By Sam Lewis, associate editor
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Effective traceability processes, combined with advancements in technology, can help keep non-conforming products off the market. This protects the health of consumers, ensures brand integrity, and minimizes costs to the manufacturer. But, food safety and quality, along with their associated technologies, are evolving. At the 13th Annual North American Summit On Food Safety, Brian Perry, SVP of food safety and quality at TreeHouse Foods, shared his insights on the ever-expanding, global food supply chain and how technology aids traceability, even when things don’t go according to plan.
The food industry is a global marketplace; ingredients are sourced from across the world to create products to meet consumer demands. But, consumers just don’t want products with exotic ingredients. They want to know and understand how the product is made or how it’s harvested. They want to understand its impact on the community where it’s made, as well as its impact on the global environment. “Consumers want to know the story of their food, and that can be positive or negative” says Perry. “It’s up to food manufacturers to tell them the story, truthfully, and you can’t tell the story if you don’t know it.”
With those types of demands, a “one-forward, one-back” approach will not satisfy consumer demands. Further, that approach isn’t enough to keep your product safe. “Being able to know your suppliers, your supplier's suppliers, and their suppliers, as well as how knowing how your product is being used, is imperative in making sure your risk analysis is complete,” says Perry. “Further, it indicates you understand the full scope of the safety of your product.”
Managing this complex, global supply chain is no easy task. Perry suggests using technology to help manage suppliers across the world. “TreeHouse uses an online tool to manage our global network of suppliers,” says Perry. “The tool provides us with a lot of data, such as a map of our suppliers around the globe with whom we plan to internally audit or task third-parties to audit. It also provides us information on individual products, their movement across the world, and their transport conditions.”
While technology is great in helping ease the burden of traceability and transparency, it doesn’t operate in a vacuum. In fact, sometimes the data can be unreliable, which, if left unchecked, can trigger unwanted issues. Perry recommends challenging the records along the supply chain, specifically in commodities and products that are complex. “How do bulk ingredients, such as salt, fit into products? Are silos and tanks being monitored?” asks Perry. “If only singular commodities or products with few ingredients are being tracked, a recipe for disaster could be looming.”
Tracking items through the supply chain, whether in routine operation or in a recall, generates an enormous amount of data; so much that the days of pencil-and-paper records are obsolete. “We're moving from an area of big data to humongous data,” says Perry. “ERP systems play an enormous role in managing data and records at TreeHouse. We have the ability to see where products come from and where they are through barcode scanning. We see the license plates of trucks carrying products. We have the batch numbers of those products. And, this data is refreshed every four hours.”
While access to data on products on a nearly-hourly basis certainly outweighs the capabilities of pencil-and-paper records, the technology for supply chain traceability and transparency is always changing and improving. One of the more-recent advancements aiding traceability in the food industry is Blockchain, the big data system behind Bitcoin. Here’s how it works: an electronic ledger keeps track of digital transactions, but instead of data being confined centrally by an administrator or database, Blockchain has a network of replicated databases, synchronized via the Internet, and visible to anyone within the network. These networks can be public or private. “If you think about how IoT brings things together in manufacturing, Blockchain may be able to do the same for the supply chain,” says Perry. “It will be able to provide advantageous and enforceable data for everyone in the network, in real time.”
But, as the saying goes, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Should a recall happen, technology throughout the supply chain can help, but it’s important to have a recall plan in place. The roles and responsibilities of all members of your recall team should be clearly identified. “For a small organization this may be pretty easy; everybody stops their current duties, assembles, and addresses the issue,” says Perry. “For large organization, the plan and its execution are much more complex. It should be written, analyzed, practiced, and reanalyzed. The first time a flaw in the plan is discovered should not be during a legitimate recall.”
Once the plan is developed, practiced, evaluated, and fine-tuned, then technology can be added to help ease the process of a recall. “There are many online tools available to assist companies in the event of a recall,” says Perry. “TreeHouse has adopted a tool that turns each of our locations across North America into a virtual war room. It generates uniform tasks and documents so all locations are on the same page regarding completed and to-be-completed jobs. It serves the same purpose as a conference room would for a small company.”
Having the right plans and associated technologies in place is a crucial step in the fight against what Perry calls, “Mother Recalls.” These are events where one ingredient is used in several products made by several different companies and all of them are needed to be recalled — a domino effect or chain-reaction recall. A recent example of a Mother Recall occurred with Valley Milk. The company is a small dairy co-op in Virginia serving as a supplier to other food makers, not selling directly to consumers. The FDA swabbed Valley Milk’s facility and found Salmonella on its product contact surfaces. Valley Milk tested its products for Salmonella, the State of Virginia tested those products, and so did the FDA; all three entities yielded negative results in their product testing. Because of this, Valley Milk felt a recall was unnecessary.
However, the FDA disagreed and initiated a recall. But, it become a Mother Recall as there were no identifying breaks in product lots or codes Valley Milk’s ingredients went into, which led to another recall, then another. Valley Milk’s ingredients were used by more than 20 companies in several sectors, ranging from cake mixes and snacks to seasonings and candies, leading to nearly $4 million in recalled products. “Understanding your supplier's suppliers, knowing product and lot codes, and identifying affected product quickly is essential to keeping those products off the shelf and protecting consumers,” says Perry. “The impact a Mother Recall can have on your brand and business — both from a regulatory and customer perspective — has to be at the forefront. You have to know your complete supply chain.”
Food companies can be well armed with technology that monitors the supply chain, generates real-time data, and protects consumers. But, knowing and preventing all the potential hazards of all ingredients of all products within a portfolio is what will really protects consumers and a company’s bottom line. “Ask yourself, am I casting the net wide enough to catch all hazards before they become issues? If not, address them, and readdress them,” says Perry. “Ultimately, you want the story of your products to be believable. You want it be science-based. And you want it to stand up against the rigorous questions of a regulator. With robust, well-thought-out plans, and a little help from technology, you can do just that.”