A quality inspector monitors a bar line in a Grand rapids, Mich., plant of Hearthside Food Solutions. it’s one of five high-capacity bar lines in the company network.
The manufacture of snack foods was once a relatively simple operation. Compared to meat or dairy processing, snack processing offered far fewer worries about contamination and care of raw materials. Mixers, extruders and ovens were fairly basic equipment, and with the right time and temperature, everything came out in the wash.
Things have changed. "In the snack and baking [categories], recent consumer trends call for more complex products," says Dwayne Hughes, vice president of operations at Hearthside Food Solutions (www.hearthsidefoods.com), Downers Grove, Ill. "That product complexity means more inclusions, [which introduces] more allergens, and more challenges for the manufacturer in terms of allergen control and validation."
"The variety seems almost endless anymore," agrees Steve Johnson, director of marketing at Key Technology Inc. (www.key.net), Walla Walla, Wash., which supplies conveying, sorting and weighing systems to the food industry, including potato chip manufacturers. "The market segmentation is very precise now. Manufacturers can identify very particular market segments and answer the needs of those segments."
While those positive market forces have moved snack foods in a certain direction, food safety failures, and the subsequent mandates for stricter manufacturing control, also have had an impact on how everything from potato chips and pretzels to granola bars and nuts are produced and packaged. The Food Safety Modernization Act, currently being implemented in stages, hits hardest in industry segments that previously were less-regulated, including produce, baking and snacks.
Capital spending a key
Hearthside practically was born of the forces re-shaping snack manufacturing. The company was formed through acquisition in 2009
, and now claims to be one of the largest contract bakery manufacturers in the country, providing an array of bake and snack components to major food-brand holders coast to coast. It is working to implement quality practices and programs that ensure efficiencies, uniformities and traceability improvements that are demanded by the current food safety environment.
"From a co-manufacturing perspective, because the food regulations are changing under the Food Safety Modernization Act, and due to the quality programs of our customers, we are getting audited all the time," Hughes says. "With 13 plants, we have an auditor inside one of our plants on a 24/7 basis. With the FDA adding more federal inspectors, we are getting more visitations and more routine and non-routine inspections."