Fresh to the consumer: Safety throughout the food supply chain - Anuga FoodTec

Thursday 15 March 2012

An uninterrupted flow of information guarantees quality and traceability

Nutrition consciousness is becoming more and more widespread. When shopping for groceries, many consumers are no longer focused only on low prices; instead, they are making high quality their top priority. Today's consumers make better use of their rights and are demanding to know exactly which ingredients are in a food product and what its point of origin is. In a recent study by the Federation of German Food and Drink Industries (BVE) and the Society for Consumer Research (GfK), 96 percent of the German consumers surveyed said that taste and flavour continue to be their decisive criteria for determining quality, followed by food safety and health considerations, which were cited by 93 percent of the respondents. The consumers therefore demand that food producers offer products that meet the highest standards for food safety.

HACCP - five letters for food safety
HACCP, a quality assurance system that is mandatory for all food industry companies in the European Union, is designed to guarantee food safety. HACCP stands for "Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points". A HACCP system monitors the entire food production process, and particularly phases in which errors could lead to health hazards for consumers. The aim is to identify dangers related to the food production process and to assess the resulting risks. Once the factors that can affect food safety, and therefore also the consumer's health, are identified, measures can be taken to eliminate these risk factors. Risk factors that must be eliminated include, for example, foreign bodies such as tiny pebbles in a mixed salad or glass splinters in a jar of jam. The job of finding such foreign bodies is handled by inspection systems featuring the latest metal detection, X-ray and camera technologies. Special scanners are used to detect glass, ceramic, stone or plastic, but also bone splinters, for example. These systems can also identify product defects such as cracks or splits, trapped air or lumps.

Food packaging is also a fundamental element when it comes to safety - especially with perishable food. Meat and chilled food are often vacuum packed or packaged in a modified atmosphere, a mixture of carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen. This inhibits the growth of bacteria and mould and prevents undesirable reactions with oxygen that can give fresh meat a grey colour.

Where do you come from? - tracing thanks to ERP
Traceability, another means of ensuring food safety, is a tool that is required by law throughout Europe. The main objective here is to enable producers to immediately remove unsafe food and raw materials from circulation in the event of a health hazard. This requires that the food product can be traced back through all steps in the production and sales processes, starting from the point that the consumer takes possession of it and going all the way to its point of origin. The key to tracing a specific batch or unit of a food product is comprehensive batch management. This means that each of the individual batches or units of the food product, which have been produced and packaged under practically identical conditions, is assigned a number by which it can be identified with certainty. In addition, the batch or unit is labelled with a "best before date". Should it become impossible at any point to ensure the safety of a food product en route to the consumer, this information makes it possible to determine which batch is affected. The basis needed for this is provided by business software in the form of an ERP system (Enterprise Resource Planning). This software displays all movements of all goods within a company, including the individual batches or units - from the receipt of incoming goods to production and storage to picking and delivery. The ERP software is able to do this because all data along the flow of materials are recorded right at the location where they are generated and entered into the system. Sausage production serves as a good example to illustrate how the principle works: Upon receipt of the raw product, the software automatically assigns a batch number that applies to all subsequent process steps, including butchering, weighing, filling, smoking and packaging. Various portions of the delivered fresh meat become intermediate products, which are assigned their own batch numbers, making it possible to determine at any time which individual portions a newly produced sausage product consists of, for example. In addition, many product variants are not made until the packaging stage. Here a 150 gram package of salami for self service, for example, is assigned a different batch number than that of the entire, unsliced salami sealed in a casing.

Clear information - the label as a digital ID
The end results of every production process in the food industry are consumer-appropriate packing units that have to be given labels on which all required information is clearly stated. This also involves assigning a "best before date" to each individual package and ensuring that it can be traced by means of a printed batch number. In the past this was done by means of simple designation systems and stick-on labels. Labels were initially conceived to inform consumers about the contents, origin, price and proper use or preparation of a product, but today they can do much more than that. Many food items are sensitive products whose quality can be diminished by even slight deviations from proper refrigeration and storage temperatures. This is why labels also serve a valuable function as signalling devices (Time Temperature Indicators) that indicate improper storage and transport temperatures. These labels work on the basis of a colour that is activated using UV light. The colour then continually changes until the "best before date" is reached. The colour of the label changes from deep blue to colourless; and the higher the ambient temperature, the less time this process takes. The consumer can then determine whether or not the product is still fresh by checking the degree of colour saturation. A UV filter makes it impossible to reset the label.

In the future we may also see increasing use of small, inconspicuous RFID chips that will accompany food products as they make their way to the consumer. The radio technology RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) makes it possible to transmit data by means of radio waves. "Transponders" are attached to the reverse side of labels. Stored on the transponder is the Electronic Product Code (EPC), which contains general information about the product and links this data with individual pieces of information - for example an item's serial number, date of production and origin. The EPC, which is to replace the European Article Number (EAN) in the future, serves as the basis for a product designation that is unique worldwide. The data can then be read over the radio waves by means of a reader device, without visual or physical contact, and saved to a database. And every stop in the value chain can autonomously save information to the transponder. In addition to allowing more effective tracing of a product to its origin, this also makes it possible to detect and reliably prove illegal relabeling.

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