Delivering safety standards

Melamine in infant milk; animals sick with viruses; e-coli on fresh vegetables – anxiety over the safety of what we put in our mouths and feed to our families has justifiably reached new heights around the world, sparking fresh government regulations and laws.

Despite all the clamour, Australia and NZ are well poised to find competitive opportunities in the current environment, and even to take advantage of new rules sweeping the globe which demand that a product’s country of origin be prominently displayed.

For many years now, Australia and NZ have been carefully guarding the biological integrity of their borders, controlling what biological materials are admitted and incorporating accredited food safety programs into the workplace.

While some countries have thrown open their doors and fields to all manner of material – and admittedly gained big chunks of market share with little regulation and low cost labour – this corner of the world has wisely kept to the path of safety. And safety is just what the market is now hungry for.

The stamps ‘Australia’ and ‘NZ’ are already well placed to become indicative of safe, quality products – much like ‘Certified Organic’ or ‘Grade A’ qualifications.

Australian food processors already realise that food safety is not just about having the right ingredients – it’s also about smart processing and recipe control. And it all needs to be cost effective, of course, to keep business healthy.

Of these elements, recipe control must be the first and most important concern of any food processor. Recipe control is the heart of product quality and cost of production.

Getting it right the first time requires everyone’s attention. Unfortunately, too few companies get this right. In general, the impulse among food processors is to engineer their way out of issues. If a production line is erratic or a product is out of specification range, the first response is often to fix the mechanics or just to get a new machine. However, the problem is usually not the equipment, but how it is run.

It is unsurprising that, no matter if the raw material comes from the high deserts of the American west, or the lush farmlands of Australia or NZ, the problems are very similar, and often unrecognised.

Essentially, food processing is all about taking a raw material, vegetable or animal, that is inherently capable of huge variation and trying to create a consistent, quality product, cost effectively.

Easy as pie

Often the most effective way to control recipes is a much less expensive option, with people empowered to act, and trained in the principles of LeanSigma.

An example of how LeanSigma works in the food industry can be seen in an apple-pie filling plant, where three tons of apples are delivered to the loading dock every day.

A four-part process then occurs: washing and skinning, coring and slicing, mixing with other ingredients, and cooking; with each batch of apples being tested for quality as it comes out of each process. Some of those batches will fall outside the accepted specifications and get labelled Grade B or put on hold until an accommodation can be made in processing.

With the LeanSigma approach, on the other hand, it becomes possible to eliminate those bad apple batches and food safety concerns. The first idea is usually to optimise machine settings – something most plants do repeatedly, only to find new and different problems requiring new settings.

Instead, a small cross-functional team is put together to identify and fix the problem. Team members focusing on every aspect of that issue almost always discover an essential truth of food processing: Mother Nature is a gardener, not a technician. The raw material is full of variation. Late and early apple crops, those stored for a month or fresh from the tree, all have unique characteristics.

One LeanSigma team recently found that if operators did a simple measure of incoming raw material, then adjusted the machine to the characteristics of the actual material – instead of setting the machine to assumptions or wishes – they could drastically reduce bad product.

The processors therefore avoided the cost and added lead time of reprocessing. By empowering operators to analyse product, and to make decisions about machine settings, product integrity is maintained and plant efficiency is maximised. Operators then become empowered ‘owners’ of the final product.

There is another essential truth of food processing: recipe control is not just about the ingredients. When thinking about a recipe, seasonality, environmental factors and processing equipment – including reliability, efficiency and settings – should all be included.

All of those elements must be understood and regulated to achieve recipe control.

Better quality, consistently, is what prepares a company to compete in a dynamic environment.

LeanSigma disciplines have worked successfully together in manufacturing for years, where the focus on waste reduction, standardised work and simple visual controls systematically improves safety, quality, delivery and cost.

In the food and beverage industries, one of LeanSigma’s core principles – only pass along good product – has led teams to make important discoveries and improvements to processes.

Efficient plants. Well-trained people. This is what’s necessary for food processors to take the next step into world markets. Equipment alone won’t make good, safe food. It is the people, and a disciplined approach, that differentiate a product and keep it safe.

Australia and NZ have top-notch companies with the ability to produce food that is both safe and delicious, and the world is waiting.

Carl Deeley is the managing director of TBM Consulting Group in Australia.

Send this to a friend