This article originally ran in the April 2012 issue of Food Manufacturing.
All of us in packaging get a knot in our stomachs when we hear the words “new regulations.” The prospect of new costs and added volumes of compliance paperwork looms larger than the projected benefits for consumers. But the food safety regulations of recent years, though they have indeed entailed new requirements and new costs, have also brought unanticipated benefits to food manufacturers in addition to the benefits for the consumers they were enacted to protect.
Most of those benefits have resulted from a fundamental shift in how many food manufacturing companies perceive the role of food safety in their production operations, and how they have changed their operations as a result.
For many years, responsibility for food safety and the methods of dealing with it were treated as operations functions by food manufacturers, processors and packagers. Actions taken to strengthen the inspections and controls necessary to make food products safer were often implemented as a reaction to a government-mandated recall or to a lawsuit concerning an injury resulting from the release of an unsafe product or faulty package. They were regarded as very useful tools, to be used when needed but with no great value beyond the protection they provided.
That attitude has changed in the past few years.
A change of attitude
One consequence of the new regulations of the past few years, including the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 (FSMA) and the standards of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), has been to focus the attention of upper-level food manufacturing management on how food safety was assured in their own operations. In ”looking under the hood” they discovered that food safety equipment had untapped capabilities that changed their thinking about their operations.
The transfer of responsibility for food safety from the operations floor to “upstairs” management resulted in a radical change of attitude in many companies as managers began to view food safety as an integral part of their production rather than as a useful tool to be applied in response to an emergency.
As managers learned more about the capabilities of their equipment, they began to recognize the positive impact that many of the systems used to ensure food safety were having on the productivity of their entire operation. They learned that an inspection system, for example, whether vision, metal detection, X-ray or checkweighing, can not only detect and reject out-of-specification and contaminated product, but when it is integrated into the production line control system, can also alert operators to the upstream equipment malfunction that is causing the problem, or even automatically shut down that production unit when defects exceed acceptable limits. The result is reduced waste, speedy corrective action and lower production costs.
Simply put, if we use the inspection equipment we have to detect contaminated products and defective packaging and throw them away, we’re doing our job but we don’t learn anything from that event. If we use the full capability of the equipment to show us where and when the problems originate, we can prevent them happening in the future.
Realizing this prompted managers to initiate and fund new integrated programs such as raw material tracking, product and packaging inspection and other preventive programs that were to become essential parts of food production systems and even to be integrated into companywide enterprise systems.
Taking full advantage of the benefit
For many companies, this increased attention of management on the processes of production as they seek to understand them more completely has led to greater integration of inspection and detection equipment into the control system of the lines they serve, taking full advantage of all of the benefits the equipment offers.
One immediate result of this has been that the anxiety experienced by managers when anticipating the cost of meeting new food safety regulations has been turned into positive feelings.
For example, looking more closely at food safety can lead managers to realize that regulatory standards and company quality standards do not always have to coincide. If, for example, regulations state that metal contaminants measuring 7 mm or larger are unacceptable, to protect its valuable quality image a company may set its own quality standard much higher, even to the point of making any metal contamination unacceptable. And though the company’s quality program and safety program that apply these different standards should not necessarily be combined — in fact probably shouldn’t be — today’s control technology enables those programs to be linked and to share the same inspection data, giving management better control of both standards.
Larger companies, with the resources and personnel to integrate their inspection equipment into production line control systems and company enterprise systems, have benefited a great deal by being forced to look more closely at food safety. Unfortunately, while every food manufacturer has to address the new regulations, not every company has the capability to take full advantage of the experience. Some smaller- and mid-sized companies with fewer resources and lean staffs, have been able to gain some of the same benefits using the consultative services that many manufacturers of inspection equipment and systems offer. Those who have not have tended to stay in the “detect it and reject it” operational mindset — which meets the requirements of the regulatory establishment, but denies them the advantages of the integrated approach.
As knowledge becomes more widespread about how food safety systems can add to the efficiency and overall productivity of manufacturing operations, more companies will take advantage of that capability. And the food manufacturing industry as a whole will benefit.