Improving Food Safety with Integrated Systems

June 2, 2014
The Food Safety Modernization Act mandates the need for timely, accurate tracking information. Integrating systems takes the guesswork out of tracing products from front to back and beyond.

Every year we see product recalls in the news. Food is contaminated with salmonella. A certain toy is found to have unsafe levels of lead. No matter if it concerns 40 pallets of product or a 25-state outbreak that hits the evening news, a recall is never a good thing for manufacturing.

So how do you get better at catching lapses in quality before they impact consumers? Or, if the product reaches the market, how do you pinpoint who is affected?

Conceptually, building traceability systems is simple. Track raw materials through the production process to finished goods and into the supply chain. But when it comes to actually implementing a robust traceability system, there are a couple of predicable challenges.

The first is the number of different systems in manufacturing plants. Testing labs use laboratory information management systems to ensure quality product. Control systems are used to automate the production of finished goods. Warehouses use tracking systems to track finished goods inventory, automate order processing and improve transportation timelines. Unless these systems are integrated, tracking a product through a single product line a matter of time-consuming guesswork. This is a luxury manufacturing cannot afford any longer. In the food industry, the Food and Drug Administration's Food Safety Modernization Act makes a manufacturer's ability to provide accurate information in a timely manner a legislative mandate.

The second challenge is the human element in some systems. I often see warehouse pallets marked with red paper to signal a product hold. But what happens when the paper falls off or the pallet is incorrectly oriented? What about the time lapse that keeps products from promptly being marked as on test or on hold? What about pallets that went out the door before an issue was found or before they were marked on hold? If a problem arises, how narrowly can you limit your window of recall?

The solution is to design traceability systems that are both integrated and automated. This integration needs to span from receiving raw materials to testing, production, and inventory storage all the way through to finished product shipment. In a facility with traceability from front to back, employees who spot concerns at any point in the process can alert the rest of the system.

If a routine quality check in the lab finds contamination in a load of source material, flagging the system could prevent affected products from ever leaving the warehouse. We would not have to directly contact product line managers, warehouse managers, or shipping managers and trust that the communication would be seen in time. Traceability throughout a plant gives us the ability to prevent questionable product from ever leaving the facility. With an integrated environment, we can pinpoint how many product lines, how many pallets of product, or how many customers need to be alerted because of a contaminated material or product.

Traceability through the whole facility decreases product waste, increases efficiencies, improves data accuracy, streamlines planning, minimizes loss of consumer confidence, and proves our ability to provide critical information in a timely manner. An integrated plant will provide the complete traceability we need in manufacturing today.

Jennifer Slack is product manager at Interstates Control Systems Inc.,a Certified member of the Control System Integrators Association

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