Worldwide, the safety standards of food manufacturers are coming under increasing scrutiny. Companies face mounting pressure to comply with legislation, such as the US’s newly introduced Food Safety Modernisation Act. In light of these new legal requirements, retailers, such as Walmart, Tesco and Marks and Spencer, amongst others, have devised their own codes of conduct for manufacturers to meet. But how do manufacturers demonstrate to retailers that their products and processes meet these standards and what steps can they take to protect their reputation in the event of a potential contamination issue? The answer is to have the ability to prove they have exercised due diligence in their processes.
Food safety legislation and standards are complex and growing more so every day. Whether you are referring to safety frameworks such as the Hazards and Critical Control Points Analysis (HACCP) system, quality certification programmes such as the British Retail Consortium (BRC) Global Standards, regional legislation such as The General Food Law Regulation (EC) 178/2002 in the European Union, domestic laws such as the UK Food Safety Act (1990), or guidelines from retailers such as Tesco, Walmart and Marks and Spencer, the burden of proof to demonstrate that every effort has been taken to minimise risks to public safety rests with food manufacturers.
Brand owners are well aware of the risks posed by failing to meet these safety standards. Failure to inspect products during or after the manufacturing process can lead to contamination and, as a result, reputation-damaging product recalls. In such an event, food manufacturers are legally obliged to prove that they have exercised all due diligence to avoid accusations of negligence. The supporting evidence must include data such as confirmation of packs inspected and data regarding packs rejected as a result of potential contamination events. Data collected should also include validation information about regular equipment testing and information on planned preventative maintenance programmes. If the manufacturer cannot provide this data, it can be vulnerable to further legal action. As well as the risk to consumer well-being, the bad publicity of a product recall can jeopardise future business with supermarket chains, threatening the future of the brand.
To ensure compliance with safety standards, brand owners require a well-designed comprehensive product inspection system, able to detect contamination, identify over- and under-weight products and exclude them from the production process. Automated reject mechanisms are critical to meet compliance with safety standards. In most product inspection systems, when a suspect product is identified, a signal is generated, which, together with sensors and timing devices, is used to activate a reject device to remove it from the conveyor without stopping production. A lockable bin is also used to collect the rejected products in order to prevent them from making their way back onto the conveyor after the inspection system and into the hands of consumers. Access to the bin should only be available to designated personnel.
In the event the reject device fails to remove the offending product, failsafe mechanisms need to be in place to stop the conveyor system, ensuring contaminated or under- or over-weight products do not find their way to the end of the production line. Multiple inspection machines can be linked using modern computer connectivity technology to offer comprehensive monitoring of the inspection system to ensure reject mechanisms do not fail.
Accurate data monitoring is another vital aspect of compliance with food safety standards as it can prove critical in demonstrating due diligence if required. Modern product inspection systems offer automatic logging of information relating to contaminant detection and checkweighing of products on the conveyor belt. High-security operator access, such as secure login passwords and key-operated reset switches minimise the risk of such data being compromised.
The trend of recent years couldn’t be more apparent: supermarkets and other retailers will continue to tighten their own product safety standards, keen to protect their own brands in the eyes of the consumer. Brand owners must do everything in their power to demonstrate due diligence and advanced product inspection systems provide the technology to do so. Such technology enables manufacturers to prove they have robust procedures in place to detect any possible contamination and confirm each pack contains the correct amount of content minimising the risk of loss of business with major retailers at a time when the marketplace is becoming ever more competitive.
Neil Giles is marketing communications manager for Mettler-Toledo Product Inspection
This is the last of a series of articles on production inspection from Mettler-Toledo; click below to read previous articles in the series