KANSAS CITY — Social distancing and enhanced sanitation are no longer new for bakers at this point. While the world has grown used to the stricter standards for health and safety during this past year, meeting the demand for quality assurance in many cases has been a strategy of adaptability. The pandemic has put strain on ingredient availability, supply chains, worker safety restrictions and communication, and for a year, the baking industry has been jumping hurdles.

Aside from increased communication, planning, time management and checklists, AIB International has developed a program for training employees that have been newly hired or moved internally from another position to meet demand.

“Cross training is key,” said Bret Zaher, operations manager, AIB International. “Sites often have to move personnel into positions they aren’t normally responsible for just to keep the plant running. When this happens, the site needs to ensure those personnel are properly trained on the expectations of those tasks.”

Ensuring competency requires a formal signoff process, along with additional checks and supervision, which in turn may require additional training as to quality expectations for leads and supervisors, he said. AIB’s Gap Assessment program is designed to train for certification-level food safety.

“To help train employees more quickly, general plant policy training such as GMPs, bloodborne pathogens and general safety training is done at the agency level,” Mr. Zaher said. “When the employee then shows up for work, they can be expedited for their job-specific training.”

Many sites have created a shift from full- to part-time employee structures to bring in personnel. Referral bonuses, recruiters, temporary agencies and work study programs have proven valid strategies to meet the heightened demand for skilled workers. Subcontractors, Mr. Zaher noted, are also a key to freeing valuable time for plant personnel focusing on production.

“Sites have increased the use of contracted specialized sanitation and maintenance companies to take some of the periodic tasks off their staff such as HVAC services, forklift repairs, overhead door and dock repairs, part inventories and ordering, general cleaning/ PPE supply inventory and ordering, boiler services, chemical supplies, building maintenance, floor scrubber maintenance and flour silo cleaning,” he explained.

Auditing from afar

Travel shutdowns do not make audits any less necessary, which is why virtual auditing systems have been made available. British Retail Consortium Global Standards (BRCGS) has launched initiatives for temporary solutions during the pandemic, and some of these may remain as permanent certification options once the coronavirus (COVID-19) threat fades.

“We have introduced blended audits, which will be a permanent option for announced audit programs for the standards,” said Jessica Burke, delivery partner relationship manager, BRCGS. “In this case, the audit takes place in two parts: a remote online assessment of some or all of the documentation followed by a shorter onsite audit. This provides the opportunity for a rigorous audit but with a reduction in auditor time spent onsite.”

When onsite audits of existing certificated bakeries are not possible, certification may be extended for up to six months, she said. Another option, however, is a fully remote assessment that includes a review of internal audit results, a remote documentation review and video audit of production and storage facilities. For this process to work, bakers need to understand the value of virtual.

Virtual tools have changed everything, which is exactly why Gina Reo, president of Quality Assurance Strategies LLC, advised that bakers need to be flexible managing on-site and remote auditing.

“A large portion of the audit is a review of documents and records, prompting bakers to find more efficient ways to coordinate,” she said. “Managing these records with third-party, cloud-sharing documentation services limits the burden of having these items readily available for a bakers’ customers upon request or during an audit.”

Even as restrictions ease, the comfort of reduced travelling for work is proving to be an aspect of pandemic life that some aren’t too eager to let go of, Ms. Reo said.

It is likely that dependence on remote audits is here to stay. And going virtual doesn’t end with audits as far as quality assurance goes.

“During the pandemic, innovation seems to be in full gear to find new ways to test food products, monitor consistency and analyze attributes,” she continued.

Ms. Reo named near-infrared (NIR) technology for measuring oil, seasonings and moisture in snacks; rapid performance analyzers or viscometers for testing wheat and gluten characteristics, and wireless thermometers and data loggers for quality checks and shipment tracking as a few advancements that eliminate use of chemicals and titrations.

Resisting recalls

As far as COVID-19 is concerned with foodborne illnesses, bakers may be able to rest easy.

“As recently as February of this year, USDA and FDA again underscored that current epidemiologic and scientific information shows no transmission of COVID-19 through food or food packaging,” said Rasma Zvaners, vice president, regulatory and technical services, American Bakers Association.

But airborne transmission remains viable, making upgrades in HVAC systems and compressed air systems a priority for some sites. Mr. Zaher noted that changing filters to a higher MERV/micron rating helps with purity, and using point-of-use filters protects places where compressed air comes into contact with products or packaging.

“Many customers are now requiring their air to be tested on an annual basis for yeast, APC/TPC and/or mold,” he said. “Airflow studies are often conducted to ensure adequate and proper flow of the air is occurring to ensure that proper positive and negative air pressures are achieved, especially in the high-risk areas of the plant.”

Ms. Reo pointed out other tests that have come into increased demand over the past three years include those for allergen adulteration, which has been the most prominent item noted by the FDA from 2017-20.

“The baking industry sector tends to be the hardest hit with allergen adulteration recalls,” she said. “Generally, causes are found to be from labeling error or mis-labeling, missed ingredient on label or formulation error.”

Some of the biggest current recalls are centered on undeclared allergens. Mr. Zaher noted that an allergen program that includes ingredients, packaging supplies, processing aides, sanitation, storage practices, handling procedures and employee welfare are keys to success. He advised that sites increase the frequency of their labeling checks for proper product packaging, annual reviews of a site’s ingredients to prevent new allergens in raw materials and ensuring that old labels are discarded and not stored with new labels. He also cautioned that sourcing from alternate suppliers and making emergency purchases can introduce new allergens that were not present in the primary supplier. And the list of allergens that need to be claimed on labels must be updated avidly.

“The FASTER Act passed the Senate and now will require HHS to prepare a report for Congress that will include food allergy prevalence, testing, risk management, disease prevention and treatments,” Ms. Reo said. “The HHS report will also make recommendations for the development of a regulatory process and framework for defining a food or food ingredient as a ‘major food allergen.’”

Foreign materials are causes for concern, even with the advancement of foreign material control devices over the years. To prevent metal and glass recalls, Mr. Zaher said sites have been updating to metal detectors with the capability of detecting smaller pieces of metal. Color sorters and x-ray devices are being added for additional foreign material control, and shatterproof light and window replacements in older production sites reduce potential glass breakage, he said.

Ms. Burke warned manufacturing sites that needed to close down parts or all of production during the past year are beginning to resume operation and will face enforced changes in the workplace environment, potential labor shortages and supply chain disruptions.

“Some sites will be busier than ever with additional demand, while others will need to pivot to introduce new product lines,” she said. “These conditions are placing additional pressure on sites and stretching operations, which can impact food safety compliance.”

Quality assurance will not be allowed to be put on the back-burner despite these conditions.

“In times of crisis, culture is more important than ever,” Ms. Burke said. “As operations resume, leadership, communication and empowerment are key.”