The number of product recalls has doubled since 1999; with social media and the Internet, recall alerts are instant and viral. Therefore, it was no wonder that in January 2011, consumers were relieved to hear that the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was passed to support a proactive food safety system.
Two years later, FDA missed deadlines to supply food safety programs and practices to companies in the food industry. That’s when two customer advocacy groups filed suit against FDA and an injunction was issued by the U.S. District Court. FDA now has until November 30, 2013 to publish FSMA requirements to manufacturers.

Food companies are operating on slim margins, increased competition and a global economy still in a recession. As a result, companies are required to do more with less—less employees, less time and little budget.

Some manufacturing facilities have reduced headcounts as much as 15 percent over the last 8 years and that work is being absorbed by existing staff members. In many cases, employees are reacting to issues in the production process and shortcuts are being taken. These shortcuts end up becoming the unofficial Standard Operating Procedures rather than a one-time solution, putting production and finished goods at greater risk of quality and safety issues.
Food manufacturers are also dependent on a complex and global vendor network, which includes hundreds of suppliers and contract manufacturers and packagers from around the world to develop finished food products. This allows companies to reduce operational costs and concentrate on developing new products and building their brand. Unfortunately, it also results in a lack of visibility into production and quality management processes at these off-site locations.

With current processes both inside and outside a facility still being managed via paper-based checklists, spreadsheet documents and even by word of mouth, it has become increasingly difficult for companies to effectively query change control policies or performance issues and provide the proper documentation for regulatory and compliance audits. This puts the company and its brands in a significant disadvantage to proactively manage their risk.

In the Meantime, Be Proactive
Until the FSMA requirements are released to the industry, it is up to companies to take a more preventative approach to their own food safety programs. The existing regulatory and compliance programs, such as Good Manufacturing Practices, Good Agricultural Practices, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, ISO 22000 management standard and Safe Quality Food code, provide necessary guidelines for food safety and consumer protection.

Once key requirements for each existing program is implemented in the current operational infrastructure—whether at internal facilities or supplier locations—companies can take active managerial control over current food safety management system and upgrade areas where there are weaknesses in the process. If companies are aggressively managing their quality processes the end result could mean fewer operational changes to a facility once the FSMA requirements are released.

To keep track of the multitude of regulatory and compliance requirements and effectively manage processes across multiple facilities, many companies are automating their quality workflow processes through the use of quality management software (QMS). A flexible and scalable system supports standard operating procedures for performing critical operational steps in a food preparation process so finished goods are not put at unnecessary risk.

Quality management processes are simplified further when automating the process using QMS  technology that provides better tracking and traceability throughout the process and a checklist to reinforce employee training and validate that proper compliance procedures are being maintained.

By automating processes and procedures, an enterprise can provide a central repository of information that allows facilities to extend quality-related practices around the world as well as share supplier information for better business decisions.

By properly implementing a food safety management system that includes components from existing regulatory programs, companies can also receive other business benefits such as reduced rework, better control of inventory, on-time deliveries and speed-to-market and a reduction in product recalls.

Even though food manufacturers continue to balance current compliance with future requirements to address controls for human and animal food, produce and raw material safety, and even transportation and sanitation requirements, the ultimate goal of FSMA and other programs is the production and distribution of safe foods to consumers.

Kelly Kuchinski is industry solution director at Sparta Systems.