Ron Wasik looks at the automation of food safety programs
Processors love having computer controls on their equipment, and although they traditionally shy away from automating their food safety programs, the industry is moving in that direction.
A modest beginning
Food processors are required by law and, in many cases by their customers, to have validated food safety programs in place and to gather data to demonstrate compliance at any given moment. These programs produce mountains of paper reports, most of which only receive attention during audits or if problems arise. Moving to electronic forms is the first, and sometimes the most difficult step, for processors because there is something comforting about having a number-filled form smeared with blood, dough and oil.
Electronic forms still require someone to input data, as well as a qualified person to vet the data to confirm that the process was in or out of compliance. Aside from saving a few trees and recycled fibre, there’s not much time saved, little return on the money invested in computer software and hardware, and no easy way to mine the data for opportunities.
The ultimate solution
If cost is no object, it’s now possible to have food safety programs monitored and managed in real time from remote locations. Doing so requires a significant degree of computerization of equipment that is usually available on the latest high-end models of high-capacity processing equipment. Older equipment can be retrofitted with sensors to capture data such as time, temperature, pH, colour, relative humidity, line speed and weight. Depending on the variable(s) to be monitored, retrofitting older equipment may be the most cost effective and more expedient option.
The latest whiz-bang equipment is not the solution in and of itself. To get the maximum benefit from a fully automated system, you must have computer savvy and highly qualified food safety personnel using compatible enterprise software that is capable of interacting with the equipment systems, as well as high-end hardware to run and store the acquired data. Last, and not least, you’ll need special report-writing software to communicate how the systems are working in simple, straightforward terms that are intelligible to all levels of management.
With a high degree of computerization and sophisticated tracking systems in place, it is possible to track your ingredients and products and identify any food safety concerns anywhere along the supply chain. In-house food safety systems can be monitored in real time.
However, those in charge of food safety programs usually have the system send alarm signals to their computer or smart phone only when compliance is at the risk of being compromised. Swift remedial action to address food safety issues is a major benefit. And since food safety data is obtained through sensors rather than manually, there is usually a higher degree of integrity in the data, assuming that the data from the sensors is regularly validated.
This data can be mined for a number of opportunities such as cost savings through process optimization, which means running your processes more tightly to reduce energy and improve output.
Large retail and foodservice organizations prefer to deal with suppliers who have the capability to report the status of their products via the Internet. Most prefer to have real-time access to this data, but they settle for seeing vetted reports on key performance indicators (KPIs) a day or two after the product has been made.
Going digital with your food safety programs is something that every food processor will soon have to do to manage their food safety programs. Fortunately, there are many options available, ranging from digital forms to cutting-edge total food safety automation.