How, one wonders, are discrepancies such as those resolved? "Sometimes they're not," Pottinger says. "Some shipments never make it past the front door."
Blendex's affinity for minute or exacting details has earned the company a reputation for tackling projects that other suppliers can't , or won't. "It started with taking orders that other suppliers found too time-consuming -- projects that may have been too dusty or too difficult to clean up," Pottinger recalls. "After awhile, we started getting more unusual requests. Could we make Teriyaki sauce? Chocolate mix? You could say that's how we found our niche. Our competitors deal in volume, while we deal with items that may have two to three premixes." Today, Blendex produces more than 200 dry food products, including barbecue rubs, sauces and mixes for biscuits, pancakes and waffles, not to mention several private label products. As such, the company's R&D department is continually developing new recipes or modifying existing ones. Some of the formulas are rather complex, particularly when specifications call for dry blends of such disparate elements as delicate herbs and dense whole spices, powdery ground spices and granular salts. In some cases, a pinch of soybean oil may is added to ensure spices are dispersed evenly. In others, oils and oleoresins are plated onto salts.
On the floor, the ribbon blenders help to further optimize blending consistency. The blenders feature a pair of weaving ribbon agitators, with the circling outer agitator catching product and essentially transferring it to the inner agitator. The rotating ribbons move materials both radially and laterally to ensure thorough blends in short cycle times. Typical blend times are 10 to 20 minutes.
During product development, R&D frequently recruits consumer panels to evaluate samples according to their taste, color, mouthfeel, aftertaste and texture, among other variables. Based on their suggestions, R&D may reformulate or recommend that production processes be modified. If the product doesn't result in consistent taste, color, texture and quality, it doesn't ship, Pottinger says.
He acknowledges that customers are as likely to raise the bar these days as he is, which is why Blendex's decision to seek HACCP certification was essentially a joint one. Processors, he elaborates, are simply not as tolerant of inferior or adulterated product as they once were, nor, in view of mounting concern about bioterrorism and food safety, can they afford to be. Pottinger himself routinely dispatches workers to inspect the facilities of Blendex suppliers, so it was only natural that his company subject itself to the same scrutiny. In all, the process of acquiring HACCP certification took more than a year, with Compliance Manager Jim Meyer, an 18-year veteran of Blendex, leading the project. Among other activities, Meyer received schooling on the subject from AIB and consulted with Canada's Guelph Food Technology Center, one of the foremost leaders in food safety and pathogen reduction. Meyer also formed an internal HACCP committee that, in addition to members of management, included employees from operations, particularly those involved in quality control.
Given the nature of the undertaking, one of the primary objectives was to identify critical control points within the entire Blendex operation , from material receiving and storage to processing, packaging, warehousing and shipping. Meyer recalls that members of the Guelph Center, to whom he submitted an initial draft of the company's HACCP manual, found the breadth of the proposed program impressive. Too impressive, as it turned out. "They told us we needed to streamline the manual," Meyer recalls. "That in and of itself was a huge learning process. We essentially had to pare down our critical control points from 17 to just a handful." The team eventually homed in on metal detection , the final critical control point prior to shipment an in-line sifter, among other activities.
Much of the HACCP training dovetails nicely with a more recent effort to promote allergen control in the facility. In addition to installing a dust collection system to contend with peanut flour and other potential sources of cross-contamination, Blendex has incorporated air locks and, where appropriate, one-way air flows into its HVAC system. Some processing lines are dedicated to non-allergenic product. Those that aren't , say, a pancake mix with nuts , are relegated to the end of a shift, after which cleaning crews arrive to prepare equipment for the following shift.