Food safety and quality assurance (FSQA) issues pose the biggest risk to the brand reputation and financial health of food and beverage companies. Yet, when it comes to daily FSQA operations, industry has struggled with making broad and effective changes. But in the face of regulatory challenges such as the Food Safety Modernization Act, pressure to provide safe, quality products on time and within budgetary key performance indicators (KPIs), heightened consumer awareness of food safety issues, and of course C-suite commitment to protecting market value and brand—a fundamental change in FSQA operations is necessary. This article makes the case that key to this change is leveraging the power of cloud-based food safety technology solutions.
Right Time and Right Technology
When I first came to the food industry as an evangelizer of technology for improving FSQA, I was told, “Food companies don’t deploy technology.” After much research, it became clear that food companies did deploy many software solutions for various corporate functions—supply chain management, procurement, finance, human resources, to name a few. These technologies saved time, saved money, and created operational efficiencies.
What was true, however, was that the FSQA functions within food companies, which logically would seem to be top candidates for the benefits of automation, lagged behind in technology adoption. It is this author’s belief that this was due largely to the types of FSQA solutions that were available pre-cloud/pre-mobile—traditional on-premise or “behind the firewall” solutions. FSQA teams aren’t sitting at their desks in front of computers. They’re in the field doing pre-harvest inspections; on the plant floor monitoring food safety processes; on the road auditing high-risk suppliers; or onsite responding to customer issues. Technology solutions that required users to be at their desks were therefore inefficient. On-premise technologies were also expensive to deploy and maintain, making it difficult to build a business case given low food industry profit margins.
But over the past decade, we’ve seen this change. Today, many FSQA technology vendors offer cloud-based solutions that can be accessed anywhere, at any time, using mobile devices. And as a result, we’re seeing FSQA technology adoption becoming more mainstream.
Affordability of FSQA in the Cloud
Cloud-based technologies are “multi-tenant.” This means that there are central applications, built with best-practices functionality, that are shared by all of the companies using the solution—but every company has its own private, sub-section—configured for its specific needs. The “tenants” enter the applications with their own secure logins. There’s no hardware or software to buy and maintain.
Additionally, when industry drives the need for changes to the applications, all of the tenants receive the enhancements, keeping the systems up-to-date for all. For example, if you are using a cloud-based solution for Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) automation and one of the schemes issues a new code version, the vendor would typically update the code and push it out to all companies using that application—eliminating the need for you to spend time and money making these changes.
Common Myths About the Cloud
Myth 1: Cloud-based applications are not as secure as on-premise solutions. The bottom line is that today’s cloud-based applications are highly secure. Think about cloud-applications we use every day, such as online banking, where highly sensitive information lives in the cloud. Vendors follow very strict rules about security and offer audits to prove that they meet or exceed standards.
Myth 2: Lack of controls over who sees what. Cloud-based applications are roles-based, meaning you control who sees what. Think about logging into your online banking account, you see your activity and balances, not those of everyone else who uses that same application. With cloud-based FSQA apps, you control who sees and does what. You might allow suppliers to login to enter certificate of analysis information, for example, but not allow them to see other data in the system.
Myth 3: You do not own your data in cloud-based applications. You can and should own your data, and this should be in your vendor contract. If you decide to leave a vendor, you will have the right to take your data with you.
Harmonizing FSQA in the Cloud
A comprehensive cloud-based FSQA suite will typically include upstream, internal, and downstream functionality. This might include modules for Supplier Compliance, Food Safety and Quality Management, and Regulatory/GFSI Compliance.
Cloud-based solutions operate on mobile devices and via secure login portals, allowing you to automate and streamline FSQA at all points along your value chain—from anywhere, at any time. They collect and analyze FSQA data at the point of origin: in the field, in the plant, on the road, or at the receiving dock. Information can come in from suppliers, equipment, and labs—and go out to distributors and customers. Workflow engines ensure all tasks—for every plan, across all facilities—are completed. In the cloud, FSQA data is analyzed against specifications in real-time because there’s no paper. Alert systems, “food safety smoke alarms in the cloud,” if you will, push non-conformance alerts in real-time, facilitating timely corrective and preventive actions (CAPAs).
Regardless of how many facilities, suppliers or customers you have, all FSQA program components and records live in your own central data repository that can be accessed from any computer or mobile device with a web browser. This is where harmonization of FSQA comes in.
All prerequisite programs, good manufacturing practices, standard operating procedures (SOPs), and the like, along with associated forms, live in the central repository. This means that regardless of where an FSQA team member is located, updated forms and specifications are always used.
Quality and operations directors, for example, can access dashboards on tablets anywhere to view and compare status of FSQA across the entire operation.
And there’s no more “data rich and information poor.” All FSQA data and records are centralized, actionable, and accessible for trending, reporting, continuous improvement, and audit readiness.
Impact on Daily FSQA Operations
There are literally thousands of examples that can demonstrate the impact of cloud-based, mobile technologies on FSQA operations. The following two focus on upstream and production scenarios.
Scenario 1: Going to supplier fields to inspect produce prior to harvesting for packaging at the plant.
Traditional Manual System:
- Inspector goes to field to do visual inspection; records a direct observation non-conformance, such as signs of animal intrusion, on paper forms.
- Goes back to office; faxes forms to FSQA manager or enters into spreadsheets and sends via email along with notations of observed non-conformances.
- When manager receives, he/she sends back a CAPA; if unable to reach manager, or if manager isn’t logged into email, it could take hours for this step to happen, and as we know in the food industry, time equals money.
- Inspector returns to field, has CAPA executed, records again on paper, and files forms upon return to office (hoping they can be easily found for audit).
Cloud-Based Mobile Empowered System:
- Inspector goes to fields and records all observations on mobile device form.
- If a non-conformance against a spec is detected during the real-time analysis, an auto-alert is sent to the FSQA manager, who receives a push notification on his or her mobile device, regardless of where he are she is.
- A CAPA is generated in real-time and sent back immediately to the inspector.
- When the CAPA is complete, it’s recorded on the mobile form, including before/after digital pictures, and automatically becomes part of the permanent record—accessed on-demand for audits and continuous improvement.
Scenario 2: Plant floor SOP for metal detector calibration prior to production line startup to package bags of cookies.
Traditional Manual System:
- Line supervisor has SOP to calibrate metal detectors on his/her lines by 4:55 a.m. daily prior to materials coming down the line.
- Today, this supervisor calls in sick at last minute; another supervisor is balancing managing multiple lines, and the metal detector SOP “slips through the cracks.”
- At noon, the plant manager, reviewing the morning’s operations forms, notices the SOP was missed; now all cookies previously packaged must be taken out of the bags and re-run through the metal detectors after proper calibration.
- The packaging materials are wasted and 30 percent of the cookies are broken in the process; KPIs for the day are now off, inventory has to be replaced, and overtime must be paid to ship to the customer on time.
Cloud-Based Mobile Empowered System:
- At 4:40 a.m., all line supervisors receive alert on their mobile tablets with notification that the auto-scheduled SOP is due to be completed by 4:55 a.m.
- At 4:55 a.m., the plant manager and appropriate production supervisor receive Non-Compliance Report (NCR) alerts that the calibration was not entered for a particular line.
- At 5:02 a.m., the production supervisor electronically completes the NCR-CAPA; auto-notification also sent to plant manager that the issue has been successfully resolved.
- The electronic records of the auto-scheduled SOP, the alert, the issuance of the corrective action and the completion of the task are time/date stamped and now part of the permanent record for audit readiness and continuous improvement.
- The problem is corrected before the line start-up, avoiding waste and rework, thereby reducing cost of quality and helping the plant stay within its daily KPIs.
The bottom line? Cloud-based FSQA technologies save time, save money, and create operational efficiencies that harmonize and improve food safety and quality.
Levin is the senior vice president of marketing and a co-founder of SafetyChain Software. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.