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Food safety versus price: who is the real winner?

14 January 2016

Food is increasingly being processed globally. Consumers are changing their habits, cooking less frequently and are increasingly delegating food safety assurances to food processors. But how important is food safety to food manufacturers, compared to saving costs?

To remain profitable in the food processing sector, businesses have to minimise production costs and this means that it is a key factor for selecting the most cost effective solution when investing in process equipment. 

“If you take an overall perspective of costs, including those potentially included in downtime, production errors, waste, recalls and even prosecutions, then the decision making process leans heavily towards specifying the best quality components and design available, because the purchase costs and ROI of the investment is potentially dwarfed by the secondary factors, should there be a food issue,” says Ian Webster, Field Segment Manager – Hygienic Processing for Bürkert. “Compliance is not enough. Every process is different and regulations are generic by their nature and food safety has to be factored in using a proactive approach to ensure real profitability is protected. This may include specifying better quality materials, better components and better process design. Whether it is a new line, or a retrofit situation, spending a bit more at this stage usually pays massive dividends later, but often decisions made on initial purchase price and immediate ROI alone mask the real cost of downtime, wastage and the other knock-ons of food safety issues.”

One such aspect of food safety is hygiene, and food processors in general are becoming more focused on hygiene standards and the latest regulations coming from Europe. To remain in business, they must meet a range of standards, including those specific to the main retailer of their products who have their own individual standards, varying from retailer to retailer. 

“The ever-increasing demands of consumers and the rising liabilities of food retailers have led to the increased requirement to improve standards, but there are a number of standards and schemes in place; everything from European legislation and EHEDG certification to local standards enforced by the dominant customer,” says Webster. “With regular audits, both planned and unannounced, plus good quality process and automation equipment however it is increasingly possible to adopt a manufacturing process that is robust and yet flexible.”

The problem, of course, is keeping up-to-date with the latest round of standards that will enable food processors to overcome this challenge and maintain their customer portfolio. With major retailers keen to promote the high standards of their suppliers, it is essential to keep pace with design improvements that will benefit the business now and in the future.

“A key aspect to compliance with standards is recording the necessary data, which requires a number of sensors to be strategically positioned throughout the manufacturing process,” Webster explains. “Take, for example, a pH sensor which is commonly used in many food processing applications. Many of the more common glass pH electrodes are not suitable for food applications due to the risk of broken glass fragments contaminating the process. Therefore, selecting an alternative design is essential but consideration should also be made for other processes that may need to be integrated in the future.”

Implementing clean-in-place (CIP) and steam-in-place (SIP) processes can involve considerable investment, along with the necessary systems to monitor and record the actual process implementation. However, many pH sensors need to be removed from the process stream before the CIP/SIP process can be completed and this requires expensive retraction systems to be employed, creating extra work, costs and inconvenience for the processor.

“Clearly the choices made during the design stage of a project can have significant implications on the ability of the process to be adapted for future requirements,” says Webster. “Taking a more long-term approach that enables further development of a processing line with minimal restructuring will deliver reduced capital spending while maintaining the required industry standards. The future of food processing is being driven by the major retailers and this can only mean more stringent standards that will be enforced through regular audits and inspections. In order to keep pace with these inevitable changes, manufacturers and producers will need to maintain a flexible approach and make use of the available design expertise that is offered by the process control sector. 

A proactive approach to recipe management
David Norris, Managing Director at DC Norris & Company has seen a marked trend to a much more proactive approach to risk-based food safety management, rather than a traditional reactive approach.

“Price is indeed a major factor when purchasing equipment, however food manufacturers now require far more traceability throughout all stages of production, processing, storage and distribution,” he points out. “Food safety audits are now common, with food processors turning to both automation and factory data collection to prove their products are safe for the shelf. Process management software such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) are providing a degree of accountability, however often these do not have the features of dedicated recipe controlled cooking systems – in actual machine control and also in limited reporting features – and for small businesses, the cost can be prohibited.”

Some food processors are turning to enhanced Recipe Management Software and Control Systems to not only guarantee repeatability and consistency of the product, but more importantly to ensure that pasteurisation times are strictly enforced. Intelligent recipe systems can also actually shorten the cooking time by calculating pasteurisation values in real time and allowing the cook to finish when it can be proven that the product is actually safe for intended use. This is nearly always several minutes before a recipe using the traditional ‘hold for temperature and time’ will finish. And with extensive data reporting from the cook, the food processor can prove that the food was produced safely. 

“Recipe Management systems must offer full transparency and accountability, with any deviations and errors immediately brought to attention,” says Norris. “It is important that systems maintain full records of the complete process, from preparation through to packaging of information such as kettle yields, weights, temperatures, deviations and errors. These safety measures ensure that all HACCP controls are met by food processors.”

Traceability reduces costs
Barcode and RFID systems, while expensive outlays, are employed to trace ingredients through the whole process from goods in to goods out. This dramatically increases efficiency, reduces mistakes and gives total control.

“There is also a demand for cooking systems which offer a complete all-in-one process to minimise the risk of contamination,” explains Norris. “For example, automated powder entrainment for flour, starches and spices. Similarly, food processors prefer pumped ingredients as opposed to manually added ones – the least amount of human or utensil contact during the production process, the better. It has also become a priority during the cooking process to achieve rapid and even heating, not just for efficiency but also with food safety in mind. Cooking techniques such as steam infusion can ensure good heat distribution and mixing with no hot or cold spots within the processing vessel.”

Manufacturers of food processing equipment aim to meet these needs with continuous research and development on their software control systems and production processes. However, these innovations do come with a cost attached that must be taken on by the food manufacturer. This will ultimately benefit food processors both in terms of food safety and return on investment.

The greatest challenge for the food industry?
There is no obvious solution for providing safe food products. The best approach is a balanced combination of measures, such as hazard analysis, process design, hygienic facilities and machines as well as rigorous training. 

“The task is made more difficult by complex processing chains, from harvesting of grains to the grinding of flour or semolina and the production of pasta or breakfast cereals, there are countless possible entry points for bacteria, mould, insects or foreign materials,” says Béatrice Conde-Petit, Food Safety Officer at Bühler. “Contamination can take place in the fields or during the production process – through improper storage of raw materials, deficient hygiene during processing or ineffective packaging. The design of processes is decisively important to food safety. Food manufacturers have to carry out a comprehensive risk analysis along the entire processing chain for each individual hazard and define the specific point at which each danger can best be put under control. This kind of HACCP analysis is legally required for every company that produces food.”

A well-conceived process design, efficient cleaning and sorting processes and hygienic design for machines and facilities will minimise risks substantially. “Hygienic design has gained significance in recent years,” Conde-Petite explains. “Its goal is to enable quick and efficient cleaning of manufacturing facilities and machines, and to prevent contamination of food products through bacteria, mould or foreign materials. For this reason, efficient and comprehensive cleaning is extremely important. If such cleaning is to be possible, machines must have sufficient accessibility. The food contact zones are also structured such that no foreign materials can enter the product, and only stainless steel is used for all equipment.”

Bühler are currently evaluating how the Internet of Things (IoT) can possibly improve the safety of food. “With numerous sensors networked to each other, it will soon be possible to monitor the storage conditions of raw materials, as well as complex production processes in real time, with regard to parameters such as moisture or temperature,” says Conde-Petit. “This technology could make a further substantial contribution to increasing safety in the food industry. If we want to achieve the highest possible safety in the complex and often cross-national processing chains, the documentation of processes becomes even more important in the future. Manufacturers must prove to their customers that they have done everything to ensure safety. However, if products must be recalled at some point, complete traceability is all the more important.”

Keeping food safe is clearly a vital aspect of food production. But installing and utilising new technology and processes will involve an investment of some kind, and usually a high one. In the long run, investing in food safety will save the company money and provide insurance against potential losses. Food safety and cost-effective production go hand in hand, equal partners in the drive to produce safe, reasonably-priced products for the consumer.

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