Cracking the Food Safety Code in a Global Supply Chain

By Chirag Sheth

The global ready meal and frozen food market has grown considerably in recent years, benefiting from the globalisation of the food industry. However, with globalisation comes an increasingly complex food supply chain. In light of recent food safety scandals, food brands around the world are having on-going issues with consumer trust.

But what precisely is the role of product traceability in ensuring food safety? What are the challenges, and how can they be overcome?

Role of Traceability in Food Safety

Regional food safety crises in recent years, from the horsemeat scandal in the European Union (EU), to bird flu in East Asia, to fears over radiation in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, have impacted on consumer trust in the products they buy from their local supermarket. These issues mean that the manufacturers of ready meals and frozen food, with the complexity of their products and the large number of raw ingredients, are under particular pressure to identify the source of all the materials used on their production lines to ensure optimum product safety and quality.

Traceability, using appropriate technology and data monitoring systems, plays a key role in allowing manufacturers to meet these challenges, enabling them to fully understand the origins of all the raw materials used in their products. This means knowing not just where the ingredients have come from, but also how they have been grown, such as whether organic methods have been used, or in the case of meat and animal products, what standards of husbandry they have been reared in.

Knowing and demonstrating such information is crucial to give interested end-consumers the confidence that the products they are buying are truly organic, or sourced from accredited farms and in what country. Furthermore, it also helps to ensure the safety of the products, demonstrating due diligence to regulators in the event of a product recall and showing that every measure possible has been taken to minimise the risk to the public.

In addition to the benefits to the brand’s reputation though, food manufacturers have a legal obligation to uphold stringent traceability requirements in order to comply with international food safety regulations. The EU’s General Food Law, the US’s recently introduced Food Safety Modernization Act, and China’s Food Safety Law all stipulate the implementation of solutions to facilitate traceability. International manufacturers must conform to these clauses to retain access to these lucrative markets.

Overcoming Traceability Barriers

Despite the importance of optimum traceability on production lines, there remain a number of challenges that food manufacturers have to overcome to ensure they can follow their products correctly through their supply and distribution chains. The global food supply chain has become increasingly complicated over the last decade. For many multi-national manufacturers now, raw ingredients are sourced from one country, processed and packaged in a second, and sold by retailers in a third.

Adding further to this complexity, more and more safety regulations now require manufacturers to print the country of origin of the product on its packaging – usually the nation from which the raw ingredients have been sourced. This can be straightforward if all the raw ingredients come from a single country, but many ready meal products may well be made from ingredients sourced from multiple markets.

Manufacturers have to ensure that they have the infrastructure in place to keep track of product batches as they move through the supply chain. They also need to store and analyse batch information as well, about the nature and provenance of ingredients, as well as data about foreign body contamination or product quality.

Code legibility and accuracy is another barrier to optimum product traceability. Codes need to be able to be read easily by track and trace equipment, which means that coding technology is required to be capable of precision printing on packaging at high speed so as not to impact on line throughput rate. To further optimise productivity, particularly on food lines that manufacture a range of products in short runs, and minimise the risk of incorrect codes being printed on product packaging, coding equipment needs to facilitate quick and easy product changeovers without compromising on production uptime.

In addition, harsh production or storage environments can have an impact on effective product traceability. For example, high airborne moisture has been known to cause problems with the adhesion of standard inks during printing, preventing them drying and making them prone to smudging, affecting the legibility of the finished code.

Breaking down Barriers

There are solutions available in the market that are capable of overcoming the traditional challenges to effective product traceability, even across complex multi-national supply chains. Traceability solutions that offer fully integrated production floor hardware and software systems can enable manufacturers to code each individual item within a batch, and then store the data about each coded product. This allows them to capture in-depth information about the movement of each product pack across their supply chain, optimising safety and quality control, as well as minimising the risk of products from unsafe sources reaching end consumers. The data can also be fed into business applications, including Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), to support manufacturers in analysing where improvements can be made to their operations to optimise productivity.

To further enhance the efficiency and productivity of their operations, manufacturers can take advantage of coding systems that support production line flexibility. There are code assurance solutions, a subset of a strong traceability system, available that can integrate the coding printer with a centralised database, which allows machine operatives to select from a vast number of saved codes during a product changeover, and enables them to set up multiple systems from a single location. In doing so, it minimises printer set-up time, while reducing the risk of coding errors. This boosts production uptime and productivity without compromising on coding precision and regulatory compliance.

For challenging production lines, manufacturers should opt for hardware specially designed for harsh environments that can resist ink and dust build-up in the ink nozzles that can cause ordinary printers to shut down. Specialised inks provide scratch and rub resistance on flexible packaging, and offer extra adhesion to waxy substrates on packaging such as boxes, as well as on general purpose plastic packaging, minimising the risk of codes rubbing off or becoming illegible in transit. Manufacturers should also consider Ingress Protection (IP) 65 rated (dust and water protection) hardware, especially if production lines are regularly washed-down.

By selecting such systems for their production lines, ready meal and frozen food manufacturers can overcome barriers to optimise traceability throughout their supply chain, ensuring they comply with legislation and reinforce consumer trust in their brand.

Tracking Down the Solution to Global Food Traceability

The global food industry is set to grow considerably over the next few years, with some experts predicting it will be worth as much as $3.03 trillion by 2020, driven by exports from China and the West. This growth will create challenges for manufacturers seeking to ensure optimum safety for consumers. However, with the right traceability and coding tools, manufacturers can follow their products through the global supply chain, ensuring they offer consumers food that is safe and high quality.

Chirag Sheth is Global Vertical Marketing Manager for building materials vertical at Videojet Technologies. His main responsibilities at the company are to develop a deep understanding of global trends and customers’ needs within each vertical, create marketing content to support sales efforts and provide counsel to product development teams on equipment functionality. Prior to Videojet, he was a Director of Finance at Epic Systems Corp. Chirag has a Masters of Business Administration degree from the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.

About Videojet Technologies

Videojet Technologies is a world-leader in the product identification market, providing in-line printing, coding, and marking products, application specific fluids, and product life cycle services. With our customer application experts and technology leadership in continuous inkjet (CIJ), thermal inkjet (TIJ), laser marking, thermal transfer overprinting (TTO), case coding and labelling, and wide array printing, Videojet has more than 325,000 printers installed worldwide. Our customers rely on Videojet products to print on over ten billion products daily. Customer sales, application, service, and training support is provided by direct operations with over 3,000 team members in 26 countries worldwide. In addition, the Videojet distribution network includes more than 400 distributors and OEMs, serving 135 countries.

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