Food Safety: Foreign Materials Continue To Impact Product Quality

By ETQ on November 1, 2019

One of the defining elements of modern society is that consumers have more options when choosing what products they want to buy. On a basic level, freedom of choice is something that we all want, but when it comes to food safety, people are often at the mercy of a brand’s working and product quality processes.

In fact, recent headlines underscore that no matter whether consumers choose generic or brand name, conventional or organic, the one thing they can’t avoid is food safety risk.

Just look at the 95 tons of chicken recalled after schools reported bits of plastic in children’s lunches in June of this year, which came hot on the heels of the 95,000 pounds of recalled sausage due to the presence of (again) hard, green plastic in bratwurst. Or maybe you remember the 62,000 pounds of beef recalled over possible E. coli contamination in May. And let’s not gloss over the 2018 E.coli outbreak in 35 states that sickened hundreds and led to five deaths … all from tainted romaine lettuce.

Somewhat depressingly, these examples are not one-off incidents. In reality, the list goes on and on, with food safety and poor product quality making the news on a regular basis.

For consumers potentially impacted by food safety failures, a trip to the grocery store can seem like a high-stakes game of ‘Would You Rather?’, where people must choose between choking on foreign material or getting sick from pathogens like listeria and salmonella.

In terms of trying to beat the odds, food-borne illness is far more prevalent—and deadly – than plastic or metal fragments. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million people are affected by food-borne illness every year, 128,000 are hospitalized and a frankly staggering 3,000 individuals die.

And while recalls over pathogenic contamination are far more common, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) says recalls due to the presence of foreign material are on the rise.

The New Food Economy recently reported that foreign matter contamination in the U.S. accounted to over 18 percent of recalls in recent years. Foreign matter contamination—including bits of plastic and rubber from broken machinery, packaging or other sources—tend to be more common in the meat and poultry industry, the non-profit news source said, and these are quality risks that these industries continue to grapple with daily.

The question that needs to be answered is what food manufacturers can do to reduce these identified and high profile food safety risks. With that in mind, this post examines regulatory requirements, industry guidance and, crucially, how an automated food safety management system (FSMS) can tie it all together to better protect consumers and brands.

Regulatory Requirements and Guidance

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plans are one of the most important tools manufacturers have to reduce food safety risks. HACCP looks at the food production process from start to finish, identifying hazards as well as critical steps where manufacturers need to implement risk controls, such as a crucial heating step to destroy pathogens.

HACCP is only required for juice, seafood, meat and poultry, with the latter including egg products. However, a HACCP plan can help any manufacturer comply with Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requirements around preventive controls, hazard analysis and current good manufacturing practices (CGMPs).

In March 2019, FSIS released new guidance aimed at helping food manufacturers respond to customer complaints more effectively. The updated guidelines were specifically designed to address the increase in foreign material notifications, but the information can also be applied to other types of complaints and hazards. Areas of focus in the guidance include:

  • Complaint reporting and response
  • Investigation
  • Notifying regulators
  • Corrective actions (CA)
  • Documentation

One thing to bear in mind is that while following the FSIS guidance isn’t a formal regulatory requirement, implementing business optimization tools that can help with compliance overall will likely reduce risks for consumers. Food safety is often taken for granted by the average person, so integrating procedures that minimize the potential for poor quality products at source is something that should be a priority.

Are you ready for FSMA 2020? Find out the answer in this white paper.

Food Safety Management System: The Missing Link

With hundreds or even thousands of regulatory requirements to comply with, it’s no wonder that merely clearing the bar of compliance has become the sole focus for many companies. But the reality is that a manufacturer can be in compliance with regulatory requirements and still have problems with food safety procedures. As a result, the best way to protect consumers is to go further by taking a proactive approach to preventing problems as opposed to just (metaphorically) fighting fires when they flare up.

Within this context, an automated FSMS is a key technological enabler.

In fact, it’s the only practical way to ensure compliance with regulations while taking a big-picture view of risk throughout the process. A FSMS also makes it possible for companies of any size—even small manufacturers with limited resources—to comply with HACCP principles and regulatory guidance around hazard identification, monitoring, corrective actions and recordkeeping.

To put it simply, automation helps connect the dots between all mission-critical processes with a large impact on food safety, from document control management to employee training to corrective action and risk management (among others).

For example, when a protocol needs updating to account for a newly identified machinery hazard or critical control point, it’s not just the document itself that’s updated. Instead, companies can add new employee training requirements to make sure workers are aware of the change and even add new food quality audit questions to ensure they’re being implemented.

The key thing to note is that when problems are identified, the CA process captures all relevant data from production systems and incorporates this information into the relevant CA record. In addition, manufacturers can incorporate risk management activities into the corrective action, update training and documents, and share lessons with the entire organization. In other words, plants, facilities or even suppliers can learn from one another, systematically reduce risk and incorporate a culture of quality.

Of course, these can be lofty goals for companies just starting out on the quality journey, but it’s one that is absolutely possible with an automated FSMS. At the end of the day, this type of software system is more than just the cost of doing business—it’s an investment in brand reputation and public safety. And that has to be a good thing, not only for the food and beverage industry but also the end consumer.

ETQ’s stated belief that quality creates limitless possibilities is one of the reasons that companies trust us to deliver effective software solutions. Our quality management software features built-in best practices and best-in-class flexibility, both of which allow brands to optimize the critical processes that drive excellence through quality.

To find out more about how ETQ can help your organization along its quality journey, contact us today. Alternatively, reach out to our quality professionals and ask for a demo of our Reliance 2019 SaaS solution.