As any practitioner on the ground will tell you, this is just the beginning. You must also consider the need to base your plan on scientific data, develop numerous prerequisite programs (PRPs), implement management systems, establish document control, train employees, conduct reviews, and improve and revise. Soon the food safety plan develops into a full-blown management system requiring significant resources, time, investment, and energy. Then you are introduced to the newly created monster that is your food safety plan.
Growing consensus on the definition of a food safety plan or system and the emergence of web-based or cloud computing are accelerating the development and deployment of IT in food safety.
Back to Basics
An amusing story tells about a man who is lost and seeks directions from a stranger he meets on the road. After inquiring about the best route to take to his final destination, the stranger calmly informs the man, “Well, if it were me, I wouldn’t start from here!”
In attempting to reach a precise definition of a food safety plan, we must learn from the simple wisdom of the stranger and start from a different place, a more fundamental definition. A food safety plan is, in essence, a management process that collects, collates, analyzes, and records data. In this sense, it is no different from any other management process. The data drive management decisions, demonstrate compliance, and are used to improve results.
Few would argue against the need for a clear legal and regulatory framework requiring robust food safety plans from those who produce and sell food products. The reasons are self-evident and supported by well-documented events. Nonetheless, it would be hard to find a CEO in the food industry who supports the application of significant resources or investment where there are already technology and tools available to do the job more quickly and effectively. After all, haven’t almost all other management processes within food businesses benefited from the introduction of information technology solutions? Who would dream of operating their financial accounting, human resources, or payroll systems without the application of IT? Yet, the question arises: Why has food safety management remained the poor relation in the family? Given that the majority of food safety plans are paper-based, even those of large blue-chip food businesses, this question deserves some consideration.
A number of reasons exist, many of which are beyond the scope of this article. However, two stand out:
- Traditional software solutions have not addressed the real needs of the local food safety practitioner; and
- Enterprise software solutions have proven too costly for most food businesses, are sold in modules, and are often generic in nature. Even when these are used, certain paper-based systems must still be kept in place to maintain compliance.
The lack of agreement on what exactly constitutes a food safety plan or management system has prevented the development of a solution capable of meeting the needs of a global market.
In understanding that a food safety plan centers on data, we are taking a step closer to supporting those individuals who will ultimately have to implement the worthy aspirations of regulators and retail buyers.
For example, in developing a HACCP plan, the food safety manager must identify and collect data on hazards. This data must then be used to assess risk, a task that also depends on good data, much of which is found on various web-based sources. Validating information and data must be generated for critical controls, and records must be maintained to demonstrate compliance with the plan. Controlling potential hazards associated with sourcing suppliers and raw materials is another excellent example. Food businesses must collect significant volumes of data—HACCP plans, specifications, allergen data, questionnaires, audits, and certificates—to qualify and monitor suppliers. This situation can be replicated across the other elements of a food safety plan.
Where IT Comes In
Many of the requirements of food safety management are repetitive in nature, involve work flows that are well established, and require routine actions. On the other hand, they are living, breathing systems that need to be revised on an ongoing basis as new information and events come to light. Here again we see the role information and data play in meeting compliance.