It has been said that there are no tragedies, just facts not recognized in time.
This certainly relates to food safety, where delays in knowing the facts can indeed lead to bad consequences, human and corporate, as we have seen from recent events. I’m thinking specifically of the Blue Bell Creameries ice cream recall, something that should have all food manufacturers taking a very close look at their track and trace technology.
In food safety, there are two primary concerns: prevention and response.
Part of prevention is being prepared. The first Blue Bell recall resulted from a product that had gone into the foodservice channel at a hospital in Kansas. Shortly after the initial recall, other incidents of Listeria contamination emerged, and it was discovered that the problem was happening in multiple Blue Bell plants. Because of the expanded scope, Blue Bell ended up recalling all of its products.
In hindsight, a sophisticated track and trace system may have helped mitigate the problem. As the name indicates, the “track” function happens as things occur, “trace” after they have occurred. An effective system executes both functions.
The Benefits of Track and Trace
When manufacturers consider track and trace systems, they typically think about the reaction to a problem; but these systems can also help prevent problems from occurring. A good track and trace system records accurate information in a timely manner. The best way to do that is through some type of automated data collection. Barcode scanning is the most popular method.
One of the most common reasons for a food recall is mislabeled products. Either an incorrect label is applied or an allergen was introduced into a product as a substitute ingredient and not listed on the product label. By having a track and trace system in place and recording information in a timely manner, many of these incidents can be avoided.
Consider salad dressing. Production may attempt to use a substitute ingredient that has a soy allergen, due to a stock shortage, but the operator may not be aware of this fact. As he tries to scan the ingredient into the mix, the track and trace system prevents it from being added. So in addition to track and trace responding after the fact — connecting all the dots in the supply chain — it can also prevent problems from occurring at the point of manufacture.
Other examples of the benefits of this process:
- Preventing release of a product not passed by quality control or not having gone through all requisite testing
- Ensuring accurate shelf-life by verifying that product going into distribution channels has adequate shelf-life from the point of departure
A track and trace system shouldn’t be a “tack on” system; rather, it needs to be integrated into the manufacturing process. A separate system that is bolted on creates significant concerns, principal among them the accuracy of the data, the timeliness of the data, and its accessibility.
Track and trace should be core to a food manufacturer’s business system to track every activity that occurs, even prior to receiving goods from suppliers. Then, as goods are received, information about those goods should be recorded and verified. Depending on the nature of goods received, this could include temperature, sanitation data, product characteristics, shelf life, etc. If it is part of the enterprise system itself, a prevention mechanism to reject non-conforming receipts is built-in as part of track and trace.
One of my customers in the meat industry had implemented a data collection system to scan all information for accuracy as well as efficiency. They hadn’t thought about how the system worked as a preventative mechanism, but found out shortly after implementation.
The first week the system was in use, an employee pulled a product for delivery, scanned it, but the system wouldn’t allow its use. Of course they thought the problem was with the system, but it turned out the operator was (and had been) pulling the wrong product for this customer. This could have been a potential problem; in this case, a higher value product was being pulled and delivered, so the system had an immediate bottom-line impact by correcting the issue.
Another customer equipped with track and trace provides intermediate products for leading manufacturers. As it happened, a major customer appeared unannounced for a quality audit, an experience some might equate to having the FDA show up. In this case, the company showed how their track and trace system worked, and the customer was amazed at its performance. The manufacturer leveraged the audit into increased business with that customer, and now sees the track and trace system as a competitive advantage they can leverage to protect their business from competitors as well as increase sales to existing and new customers. They have also been able to differentiate themselves in a commodity-based market and demand a premium for their product.
Finally, if there’s a good outcome to the Blue Bell incident, it may be that it has served as a wake-up call to the dairy and food industry. Blue Bell’s reputation was stellar. Like most consumers in the South, I’ve been enjoying ice cream all my life, and I’ve been eating Blue Bell since it was available in Georgia. That such a respected company had a problem of this magnitude has turned many dairy and food manufacturers to review their own processes and procedures.
And one important requirement they should closely examine is track and trace.