KANSAS CITY — Like in baseball, there is no crying, excuses or ifs, ands or buts in food safety. Zero is the magic number when it comes to the end game. That’s because critical blunders in the baking process often become a costly lesson that doesn’t wait until another day.
It’s also why many bakeries and snack producers have invested in automating the front end of their operations with ingredient handling systems to track, trace and keep everything running on pace. In many cases, such automation also eases the burden of complying with the Food Safety Modernization Act’s regulations and recordkeeping requirements.
But if to err is human, why do so many manufacturers still rely on manual lot tracking systems?
“Many industries are trying their best to manage consistent production with minimal capital cost,” explained Kevin Pecha, sales manager, AZO. “As such, many have chosen to save the money needed to implement an automated lot tracking system and monitor batching information by hand. This can be an efficient means of maintaining the data; however, the diligence required to ensure accuracy is occasionally lost.”
Yes, a penny saved can become an error earned, although most miscues aren’t the end of the world, at least initially.
“The main ones are ‘honest’ mistakes made by operators, where they make entry errors or misread lot codes from packaging,” said John Hunter, sales account manager, bakery and ingredient handling, Bühler Inc. “If these occur with the ingredient lot number, traceability breaks down.”
Then again, minor missteps tend to compound in the beginning of production and could result in product loss or, at worst, even a recall.
“Errors and omissions on the records do not make the finished goods any less sellable, but often the records do not reflect what has been integrated into the batch every time,” Mr. Pecha said. “Aside from manual entry mistakes, missing or double ingredients can be recorded as a single addition, and in a rush, lot number changes may take a batch or two to become updated.”
Moreover, manual recordkeeping also means twice the amount of work.
“Many bakeries are still relying on hand-written tracking sheets for raw ingredient lots, and many of these then must be transcribed into their manufacturing software,” noted Jason Stricker, director of sales and marketing, Shick Esteve. “The duplication of effort increases labor and allows the potential for simple data entry mistakes.”
In the food safety arena, it’s always best to know the answers before someone starts asking questions.
“How do we know the right ingredient is tipped into the system, into a bin or from the bag? If these systems are manual, there is no cross check, so the chances of errors are high — certainly high enough — so every plant with a manual system will have experienced them and lose much product and money,” Mr. Hunter observed.
Bakers must delve into the details to determine how their ingredient handling system supplements their plants’ food safety programs, cost-savings efforts and continuous improvement initiatives. This will make sure they’re getting the validated and verified data they need.
“Operations leaders should ask themselves how they can be sure the ingredients are being scaled correctly with accurate lot code information and how they might improve ingredient flow through the plant with smart use of silos and holding bins,” said Joseph Cross, process manager, Zeppelin System USA. “Another question is whether an additional layer of automation at ingredient gate points could not only improve operational efficiency but also allow bakeries to cast a smaller net if faced with a recall situation.”
When bakers are investigating these types of software, it is vital to validate suppliers’ experience and capabilities, Mr. Stricker said.
“How often are (the vendors) updating and providing enhancements to the software?” he asked. “How easily expandable is the system in the event of plant additions? Can it be integrated with upfront ERP systems, and can they access the data remotely?”
Mr. Hunter recommended that bakers must safeguard against errors that could be found later in records when they’re audited. Nobody likes those types of surprises.
“If I check all ingredients, will it be clear what the product is or what the lot number is? Is it clear which ingredients have been released or are on hold for use?” he queried. “All of these points must be addressed to verify that lot number traceability systems can be validated as necessary.”
When it comes to food safety, nobody wants to see any errors or hear any excuses. If that happens, it makes all managers feel like they want to cry.