Factory Floor Data Systems Crucial to Traceability Programs

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

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.

"The first information you want is when you receive material at the front door," explains Anass Bennani, information systems manager for Michael Angelo's. "Ingredients must be trackable."

The company records the supplier's lot number as soon as it receives a shipment - or as soon after received product has been determined to be within standard. When an ingredient enters production, its lot number is linked to formula and production data.

The manufacturer also enters a local lot number for the production run. This identification may carry with it such information as expiration date, "best before" date, job number and other useful, if not critical, information.

Information must flow evenly with the product, and a good system will track every movement and every component. Traceability requires that the entire supply chain be transparent and that an entire product history reads as current so that if bacteria have made their way into an ingredient, the tracks are evident.

Tracing a product effectively requires input - accurate input - at every significant step through the supply chain.

"Some of the technologies, like RFID, are expensive and still advancing," says RQA's Mithen. "All that is required right now is provability. You can come out with a three-ring binder if it can provide proof."

How long your loose-leaf pages will suffice is a matter of speculation.

Insurance companies are beginning to assert their influence on the food industry as they have on the medical profession. "The insurance industry is not interested in taking a huge loss because a company is not equipped to trace and track," says Mithen. "So they are driving much of the improvement in systems. Processors know that to get insurance premiums down, they must show that they have minimized risk."

And while technologies such as bar coding and RFID facilitate product tracing, they are only as good as the work system they are built upon.

"As a general rule, it's ‘garbage in, garbage out,'" says Bennani. "You want to make sure your system is perfect, that you have your procedures in place and your people trained before you apply your technologies. Otherwise you are just making errors more quickly!"

Another user of the Ross system, Berner Foods, a leading manufacturer of private label cheese products, has used the system to help it comply with current and future regulations regarding product tracing and tracking and to improve customer satisfaction levels. Company sources claim mock product recalls, which formerly took up to an entire day to conduct, can now be executed in 30 minutes.

Part of your factory data

Thorough traceability requires long reach into the supply chain. But a lot of the effort starts with and can be facilitated by your own factory floor data.

Rockwell Software is launching its RSBizWare software this season. The new tracking and tracing software will provide "dock-to-dock product tracking," according to a Rockwell spokesperson. RSBiz receives raw material and production order downloads, and it automatically validates transaction data, providing an "audit trail" of these transactions. It facilitates information updates during system handoffs with standard transactions for tracking work in process activities, inventory activities, work order management and item consumption. Genealogy data is added at each stage of the production cycle.

"Putting a mark on a product is step one from a manufacturing perspective. If you have a beef product, you could be putting a chip in a calf the day it is born to achieve full traceability," says Bill Arnold, partner business manager for Omron Electronics (www.omron.com), Schaumburg, Ill. Omron markets vision inspection, bar code, 2D code and RFID systems and integration software. "That is the scenario we seem to be moving toward as we face mad cow and bird flu diseases. We will want to pinpoint any source of disease from the feed lot or even a breeding herd."

Throwing a net over problem product is a tricky challenge. The key is to narrow the products implicated as tainted, not up to spec or otherwise candidates for elimination with maximum safety and minimum cost. The more critical information a product has carried with it, the better the chances of meeting these objectives.

Usage date and lot code information are fundamental on individual products, as is the standard stock keeping unit (SKU). Case identification is also critical, as a particular product characteristic that is the object of a search may be confined to a specific case or set of cases. Other information might include plant of manufacture, date of manufacture, thermal history and more.

The almost universal employment of bar coding technology has made it the obvious choice for the gathering and transfer of other information deemed critical to tracing food products today. The problem is you can only get so much information on a label!

Omron has emphasized improved optical character recognition and verification systems for increasingly accurate label reading despite the pressure to add more information to labels. But many believe that more advanced technologies like RFID, which picks up electronic product code (EPC) information embedded on chips or other materials placed on cases, cartons or pallets via radio waves, may be necessary to carry the information necessary to blanket the supply chain.

"With RFID, we can have information on a product for every point in time - where it was made, while it was being shipped, when it sat in the warehouse," says Arnold. "We can determine how many locations this lot went to and can notify people if there is a problem with a particular lot."

But even RFID tags can run out of room. When that happens, use the Internet. "I think the biggest change may be in the marriage of RFID and the Internet," says Sujeet Chand, vice president of advanced technology and chief technology of Rockwell. "Maybe all you need to store on an RFID chip is a URL where all the needed information is stored." And of course, Chand points out, it's not enough to read the data, but also the meta data.

Chain of custody

No hardware or software tool can succeed without a system that ensures it is applied effectively throughout a product's seed-to-table cycle. That means inviolable check-off systems that ascertain a product's location in the supply chain with all history intact.

"A tool is of no value if it is not in a good ‘chain of custody' system," says RQA's Mithen. "It's like a guy with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. The system must say that no step can be taken unless that handcuff is locked to the next party."

"We want to track a product from cradle to table. Yes. But transactional tracking - recording the change of ownership - is important, too," adds Arnold. "They are both tied together."

A good distribution management system includes a good lot coding system along with an effective system of raw material and finished goods tracking. Together they comprise the first leg of an effective product tracing system.

A good audit program records lot codes as product components enter the plant or production. But the tracks of a product can become hard to read with so many companies operating under "no waste" manufacturing edicts.

Recycled product that re-enters the production line must carry lot numbers and history just like product made from first-time components, warns John Hoffman, RQA's director of crisis management, who believes the food industry lags considerably behind other industries when it comes to traceability.

But those are the kinds of challenges that processors are having to face in this game of track and trace.

Nutreco on track to traceability

As if the General Food Law of 2005 and EU identity preservation requirements were not enough, European retailers are applying pressure on pressures to prove traceability.

"We get lots of requests for audits from retailers and others," reports Kees Bink of Nutreco Inc., the Netherlands-based processor of salmon, poultry and animal feed.  "They want to see how we do things. In the old days, we dove into piles of paper. But today we can trace products almost instantly."

Their tool today is NuTrace, a software product with refined tracing capability that Nutreco developed with Intentia (www.intentia.com), an international industrial software manufacturer, in late 2000.

"The new traceability requirements in Europe and the States today require that you be able to trace any material in your product - where it came from and where it goes," explains Alf Reime, global accounts director for Intentia. "But this information doesn't reside inside the ERP system alone. It is also in the production system, within information from suppliers, in quality and lab inspection. You need to combine information from several systems."

Incorporating the standard Intentia Trace Engine, NuTrace has been customized to Nutreco operations and systems. Intentia claims that it was the first tracking and tracing system released in Europe.

"Many say they have traceability, but when you dig into it, you find that there's information missing," says Reime. "You always have a sender and a receiver of information. When I have produced Batch A and sent it to Truck X, you need a system that follows and records that handoff. The chain of events must not be broken. Very few systems have that security."

Nutreco's suppliers also have benefited from NuTrace.

"Along with Intentia, we have spun off a product geared to farmers, to help them improve their production, too," says Bink. "So we are using our system as an optimization tool in our value chain."

"Lots of people focus on internal traceability," says Reime. "The really big difference is that we work across the supply chain."

The system has proven to be an effective marketing tool as well by providing assurance of product traceability to retail customers.

"Nutreco is a responsible feed and food producer," says Bink. "We don't just talk. We can show that we have full control of the value column."


Traceability falls on manufacturing because manufacturing is the stage in which elements are mixed, shaped and enhanced to bring forth the product that defines the operation. Plus, each of the elements that converge to make a product during the manufacturing stage carries a history.

But a tracing system, perhaps more than any other part of the food manufacturing process, really does require a multifunctional and collaborative effort that includes R&D, information technology, purchasing and management.
  • R&D: Find out the tracing capabilities of your ingredient suppliers. Know their systems, what they track and their ability to identify their product runs and to trace problems of contamination or problematic ingredients quickly and accurately within a well-defined range.

  • Purchasing: Understand the importance of the information your company might need to trace and make sure it's collected up front.

  • IT: Determine what internal systems are needed to track ingredients. Coordinate your efforts with those of ingredient suppliers so that systems needed to keep a running record of product information from cradle to table are compatible or easily accessed and deciphered.

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