For example, in the manufacturing of chicken products, cooking and hot-holding are critical control points at which the product needs to be heated to a certain temperature to eliminate or prevent potential hazards. Here, an audit would be a chance to ensure employees cooked and hot-held foods at the proper temperatures. If they aren’t, the food safety management team can make policy changes that ensure practice lines up with planning.

The audit process should be consistent and occur regularly. It should also cover every aspect of your HACCP strategy and place a particular focus on potential hazards and CCPs. These audits can be a way to uncover the strengths and weaknesses of your current HACCP strategy. Companies can use this information to build upon existing practices or demonstrate how procedures could be more effective.

Stainless steel
Stainless steel is popular in food handling due to impermeable surface and resistance to corrosion, two characteristics that help reduce the risk of food contamination. (free image from Splash)

2. Consider a CCP Monitoring System

You can use automated or digital systems to ensure that CCPs aren’t deviating from control limits. With the right sensors, it’s possible to ensure that food remains between target limits at each CCP. For example, automated sensors can quickly alert plant staff if the temperature of food in cold storage rises above a certain threshold, or if there is a deviation from a given CCP.

These alerts can help staff quickly respond to deviations, ensuring compliance, and reducing the risk of contamination by food hazards.

3. Review and Maintain Equipment

An thorough equipment program can be highly effective in reducing the risk of food contamination. To minimize risk, your plan should look at the equipment needed in your plant, as well as how it’s constructed and maintained. For example, choosing industry-standard or food-safe materials can help prevent contamination. Investing in the right kind of stainless steel can both improve operating costs and help reduce the risk of food exposed to hazards.

Preventive maintenance plans for food safety equipment can also reduce the risk of contamination by ensuring the proper functioning of site equipment.

4. Provide Employee Support and Encourage Buy-In

Training programs are an essential component of any HACCP. If your employees don’t know how to handle food properly or aren’t aware of HACCP documentation or the CCPs in the food processing pipeline, they won’t be able to execute the plan and prevent contamination.

While training programs are crucial, they don’t necessarily guarantee compliance. Common pitfalls exist that can discourage employees from following the plan. To encourage employee buy-in, training should begin by discussing the importance of food safety and the potential risks of contamination.

The training should also be robust enough that employees feel confident when executing the HACCP. Training staff should be sure to provide visual demonstrations and opportunities for employees to practice before they become responsible for food safety. Tests or evaluations both during and after training can be useful tools in determining how well your employees understand your business’s HACCP strategy. Regular follow-ups on training can also ensure compliance and reduce the risk of contamination.

Improving Food Safety Management Systems

For any business that works with food, safety programs are essential in ensuring the safest and highest quality product possible. Existing food safety management systems can often improve with the right methods. For example, automated monitoring systems can reduce the risk of deviating from CCP limits. Employee training and regular audits can also ensure that a plant’s food safety practices line up with the documented plan.

Craig Reeds
FST Soapbox

Cybersecurity for Food and Beverage Operational Technology (OT) Environments

By Craig Reeds
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Craig Reeds

Much of the attention that cybersecurity gets is on the IT or office network side of things, but recently people have begun paying more attention to operational technology (OT) systems that make up the country’s critical infrastructure. When people think of critical infrastructure, they automatically think of oil and gas, power generation, and water. Many people don’t realize that there are actually 16 critical infrastructure industries:

  • Energy
  • Financial
  • Dams
  • Defense
  • Critical Manufacturing
  • Water and Wastewater
  • Food and Agriculture
  • Healthcare
  • Government Facilities
  • Commercial Facilities
  • Transportation
  • Emergency Services
  • Chemical
  • Communications
  • Nuclear
  • Information Technology

One of the easily forgotten, but perhaps most important, is food and beverage manufacturing. A cyber attack on a food and beverage company might not result in the lights going out or clouds of toxic gas, but they could result in explosions, or tainted food. We need to start paying more attention to cybersecurity in the food and beverage industry. What would happen if a hacker got into the control system at a frozen foods distribution facility? They could raise the temperature in the freezers, thaw the food and then refreeze it. This could result in food poisoning for hundreds or thousands of people. Bad actors can do a lot of harm by targeting this sector.

Many companies are pushing to combine their IT and OT departments, something they call IT/OT convergence. This can be done, but you need to first understand that IT and OT have differing goals.

It is important to review the organizational structure. You will typically find that both IT and OT report organizationally to the CEO level. We also find senior management believes IT owns the industrial control system (ICS) networks and security—mainly because IT owns support, maintenance & operational budget for network and security (basically letting OT off the hook).

IT’s primary goals are confidentiality, integrity and availability, the CIA triad. While working toward these objectives IT also tries to make it possible for users to access the network from any location from which they are working, using whatever computing device they have with them. The goal is to make it as easy to work from an airport, hotel room or coffee shop as it is to work in the office itself. Technology is updated and replaced often. Service packs are loaded, new software releases are loaded, and bugs are fixed.

OT’s primary goals are availability, integrity and confidentiality—a complete reversal of the CIA triad. They strive to keep production running, be it an electric utility, an oil rig or a pop-tart factory 24/7/365. OT is all about what works, a “We’ve always done it that way” mentality. OT will always be reluctant to make any change that might bring down the production line. Remember, they are graded on widgets per minute. There must be trust and open communication between IT and OT if things are going to work properly.

When we are talking about OT cybersecurity, we usually use terms like secure or prevent, when we really should be thinking about words like containment. Securing the network and preventing attacks is important, but at some point, an attack will get past your defenses. Then it is a matter of containment: How do we keep the problem from spreading to other networks?

One thing to definitely avoid is the desire by IT to have bi-directional communications between the IT and OT networks—this should never happen. Also, avoid the desire to connect the ICS to the Internet so that you can control the process remotely. There is no reason for the plant manager to be able to go home, have a couple beers and then log on to see if he can make things run better. If the control system is going to be connected to the corporate IT or the Internet, it should only have out-going uni-directional data transmission to allow monitoring of the system.

Building a good OT cybersecurity program, you need to do three things:

  • Get C-Level support and buy-in for the changes to be made.
  • Communicate with stakeholders and vendors.
  • Make decisions as a team, make sure all the stakeholders, IT, OT, engineering are all involved.

After you have set up the structure and started communicating, you need to begin cybersecurity awareness training for the OT staff. This training should be focused on educating plant personnel on what cybersecurity is, both at work and at home, and how to respond or escalate something that seems wrong. They need to be trained what needs to be dealt with immediately and what can wait. Consider doing tabletop exercises where you practice what to do when certain things occur. This can act as a stress test for your incident response plan and help find the holes in your plan and procedures. These tabletop exercises should involve C-suite individuals as well as people from the plant floor, so everyone understand their part in a cyber-attack response.

If these concepts are followed, you will be well on your way to creating a much more cyber-secure production environment.

April Kates, EAS Consulting
Retail Food Safety Forum

Labeling Impact of FDA’s Nutrition Innovation Strategy

By April Kates
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April Kates, EAS Consulting

On March 29, 2018, FDA announced the Nutrition Innovation Strategy, which signaled their intention to take a fresh look at what can be done to “reduce the burden of chronic disease through improved public nutrition.” The agency wants to facilitate consumers making better food choices to improve their health. At the same time, FDA has acknowledged that in many cases, changes in food processing technology has rendered outdated certain provisions of the regulations once written to both inform and protect the public. Therefore, FDA has developed a plan to move ahead to update its policy toolkit.

This multi-pronged approach includes modernizing food labeling, including food standards, health claims policy, ingredient labeling requirements and continuing implementation of the updated nutrition facts label, menu labeling, and reducing sodium in processed food products.

In particular, in trying to gather information to help determine the best approach to revising food standards of identity, FDA held a public meeting on September 27, 2019. FDA is attempting to provide room in the regulations for industry to be able to use modern and hopefully more healthful manufacturing methods while at the same time retaining the traditional characteristics and nutritional value of standardized food products.

During the public meeting, consumer advocacy groups, food industry trade groups and medical associations expressed many points of view as to what FDA should do to make the more than 250 food standards of identity more applicable to the modern food supply. FDA also took comments on updating food ingredient labeling requirements, including simplifying terms for ingredients such as vitamins. Because each food standard of identity is a regulation, it will be no small effort for the agency to update, remove or add standards of identity as needed. This meeting was a way to get input to help guide their decisions and priority—making for food standards and ingredient labeling revisions.

Obviously, with such a broad-based effort, the revisions and changes will be incremental. But the thing to keep in mind is that it all points to an effort to improve public health through the food supply as well as an effort to impactfully modernize the regulations. What follows is a very brief summary of some of FDA’s recent actions in this regard.

On December 30, 2019, FDA announced the final guidance on Serving Sizes, Dual-Column Labeling, which provided additional information about when dual column labeling for nutrition is required and what exemptions are in place to provide relief for certain products or package sizes.

On December 27, 2019, FDA reopened the comment period on the use of ultrafiltered (UF) milk in certain cheeses. When the proposed rule for UF milk in cheeses originally published in 2005, FDA received many comments. Essentially, ultrafiltration was a means to enhance the speed of cheese production, and the standard of identity cheeses were written before this technology was common and did not permit this type of process. FDA seeks to modernize the cheese standards while keeping intact the nature of these cheeses, and so the agency is eager to learn about what can be done to accommodate the new technology without losing the essence of the standards that consumers have come to expect. Because of the time lapse since the previous comment period, FDA is seeking more information to inform their rulemaking.

On October 25, 2019, FDA released a final rule revising the type size for calorie declarations on front of pack labeling for glass-front vending machines. The 2014 rule establishing calorie labeling for products sold from vending machines had provisions that were difficult for certain products to meet. This new rule recognizes those challenges and was an attempt by the agency to provide a middle ground for the industry to meet the requirements of visible calorie labeling on small packages sold in vending machines.

On August 15, 2019, FDA announced final guidance on converting units of measure for Folate, Niacin, and Vitamins A, D and E on the nutrition and supplement facts labels. The guidance provides help to the industry in meeting the requirements of the revised nutrition facts label.

Regarding updating the “healthy” claim on food products, when this term was originally defined by the agency, saturated fat was the nutrient of focus for these claims. However, since then, there are new focuses on health, such as added sugar and calories. In September 2016, FDA sought to modernize the claim, and provided an interim policy to guide its use.

In May 2019, FDA published a draft guidance to provide enforcement discretion for the use of the term “potassium chloride salt” on ingredient statements. In addition, in April 2019, FDA provided a draft guidance for the calculation of calories from a newer sweetener, Allulose.

As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts to FDA’s effort. What will be the impact on the food industry? Changes will most likely be gradual. Over time, there will be modifications to food standards of identity, and potentially claims, and both of these will cause label revisions. And, typically, there may be enforcement discretion by FDA to allow the industry time to revise their products and /or labeling as needed.

You will see FDA requests for information from the public and the industry on various related topics to the Nutrition Innovation Strategy, and guidance documents will be updated.

Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

Machine Vision Training Tips to Improve Food Inspections

By Megan Ray Nichols
1 Comment
Megan Nichols

As machines become more intelligent, every industry on earth will find abundant new applications and ways to benefit. For the food industry, which has an incredible number of moving parts and is especially risk-averse, machine vision and machine learning are especially valuable additions to the supply chain.

The following is a look at what machine vision is, how it can play a role in manufacturing and distributing foods and beverages, and how employers can train workers to get the most out of this exciting technology.

What Is Machine Vision?

Machine vision isn’t a brand-new concept. Cameras and barcode readers with machine vision have long been capable of reading barcodes and QR codes and verifying that products have correct labels. Modern machine vision takes the concept to new levels of usefulness.

Barcodes and product identifiers have a limited set of known configurations, which makes it relatively straightforward to program an automated inspection station to recognize, sort or reject products as necessary. Instead, true machine vision means handlers don’t have to account for every potential eventuality. Machine vision instead learns over time, based on known parameters, to differentiate between degrees of product damage.

Consider the problem of appraising an apple for its salability. Is it bruised or discolored? Machine vision recognizes that no two bruises look precisely alike. There’s also the matter of identifying different degrees of packaging damage. To tackle these problems, it’s not possible to program machine vision to recognize a fixed set of visual clues. Instead, its programming must interpret its surroundings and make a judgment about what it sees.

Apples, machine vision
On an apple, no two bruises are alike. Machine vision technology can help. Photo credit: Pexels.

The neural networks that power machine vision have a wide range of applications, including improving pathfinding abilities for robots. In this article, I’ll focus on how to leverage machine vision to improve the quality of edible products and the profitability of the food and beverage industry.

Applications for Machine Vision in the Food Industry

There are lots of ways to apply machine vision to a food processing environment, with new variations on the technology cropping up regularly. The following is a rundown on how different kinds of machine vision systems serve different functions in the food and beverage sector.

1. Frame Grabbing and 3-D Machine Vision
Machine vision systems require optimal lighting to carry out successful inspections. If part of the scanning environment lies in shadow, undesirable products might find their way onto shelves and into customers’ homes.

Food products sometimes have unique needs when it comes to carrying out visual inspections. It’s difficult or impossible for fallible human eyeballs to perform detailed scans of thousands of peas or nuts as they pass over a conveyor belt. 3-D machine vision offers a tool called “frame grabbing,” which takes stills of — potentially — tens of thousands of tiny, moving products at once to find flaws and perform sorting.

2. Automated Sorting for Large Product Batches
Machine vision inspection systems can easily become part of a much larger automation effort. Automation is a welcome addition to the food and beverage sector, translating into improved worker safety and efficiency and better quality control across the enterprise.

Inspection stations with machine vision cameras can scan single products or whole batches of products to detect flaws. But physically separating these products must be just as efficient a process as identifying them. For this reason, machine vision is an ideal companion to compressed air systems and others, which can carefully blow away and remove even a single grain of rice from a larger batch in preparation.

3. Near-Infrared Cameras
Machine vision takes many forms, including barcode and QR code readers. A newer technology, called near-infrared (NIR) cameras, is already substantially improving the usefulness and capabilities of machine vision.

Remember that bruised apple? Sometimes physical damage to fruits and vegetables doesn’t immediately appear on the outside. NIR technology expands the light spectrum cameras can observe, giving them the ability to detect interior damage before it shows up on the exterior. It represents a distinct advantage over previous-generation technology and human inspectors, both of which can leave flaws undiscovered.

Tips on Training Workers to Use Machine Vision

Implementing machine vision into a productive environment delivers major benefits, but it also comes with a potentially disruptive learning curve. The following are some ideas on how to navigate it.

1. Take Advantage of Third-Party Training Courses
Don’t expect employees to hit the ground running with machine vision if they’re not familiar with the fundamentals of how it works. Google has a crash course on machine learning, and Amazon offers a curriculum as well to help companies get their employees up to speed on the technology and how to use it.

2. Get the Lighting Right
Having the appropriate intensity of light shining on the food product is essential for the machine vision cameras to get a clear photo or video. The most common types of lighting for machine vision are quartz halogen, LEDs, metal halide and xenon lights. Metal halide and xenon are better for larger-scale operations because of their brightness.

Train employees to check the amount and positioning of the lighting before each inspection station starts up for the day, so that no shadows obscure products from view.

3. Single Out Promising Subject Matter Leaders
Companies today don’t seem to have much confidence in how well they’re preparing their workforce for tomorrow, including future innovations. According to Deloitte, just 47% of companies in the world believe they’re doing enough to train their employees on the technologies and opportunities of Industry 4.0.

Machine vision does not involve buying a camera or two, setting them up, then slapping the “autopilot” button. As products turn over, and manufacturing and distribution environments change and grow over time, machine vision algorithms require re-training, and you might need to redesign the lighting setup.

Employers should find individuals from their ranks who show interest and aptitude in this technology and then invest in them as subject matter experts and process owners. Even if an outside vendor is the one providing libraries of algorithms and ultimately coming up with machine vision designs, every company needs a knowledgeable liaison who can align company needs with the products on the market.

Machine Vision Is the Future of Food Inspections

The market for machine vision technology is likely to reach $30.8 in value by 2021, according to BCC Research.

It is important to remember that neither machine learning nor machine vision are about creating hardware that thinks and sees like humans do. With the right approach, these systems can roundly outperform human employees.

But first, companies need to recognize the opportunities. Then, they must match the available products to their unsolved problems and make sure their culture supports ongoing learning and the discovery of new aptitudes. Machine vision might be superior to human eyesight, but it uses decidedly human judgments as it goes about its work.