The food processing industry has done an incredible job of building new industrial automation systems to improve overall production processes, reduce time and cost of production, and increase overall throughput, product yields, and efficiency. In the past 18 months, however, the industry has seen an unprecedented number of supply chain safety and quality failures.
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In 2008, annual nationwide estimates held steady at 87 million cases of food-related illnesses, with 371,000 hospitalizations and 5,700 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These statistics have fueled a reduction in overall consumer confidence and increased scrutiny by Senate committees and a number of domestic and international government agencies and groups.
Food processing companies also face the continuing challenge of maximizing food safety while complying with a growing number of regulations: ISO 22000, FDA 21 CFR Part 110, the FDA Bioterrorism Act of 2002, hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP), safe quality foods (SQF), and others. Timely information about supplier controls and the production process is needed to adequately analyze and detect problematic processing trends and take immediate corrective action when needed.
Because the food processing industry is dependent on extended supply chains with multiple vendors, several variables can have a negative impact on the process, including increasing prices, diverse standards among suppliers, geographic distance, and tight timelines. Even though risk and quality management are critical, most organizations still use a paper-based approach for their food safety and quality management system. They generate and track myriad paper-based documents within a process that leads to resource overload, untimely data, and inefficiencies. The long-term effects of such a system range from enormous costs for failures due to recalls and suspensions to loss of retail and consumer confidence.
The food industry must improve its safety record to maintain the good faith of consumers. Yet even with more focus on quality, problems continue, including:
- contamination of raw materials prior to or during processing;
- unclean equipment and lack of preventive maintenance;
- insufficient employee training; and
- incorrect labeling or packaging.
Fragmented Processes and Systemic Problems
These problems persist for several reasons: Processes are fragmented and disconnected, procedures may not be well documented, the required steps in the process are not always completed, and employees don’t know or understand their responsibility or authority. Points of potential noncompliance are often not identified, and suppliers are not closely monitored or compelled to enforce their own quality process improvements. Companies may neglect to do a comprehensive review of the processes and procedures within their food safety and quality systems. Their focus is on the food product rather than on efforts to resolve systemic issues. If a problem occurs, these companies react quickly to find a solution but neglect to identify the root cause of the problem.
These operational deficiencies are key contributors to recent events. Last spring, headlines about food contamination focused the spotlight on weaknesses within supply chain management and the food processing industry itself.
“We recognize that we have reached a plateau in the prevention of foodborne disease,” said Robert Tauxe, MD, MPH, deputy director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Bacterial, and Mycotic Diseases. During a briefing in April, Dr. Tauxe called for new farm-to-fork efforts to evaluate food safety, including improved methods to quickly trace the source of contaminated produce.
Several months later, too many food processing companies are not yet following and enforcing standard and consistent procedures, and they have not implemented organization-wide trending data to predict quality and safety across all food products and processes. Without good reporting and trending capabilities, top management at these companies cannot make accurate assessments about the issues, risks, and costs facing the organization.