Q&A: Achieving Food Safety Through Technology And Traceability

The food industry is constantly evolving, and increasing food safety regulations and new technologies seem to be generating change at a faster pace than ever before. Food Manufacturing spoke with Jonathan Cowan and Tom Nessen of Plex Systems to discuss the newest safety legislation, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), and how food manufacturers can take advantage of new technologies to increase food safety and comply with the new regulations.

Q: How will the FSMA change the way manufacturers handle the issues of food safety and traceability?

A: The FSMA tells all of us involved in food manufacturing that times are changing. This legislation grants the FDA unprecedented authority to impose fines and sanctions for non-compliance. And now the FDA can mandate recalls simply based on “reasonable probability” that a food may have adverse health risks. Enhanced inspection authority means companies will need better record keeping solutions as the FDA has expanded authority to inspect records of almost any entity that handles food. Risk based quality management (HACCP-like) systems must be installed. Supplier verification will be mandated. And the FDA is beefing up its staff to ensure all manufacturers are within compliance.

The new laws stress prevention, not just reacting to an issue. The procedures and protocols being enforced are to ensure that an outbreak or issue doesn’t happen in addition to being able to respond quickly should one take place. Prevention requires attention to detail, which necessitates efficient methods of organizing disparate data from many sources.

A tipping point has been reached; it’s no longer possible to manage these records on paper, with endless filing cabinets, through error-prone spreadsheets and in isolated, disparate systems. Manufacturers are now demanding a fully integrated solution that can manage all aspects of food safety compliance and make their business run more efficiently. Enterprise Food Safety Management Systems (FSMS) are exceeding expectations by bringing together Manufacturing Operations Management, electronic HACCP, and instant traceability. 

Q: What are the key differences between today’s “best-in-class” food manufacturers and “laggard” manufacturers?

A: The Aberdeen report on Food Safety and Traceability confirms what we’ve seen with our customers. 

Best-in-class producers (top 20 percent) vs. laggards (bottom 30 percent) achieve:

  • Higher product compliance – 99 percent vs. 81 percent
  • Higher rates of on time and complete shipments – 98 percent vs. 73 percent
  • Four hour response time for non-conforming shipments compared to 40 hours.

 Q: What actions should manufacturers take to achieve “best-in-class” status?

A: Food and beverage producers acknowledge that “building compliance and traceability into the production process” was the primary strategy in 2009 and 2010, according to Aberdeen. Best-in-class manufacturers are 31 percent more likely to be pursuing this goal.

The key step to achieve best-in-class status is connecting shop floor production data with real-time traceability data. The only way that can be accomplished is to transition from a paper-based system to a scalable Web-based technology such as Plex Online, which is a software-as-a-service (SaaS)/Cloud ERP solution that is accessible from any Internet connection.

Q: How will advancing technology impact the way food manufacturers manage food safety and traceability?

A: Technology advancements are already impacting food safety and traceability in many ways. Advancement and standardization in bar-coding and RFID technology have improved automated data collection. This leads to improved traceability and recall management. Software solutions continue to advance enabling manufacturers to do more with less. Automated workflow engines, integrated risk-based quality systems (electronic HACCP) and shop floor integration all allow manufacturers to collect more data more efficiently, with less errors and greater visibility. Best-of-breed manufacturers are more likely to have automated these tasks and expect real-time information to be at their fingertips.

Internet-based technology (Cloud or SaaS) is leveling the playing field and putting advanced technology within reach of all manufacturers. Cloud computing eliminates the prohibitive upfront costs of traditional software such as hardware purchases and software licenses. Historically, food manufacturers have been slow to adopt technology advancements, but Cloud-based solutions are rapidly changing that reality today.

Q: In the future, what factors do you see impacting the success of food manufacturers?

A: In the future, tighter regulation and increased scrutiny will remain. Consumers are increasingly becoming more aware and connected. With the convergence of wireless and handheld device technology, consumers are demanding visibility to product genealogy at the point of purchase for all food products. Manufacturers will need to improve quality control, traceability and record keeping, which are currently challenging with today’s manual processes. Having an Enterprise Food Safety Management System will be imperative to meet rising consumer expectations.

Likewise, the emergence of social media is connecting consumers’ perceptions and opinions to others in unprecedented ways. Facebook and Twitter allow news of an incident to spread globally within hours. Best-of-breed manufacturers are facing this reality by taking greater control over their immediate and extended supply chain.

To download the Aberdeen Food Safety and Traceability report please click here.

Interview By Lindsey Coblentz, Associate Editor