For the past 100 years, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have put most of their money into visual inspection capabilities. Many of the people conducting these visual inspections are called marketing specialists, a term that implies a focus on making sure things look good rather than making sure they are good.
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Coming from a background where implementing world-class quality systems is paramount to the success of most electronics manufacturers, it is easy to see the shortcomings in America’s food supply chain. Visual inspection never has helped to provide quality products—and never will. The products will look good, but quality will always remain in question. In the technology producing world, materials are tracked, tests are performed to determine most aspects of quality, and strong controls are implemented that allow manufacturers to identify, isolate, remove, and destroy defective products. In that world, a manufacturer whose product kills people ends up paying or going out of business.
This is apparently not true in agriculture or the food supply chain.
As an example, traceability of produce is rare. If you can’t find out where it came from, you cannot sue anyone. No one quickly becomes responsible for an Escherichia coli or Salmonella outbreak. The food supply chain needs traceability capabilities, measurement devices, feedback, and closed-loop controls to get a handle on such situations. That’s where the term “quality control” comes from. The implication is that quality can be controlled. If we could not control the quality, the system might be called “quality out of control.”
In the case of food with safety—replace the word safety with the word quality—problems, it can be said that the situation in our country is food safety out of control. And it is. This isn’t hard to understand from a quality perspective. We have no traceability, no measurement of biological or chemical contaminants, no feedback loops, and no plan or people trained to control a system gone haywire before the problem enters the public domain. If we cannot keep the problem within our own walls, we will probably be sued and go out of business.
Fortunately, modern quality system strategies are slowly but surely making their way into the food supply chain realm. While a great deal of work remains to be done with regard to the costs and technological capabilities surrounding radio frequency identification (RFID) and sensor technology, risk assessment, traceability, and food safety certification are clearly being pressed by the industry and will most likely soon be required by legislation. The food supply chain member that is kept out of the marketplace because it cannot or will not comply with food safety requirements will not exist in the future. Those supply chain members that comply with and successfully implement a complete food safety system as a tool to improve business operations are more likely to be able to use that to grow their businesses.
A publication entitled Commodity Specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Fresh Tomato Supply Chain, Edition 1.0 (http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/ ~acrobat/tomatsup.pdf) clearly outlines principles for produce food safety programs: “Basic principles serve as the foundation for all food safety programs found within the industry:
- Once a tomato is contaminated, removing or killing pathogens is difficult.
- Prevention of microbial contamination at all steps from production to distribution is strongly favored over treatments to eliminate contamination after it has occurred.”
Principle four of the nine basic principles of microbial safety states the following: “Minimize the potential of microbial contamination from agricultural water used with fresh vegetables by monitoring, documentation, and analysis of all agricultural water sources.”
Let’s assume we are attempting to apply world-class quality principles to the development of closed-loop quality control focused on the prevention of microbial contamination in water throughout the supply chain. Many think this is an impossible task. Regardless, how might we approach this problem? We know we need traceability, measurement, and feedback, as well as someone to take corrective action. And we know that none of those are operational at this time.
Implementing a System
Famed statistician and business guru W. Edwards Deming, one of the early leaders in implementing quality systems, reportedly said, “If you don’t know where to start, start somewhere.” One place to start when it comes to ensuring food safety and quality is a traceability system connected to measurement devices that provide immediate feedback to caring people.