Tackling transparency

The consumption of safe and nutritious food is a basic human right, with safe being a key word. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for the safety of food to be called into question, leading to recalls and extensive investigation. Here, George Walker, managing director of food automation specialist Novotek UK and Ireland, explains how food manufacturers can use industrial automation to supercharge traceability.

According to law firm RPC, recalls of unsafe food products in the UK skyrocketed by 40 per cent in 2018. Many of these recalls were due to allergy-related incidents in which undeclared allergens were present in products marketed as being allergy-free — something that put consumer lives at risk and prompted the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to open consultation on its guidance on food traceability, recalls and withdrawals in January 2019.

This guidance was subsequently published in February 2019, and it offers advice on what it considers to be best practice for food businesses. Unsurprisingly, the best practice is that every segment of a supply chain can effectively trace all products received and dispatched, providing end-to-end insight. Manufacturers must also be able to quickly trace ingredients and packaging materials, citing genealogy and sources, as required.

This sounds simple enough and with few data points to consider that a single plant manager with a notepad could keep a record of. However, the manufacturing requirements are more complex than the best practice advice implies.

As raw ingredients and food traverse the production line, they will be subject to a number of processes, ranging from washing and cooking to cutting and handling. Each of these processes has several recordable considerations that must be monitored to provide reliable traceability data.

For example, if a food picking robot moves a product from one particular conveying system to another, you’ll want to have data available on when that robot was last maintained and cleaned, as well as information on how recently the conveyors themselves were washed down. This minimises the risk of cross-contamination at this particular part of the process. But, keeping track of all this information requires a robust system. Luckily, collecting this data doesn’t need to be an impossible task.

Whether you invest in smart sensors for devices or wirelessly connected systems, many pieces of equipment in factories are connected to supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems to collect performance data. Plant managers can integrate these systems with industrial automation software to unify all data required for traceability into one system.

For example, GE Digital’s Plant Applications software, which is part of the company’s wider Predix manufacturing execution software (MES) application suite, can oversee and manage production operations by integrating SCADA inputs into the system. This not only allows engineers to control processes and operations from the software, but also supports full traceability of individual products throughout the entire process. With this, you have a comprehensive, auditable record.

In addition to this, Novotek UK and Ireland often recommends GE Digital’s Historian software to create an end-to-end historical record of ingredients, environmental conditions, equipment performance and product quality. With this, alongside the Predix MES, plant managers can develop a complete overview of a product’s journey so that you always know when a product is safe and can verify accordingly.

Not only does introducing these systems help create a watertight system for tracing products and ingredients, but the analysis offered by the Predix MES can help businesses make operational improvements. After all, the more information available, the more informed a decision you can make to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

Access to safe food is a fundamental human right, so it’s vital that manufacturers can deliver this in a verifiable way. By introducing more comprehensive ways of monitoring a product’s journey from farm to fork, businesses can safeguard themselves against the legal and cost threats of a recall and improve operations in the process.