With the growing number of food recalls in recent years, the food industry is in a precarious situation where consumers are trusting manufacturers less than ever before.
There was widespread panic across Europe in mid-2017 when millions of eggs were recalled due to being contaminated with Fipronil — a highly toxic insecticide that is banned in the EU. Eggs were found to contain high levels of the toxin, which led to products being removed from shelves in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.
This of course only addressed part of the problem. Since eggs are a staple ingredient in many delicacies and dishes prepared and sold through supermarkets, the extent of the contamination is still unknown. This is only the latest in a long line of blows to consumer trust of food manufacturers in the twenty-first century.
While the use of banned insecticides is indefensible, particularly in this incident, the recall does highlight a persistent issue in the international food chain. Fipronil, while outlawed in the EU, is legal for sale and use in the US agricultural sector. There are similar inconsistencies in product and practice legality in the food industry, which underlines the importance of best practice when managing compliance.
If we consider best practice as being the most effective means of businesses achieving compliance, it is important that food plant managers also effectively manage the requirements of the regulations their products are subject to.
For smaller businesses that source, manufacture and sell products entirely within one country, this is not too challenging. The difficulty arises in exported products, which require businesses to produce several recipes for products that meet the specific needs of each territory being exported to.
An example of this is alcohol manufacturer Sazerac, which had its Fireball whiskey temporarily removed from sale in Finland, Norway and Sweden in 2014. This was because the product contained amounts of propylene glycol in excess of EU limits of one gramme per kilogram of product — yet that amount met US market requirements. In a statement, Sazerac regarded this as a ‘small recipe-related compliance issue.’
Fortunately, plant managers can effectively manage compliance alongside things such as traceability by using suitable food manufacturing operations management (MOM) systems or manufacturing execution software (MES). MOM and MES systems unite the disparate equipment and systems in a plant and collate process data into one central location in a clearly presented way.
This means plant managers can use these systems to create a strong digital footprint for every product, which can validate raw materials, trace ingredient origins and provide a clear overview of production recipes — including ratios of ingredients against regulatory limits.
Management of processes is an area of food production where many plant managers often fail to realise best practice, yet it will become increasingly critical to operations. Recent years have seen a significant rise in the uptake of internet of things (IoT) technologies in the food sector, as well as a growing number of initiatives prompting businesses to invest in it.
This will make effective data management and food manufacturing IT a necessity.
For example, the EU has been funding the Internet of Food and Farm 2020 (IoF2020) since the start of 2017. The initiative aims to increase the large-scale uptake of IoT systems in the agricultural, farming and food processing sectors by the end of 2020. If successful, this will make the modern food plant highly connected featuring hundreds of points of data collection.
This data is only worthwhile if it is managed effectively. Plant managers using MES systems can not only collect and review this performance data quickly, but also set quality parameters for those systems to ensure all products meet quality standards.
This is the key to not only delivering peace of mind to consumers but also to ensuring long-lasting regulatory compliance. Society is becoming increasingly data-driven and there is a rising expectancy for information pertaining to the history of products, whether for hygienic or ethical reasons.
For example, it’s realistic that conscientious consumers will soon be able to use smartphones in stores to view data on product history and ingredients. Plant managers can already use that same data in a MES to ensure that, before any product leaves the plant, it is safe for consumption and regulatory compliant.
Regulations change frequently, so managing compliance is about more than understanding multiple market standards. It’s about having the ability to flexibly react to changes in regulation without downtime or reduced output. Plant managers using MES have the organisational agility to respond to these adjustments quickly and effectively, without risking releasing an unsuitable product to market.
The growing number of food recalls has undoubtedly shaken consumer trust in the food industry. In fact, a food consumer trust survey conducted shortly after 2013’s horsemeat scandal showed that 69 per cent of people consider it important to know where their food is produced.
The onus is now on food plant managers to restore consumer trust and safeguard the future of the food industry. This can only be achieved by going beyond compliance as a box-ticking exercise and investing in best practice to ensure long-term safety and success.
AUTHOR: Dominque Stucki