To Solve Contaminated Food Crises, Information Management Is an Unsung Hero for the Food Supply Chain
By Shakirul Alom
Each year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 48 million people in the United States alone get sick from contaminated food, and data from its Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System displays the alarming trend of outbreaks steadily increasing since 2001. As a result of this impact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates associated illnesses tend to cost the economy more than $15.6 billion annually.
Following the introduction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2011, it became increasingly important for food manufacturers and distributors to proactively ensure contaminants in the food supply are prevented. These types of regulations continue to undergo updates to ensure the purity of the food supply, such as FSMA’s new guidance on food defense and adulteration, as well as the President’s proposal to consolidate federal food safety under USDA.
Despite these stringent efforts, new food contaminations seem to happen every few weeks. To date, 19 outbreaks of Salmonella and Escherichia coli in 2018 have impacted fresh and packaged foods, the economy, and ultimately, lives. In addition, allergens remain a leading cause for market withdrawals.
A common point of these contaminations stems from the distribution chain, identified post-outbreak through a comprehensive record review. So, if regulations on the front-end of the food supply can’t identify food contamination before it gets distributed to consumers, what can be done? The answer is surprisingly simple—food suppliers must ensure they have an information management system in place that can comprehensively and easily track all records on the back-end.
Intelligent information management is especially crucial for food manufacturers and distributors to maintain high-quality products—as well as a good reputation and track record of trust with suppliers and customers.
Case in Point
At Farbest Brands, we’ve held this track record with our global network for more than 60 years. Our strategy to ensure food safety and quality is no different than any other organization in this industry—it’s crucial for any supplier and customer to frequently endure mandatory qualification processes. Part of this process involves a thorough review of documentation—including product specifications, nutritional information, risk assessments, sensitized ingredients, product labels, and safety data sheets.
These resources must be readily available, especially depending on the amount and type of documents needed based on a supplier’s risk level. After all, food manufacturers and distributors aren’t only in the business of food ingredients—we’re also in the business of information management to maintain our core principles of quality, truth, and service.
Throughout the industry, it’s not uncommon to track documents and business processes manually in a spreadsheet, with files saved across multiple network folders. Remember, contamination stems from the distribution chain. If documents, resources, and processes aren’t easily accessible and referenceable, the challenges of ensuring food safety increase significantly.
At Farbest, we realized a more automated system was needed to manage the increase in the amount of documentation needed to meet FSMA’s standards, as well as future standards with regard to food safety and quality. To solve this challenge, we identified workflow management as the most important element to ensuring quality products. This meant several crucial questions needed to be answered, including:
• Could any document be found easily, regardless of where it’s stored?
• Could it protect sensitive information while being readily accessible to the right people at the right time?
• Can critical supplier qualification tasks be defined in a workflow, preventing the approval of a supplier until a complete evaluation has been performed?
• Can these review tasks be set to recur at defined intervals, to ensure that the supply chain is periodically (and thoroughly) reviewed?
With an intelligent information management solution implemented throughout our quality, documentation and product management departments, we’ve been able to process requests much faster by gaining visibility to the process. There is now no need for us to maintain a separate spreadsheet on the process; we’re able to get all requested, up-to-date information available into our customers’ hands. For expiring documents, we have visibility into when they expire, and can take a proactive approach to renewing the information.
While workflow was our primary focus, other important information management elements weren’t—and should never be—neglected, including security, automation, and reducing regulatory risk. These details can make or break your customer and suppliers’ trust and should be carefully considered when thinking through organizing one’s resources.
In short, you may be wondering, “Is proper information management the answer to preventing future food contamination?” While most recalls are a result of poor food safety practices that occur in the distribution chain, it’s difficult to say it’ll be fully stymied, especially following the food preparation phase. However, every food processing organization has the option to do its due diligence to protect the population from devastating nationwide foodborne illnesses. By implementing an intelligent information management system on the back-end to proactively and automatically handle time- and information-sensitive documents for suppliers and customers, we’d all be one step closer to saving the food industry, economy, and, most importantly, lives each year.
Shakirul Alom in the Quality Assurance & Compliance manager for Farbest Brands.
Categories: Management: Best Practices