Protect the Food Supply Chain

The past year has not been a good one for food safety. There have been a number of high profile recalls traced to imported tainted ingredients and contaminated seafood, domestically produced fresh vegetables, and ground beef contaminated with E. coli O517:H7. Imported consumer items, such as toys and toothpaste, have also been recalled. Many of the food recalls have been linked to safety and quality problems in the supply chain, and media attention has focused mostly on the international supply.

Imported food benefits both the consumer and the food processor. Sourcing products or ingredients internationally provides cost savings and the ability to source products all year long. On the other hand, the global supply chain adds complexity to an already byzantine system of food safety, quality, and logistics.

When supply chain issues occur, the classic response is to tighten the specifications or increase incoming inspections, but because they do not address the root cause, both of these strategies create problems. Tightening specifications tends to increase adversarial relations between the customer and the supplier. The supplier questions why the specifications are being tightened when all quality assurance (QA) tests indicate that the product in question meets specifications. The customer may respond by pointing out that significant manufacturing problems are occurring on the plant floor or that QA tests indicate that the product is not meeting specifications. A follow-up to the customer’s response is an increase in quality levels, which will result in higher costs for the product.

A short-term correction may involve increasing the level of inspection and potentially adding a step to remove unacceptable product, thus ensuring that the incoming product meets purchasing specifications. Sometimes, this short-term correction becomes a long-term strategy. Inspecting and sorting do not comprise an effective long-term strategy, because they do not mitigate the root cause of the problem. In addition, this solution is costly and does not add quality to the lot. Even if incoming inspection is used as part of the receiving process, the processor may need to add in-process inspection and sorting steps during production to ensure that the final product meets end-product specifications.

If an incoming lot fails the inspection process, the plant must decide what to do with the lot. Business questions that arise include whether to return the lot or to accept it with concession because of the need to meet the production schedule. This strategy may have unintended consequences. Repeated concessions can erode the specifications, essentially diminishing them to an unacceptable level. Once this occurs, it is difficult to return to the written specifications.

Another approach is 100% inspection, but this is rarely effective in identifying and removing all unacceptable product. Other problems occur if the defect is at very low levels. When this happens, large samples must be taken and analyzed for the QA test to be statistically relevant. For example, Salmonella enteritidis is present in eggs at an incidence level of one per 25,000 eggs. If a company wants to have a statistically based inspection plan that provides 90% confidence that a given lot does not contain any S. enteritidis, then a sampling program must be developed that randomly selects 2,000 eggs, and a testing program must have the ability to detect one cell of S. enteritidis in the 2,000-egg sample.

Build in Safety and Quality

The best solution is to build food safety and quality into the production and manufacturing processes. The most effective food safety/quality design process uses the principles of hazard analysis that are a central part of hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP). HACCP has worked well for a number of years. For example, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service reports that between 2003 and 2006 there was a steady decline in the incidence of E. coli O517:H7 levels in raw ground beef. As a result, major U.S. food processors and food service companies require that their suppliers implement HACCP plans and good manufacturing practices and/or good agricultural practices.

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