Certifications are a constant challenge in assuring food quality and safety, especially for smaller producers with limited resources, says Brent Robinson, director of operations at Endangered Species Chocolate.
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But that hasn’t kept the Indianapolis, Ind., company from achieving both high food standards and exceptional corporate citizenship that involves donating 10 percent of net profits to support conservation programs for species, habitat, and humanity.
“One of our biggest challenges is the supply chain complexities. This involves everything from potential risks and their mitigation, resulting in brand protection while meeting the ever-changing consumer needs. That’s probably our biggest hurdle,” Robinson says.
Shelby Troyer, the quality programs manager at the chocolate manufacturer, says sustaining quality standards also can be a struggle.
“In the food industry, the biggest struggle that a lot of companies are seeing is sustainment,” she says. “You can obtain certifications but the issue is sustainment long term, keeping those programs alive every day.” And she says Endangered Species Chocolate is able to do that.
For its high level of quality and safety, Endangered Species Chocolate was recently named the winner of the 2019 Food Quality & Safety Award in the small business category.
The award honors the dedication and achievement of organizations making significant contributions to uphold the highest food standards supported by quantifiable results. This year, a panel of industry judges concluded that Endangered Species Chocolate and Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages, which won in the large-business category, demonstrated impressive efforts in their technology, certifications, training, regulatory compliance, and risk reduction.
Endangered Species Chocolate, founded in 1993, has close to 50 employees and two locations in Indianapolis. In 2018, it added 26,000 square feet of satellite warehouse space at a second Indianapolis location. The company is committed to supporting conservation efforts worldwide through its annual Give Back program, which has donated more than $1.7 million over the last three years to conservation partners around the globe.
Sustainability Inside and Out
Endangered Species Chocolate produces and sells 28 different flavors of all-natural chocolate bars that vary in size. They are made from beans purchased from fair trade sources where the income benefits local communities. Part of the company’s goal is to work with fair trade businesses that pay a fair wage and offer humane working conditions.
All of the company’s chocolate bars and treats are named after an endangered animal. Consumers can read about the plight of the animal inside each label.
The company publishes an impact report on its activities every year. This year’s partners for its GiveBack program of 10 percent of net profits are the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and the National Forest Foundation.
To keep quality and safety measures high, Endangered Species Chocolate has added technology in several areas throughout the past year.
One is its metal detection program for quality checks on all finished products on its three production lines. The program includes screening products for potential ferrous, non-ferrous, and stainless steel metals. Metal detection is now included in its food safety plan as a critical control point, and as the technology evolved, it has greatly reduced false rejections.
“Metal could be introduced anywhere, in stainless pipes and tanks, in-line screens, pumps with gears, and in the foil in which some of the candy is wrapped,” says Troyer. “The metal detectors are calibrated to detect small amounts of metal.”
The company has also improved its work-in-progress procedures. In the past year it automated steps in its carton packaging system that reduced the number of necessary employees. Those employees now work in other parts of the company, Robinson says.
That procedure automation, which is part of the continuous improvement program, increased efficiency by 10 percent and reduced waste from 3 percent to 1 percent in its first year of production. The system automatically folds cartons rather than having them folded less accurately by hand, Robinson says. The carton system also decreased potential food contact and contamination from humans through its automated conveyor belt.
The company has also invested in several conveying systems that led to a new wrapper for its new 1.6-ounce ESC DUOZ and 1.5-ounce ESC ONE chocolate bars. The depositing system allows two different fillings to be inserted into the chocolate at the same speed and time. The chocolate bar also uses a new wrapper technology that heat-seals end-to-end film around the bars, leading to less contamination after wrapping. (The company’s 3-ounce bars still are wrapped in foil and then a paper wrapper sealed by food-grade glue.)
The company’s smallest chocolate bites, 3-ounce bars, ESC DUOZ and ESC ONE bars all use a newly improved ink jet system that date codes all products, ensuring a digital double check for the lot code dates in the inventory system.
A new electronic warehouse management system contains lot codes for a new warehouse tracking system for inbound and outbound finished products and all raw materials. The raw materials also have electronic certificates of analysis.
In the company’s first warehouse, which has a 10-foot-high clearance, pallets were picked from floor level. The satellite warehouse, which has 20-foot ceilings, allows the company to stack pallets on racks. “Our top-moving products are on gravity flow racks, which results in a first-expired, first-out process,” Robinson says.
Finally, the company’s production line switched to a one-step sanitation tablet that has increased the effectiveness of cleaning throughout the factory. The sanitation team previously used bleach-dosing procedures to clean. Pre-op and post-op procedures now include adenosine triphosphate and allergen swabbing to validate the change in the sanitation program.
Training for Safety
Internal auditing has increased audit scores for all third-party certifications. For example, the company achieved Safe Quality Food (SQF) Level 3 certification in May 2019 with a 96, Excellent score. That score is up 25 points and one level up from the score the company received in 2018.
The company said internal training sessions have helped employees strive for the highest quality when handling products during production and when talking about them with customers. Production employees wear a uniform and a hair or beard net, if applicable, Troyer. says They also wear gloves that are changed frequently.
Endangered Species Chocolate implemented its food safety plan in 2012. It didn’t make any major changes until an additional line was added in 2014. Other updates included a snack bite line addition in 2016, a satellite warehouse in 2018, and the ESC DUOZ product in 2019. The Food Safety Plans have continued to evolve as the company has grown.
It has two safety plans, one for production and one for warehouse processes. Depending on the process, the food safety plan ranges from two to three critical control points. The two plans are reviewed annually. Additionally, each plan is validated every time new equipment or a process is added, or when a raw material is altered. The company’s food safety plan team comprises five members: the warehouse manager, production manager, director of operations, quality control technician, and quality programs manager. All five members have Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points certification.
Suppliers and Audits
Each of the company’s suppliers is required to be part of its supplier approval program, and each must supply the following documents:
- Third-party certificates (SQF, BRC, FSC22000, organic, Kosher, Fairtrade, non-GMO, Gluten Free)
- An entire audit with corrective actions
- Letter of guarantee
- Traceability procedure
- Address of its manufacturing facility
- Allergen statement
- Specification sheet
- Origin statement
Each supplier also must undergo a risk assessment of the material it supplies. The risk score is based on biological, chemical, and physical sources of error as well as common issues with the supplier. Depending on the risk, the supplier is given a low, medium, or high score that is updated annually.
Additionally, Endangered Species Chocolate conducts its own monthly internal audits and develops a corrective action plan to be performed within 30 days or at the next monthly audit. If the auditors discover any issues they inform the production and warehouse managers to ensure corrective action is taken. The company said conducting the monthly internal audits throughout the plant helps with continuous improvements and the sustainability of food safety and quality of its products.
The quality manager (SQF practitioner) and the director of operations (back-up SQF practitioner) conduct an annual internal audit. The company also performs weekly GMP audits to assure all employees have good manufacturing practices in mind.
Endangered Species Chocolate’s third-party auditors include the FDA, Indiana State Health Department, SQF Food Safety and Quality, Fairtrade, Gluten Free, non-GMO, and Kosher certifications. Each certification body requires an annual audit encompassing all food safety and quality measures.
Even though the factory doesn’t have high pest activity, Troyer says, McCloud Pest Control services both the production and warehouse facilities biweekly. Pests at both facilities have been kept to a minimum and are actively monitored for pest activity, the company says.
The company’s environmental program includes swabbing for zones one through four for the entire facility each week. It tests for Enterobacteriaceae in zones one and two. Salmonella and Listeria are tested for alternating in zones three and four from week to week.
The recent transition to a sanitizer tablet allows for a more consistent solution of sanitizer in 150 and 200 parts per million, an improvement over the previous process in which inconsistent amounts of bleach were used to make a solution. The tablets have improved swab results for all zones and decreased counts for all the company’s finished products.
Before using the tablets, the bacteria counts for finished products were well below critical limits but still high. Using the sanitation tablets, the finished product counts are 100 percent consistently <10 cfu/g for bacteria. Additionally, enterobacteriaceae, Listeria, and Salmonella counts are consistently <100 cfu/g for environmental monitoring.
Endangered Species Chocolate says its investments in quality assurance and safety measures have been rewarded in its financial return.
Customer satisfaction is up, and complaint rates are down. The complaint rate for 2018 was 0.0002 percent and is projected at 0.00003 percent for 2019, the lowest rate in five years.
Sales also rose 38.9 percent over the past five years, which the company attributes to increased efforts in quality and safety. The sales increase directly supported its ability to purchase new technology and create efficient processes focused on quality and safety.
Endangered Species Chocolate says it complies with regulations. During the first FDA inspection of its satellite warehouse, the warehouse passed with 100 percent compliance. The company also adheres to Food Safety Modernization Act guidelines at both production and warehouse facilities, and to Canadian regulations for all products sold in Canada.
The company says that while it strives to stay compliant with all food safety and quality regulations, it is also focused on its sustainability mission, including adding efficiencies to its production and cutting packaging and other waste.
“ESC validates our commitment to sustainability and verifies our purchase of clean renewable energy to match 100 percent of ESC electricity consumption,” says Troyer, who was instrumental in the company’s recently achieving a Green-e certification for renewable energy use.