For a long time, companies could effectively run food safety programs using only manual methods of quality management, such as pen, paper, spreadsheets and emails. Those practices have served the food industry well, but it was only a matter of time before food safety and quality management systems became mostly an exercise of technology.
Even before COVID-19, industry trends and government requirements (e.g., FSMA, the FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety) were setting roadmaps for modernizing food safety and quality management with technology. Additionally, the food industry is thirsty for better performance, more insights and data-based decisions—all things that need more sophistication than manual systems.
As we continue through the throes of the pandemic, it’s abundantly clear that the tech-based future we were planning for five to ten years in the future is happening now. It’s both unavoidable and imperative for the food industry to quickly adapt to the new landscape in front of us. It’s as the CEO of Airbnb, Brain Chesky, recently said: Because of the pandemic, he had to make “10 years’ worth of decisions in 10 weeks.”
From my viewpoint, I see at least seven additional trends that are also expediting modernization in our industry.
1. A shift toward proactive mindset versus reactive habits. Always reacting to what’s happening around you is precarious and makes it difficult to mitigate risks, for you as well as your location employees. The benefits of being more strategic and prepared for different scenarios can shore up your foundation, making you more ready for crises at the corporate and location level. Gathering, combining and analyzing data with technology gives you more insights, so you can make data-based decisions quickly and with more confidence.
2. Empowerment of employees to act as chief quality officers. This comes down to the difference between training employees versus coaching them. Giving employees rules (training) is one thing but showing them the reason why a rule exists (coaching) is another. In other words, when you add more coaching, you’re empowering employees to identify and act on the right thing to do for themselves—which is chief quality officer behavior.
It is important to reassure employees during coaching that honest assessments will result in managers’ support rather than punishment when things go wrong. When all employees proactively watch for quality and compliance issues and get the right support when bringing up these issues, you’re more likely to catch (and fix) small issues before they become huge liabilities.
3. An increase in virtual audits and self-assessments. I don’t believe the corporate audit will ever go away, but our customer data is showing a marked increase in location self-assessments and virtual audits before the pandemic, and even more since March.
Right now, these audit types are a necessary stopgap while the health and safety of auditors is in question. However, I’m also confident that virtual audits and self-assessments will continue to rise. The reason? These audits can start giving you a continuous view of food safety initiatives instead of a single point-in-time view.
Even though corporate audits are still part of best practices, shorter self-assessments and other evaluations can help you glean more data and gain more visibility on a continual basis, especially if you use technology to store and analyze your data in one place.
4. Continuous quality monitoring is overtaking point-in-time audits. Let’s expand on this trend. Manual processes may provide some valuable data, but it’s impossible to build real-time, integrated views into your business with only a yearly audit. It merely shows you a single (but important) point in time rather than what’s going on at each location right now. Additionally, since everyone is watching every employee at all store locations due to COVID-19, it is critical to have a checks and balances system to continually correct small issues and to find coaching opportunities.
Again, it’s virtually impossible to do this with paper checklists and email blasts because the daily-gathered data can easily be misfiled, deleted or otherwise lost. Many quality management software systems are built to integrate, store and analyze your data in a continuous manner.
5. Consolidation of multiple programs into single software solutions. As you think about updating your programs and systems from manual processes, it is important to remember that you don’t need a different solution for every activity. For example, you don’t necessarily have to invest in an auditing app, an analytics platform, and a document storage solution (and still probably manage many spreadsheets). There are many quality management software companies that have solutions built to combine and streamline all the activities you need to manage food safety or other quality management programs.
6. Innovations to share costs with suppliers. Budgets have not likely increased due to COVID-19, so investing in modernization may seem like a pipe dream. But many companies are offsetting their costs in a new way. They are requiring suppliers to use a specific software system to submit their qualifying documents, and then these companies are charging reasonable fees for suppliers’ use of the software.
Additionally, there more benefits to managing suppliers within your quality management system. First, it can streamline document collection and storage, and second, it gives you an opportunity to communicate and collaborate with your suppliers on a deeper level.
7. Standards bodies are accelerating plans to update requirements. As seen with GLOBAL.G.A.P. this year, some standards bodies are updating their digital submission requirements to streamline certification submissions as well as start building up sharable industry data so certification bodies can do their jobs better. Additionally, GLOBALG.A.P has already partnered with existing quality management software companies to make the integration and submission process even easier, and other standards bodies are sure to follow.
It’s clear to me that these trends are of a long-term nature, and each one requires updating manual food safety and quality programs to quality management system software solutions. Acting on these trends in any number will require modernization and digital transformation to have a lasting impact on your programs and your business. The mode of “just keeping the doors open” is not sustainable and will not last forever, so now is the time to start building a better food safety future.
With the increasing globalization of the food industry, ensuring that products reaching consumers are safe has never been more important. Local, state and federal regulatory agencies are increasing their emphasis on the need for food and beverage laboratories to be accredited to ISO/IEC 17025 compliance. This complicated process can be simplified and streamlined through the adoption of LIMS, making accreditation an achievable goal for all food and beverage laboratories.
With a global marketplace and complex supply chain, the food industry continues to face increasing risks for both unintentional and intentional food contamination or adulteration.1 To mitigate the risk of contaminated products reaching consumers, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), using a consensus-based approval process, developed the first global laboratory standard in 1999 (ISO/IEC 17025:1999). Since publication, the standard has been updated twice, once in 2005 and most recently in 2017, and provides general requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories.2
In the recent revision, four key updates were identified:
A revision to the scope to include testing, calibration and sampling associated with subsequent calibration and testing performed by a laboratory.3
An emphasis on the results of a process instead of focusing on prescriptive procedures and policies.4
The introduction of the concept of a risk-based approach used in production quality management systems.2
A stronger focus on information technologies/management systems, specifically Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS).4
As modern-day laboratories reduce their reliance on hard copy documents and transition to electronic records, additional emphasis and guidance for ISO 17025 accreditation in food testing labs using LIMS was greatly needed. Food testing laboratories have increased reliance on LIMS to successfully meet the requirements of accreditation. Food and beverage LIMS has evolved to increase a laboratory’s ability to meet all aspects of ISO 17025.
Chain of Custody
A key element for ISO 17025 accredited laboratories is the traceability of samples from accession to disposal.5 Sometimes referred to as chain of custody, properly documented traceability allows a laboratory to tell the story of each sample from the time it arrives until the time it is disposed of.
LIMS software allows for seamless tracking of samples by employing unique sample accession numbers through barcoding processes. At each step of sample analysis, a laboratory technician updates data in a LIMS by scanning the sample barcode, establishing time and date signatures for the analysis. During an ISO 17025 audit, this information can be quickly obtained for review by the auditor.
Procurement and Laboratory Supplies
ISO 17025 requires the traceability of all supplies or inventory items from purchase to usage.6 This includes using approved vendors, documentation of receipt, traceability of supply usage to an associated sample, and for certain products, preparation of supply to working conditions within the laboratory. Supply traceability impacts multiple departments and coordinating this process can be overwhelming. A LIMS for food testing labs helps manage laboratory inventory, track usage of inventory items, and automatically alerts laboratory managers to restock inventory once the quantity falls below a threshold level.
A food LIMS can ensure that materials are ordered from approved vendors only, flagging items purchased outside this group. As supplies are inventoried into LIMS, the barcoding process can ensure accurate storage. A LIMS can track the supply through its usage and associate it with specific analytical tests for which inventory items are utilized. As products begin to expire, a LIMS can notify technicians to discard the obsolete products.
One unique advantage of a fully integrated LIMS software is the preparation and traceability of working laboratory standards. A software solution for food labs can assist a technician in preparing standards by determining the concentration of solvents needed based on the input weight from a balance. Once prepared, LIMS prints out a label with barcodes and begins the supply traceability process as previously discussed.
Quality Assurance of Test and Calibration Data
This section of ISO 17025 pertains to the validity of a laboratory’s quality system including demonstrating that appropriate tests were performed, testing was conducted on properly maintained and calibrated equipment by qualified personnel, and with appropriate quality control checks.
Laboratory Personnel Competency
Laboratory personnel are assigned to a specific scope of work based upon qualifications (education, training and experience) and with clearly defined duties.7 This process adds another layer to the validity of data generated during analysis by ensuring only appropriate personnel are performing the testing. However, training within a laboratory can be one of the most difficult components of the accreditation process to capture due to the rapid nature in which laboratories operate.
With a food LIMS, management can ensure employees meet requirements (qualifications, competency) as specified in job descriptions, have up-to-date training records (both onboarding and ongoing), and verify that only qualified, trained individuals are performing certain tests.
Calibration and Maintenance of Equipment
Within the scope of ISO 17025, food testing laboratories must ensure that data obtained from analytical instruments is reliable and valid.5 Facilities must maintain that instruments are in correct operating condition and that calibration data (whether performed daily, weekly, or monthly) is valid. As with laboratory personnel requirements, this element to the standard adds an additional layer of credibility that sample data is precise, accurate, and valid.
A fully integrated software solution for food labs sends a notification when instrument calibration is out of specification or expired and can keep track of both routine internal and external maintenance on instruments, ensuring that instruments are calibrated and maintained regularly. Auditors often ask for instrument maintenance and calibration records upon the initiation of an audit, and LIMS can swiftly provide this information with minimal effort.
Measurement of Uncertainty (UM)
Accredited food testing laboratories must measure and report the uncertainty associated with each test result.8 This is accomplished by using certified reference materials (CRM), or known spiked blanks. UM data is trended using control charts, which can be prepared using labor-intensive manual input or performed automatically using LIMS software. A fully integrated food LIMS can populate control data from the instrument into the control chart and determine if sample data analyzed in that batch can be approved for release.
Valid Test Methods and Results
Accurate test and calibration results can only be obtained with methods that are validated for the intended use.5 Accredited food laboratories should use test methods that are current and contain embedded quality control standards.
A LIMS for food testing labs can ensure correct method selection by technicians by comparing data from the sample accession input with the test method selected for analysis. Specific product identifiers can indicate if methods have been validated. As testing is performed, a LIMS can track time signatures to ensure protocols are properly performed. At the end of the analysis, results of the quality control samples are linked to the test samples to ensure only valid results are available for clients. Instilling checks at each step of the process allows a LIMS to auto-generate Certificates of Analysis (CoA) knowing that the testing was performed accurately.
The foundation of a laboratory’s reputation is based on its ability to provide reliable and accurate data. ISO 17025:2017 includes specific references to data protection and integrity.10 Laboratories often claim within their quality manuals that they ensure the integrity of their data but provide limited details on how it is accomplished making this a high priority review for auditors. Data integrity is easily captured in laboratories that have fully integrated their instrumentation into LIMS software. Through the integration process, data is automatically populated from analytical instruments into a LIMS. This eliminates unintentional transcription errors or potential intentional data manipulation. A LIMS for food testing labs restricts access to changing or modifying data, allowing only those with high-level access this ability. To control data manipulation even further, changes to data auto-populated in LIMS by integrated instrumentation are tracked with date, time, and user signatures. This allows an auditor to review any changes made to data within LIMS and determine if appropriate documentation was included on why the change was made.
ISO 17025:2017 requires all food testing laboratories to have a documented sampling plan for the preparation of test portions prior to analysis. Within the plan, the laboratory must determine if factors are addressed that will ensure the validity of the testing, ensure that the sampling plan is available to the laboratory (or the site where sampling is performed), and identify any preparation or pre-treatment of samples prior to analysis. This can include storage, homogenization (grinding/blending) or chemical treatments.9
As sample information is entered into LIMS, the software can specify the correct sampling method to be performed, indicate appropriate sample storage conditions, restrict the testing to approved personnel and provide electronic signatures for each step.
Monitoring and Maintenance of the Quality System
Organization within a laboratory’s quality system is a key indicator to assessors during the audit process that the facility is prepared to handle the rigors that come with accreditation.10 Assessors are keenly aware of the benefits that a food LIMS provides to operators as a single, well-organized source for quality and technical documents.
An ISO 17025 accredited laboratory must demonstrate document control throughout its facility.6 Only approved documents are available for use in the testing facility, and the access to these documents is restricted through quality control. This reduces the risk of document access or modification by unauthorized personnel.
LIMS software efficiently facilitates this process in several ways. A food LIMS can restrict access to controlled documents (both electronic and paper) and require electronic signatures each time approved personnel access, modify or print them. This digital signature provides a chain of custody to the document, ensuring that only approved controlled documents are used during analyses and that these documents are not modified.
Corrective Actions/Non-Conforming Work
A fundamental requirement for quality systems is the documentation of non-conforming work, and subsequent corrective action plans established to reduce their future occurrence.5
A software solution for food labs can automatically maintain electronic records of deviations in testing, flagging them for review by quality departments or management. After a corrective action plan has been established, LIMS software can monitor the effectiveness of the corrective action by identifying similar non-conforming work items.
Food and beverage testing laboratories are increasingly becoming accredited to ISO 17025. With recent changes to ISO 17025, the importance of LIMS for the food and beverage industry has only amplified. A software solution for food labs can integrate all parts of the accreditation process from personnel qualification, equipment calibration and maintenance, to testing and methodologies.11 Fully automated LIMS increases laboratory efficiency, productivity, and is an indispensable tool for achieving and maintaining ISO 17025 accreditation.
The theme of better traceability and more transparency is a theme that will only grow stronger in the food industry. Just last week we heard FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas talk about the agency’s recently proposed FSMA rule on food traceability during the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series. In a recent Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Mikael Bengtsson, industry & solution strategy director for food & beverage at Infor, explains yet another role that technology can play in helping companies maintain agility during changes that affect the supply chain such as the coronavirus pandemic.
Food Safety Tech: How can food suppliers mitigate the risks of foodborne illness outbreaks under the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and with limited resources?
Mikael Bengtsson: Food safety must always be a top priority for any food and beverage company. The risks associated with contamination can have a severe impact for public health, brand and company reputation. Safety routines are therefore always of the highest priority. In today’s situation with COVID-19, the stress on safety is further increased. Now, it’s not only about keeping products safe but also keeping employees healthy. One progression and resource that all food suppliers must follow is the FDA [FSMA rules], which require suppliers to be diligent and document their compliance. Especially now, while suppliers are faced with limited resources and additional stress during the pandemic, they must rely on the basics—ensuring masks are worn in and out of the workplace, washing hands for at least 20 seconds prior to touching any food, and remaining six feet apart from co-workers. When it comes to a crisis like COVID, take solace in knowing suppliers can rely on the basics—even when conditions are strained.
This year we have seen many companies having to adapt and change quickly. Demand has shifted between products, ingredients have been in shortage and many employees have had to work from home. Some were better prepared than others in adapting to the new situation. Technology plays a big role when it comes to agility. Regarding food safety, there are many proactive measures to be taken. The industry leaders establish transparency in their supply chain both upstream and downstream, use big data analysis to identify inefficiencies, as well as couple IoT with asset management systems to foresee issues before they happen.
FST: How can technology help suppliers meet the growing consumer demand for transparency in an end-to-end supply chain and improve consumer trust?
Bengtsson: Communication with consumers is changing. It is not only about marketing products, but also to educate and interact with consumers. This requires a different approach. Of course, consumers are loyal to brands, but are also tempted to try something new when grocery shopping. After a new study is published or a new story is written, consumers are likely to shift their shopping preferences.
It is therefore important to build a closer connection with consumers. Companies who have full supply chain visibility, transparency and traceability have detailed stories to tell their consumers. One way they can build these stories is by including QR codes on their packages. The consumer can then easily scan the code and be brought to a website that shows more product details—e.g. who was the farmer, how were the animals cared for and what sustainability efforts were involved. These are all important aspects to build consumer trust. According to researchers at MIT Sloan School of Management, investing in supply chain visibility is the optimal way to gain consumer trust, and can lead to increased sales.
FST: What technologies should suppliers leverage to better collaborate with trading partners and ensure consistent food safety procedures?
Bengtsson: When a food safety problem arises, batches, lots, and shipments need to be identified within minutes. Manufacturers must be able to trace all aspects of products throughout the entire supply chain—with complete visibility at the ingredient level—from farm to table, and everything in-between. An efficient and transparent food supply chain requires extensive collaboration and coordination between stakeholders. New technologies can extend both amount of collaboration possibilities and the impact of those collaborations. In order to maintain a transparent, efficient food supply chain, companies need to invest in modern cloud-based ERP and supply chain systems that incorporate the increased visibility of the Internet of Things (IoT) with data sharing, supplier and customer portals, and direct links between systems—all aimed at facilitating joint awareness and coordinated decision-making. Modern technologies that enable transparency will also have the added benefits of meeting consumer demand for product information, identifying and responding to food safety issues, reducing food waste, and supporting sustainability claims.
Some impressive technologies are not only impacting the food industry right now but will also have a huge impact in the future. As their use grows to be more prevalent, the industry will change to be smarter and more efficient, with continued improvements across the board.
1. AI and Advanced Robotics
While artificial intelligence and advanced robotics are two distinct technologies, they are frequently paired together. AI, and the data it digests, is used to command robots, allowing them to be more precise, more intelligent and more aware.
Most robots on their own are capable of completing only repetitive and clearly defined tasks. Throw something unique into the mix and they’ll either fumble or fail. However, when governed by data-based intelligence solutions like AI or machine learning, those robots become something incredibly advanced.
In the food industry, machinery and robots are leveraged to improve operations, further maintaining quality and efficiency, at affordable costs. They often work alongside human laborers to augment or enhance processes. They come with several unexpected benefits as well, such as much-improved safety for workers, faster and higher product output and consistent, reliable quality.
For example, JBS, one of the world’s largest meatpacking firms, deployed robotic butchers within its plants. The robots were used to slice more challenging meats, which reduced workplace injuries.
Automation stands alongside AI and advanced robotics, even incorporating those technologies to create a streamlined system. As of 2017, 73% of surveyed companies in the food and beverage manufacturing industry either had or were in the process of establishing automation within their facilities.
Many systems are designed to replace or enhance repetitive tasks, boosting their speed and accuracy, to significantly improve output, without incurring a loss in quality. It’s not just about hardware, like swapping a human laborer for a robot. It’s also achieved through software. Think supply chain management solutions that help plan for various events and experiences without human input.
When many of these technologies are used side-by-side, it strengthens their application and usability. As is true of advanced robotics, for example, AI can also be used to create more intelligent automation platforms. Instead of carrying out rote or simple tasks, they can be programmed to react and engage through any number of parameters. The system might slow production, for instance, based on a decrease in product demand. Or, it might swap to an alternate component or ingredient because of a shortage somewhere.
With the right controls and support, automation technologies are game-changing. With the global population growing and demands increasing more with each year, food manufacturers will look to streamline their operations and boost output in any way possible, and automation will be a go-to.
3. Digital Twins
Digital twins in food manufacturing are essentially simulated copies or a virtual representation of a physical system. That definition might seem confusing, but think of it as a clone that can be manipulated for testing and analytics.In other words, it is a twin of the actual system and information, in every sense of the word, albeit one that is more versatile and less vulnerable. It allows manufacturers and distributors to run simulations by feeding specific information into the system to identify patterns, recognize outcomes and much more.
As the systems and controls supporting the field become smarter and more digitized, digital twins in food manufacturing will find their way into product development, testing, post-production, distribution and nearly every other facet of the industry. It will become an integral component to not only understand what’s happening in the market but also for keeping up with the ebb and flow of supply and demand.
Even well before the pandemic, people had become much more conscious about the foods they consume. They want to know the origin of their goods and whether they’ve been sourced using safe, healthy and environmentally friendly methods. The problem with such demands is that, until recently, there haven’t been many solutions for increased visibility within the food supply chain.
Growing concerns for health are now a priority, and visibility is an absolute must. Blockchain technology is the answer, providing precisely the kind of visibility, efficiency, controls and collaboration that consumers want.
With this food manufacturing technology in place, someone could trace a head of lettuce back to its initial seeding. They can see who grew the plants and where, and which methods they used to mature the crop. Then, they can follow its journey to the store shelf.
How is such a thing possible? It all has to do with the technology. In its simplest form, Blockchain is a digital ledger or complete and digitized record of a particular data set. The data that goes in is added to something called a block, and as more is added, it is tacked on to the end of that block to create a long, linked record. Every bit of information is visible across the entire chain, hence the name blockchain.
Walmart is using the technology to track potential food contamination outbreaks. It empowers them to not just find the source but also find the many branches involved — like where goods might have been shipped and who may have purchased them.
Food Manufacturing Technology for the Future
While each food manufacturing technology discussed here is incredibly influential and will have a direct impact on the future of the industry, they are not the only solutions making waves. Some additional examples include:
Drones and automated delivery vehicles
3-D printing for edible goods
Smart or precision agriculture
Smarter waste disposal and recycling
The takeaway is that technology is vastly improving the operational efficiency of the food supply chain, from farmers and manufacturers to the retail stores featuring goods on their shelves. There’s no right or wrong buy-in, as any one of these technologies can be used to streamline separate processes. The biggest challenge will be deciding what to upgrade first, especially when it comes to delivering high-quality, fresh goods in a prompt manner.
I don’t have to tell you that COVID-19 is a crisis, and the consequences have been immediate and difficult. But as I speak to clients and look beyond the immediacy of the problems the food industry is facing, I am seeing positive insights that can help us now and in the future.
Food safety culture hasn’t always been clearly defined, nor has it been a “must” in many food safety systems. But the reality is that food safety culture—and the buy-in that needs to happen in your entire organization—is a direct and important element for staying up to date with new rules and being consistent and compliant at every location.
Join Kari Hensien for a complementary webinar, “4 Solvable Challenges for Enhancing Your Food Safety Culture 2020” | October 28 | Register NowWhat Does Food Safety Culture Mean Now?
The definition I have liked most is “food safety culture is what you’re doing when no one is watching.” But with the coronavirus pandemic, everyone is always watching, so the definition must expand.
Customers are carefully watching every employee at every location to gain a feeling of safety and trust at restaurants and eateries. And if employees aren’t up to speed or don’t have buy-in to your food safety culture, or even food safety in general, a single incident can turn away customers for good.
As an example, I recently visited a favorite taco joint. After the cashier rang me up, he put hand sanitizer on his gloves and proceeded to put handfuls of chips into my takeaway bag with those same “sanitized” gloves. I will not be going back.
So, food safety culture is still about what you do when no one is watching and when everyone is watching, making participation from every member of your organization critical.
What Can You Do Now to Enhance Food Safety Culture?
Practices that enhance food safety culture should initiate a shift in perspective before you implement more tangible activities. These shifts will be more challenging because they require your entire organization to be on board.
Perspective Shifts for Food Safety Culture
One or more paradigm shifts may be necessary to make enhancing your food safety culture successful. Sometimes initiatives like food safety culture can feel more like another addition to your to-do list rather than an asset that ultimately makes the job of a quality manager easier. So, consider these suggested shifts as you move forward.
Food safety culture is part of your food safety system and your corporate social responsibility plans. With any crisis, not just the current pandemic, the values and expectations you instill in your employees can give you an immovable base, even if the surface is in constant fluctuation. And whether you’re dealing with an outbreak or a pandemic, showing you put customers and location employees first demonstrates good corporate citizenship.
Location employees can be your biggest asset or your biggest liability. Employees perform better when they know the purpose behind what they’re doing rather than following rules that may seem arbitrary if they don’t have a clear understanding of why.
Punitive systems encourage hiding problems; supportive systems encourage collaboration and trust. If employees feel safe reporting issues or problems at their location, the more likely they’ll catch small issues before they become huge liabilities.
Food safety culture can be a huge asset. In other words, instead of looking at food safety culture as another chore in your already crowded list, see it as an asset that improves food safety and creates better work environments, which inherently decreases risk and protects your brand.
In-Practice Shifts for Food Safety Culture
The paradigm shifts suggested above help build a support perspective for a strong food safety culture. The following shifts I suggest can help you implement tangible actions that benefit every level of your organization.
Take great care of location employees. These employees are in direct contact with customers the most, and they are truly your first line of defense. Which means they can be an incredible asset or the weakest link.
Consider audit and checklist software over laminated or paper checklists. The right software or app can instantly push new policies or standards to every location and employee at the same time, so everyone is always on the same page. Choose software or other tools that 1) makes it easy for all employees to get the information they need; 2) helps them quickly build behaviors that serve your quality and safety programs; and 3) empowers them to confidently share issues that need to be corrected so you get a true view of the health of any location.
Consider quality management system software. With a platform (there are many that include audit and checklist tools), you can collect data points more quickly and from more sources to create a single source of truth and deepen insights. Software can directly support food safety culture, helping you:
Find new insights and continually improve your processes
Systematically rollout new policies and procedures
Drive adoption of new policies and “build muscle memory” so employees build good habits
Validate that your policies and practices are followed in every location
Identify locations or policies that need increased focus while you reward areas of successful performance.
Look at your organization from a 30,000-foot perspective. This is not so easy to do if you are using manual processes such as paper, file cabinets or even spreadsheets. With those tools, you can see data points, but it takes a lot of work to build a big-picture view. Again, this is where software is invaluable. Many quality management system software options include built-in analytics and reporting, which means much of the work is done for you, saving you valuable time.
I hope your main takeaway from this article is that surviving a crisis requires a strong food safety culture. It helps unify employees across your organization, so everyone knows what’s expected of them and how their work affects the big picture. I see strong evidence that enhancing your food safety culture is more than the “next thing on your to-do list.” It’s a tool that you can put to work to decrease risk, increase compliance, and find small issues before they become huge problems.
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.
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.
Food and beverage manufacturers are seeing the effects of the coronavirus when it spreads through their workforce. Recently, there have been multiple closures of facilities operated by meat processors, including Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods as COVID-19 has infected hundreds of workers.
The backdrop of stressful operations and work: Employees now face increased questions before entering plants and feelings of isolation as lunches and breaks are now solo activities due to social distancing. All of these stressors are compounded when you think about what we’re asking them to do: Go into work and keep food on the grocery store shelves. This is a completely new way to operate, and it has a very real emotional effect on our workers.
We’ve received reports from customers where management is getting out of the back office and putting on hairnets to work the production line. The shortage of workers is a very real problem, and our customers are rising to the challenge. Plus, managing this overall labor shortage while doing more safety and sanitation checks than ever before to make sure transmission risks are eliminated is putting stress on everyone working in plants. It’s never been harder to work in the food industry.
In response to California Governor Gavin Newsom’s actions related to the pandemic, we stand behind any effort that is taken to accommodate the needs of these vital, valuable workers, including the executive order to provide supplemental paid sick leave. Such actions, both locally here in California and at the federal level, are critical to elevating the safety of our food manufacturing and distribution workers. Some heroes wear hairnets.
Temp Workers and Lack of Training Protocols
COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the availability of skilled workers in food facilities. Through all the layoffs stemming from the economic standstill, food manufacturers and grocery workers are reporting increases in hiring to help keep up with demand—and to mitigate the effects of sick employees going on quarantine for two weeks. For instance, Albertson’s, a large food grocery chain store, reported that it was hiring for 2,000 positions.
But hiring temporary workers is only half the battle. The task of training people who may have never worked in grocery or food manufacturing has become more critical in the face of new demands on sanitation and social distancing. With these measures in place, it’s no longer a case of a new employee showing up for work and shadowing another employee or supervisor. Technology can close the gap, especially in food production where the regulations and safety standards require strict adherence to processes. For example, software can facilitate shorter employee training in the areas of quality policies and good documentation practices.
Same Volume with Fewer Workers
We are working closely with customers and partners to cope with new guidelines for social distancing inside food facilities, providing the capability to do remote audits as visitor restrictions have increased. Our software is also being used to screen food manufacturing workers for symptoms of COVID-19 before shift work starts to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus to other essential workers.
In response to increased needs from customers, we have developed three solutions to address the impact of COVID-19. These solutions, which include a personnel screener, changeover manager and remote supplier auditor, can help food and beverage manufacturers efficiently manage physical distancing measures, symptom screening, and travel restrictions.
It can’t be stressed enough: The people who carry out food safety protocols are doing more checks and using more labor time to conform to regulations and guidelines for COVID-19. And, adhering to the systems, regulations and processes used to promote safe, high-quality products (in the same or even higher volumes) remains as crucial as ever. Simplifying these processes by leveraging software has been shown to cut 8 to12 hours of labor per day for a single facility. This is critical at a time when even one person being sick can cause lower throughput.
Plus, this isn’t like manufacturing a car where a line will be built to produce hundreds of thousands of cars over a two- to three-year period. Food manufacturers must often change a line over to produce a different flavor, package type or food type altogether, in as little time as possible to keep production going. Robots and automation can help, but in a crisis like this where immediate productivity gains are needed, software can make the much-needed difference.
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.
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