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Explore This IssueOctober/November 2013
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Food safety concerns continue to be at the forefront of public attention, leading to high-profile product recalls. In today’s age of supply chain globalization, ever-increasing consumer awareness, and evolving government regulations, there is a legitimate urgency among manufacturers to take more ownership of food safety to protect consumers and their brands.
The best way to optimize quality and minimize risk for prevention is through fully-integrated, end-to-end software capabilities. Forward-looking manufacturers that develop and implement integrated strategies with the right technologies can consistently deliver high-quality products, which in turn, drive productivity and efficiency improvements.
Prevention is the Goal
Until recently, most food manufacturers tried to minimize impact by reacting quickly. Common strategies in place were trying to identify and isolate tainted products through traceability to avoid any further potential harm to consumers, and damage control to minimize lost profitability and negative publicity. Now, as an industry, we have recognized the need to take a more proactive approach to food safety and efforts are under way. However, those efforts need to be fortified.
While response and communications to recalls are still critical, the shift now must be toward proactivity—preventing recalls and building in safety upfront before products reach consumers.
Government regulatory agencies and retailers worldwide are placing a higher priority on preventative strategies. They are strengthening requirements, improving processing practices, and escalating quality initiatives. This requires an integrated plan that drives more control across production and fosters closer collaboration between key stakeholders in the food industry: Suppliers, producers, regulators, academia, and consumers.
Manufacturers who incorporate real-time operational intelligence capabilities can gain the deep insights needed across to predict when problems are likely to occur and take real-time, corrective action. If they can stop a problem before it starts, they not only ensure consistent quality and food safety, but they also are able to be more productive and efficient—a critical advantage to stay ahead in today’s highly competitive environment.
Critical Software Capabilities
1. Anywhere, anytime decision making. In today’s mobile environment, it’s imperative to deliver relevant information and notifications to operators and other key decisions makers wherever they are and through whatever mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, that they are using. Being able to respond quickly to critical events—minimizes the risk of safety mishaps while increasing productivity.
Tools that give these mobile decisions makers contextualized information, based on their role and location for better, faster decision making, address the challenge of deriving meaning from the myriad of data available in today’s operations while improving the way people work today, which is largely untethered.
Access to real-time and geo-intelligent information leverages proven mobile technologies to flexibly empower decision makers. For example, an operator walking in the plant gets notified of an event critical to his role, such as an out-of-spec incoming raw material, a quality sample lab result that has failed, or a metal detector check that is due. The operator can take immediate action and prevent the issue from escalating or being missed altogether.
2. Trending helps eliminate the root cause of product risk. The key to preventing recalls is the ability to proactively recognize production trends as they happen and take immediate corrective action as needed. It requires a shift from looking solely at historical data to connecting it to real-time production information.
Software with sophisticated trending capabilities can identify trends and deliver detailed insight into plant operations, including root-cause relationships. This allows quality improvements that will mitigate risks as they arise. Measured against food safety metrics, trending with real-time notifications of process upsets can help manufacturers identify and address small issues before they escalate into bigger problems. Understanding patterns and relationships between various sets of data, such as temperatures, speeds, pH levels, and humidity, can help eliminate the true root cause of product risk versus the reactive approach of compartmentalizing potentially at-risk products using post-production testing. For example, one food manufacturer used trending data to discover that its oven temperatures were not consistently being met for its product, increasing product safety risk. This critical intelligence was surfaced during the process before it reached the failure limit. Operators took immediate corrective action and adjusted the ovens “on the fly” to compensate for the temperature drifts, mitigating risk and ensuring product safety.
The best way to optimize quality and minimize risk for prevention is through fully-integrated, end-to-end software capabilities.
3. Predictive analytics allow problems to be corrected before they occur. Real-time, predictive analytics are vital to understand what could happen, based on trends, or to foresee issues before an event occurs. Advanced software with predictive analytics may leverage robust modeling engines and multivariate analysis to preempt alarm and failure events based on historical models, enabling “active avoidance.” This protects quality and food safety.
For instance, high pH readings in a key processing step can compromise product quality. If the pH level starts deviating toward a critical condition, predictive analytics software can determine that a critical condition is likely to occur by using a process model built on past scenarios and process data. This model can identify the causes for the pH deviation, alert the operator, and give him or her information to make the correct, immediate decision to adjust the process to prevent the critical condition. And the operator’s actions can be captured to further enhance the process model.
A U.S. dairy company used predictive analytics software to reduce spoilage in its dry baby formula product. By looking at content moisture, dry time, and several other parameters, it could predict the moisture content of its product and reach the desired state faster and more successfully while providing more consistency for the parameters that reduce spoilage.
4. Standardized work processes minimize inconsistencies. The centerpiece of any good safety program is standardized operating procedures (SOPs), which help operators consistently adhere to recipes and comply with Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP). Workflow software enables manufacturers to digitize manual and automated work processes, replacing static paper trails or binders at an operator station. Addressing the need for better operator guidance, digitization helps them follow SOPs and instructions with greater precision and fewer errors.
Through validated entry, workflow software captures data for analysis and historical records. It can help automate and manage HACCP monitoring, integrating production work processes with real-time HACCP testing to enable faster response to compliance issues.
For example, workflow can help manage a HACCP plan by automatically triggering HACCP sampling based on
production events or elapsed time. This gives operators work instructions that connect production actions with real-time quality data. Such capabilities enforce HACCP and other SOPs and mitigate risks for inconsistent actions that could lead to quality problems and recalls. Furthermore, workflow software with mobile alarm response management enables operators to automatically and dynamically respond to production problems and events while monitoring alarms and out-of-spec conditions from multiple systems. It can track HACCP data in real-time and automatically adjust work processes to meet specification requirements, improving production processes for increased food safety.
5. Traceability enables tighter controls across the supply chain. Many variables can affect the availability and reliability of data on the plant floor and throughout the supply chain, which can be difficult to track and trace. Traceability has often been applied solely to minimize the impact of recalls and aid customer complaint investigations, but using it to improve food safety can virtually prevent recalls.
Software that offers rich traceability capabilities can trace a product throughout every step of the manufacturing process, identifying its exact materials and quality characteristics. It allows the flow of the product to be controlled between equipment and managed in-process inventories with greater transparency, and, hence, mitigation of cross contamination between production orders.
This type of software can leverage raw material intelligence and integrate the data to trace complex batches, continuous processes, sub-processes, and components or by-products. The origin and destination of all incoming materials and outgoing finished goods are known, improving food safety. By tracing raw materials to finished product, tighter controls can be put into place to safeguard the supply chain.
For instance, a food producer in Europe used traceability to better understand the effect a raw material had on its product. Although the shipping temperature fell within the specification, traceability revealed that a variation in the shipping temperature of the raw material had an ill effect on its finished product. By focusing on this parameter and working with the raw material supplier, the producer was able to tighten controls and improve product safety.
Technology is a critical enabler for tighter controls to help safeguard processes and prevent quality issues.
The Power of Integration
With prevention as the goal, these five critical software capabilities discussed play a distinct role in minimizing food safety risk, becoming exponentially more powerful when all are leveraged. The use of these important technologies provides a more holistic view of the factors that impact food safety. They allow manufacturers to shift to that critical proactive mode, giving them the insight, consistency, and transparency needed to identify and address potential food safety issues while products are still within the factory walls.
Technology is a critical enabler for tighter controls to help safeguard processes and prevent quality issues—increasing consumer confidence and protecting the brand.
Moore is the global industry manager, food and beverage, at GE Intelligent Platforms. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.