The USDA estimates that foodborne illnesses cost more than $15.6 billion each year. However, biological contamination isn’t the only risk to the safety and quality of food. Food safety can also be compromised by foreign objects at virtually any stage in the production process, from contaminants in raw materials to metal shavings from the wear of equipment on the line, and even from human error. While the risk of foreign object contamination may seem easy to avoid, in 2019 alone the USDA reported 34 food recalls, impacting 17 million pounds of food due to ‘extraneous material’ which can include metal, plastic and even glass.
When FSMA went into effect, the focus shifted to preventing food safety problems, necessitating that food processors implement preventive controls to shift the focus from recovery and quarantine to proactive risk mitigation. Food producers developed Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans focused on identifying potential areas of risk and placement of appropriate inspection equipment at these key locations within the processing line.
Metal detection is the most common detection technology used to find ferrous, non-ferrous, and stainless steel foreign objects in food. In order to increase levels of food safety and better protect brand reputation, food processors need detection technologies that can find increasingly smaller metal foreign objects. Leading retailers are echoing that need and more often stipulate specific detection performance in their codes of practice, which processors must meet in order to sell them product.
As food processors face increased consumer demand and continued price-per-unit pressures, they must meet the challenges of greater throughput demands while concurrently driving out waste to ensure maximum operational efficiencies.
Challenges Inherent in Meat Metal Detection
While some food products are easier to inspect, such as dry, inert products like pasta or grains, metal foreign object detection in meat is particularly challenging. This is due to the high moisture and salt content common in ready-to-eat, frozen and processed, often spicy, meat products that have high “product effect.” Bloody whole muscle cuts can also create high product effect.
The conductive properties of meat can mimic a foreign object and cause metal detectors to incorrectly signal the presence of a physical contaminant even when it is nonexistent. Food metal detectors must be intelligent enough to ignore these signals and recognize them as product effect to avoid false rejection. Otherwise, they can signal metal when it is not present, thus rejecting good product and thereby increasing costs through scrap or re-work.
Equipping for Success
When evaluating metal detection technologies, food processors should request a product test, which allows the processor to see how various options perform for their application. The gold standard is for the food processor to send in samples of their product and provide information about the processing environment so that the companies under consideration can as closely as possible simulate the manufacturing environment. These tests are typically provided at no charge, but care should be taken upfront to fully understand the comprehensiveness of the testing methodologies and reporting.
Among the options to explore are new technologies such as multiscan metal detection, which enables meat processors to achieve a new level of food safety and quality. This technology utilizes five user-adjustable frequencies at once, essentially doing the work of five metal detectors back-to-back in the production line and yielding the highest probability of detecting metal foreign objects in food. When running, multiscan technology allows inspectors to view all the selected frequencies in real time and pull up a report of the last 20 rejects to see what caused them, allowing them to quickly make appropriate adjustments to the production line.
Such innovations are designed for ease of use and to meet even the most rigorous retailer codes of practice. Brands, their retail and wholesale customers, and consumers all benefit from carefully considered, application-specific, food safety inspection.
The food processing industry is necessarily highly regulated. Implementing the right food safety program needs to be a top priority to ensure consumer safety and brand protection. Innovative new approaches address these safety concerns for regulatory requirements and at the same time are designed to support increased productivity and operational efficiency.
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.
If your food processing facility needs an expansion or update, construction can be a disruptive event. Throughout the process, a variety of food safety hazards can be present, potentially putting your products at risk. While the contractors you work with are skilled at their trade, protecting your brand is ultimately your responsibility.
Extra precautions are needed to minimize the food safety risks during construction, but by developing a thorough plan and following it diligently, you can keep your products, facility and employees safe.
Preparation: The Important First Steps for Safety
Having an established environmental plan before construction starts will make the construction process go smoothly and help maintain safety. If the plan your staff is following needs changes or improvements, make updates in advance of construction and be sure that your staff is up to speed before the project begins.
First, remove any equipment that can be moved from the construction zone and cover all electrical panels, open conduit and electrical outlets to minimize areas that might harbor dust or bacteria during construction.
Next, taking steps to separate the construction and production areas is crucial. Installing heavy gauge plastic sheeting or even temporary walls to isolate the construction area will help prevent cross-contamination. Any doors or wall openings on the temporary barriers should be sealed on both sides, and the gaps between the base of the barriers and the floor should be adequately sealed to keep the surrounding production areas safe. Do whatever is necessary to minimize organisms from traveling by air outside of the construction zone.
The HVAC and air handling system in the construction area should also be evaluated for cross-contamination potential. Be sure to close off or divert the airflow to prevent air movement from the construction zone to any production areas. In addition, make sure the system will be able to accommodate additional areas or space after construction is complete and make any upgrades if necessary. Thoroughly clean the HVAC system and filters before the construction process starts.
Similarly, evaluate any drains that are present in the construction zone for cross-contamination potential and take precautions to keep pathogens from passing from the construction area to the food production areas.
Make Contractors Part of Your Plan
While contractors might have years of experience in their trade, they don’t know your food safety plan. Schedule a formal food safety training session with the contractor and all members of the construction staff. Don’t allow anyone to work in the facility before completing the training. Determine which protective clothing contractors and their team will need, such as frocks, boot covers or hairnets, and provide a separate bag or place to store them during the construction process.
Designating a single entrance for contractors and construction staff will minimize confusion and avoid mistaken entries into prohibited areas. Educate them on the appropriate traffic flow as they arrive, enter the facility, and conduct their work. Their entrance should be separate from those used by office and food production employees. Have quat or alcohol hand and tool sanitizers stationed at the designated contractor entrance, and require them to sanitize any tools, materials or equipment before entering the facility. Emphasize that no mud or other debris should be tracked into the facility. Provide the necessary guidance and monitor the entrance area to prevent that from happening.
Construction staff and in-house food production staff should be separated at all times. To prevent cross-contamination, there shouldn’t be any direct paths from the construction area to the production area. No material from the construction area should ever be brought into the food production area. Contractors and construction staff should also be prohibited from using the break rooms or restrooms that are used by the facility employees. Because they won’t have access to other areas, temporary hand wash sinks may be needed for construction employees to follow frequent hand washing and sanitizing procedures.
Best Practices for Sanitation During Construction
Before demolishing and removing any walls during the construction process, apply a foam disinfectant at 800–1000 ppm without rinsing. If any equipment needs to be moved, or if there will be new equipment brought into the area, clean and disinfect it with quat at 800–1000 ppm without rinsing.
Quat should also be applied heavily on the floors around the designated construction team entrances. Foam or spray contractors’ walkways and the construction area floor every four hours at 800–1000 ppm. Allow contractors, forklifts, dollies or other wheeled carts to regularly travel through the disinfectant to keep their feet and wheels sanitized as they move throughout the construction area.
If your construction project involves new equipment installation, discuss the sanitation requirements and restrictions with a sanitation chemical provider before purchasing this equipment to ensure you have the right chemistry on hand. Any new equipment should be cleaned and sanitized, as well as the area where it will be installed, before bringing the equipment into the area. Make sure all the surfaces of the new equipment are compatible with your current cleaning chemistry and that the installation follows proper food safety guidelines. If necessary, upgrade your food safety process to accommodate the new equipment.
Transitioning from Construction to Safe Food Production
Once the construction project is complete, remove all construction materials, tools, debris, plastic sheeting and temporary walls. Seal any holes that might have occurred in the floors, walls and ceilings where equipment was moved, and repair or replace epoxy or other floor coverings. Inspect any forklifts or man lifts used during the construction, and clean and sanitize them.
Clean the HVAC and air handling system and return it to either its pre-construction settings or an updated configuration based on what the new area requires.
Continue cleaning everything in the construction area, from ceiling to floor, including lights, walls, drains, refrigeration units and all equipment following SSOPs. Note that different cleaning products containing solvents may be needed for the initial cleaning to remove cutting oil, welding flux residues, greases, and other elements from the construction process. Be sure to have those cleaning products on hand before you get to this step to avoid delays of a thorough sanitation process. Where necessary, passivate any stainless steel equipment.
Finally, test the environment. Collect a special set of swabs and monitor the results. Apply post-rinse sanitizer and then begin food production. Implement an enhanced environmental monitoring program in all areas disrupted by the construction until the data shows a return to the baseline levels. Revise your facility SSOPs in light of any changes based on the new construction.
Achieving Seamless Productivity
Expansion can mean new capabilities for your business, but lax food safety processes during construction can jeopardize the new opportunities your expansion brings. By having a strong plan in place, following it diligently, educating contractors on your plan, monitoring activity, and using effective sanitizing chemistry, you will be able to expand while protecting your brand and avoiding food safety issues.
The old adage coined by Benjamin Franklin nearly three centuries ago rings truer today than ever before: “Time is money.” For food plant managers, there are few greater job challenges than ensuring the kind of operational efficiency that fuels productivity and engenders real profitability for the company.
Every element of the manufacturing process—from supplier intake and product storage to processing, packaging, labeling and transporting—must run at peak performance in order to meet productivity expectations. Factor in the responsibilities of equipment maintenance, personnel management, resource allocation and food safety compliance, and you’re facing a torrent of barriers to increased plant productivity.
Even so, there are some practical changes you can make in order to meet your goals, and they’re not the kind that take months of planning and preparation (translation: more time out of your already busy schedule). The following are six expert recommendations you can roll out this week to increase plant productivity and rectify the inefficiencies that may be hindering your success.
1. Be Proactive
Here’s another valuable proverb to live by: “A stitch in time saves nine.” By proactively addressing quality control risks within the facility, you’re able to thwart more monumental issues down the line, like production halts, recalls and non-compliances. Outcomes like these epitomize inefficiency and often result in severe profitability consequences.
So, what change can you make this week to avert the fallout of a reactive approach? Focus on prevention. It may seem like speed is the ultimate goal, but not if it comes at the price of quality and safety, as oversights in these areas typically lead to damaging efficiency and profitability failures on the back end. Here are some simple steps to emphasize prevention right away:
Revise your HARPC to reflect any changes to date, like new employees or equipment sanitation hazards that have emerged; new ingredients that may pose allergen risks; the team’s pinpointing of ineffective control measures; production flow processes that deviate from the documented ones; and evolved compliance mandates or industry standards.
Optimize your documentation process by trading in outdated, manual processes for a more streamlined and reliable digital alternative—one that features automated reporting for extracting hidden insights and trends that can be leveraged to improve your prevention plan.
Designate a team or individual to revamp the training program, ensuring comprehensive education for employees spanning every department and level of the company. Direct them to develop initiatives that foster a culture of food quality and safety, with ongoing efforts to promote awareness and guidance.
2. Embrace the Value of Technology
It’s not easy to abandon the tried-and-true processes of yesterday and accept a new reality. This is why some plants struggle to meet the demands of today’s highly connected and technologically advanced society. In truth, technology has changed the industry, and the ability to increase productivity in your facility hinges on your willingness to learn the new rules and equip your team with the right tools.
Big data, agricultural tech, management software, augmented reality, digital reporting… the list goes on. These are the types of technology trends that are emerging in the food manufacturing industry and forging a path to immeasurable gains in quality and efficiency. Of course, you won’t be able to transform your entire operation in a week, but one thing you can do right away is open your mind to the potential that can be found in embracing technology. Come to an acceptance of the critical role that digitization and automation plays so that you can identify valuable opportunities to take advantage of them.
It’s impossible to effectively manage your productivity risks without first identifying them. You must be able to facilitate a historical view of disparities in your floor plan in order to determine the areas of greatest risk and/or loss. What factors within your facility are posing the greatest threats to productivity? Consider:
Are they food quality and safety deterrents, such as undeclared allergens, detected pathogens, residue contamination, lack of proper sanitation policies and enforcement, mismanaged temperature and moisture controls, etc.?
Are they related to equipment failures? Is there machinery that requires updates or replacement?
Are they employee elements, like insufficient staffing, human error, misappropriation of resources, subpar performance or lack of training?
The only way to answer these questions is to look at your floor plan holistically, and utilize historical data to identify potential causes of productivity lapses.
Let’s face it, no plant’s processes are perfect, and no organization runs a flawless operation. Non-conformances and inefficiencies will always occur. It’s the ability to focus on these problems and use the data to improve your process that makes the difference between a strong, productive operation and a weak, futile one. Data collection and analysis that highlight hot spots on your floor plan enable you to communicate effectively with your team and execute process iterations that advance quality, productivity and profitability.
4. Print Testing Labels with Sample Details
If your team is manually writing out labels for samples that are collected for testing, there are a number of efficiency challenges getting in the way of overall plant productivity. First and foremost, filling out testing labels by hand requires much more time from technicians and plant workers than is actually necessary. Over a duration, these minutes become hours, which turn into days, slowly eroding the profitability of your operations. What could you save in productivity losses if your workers no longer had to write out labels?
There’s also the issue of often-illegible handwriting and the heightened risk of human error. When the lab receives samples that are difficult to read, incomplete, inaccurately marked or smudged during transit, there are extra steps needed to inquire about and resolve the discrepancies. Otherwise, the lab is left to guess at what they’re seeing, and we can all agree there’s a hefty price to be paid for inaccuracies in this area.
This is a prime example of how food safety software can increase plant productivity. With the ability to utilize auto-labeling for testing samples, all of these productivity impediments disappear. You could begin saving precious time and closing the gap on errors immediately, just by using a smart software solution that enables you to print testing labels.
5. Automatically Assign Corrective Actions
As non-conformances arise in the production process, corrective action must follow. But even with the best intentions, corrective action goals can fall behind schedule or consume so much time and energy that they curtail operational productivity. Without an automated, streamlined approach, there’s likely to be confusion over who is expected to manage a particular action and what they need to do, which precipitates avoidable mistakes and a whole lot of wasted time.
With a food safety management system that allows you to automatically assign next steps to the appropriate individual for resolving a positive test result, there’s much to be gained in terms of efficiency. The right people are instantly notified of their corrective action assignments, with direction on how to proceed. This kind of powerful communication reaps big productivity returns. It also maintains a focus on proactive quality control, the benefits of which we’ve already explored.
6. Use a Food Safety Audit Template
Sometimes it feels like there’s no end to the cycle of preparation required for managing the plant’s continual food safety audits. On the one hand, you’ve got government regulators, like the FDA, USDA and CFIA, heightening compliance enforcement and performing regular inspections. On the other, you’re subject to client-administered audits intended to verify supplier food quality and safety. Then in between the two, you’re tasked with conducting a number of internal audits.
Amid all of this complex data acquisition and reporting, your operations are suffering from the effects of lost time and resources. As each food safety audit approaches, it can be a significant struggle to get everything in order—one that ultimately takes your productivity objectives off course. The key to avoiding this scenario is implementing an organized process, and one of the most effective tools you can use is a standard food safety audit template.
With a comprehensive checklist of categories and requirements, you’re able to systematically address each area of food safety responsibility, survey your team, assemble the necessary materials and pull relevant data. From compiling documents, logs and reports to making visual verifications, a template that facilitates the audit preparation process is a significant productivity booster. It helps you assimilate efforts to:
Verify the plant’s actions for analysis and control of biological, chemical and physical hazards, from raw material production, procurement and handling to manufacturing, distribution and consumption of finished product
Methodically examine all aspects of the plant’s system for maintaining industry, company and government standards of practice for manufacturing, holding and distributing foods fit for human consumption
Review the elements of your supplier verification program to ensure completeness, accuracy and organization, as well as collect proof of your suppliers’ quality systems
Compile information that reflects the plant’s approach to enforcing an expedient and reliable recall process
There’s no reason to allow productivity to falter while handling everyday plant responsibilities. By executing some of these steps within the next few days, you can kick start better efficiency patterns and get your operations moving toward increased productivity. This is the direction in which you should be headed in order to develop greater control throughout the plant and turn time into money.
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