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Avoid being the next food safety scandal

18 December 2017

James Wood comments on the need to look at digital quality control systems to ensure you are able to demonstrate commitment to food safety. 

A recent undercover report highlighted the issue of low standards of food safety at a major UK food manufacturer – it also demonstrated the importance of having suitable systems in place to prevent issues arising.

Undercover footage that showed poor food hygiene processes and inadequate scrutiny of food safety procedures at one of its sites. The report revolved around the handling of poultry on the production line – with workers seen altering sell-by and slaughter dates on packages, as well as mixing old and new produce. The damage to the company was instant, three of the UK’s biggest supermarket chains pulled their business and halted deliveries from the factory.

What has not appeared in the news is the fact that this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to poor hygiene practices. The company involved merely had the unfortunate distinction of being the one to be exposed. Food manufacturers will now be under even greater scrutiny, and challenged to clearly demonstrate their commitment to food safety and consumer welfare.

With such high stakes involved, it seems strange that so many food processors still rely on in-house (mostly paper-based) procedures on the factory floor. Often the reason for sticking with the current solution is an attempt to avoid upsetting the status quo. “It’s how we’ve always managed it” is a commonly heard refrain. However, business practices need to constantly evolve to remain relevant and up-to-date with modern manufacturing needs. Digitalisation has changed the way people consume information, and the manufacturing world needs to keep pace to meet the demands of its customers and consumers.

When the importance of data is growing, why shouldn’t supermarkets expect their suppliers to provide quality information to them at the click of a button? And what reason do manufacturers have to not clearly demonstrate that their quality records are trustworthy, authenticated by permissible staff, and show a complete timeline of quality operations alongside any exceptions and anomalies?

One barrier to implementing an electronic quality system is the perception that it is a huge investment, both in terms of software and people power. However, this really is not the case – and you only need to look at manufacturing execution systems (MES) for an example. They can deliver tangible results within 90 days of implementation.

Automated electronic systems offer the ability to demonstrate compliance in the event of an audit and manufacturers can demonstrate that any opportunity for the manipulation and falsification of records has been eradicated and quality management teams can be freed up to focus on tasks that actually add value.

Via an operator interface MES can also alert shop floor staff when a check is due. This is a key element in providing site-wide visibility into quality operations, while supporting escalation and alerting routines that ensure the right person knows at the right time when a quality issue arises.

Enforcement of good manufacturing practices is more difficult with a paper-based system. An electronic system alone will not solve a problem, but it does provide operational transparency and offers management the visibility needed to enforce best practice.

Doing what you have always done is the enemy of progress – whether that means improving the quality of food safety in your factories or driving great results within your business. Implementing a quality system may seem like an undertaking without a measurable ROI. But it’s a small price to pay to avoid being at the centre of the next food safety scandal – a potentially company-ending catastrophe no one wants to be responsible for.

James Wood is an enterprise software specialist and of Factory MES Product Line at Aptean

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