Factory Floor Data Systems Crucial to Traceability Programs

Factory floor data systems are the lynchpin in processor's traceability programs.

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It seems that the more we know about our foods and processes, the more we need to know. We dig for data, mine it as if it were gold. But with our wealth of information has come the obligation to use it well.

Both the Bioterrorism Act in the U.S. and the General Law of 2005 in the European Union have pushed food processors into record-keeping requirements that will have far-reaching impact on the safety and quality of the food supply. Both laws are commanding processors to create flawless systems to track and trace their products.

Mad cow disease, fears of bioterrorism and proof of genetic identity are just three of the headline issues that have made traceability - the ability to track a product and all its components accurately through their entire history - a top-of-mind concern for every processor. Although avoiding human tragedy is the primary goal, averting corporate tragedy is not far behind. Processors are well aware that the cost of a recall is huge and far-reaching and the damage to the brand and corporate image could take years to repair.

The more we can, the more we must

Automation and computer systems have lighted the way to service, safety and qualitative capabilities that previous generations of food processors barely detected on their radar.

Instantaneous awareness of a product's history is at our fingertips. The systems and technologies to capture, integrate and interpret the necessary data are already in our hands. And if profit lured processors who invested in early generations of tracking technologies, the clamor for safe food could make their usage universal.

Consider these worldwide developments:
  • Global concern over the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), aka mad cow disease, prompted the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to encourage science-based safeguards, including animal identification by means of ear tags and electronic systems, to prevent spread of the disease.

  • In December 2003, FDA set deadlines for virtually all links in the food and beverage supply chain to comply with the Bioterrorism Act. It also added 500 new inspectors to begin enforcement. Among the regulations is a "maintenance of records" requirement. It states companies must maintain tracking records for ingredients and products. The records help track products found to be adulterated.

  • Canada's Agriculture Policy Framework (APF) announced a goal of 80 percent traceability for Canadian food by 2008.

  • Article 18 of the European Union's Regulation 178/2002 requires guaranteed traceability of food and feed at all stages of production and that tracing information be available to authorities on demand.
More than half the respondents in Food Processing's 2005 Manufacturing Survey ranked food safety their No. 1 concern (see March cover story). The Centers for Disease Control estimates 76 million illnesses each year in the U.S. stem from food contamination. Yet no processor wants to release an unsafe product from the plant.

Added to concerns of contamination are regional concerns over the safety of genetically engineered foods. EU regulations mandate documented traceability when a product's composition exceeds 0.9 percent genetically altered material.

Today's food products commonly mix components from all over the world. Is there any doubt the ability to validate the entire history of an ingredient or raw material may soon be the price of entry into global trade?

"The EU requires traceability and transparency in each stage of the manufacture of a product. Companies are going to have to determine what systems are going to get them there," says Jerry Mithen, vice president manufacturing services for Darien, Ill.-based RQA, which conducts product recalls and advises food clients in crisis management. Large retailers in the U.S., too, are applying pressure on processors to trace a product through the supply chain.

A supply chain issue, too

Retailers like Wal-Mart have added a sense of immediacy to the traceability issue. Wal-Mart already requires its top 100 suppliers to add radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to cases and pallets and expects all of its suppliers to comply with this mandate by January 2006.

But even without external pressure, tracing capability can prove invaluable in the service of process optimization and product quality improvement, advancing continuous improvement initiatives, activity-based costing and various inventory management strategies. Widespread adoption of hazards and critical control points (HACCP) methodology and ISO-9000 quality systems have advanced systems and technologies to facilitate process documentation and ingredient tracking.

Food product quality is a constantly changing measure from "cradle to table." And though the processor is situated at the center of the action, it takes a wide net stretching backward and forward from the processing plant to capture a complete product history.

Traceability involves both securing information and putting it to use. Due to their broad usage, bar code systems are almost universally recognized and serve as the principal vehicles of information today. But RFID systems can transfer even more data and thus suggest even greater tracing potential.

Enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems are designed to integrate and make usable information from diverse areas such as purchasing, sales, manufacturing, accounts payable, accounts receivable and other sectors of the operation. Their versatile communications capability also allows them to link with outside systems.

Michael Angelo's Gourmet Foods, a manufacturer of frozen and refrigerated Italian food products based in Austin, Texas, purchased Ross Systems' (www.rosssystems.com) iRenaissance ERP system five years ago to give greater transparency to its operations and to narrow variances that were swinging as high as $500,000 per month. In the process, the company also achieved greater supply chain visibility.

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