China syndrome

by Keith Nunes
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The manufacturers, users and distributors of dairy and dairy-derived ingredients are under pressure to ensure the quality and safety of their products. As the contamination of imported dairy-derived ingredients from the People’s Republic of China with melamine has underscored, there is a need for systems to be put in place to ensure quick response to future food safety events.

At both the government and industry levels, initiatives have been started in an effort to further bolster food safety and traceability programs. The Food and Drug Administration, for its part, issued an import alert on Nov. 13 to prevent foods manufactured in China and containing milk or milk-derived ingredients from entering the United States until they have been tested and shown to not be contaminated with melamine. Foods that will be most affected include snacks, beverages and chocolates, according to the agency.

Under the directive, F.D.A. inspectors at U.S. ports of entry will detain foods from China made with milk and certain ingredients derived from milk. Importers must pay to have their products tested by an independent laboratory that meets F.D.A. standards. Only products found to be melamine-free will be allowed into the country.

The dairy industry also has not stood idly by as the melamine scare that started in China has unfolded. In late October, during the SupplySide West trade show in Las Vegas, Dairy Management Inc., Rosemont, Ill., convened a panel on ingredient quality, safety and traceability. The panel, which consists of scientists, academics, crisis experts and representatives of U.S. dairy ingredients manufacturers, was charged with creating a long-term vision and a road map for dairy ingredients that will help ensure the industry remains on the leading edge of quality and safety issues.

Alan Reed, senior vice-president of U.S. manufacturing and ingredient marketing for D.M.I., said the information and insights shared at the meeting are still being compiled and specific outcomes are still in development.

"The input from this ‘brain trust’ will be important to building an actionable plan that delivers the quality, safety and traceability standards for U.S. dairy ingredients that global customers and consumers increasingly demand," he said.

Mr. Reed added that U.S. dairy ingredients manufacturers are meeting demands for traceability from "fork back to farm" to provide confirmation of ingredient sourcing and safeguards against contamination threats. Traceability is an integral part of product safety, quality assurance and supply chain practices.

"U.S. ingredients manufacturers know where raw milk comes from, where it goes, and when it leaves the plant as an ingredient, such as whey protein concentrate or nonfat dry milk," he said. "Labeling and recording all dairy ingredients by lot number is standard industry practice at all stages of production, processing and distribution."

The International Dairy Foods Association, Washington, in conjunction with its members and other interested parties, also has been in the process of developing a traceability program for the past year. Clay Detlefsen, vice-president and counsel for the I.D.F.A., said the effort is far enough along that it may be ready for pilot testing in January or February. The goal of the concept is to further standardize how companies track product through the supply chain.

"If you take a look at what is out there, everyone has an independent way of tracking lots," Mr. Detlefsen said. "Our goal is to standardize production lot numbers using nomenclature that basically identifies production lines within facilities that are registered under this system. So if a company has 10 lines they would have 10 numbers that would be issued to them. What we do is we would have, we believe, a 16-digit alphanumeric code associated with anything that comes off each production line.

"We are tinkering with this, but we believe the first two digits will relate to country of origin. Facility production lines will represent six digits and then the last part of the code, eight digits, would be associated with date and time. Whatever comes off of that production line, it would either be ink-jetted on to the package or it can be communicated by shipping papers. But the key is anything that went into the production line would be tracked and associated outbound with the 16-digit code."

Mr. Detlefsen envisions the database containing the information would be managed by a government entity or government contractor and food manufacturers may upload 16-digit inputs and associate them with 16-digit outputs. Then, as food ingredients go through the manufacturing process, each entity may upload and associate the input codes with a new output 16-digit code and create a traceability system that may extend through the supply chain.

"What we are looking for is a cost effective, minimally intensive system that could improve the current situation," Mr. Detlefsen said. "After the bioterrorism record keeping provisions were introduced, myself and several colleagues in the dairy industry looked at the coding schemes companies are using and found there are a multitude of codes people use that mean very little outside the company.

"We want to standardize and harmonize the manufacturing continuum

so when there is a problem the government could have access to the database in an effort to address the problem. The government would be able to run a number through sort of a Google search and follow the ingredient genealogy of a product."

Current regulations require food manufacturers to convey to the federal government information within 24-hours of a food safety event that tracks product one step forward and one step back. Mr. Detlefsen sees that as a problem, because, "If you have 18 steps that a food ingredient has moved through the system then you may have 18 24-hour periods, which is not acceptable if something goes wrong."

The I.D.F.A.’s effort is not affiliated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s animal identification program, and Mr. Detlefsen does not see some of the same privacy issues affecting the dairy industry’s efforts.

"Our members have acknowledged that traceability is important — one of our largest processing members has been with us in the development of this global ID concept from the beginning," he said. "I have presented the concept to our board of directors and in other venues, both public and private. Nobody has criticized us about it or raised privacy concerns."

He added that the association of input codes with output codes does not convey much, if any, confidential business information and access to the database will be controlled.

"This system, when accessed, associates production lines with production lines and does not reveal formulas, ingredients, suppliers, and/or branded information," he said. "In an emergency situation, the database can be accessed by authorized personnel, under prescribed procedures, that will permit the linkages between the production lines and the products that came from them to become visible to the authorized agent. This will allow the government (agent) to pinpoint where they need to interface quickly."

As it is currently conceptualized, the I.D.F.A. program would be voluntary, but Mr. Detlefsen emphasized it is also very important.

"Look what happened to the produce industry," he said. "There is ample incentive to do things differently today to avoid catastrophic losses."

The system also would be available on an international basis.

"In the end this system needs to be global, our food supply certainly is, and we have met with colleagues from outside the U.S. and raised this with them," he said. "We are trying to solve a potential problem. We also believe if someone has a tweak or change we should consider, we will work with them."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Dairy Business News, December 9, 2008, starting on Page 12. Click here to search that archive.

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