Fiorucci Foods: Automated Traceability Enhances Safety & Quality
By Sarah Fister Gale
It’s challenging enough to create a food processing facility that accommodates food safety guidelines and allergen control standards established by U.S. regulators, but for Fiorucci Foods, that’s only the beginning. For this worldwide manufacturer of Italian specialty meats, every choice made at its U.S. plant in Colonial Heights, VA, must adhere to two sets of standards, says Chris Maze, vice president of finance and administration for the company. “We have our Italian parent company that sets the standard for quality authentic Italian products and recipes. And we have our U.S. regulations for food safety and HACCP. It’s all got to match up.”
Founded in 1850 by Innocenzo Fiorucci, Fiorucci Foods began as a small grocery market in Norcia, Italy, selling quality meats and foods to the town’s residents. Today, the third-generation family-owned company has offices in Rome, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the U.S., with worldwide sales of its more than 250 quality meats and associated products, including varieties of prosciutto, salami, coppa, pancetta and bresoala, along with authentic balsamic vinegar. Using the Fiorucci family recipes, the company’s superior quality meats are still made with the same homemade touches—hand-trimmed meats seasoned with the finest spices. The company goes to great lengths to carefully age its meats in numerous drying rooms that simulate the temperature changes of Old World Italy to meet Italian authenticity standards, while still adhering to its own Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) program and rigorous food safety standards.
Balancing the time-honored traditions of its heritage with the cutting-edge technology of today’s global food market isn’t easy. “As an American company, we must guarantee that our products meet strict quality control standards regulated by the federal government,” says Maze. “However, equally important, as an Italian company, we must ensure our product meets the quality standards of Italy, as well as the standards of our loyal customers.”
In an age in which detailed proof of origin, pathogen testing and other production history are all required for audits, customs procedures and acceptence by vendors, it’s no longer feasible to track product history manually, which is how Fiorucci had been collecting and storing its data. Because Fiorucci is regulated by its parent company’s authenticity requirements, U.S. federal regulations for food safety and customer-specific mandates such as shelf-life requirements, the company needed a better method of tracking and tracing product throughout the manufacturing process to ensure the highest quality standards.
To help unify its quality and safety goals, and better manage costs, Fiorucci recently automated the data management system in its U.S. processing facility to add ease, transparency and accountability to the process. “We needed a solution that was designed to fit our business and to give us the flexibility to make adjustments and changes as we work,” Maze says.
In early 2004 Fiorucci implemented an automated enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. An ERP is a suite of applications that all run on the same technology to seamlessly integrate data management from multiple sources. Originally designed for manufacturing operations, ERPs are gaining popularity with food processors as global food safety regulations and fears of bioterrorism require more transparent access to processing information.
Fiorucci’s new automated system (iRennassiance, Ross Systems, Atlanta, GA) constantly gathers data throughout the production processes allowing the team to keep track of safety and quality issues, as well as costs. Along with giving Fiorucci a better handle on inventory, the company uses the data to more closely adhere to baseline processing standards, ensure food safety, and prevent potential terrorist acts through real-time traceability that tracks every ingredient from farm to fork. “Our philosophy is to deliver safe, wholesome, quality products to our customers, and we can’t do that without a traceability system,” Maze says. “If we lose track of a where a raw material ends up, there’s no way we can guarantee our products.”
Nothing Gets In Until the Barcode Goes On
“It begins with the vendors,” Maze says of the tracking process. All product that comes in the door of the Fiorucci plant is given a uniform barcode based on a series of specifications that includes a lot number, slaughter date, origin location and delivery truck. When the products are received, they are tested for Listeria and E. coli prior to acceptance and that test data is included in the tracking information. If the ingredients pass inspection, they are scanned at the door and that data is captured and maintained in a database, where it is linked to each product batch throughout it’s life history.
Every stage of the process, from raw ingredients, to drying, to packaging, is tracked through the barcodes. “It gives us real-time visibility of where a product is, how long it’s been there, and what’s happened in the room during that time,” plant manager Mark Bragalone notes.
“Before this, the micro testing information got stored in a drawer and record keeping was a nightmare,” Bragalone says. “Now it’s always available.” Having easy access to raw material testing data is beneficial because it gives the quality assurance (QA) team a pathogen baseline for products to compare to end product testing, he adds. “It’s reassuring to know our food safety processes are working.
When processing of the specialty meats begins, the computer on the processing line determines which box of ingredients to use based on the parameters for the job and the date ingredients were received. Personnel retrieve the meat products from the cooler and scan them into the computer at the staging area. If it’s the wrong box, the scanning gun gets an error message and processing can’t continue until the right box of ingredients is procured. “It’s a fail-safe step to ensure the right ingredients are used every time,” Maze says.
Once the meat is processed, a new lot number is assigned to the product that includes all of its previous history through the processing step, including additional details such as temperature of the meat during grinding. Remaining by-products are tagged and tracked for use in other core products and the finished batch is scanned into the drying room.
As the meat moves through processing it is scanned into and out of every room it enters. Each room’s computer is tied into the overall system, which constantly monitors important environmental data, such as the temperature and humidity of the room, which can be affected by things like power surges or dramatic weather changes. Because some products are aged in drying rooms with very specific conditions for months at a time, it is critical to know that the rooms are being maintained properly at all times.
“It’s a great benefit because if there is a problem in one of the rooms, we know exactly what product is in there,” Maze says. “Then we can isolate it for further processing, or increase the sample size on that product batch to make absolutely sure the product meets our standards.”
When a product is completed, it can’t be released to packaging and shipping until all the processing data, including HACCP verification testing for that product is recorded. “Everything is on QA hold until the product meets our HACCP testing requirements,” Bragalone says. For most of the products, the HACCP program focuses on verifying that key temperatures and humidity levels were maintained for the right amount of time during the fermentation and drying steps, and that low pH levels are achieved and maintained. These are important because bacteria can gain a foothold if these levels aren’t closely monitored.
Not All Bacteria is Bad
Most of Fiorucci’s meat products go through a fermentation step to dry and cure them. In this processing step harmless bacteria, called pediococcus, are introduced to the meat. These fermenting bacteria produce acid as they grow, lowering the pH of the meat and inhibiting the growth of many pathogenic microorganisms. Because this process removes most of the moisture from the product it makes the dry cured products among the safest ready-to-eat meats; however, if the room temperature or humidity is altered, the product can become a food safety risk. “It’s a delicate balance,” Bragalone says. “The longer you keep a meat at a certain temperature, the greater the chance of having bad bacteria grow.”
During this step, record keeping and monitoring are critical. It generally takes 10 to 14 hours for the meat to achieve the right pH balance. The QA team begins pH testing at eight to 10 hours and continues every hour until the right balance is achieved. At that point, the meat undergoes a thermal kill-step to destroy the remaining bacteria, which stops the growth of lactic acid and maintain the pH level. Then it is moved to the drying room.
In the drying rooms, which contain sophisticated air handling units, the QA team monitors the moisture/protein ratio in the products, which correlates to their degree of dryness, as well as air velocity and temperature of the room. The higher the air velocity, the more moisture gets picked up, which can cause hardening of the outer shell trapping some moisture inside. “It’s a sophisticated process to get the moisture from the inside of the meat out,” Bragalone says.
The QA team conducts environmental checks twice per shift, or six times in a 24-hour period. The rooms are also equipped with safety alarms that give an audio/visual alarm if the room should go out of spec, enabling the team to quickly assess the problem and make adjustments before the product is adversely impacted. The QA team also conducts weekly environmental testing for Listeria and E. coli.
The records for every product also include all of the activities of the sanitation crew to verify that cleaning programs were adhered to in that processing area. The data includes how and when each piece of equipment was cleaned and sanitized by whom, as well as the complete pre-op sanitation process which are conducted and verified with a management signature, prior to any product run. If a food safety problem were to occur, the sanitation data can help the QA team track a problem back to specific equipment or personnel.
See-Through Tracking Has Nothing to Hide
“By tracking our data so closely, at any given time we can trace where a product has been since it arrived on the truck and what’s happened to it while it’s been here,” Bragalone says. “We can track any finished product down to the exact line and time it was run.” Even after product leaves the facility, the company maintains records of where it was delivered and its shelf life.
Because the data is stored in a networked computer system, executive management at the facility always know what’s going on in the plant. Anyone with authorization to access the system can extract information on yields, product development, release records, shelf-life or throughput data instantly.
It helps Fiorucci maintain its requirements for authenticity, including required curing lengths and standard procedures for producing the meats, and Maze and Bragalone use the data during weekly meetings and product sampling as a way to tie processing techniques to the end product. “If we have a certain product that looks fantastic we can look back at the exact processes we followed and use them as benchmarks,” Maze says. Similarly, if a problem is identified, they can use the data to track the source of the problem and solve it.
“Easy access to data also makes it much easier to answer production questions and to complete third party audits,” Bragalone adds. “With the paper-based system it could take six people working for six hours to prepare for audits. Now it takes one person less than an hour to get ready.”
“We spend less time on managing data and more time improving the systems we already have in place,” Maze adds.
Cost Savings Added Bonus
Along with food safety and traceability, automating its data collection saved the company money. “We have a much tighter grip on raw materials now, using every bit of product to take full advantage of our investments,” Maze says. The processing team can account for all costs at the end of the manufacturing process with greater precision. “This type of information has given us a competitive edge, enabling process changes within Fiorucci to ensure we are running our business at maximum efficiency without sacrificing quality.”
With improved inventory management, Fiorucci has significantly decreased annual adjustments on inventory. Its most recent physical inventory resulted in an adjustment of less than one percent. Previous inventories went as high as 5-10% adjustments, which adds significant costs. But in the end, a traceability program saves more than percentage points on inventory adjustments: It protects the quality and the philosophy behind the brand.
“With a manual system, a problem with raw material could result in a total plant recall. Now, if we need to trace something in the marketplace we can track a raw ingredient down to the exact package of finished product,” Maze says. “You just can’t do that without a good tracking program.”