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How to Avoid Being the Next Food Safety Scandal

15 January 2019 – “The recent Listeriosis outbreak highlighted the importance of organisations having the relevant electronic systems in place to prevent issues arising on the shop floor,” – so said Aptean Director, James Wood, during his recent visit to South Africa.

One of SA’s largest food manufacturers recently found itself battling to save its reputation (not to mention its biggest customers) following the Listeriosis outbreak in one of their factories. This scandal could have happened to anybody in the Food Manufacturing Industry. Time and time again we hear stories of workers altering sell-by and slaughter dates on packages, as well as mixing old and new produce. At the very least, companies caught committing these kinds of practices will have the terms of their deals to supply the main supermarkets renegotiated aggressively, and in the worst case they could lose the contracts altogether. 

Scandals like these could see members of their leadership teams forced out of their positions, as they are ultimately responsible for the quality measures and management systems they should be putting in place. Although they may not be involved in the day-to-day activities, the buck stops with them. 

These types of scandal present a major challenge to every food manufacturer in the world, and what has not been made apparent in the news so far is that this is likely to be just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The company involved merely has the unfortunate distinction of being the one to be exposed. And manufacturers in many countries, not just South Africa, will now be under even greater scrutiny, and challenged to demonstrate their commitment to food safety and consumer welfare. 

Digital World

With such high stakes involved, it can seem strange that companies still rely on in-house (mostly paper-based) procedures on their factory floors. Often the reason for sticking with the `current solution’ is an attempt to avoid upsetting the status quo. “It’s how we’ve always done it,” is a commonly heard refrain; but, just like the latest software, business practices have to constantly evolve to remain relevant and up-to-date with modern manufacturing needs. 

The emergence of the digital world has changed the way people across the globe consume information, and the manufacturing world has to keep pace with that development to meet the demands of the big supermarket players. As the importance of data grows, why shouldn’t supermarkets expect their key suppliers to provide quality information to them at the click of a button? And what reasons do manufacturers have to not clearly demonstrate that their quality records are trustworthy, authenticated by permissible staff, and show a complete timeline of quality operations alongside any exceptions and anomalies?

Another perception that often stands in the way of innovation in manufacturing is that the implementation of an electronic quality system is a huge investment, both in terms of software and people power. This is simply not the case however, and you only need to look at manufacturing execution systems (MES) as an example. They can typically be implemented and delivering tangible results in under 90 days, providing manufacturers with the peace of mind that their quality operations are being handled using a purpose-designed solution. 

A clear advantage is now created over the former paper-based systems. Along with the ability to show full compliance in the event of an audit, manufacturers can demonstrate that any opportunity for the manipulation and falsification of records has been eradicated. At that point, quality management can be freed up to focus on tasks that actually add value in and around each facility. 

Paper-based Systems

Businesses that continue to rely on outdated and resource-intensive paper-based systems to manage quality, risk facing their own scandal and associated reputational crisis. Even if they avoid this threat, they will be separated from successful companies who select their shop-floor systems more wisely. By taking advantage of a solution specifically designed for the food and beverage industry, businesses can focus on building positive awareness of their brands. They can also retain the trust of South Africa’s big supermarkets, safe in the knowledge that their operations are water-tight, easily auditable, and not open to manipulation or falsification of records. 

What MES also offers that pen and paper cannot is an operator interface that alerts shop floor staff when a check is due. This is a key element in providing site-wide visibility into quality and food-safety operations, while supporting escalation and alerting routines that ensure the right person knows at the right time whenever a quality issue arises. Admittedly, it is not the process itself that is to blame for the systemic mislabelling of food; rather (as indicated by the encouragement of malpractice by supervisors) some companies appear to have a cultural problem. 

Enforcement of good manufacturing practices is all the more difficult with a paper-based system that opens the door to manipulation and sloppiness. An electronic system alone will not solve the problem, but it does provide operational transparency and offers management the visibility needed to enforce best practice. Companies can now actively manage and prevent the risks of poorly managed operations by implementing the right system to suit their needs. It is a task that should not be approached lightly, but the challenges are miniscule compared to the potentially massive negative consequences on a business wishing to simply and wrongly maintain the status quo.

‘Doing what you have always done’ is the enemy of progress – whether that means improving the quality of food safety in your factories, or driving great results within your business. Implementing a digital MES system may seem like an undertaking without a measurable ROI. But it’s a small price to pay to avoid being at the centre of the next food safety scandal, a potentially company-ending catastrophe no one wants to be responsible for.

Rifle-Shot Performance Holdings, Johannesburg

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