Is food safety getting worse?

With the risk of food contamination increasing, producers, manufacturers, retailers, regulators and the consuming public all continually raise the bar for food safety. The variety of potential contaminants that must be detected across the food supply chain complicates screening procedures.

This is because no single device or technology can screen for all types. Even when an incident occurs, it’s difficult to identify the cause and its source rapidly because of the limited capability of available technology for sample preparation, identification and detection, and tracking and tracing.

There are many types of biological, chemical and physical sources of contamination. New sources of contamination constantly arise from recycling efforts, product reformulation, product counterfeiting, and other malicious and non-malicious sources.

However, the industry is putting improved technology and practices into place and new technology is evolving rapidly to help further protect the consuming public. These include continuous quality verification; state-of-the-art, analytics-based risk assessment; and more timely and granular track and trace systems.

Improving food and beverage product quality and safety goes hand in hand with efforts to lower manufacturing and supply chain cost while reducing business risk.

Global sourcing and rapid distribution have increased the risk of a large-scale incident. The Red Sudan incident is a perfect example.

Sudan 1, a banned carcinogenic red food dye, was used to make red chili powder. This single ingredient created a major global incident before authorities discovered it had entered the global food supply chain, prompting dozens of product recalls.

Over 600 food products were recalled. These included curry sauce, Worcester sauce, pesto sauce, ready to eat meals, soups, sausage, pizza and Dijon mustard mayonnaise from major food companies such as Unilever, Heinz, McDonalds, Tesco and Sainsbury.

Product reformulation

New sources of contamination continue to be discovered. These are due to product reformulation, material recycling, and discovery that some ingredients are not as safe as once thought. Many companies are reformulating their food products with ingredients that help lower costs or improve the health benefits.

However, ingredient changes can also change the water activity of the product and make it more susceptible to spoilage and bacterial growth. Just this year, Nestle announced that it is collaborating with paper manufacturers to evaluate different approaches for developing new grades of recycled paper in light of concerns about oil leaking into foods from packaging material made from recycled newspaper.

Statistics on the number of incidents of food borne illnesses or the number of incidents caused by the five major pathogens do not provide evidence of a decline in incidents. Overall, the number of incidents and their severity seem to be relatively constant year to year.

In the US, this translates into 76 million gastrointestinal illnesses, 325,000 hospitalisations, 5000 deaths, and billions of dollars in costs. This is the result of poor producing and manufacturing operations as well as poor food safety practices on the part of the consumer.

However, a single, highly publicised incident has the potential to devastate brand value or even destroy a company. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for the industry is to identify and deploy new technologies that can prevent contaminated product from reaching the consumer more effectively as well as technology that can help minimise the impact of incidents that do occur.

Accurate tracking

Companies must put technology and enforced workflow procedures in place across the manufacturing supply chain and out to the customer. This includes constant risk assessment. Continuous quality verification technology should be deployed wherever possible.

More granular and accurate tracking and tracing will also be required. Tracking and tracing using pa-per records or extensive manual entry into electronic records is no longer sufficient.

Packaging and bottling operations typically lack sufficient continuous quality verification. While most packaging line machinery is highly automated, most labelling and inspection operations remain manual or semi-manual, open-loop systems.

As a result, allergen mislabelling and non-readable date and bar codes still occur all too often. Product inspection is often limited and relies on older, less effective technology to detect non-metal impurities. Continuous quality verification systems in packaging operations are be-coming a business and regulatory requirement.

Optical character recognition (OCR) systems ensure that information such as date and lot codes are accurate and readable and provide 100 percent in-line inspection. Laser measurement-sensor technology is at the heart of other packaging line, "continuous quality verification" solutions.

These verify proper package positioning and detect jams online, and can detect other rejects, such as faulty carton seals and inadequate cap closures. New, continuous on-line X-ray systems can detect many foreign objects such as most metal, glass, plastic, bone and rock.

Packaging operations

Other technology providers now offer complete process equipment plat-forms for high-speed packaging operations. These integrate robotics, motion control, and vision technology for handling food products such as meat and poultry.

The industry must constantly raise the bar for food safety.Such platforms eliminate human handling of product to eliminate a source of product contamination. Inspection by automated vision technology also eliminates error-prone human inspection.

Food manufacturers are deploying new software solutions to address product quality and safety. These include quality management systems, production management systems, model predictive control, and electronic track and trace systems.

Production management software solutions have evolved to include many functions such as workflow design and enforcement; KPI dashboards for analysing quality, productivity, and asset utilisation; and several levels of data analytics that help identify problem areas and assess potential product quality and safety risks.

Some now include more sophisticated model- based analysis and control. In fact, most suppliers now offer some form of model predictive control (MPC) in their production management software suites.

Quality, risk, and compliance management systems (QMS) have evolved over time to address the growing needs of the regulated manufacturing industries. These systems help ensure product quality and safety as well as compliance with government regulations and industry standards, while minimising the risk to a manufacturing enterprise associated with off-quality product or noncompliance with government regulations.

Mission-specific functionality is included for manufacturing, engineering, quality, customer service, purchasing, and corporate management. Typically QMS software include modules to manage quality, documents, change, internal and external audits, training, BOMs, supplier quality, compliance and submissions, customer complaints, incidents, risk, nonconformance and deviation, corrective and preventive action (CAPA), and environmental health and safety (EH&S) compliance.

Business and regulatory requirements drive a global effort to improve product genealogy tracking and tracing from the "farm to the fork." It impacts companies that produce, manufacture, process, pack, hold, transport, distribute, and receive food products for human or animal consumption.

While most regulations require "one up and one down" record keeping, good business due diligence requires tracking and tracing from the source of an ingredient or product to the purchase by the retail customer. This includes information on companies as well as the products.

As real-time tracking and tracing systems evolve, they should be designed with all possible business benefits in mind. A tracking and tracing system should be integrated into all business activities including balancing incoming and outgoing supply chains, product recall, theft, anti-counterfeiting, asset management and tracking, and other business functions.

Production management systems

The new generation of quality management systems enables quality management tracking and tracing of suppliers and other partners in the supply chain. Production management systems provide significant tracking and tracing within manufacturing prior to packaging operations.

This includes such functions as recipe management, batch lot tracking, and in-process genealogy.
Driven by the increased need for product serialisation, packaging operations management systems are improving in functionality. However, most systems lack the full level of required functionality.

ARC believes packaging floor product identification and traceability systems must provide specific functionality to help reduce or eliminate inaccurate data, minimise the financial risk and scope of a potential product recall, and simplify current and future regulatory compliance.

While government regulations and the industry itself are doing more to ensure food safety, with the constantly changing sources of potential contamination the risk of a major incident continues to increase. In response, the industry must constantly raise the bar for food safety by continuing to implement best practices and deploying the latest technology.

[John Blanchard is Principal Analyst, ARC Advisory Group.]

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