What is a snack food? Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines the noun “snack” as “a light meal, food eaten between regular meals, food suitable for snacking.” A leftover from last evening’s home or restaurant meal, an afternoon bowl of breakfast cereal or cookies and milk for children returning from school in midafternoon are all properly named “snacks.”

However, what if there are only a few “regular meals” during the day? Scheduling regular meals could be challenging when parents (or a single parent) and children leave home at different times for work and school, especially when lunches are primarily eaten away from home and when activities for the children occupy weekday evenings and sometimes weekends as well. Our society sometimes lacks a structured time schedule for meals. Food is often purchased at drive-through windows and consumed alone in vehicles. Often, office workers take coffee and sometimes microwave popcorn to their desks at lunchtime. Snacks are then a convenient food for people on the go. Snacks are mainly eaten for craving and should not be considered a “meal.”

In general, snacks should have several characteristics, such as being safe and free of hazardous chemicals, other toxic substances and pathogenic organisms as defined by several federal laws and enforced by various agencies. Snacks are typically prepared commercially in large quantities by continuous processes; they are usually seasoned with salt and often with additional flavorings. Current regulation requires that snacks be shelf stable as well, requiring no refrigeration for preservation, packaged in a ready-to-eat fashion, typically divided into bite-size pieces, easily handled with the fingers and may have an oily or dry appearance depending on customer expectations for the specific product.

Snack Food Variety
There are some differences among the snack producers in terms of the type of products they offer. In general, the typical snack products include tortilla chips, corn chips, potato chips, extruded products (direct expansion and pellets), pork rinds, pretzels, popcorn, nuts and seeds.

Tortilla chips are products made with nixtamalized corn masa, or dough (flour or fresh masa). Masa is sheeted, forming circles, triangles, rectangles, etc., and then baked in typical three-belt ovens. After baking, the product is equilibrated (conditioned or put at rest) and then fried, seasoned and finally packaged.

In contrast, corn chips are produced by extruding masa at low pressure and room temperature and directly fried, then seasoned and packaged. Potato chips made from fresh potatoes are fabricated by slicing potatoes (previously washed and peeled) and immediately frying them.

There are two types of extruded products: direct expansion and pellets. Direct expansion snacks are products obtained by extrusion (collets or corn curls), which can then be baked or fried. This type of extrusion is achieved by applying high pressure and high temperature in a short period of time. The main raw material for this type of products is cornmeal.

Pellets are also named “half-products” or “third-generation products” as they are products that have been formulated, mixed and extruded to a stage where a stable, solid, dense, largely cooked product suitable for easy transport/storage is produced. Moisture content of pellets is between 10% to 14%. Prior to sale to the eventual consumer, the product is expanded by frying, hot air exposure, microwaving, etc. The raw material is generally wheat, but a variety of cereal grains can also be processed this way, including rice, corn, barley, rye, oat, tapioca, etc. To increase the quality of their protein, it is possible to include legumes in the pellet formulation. Commonly used legumes are lentils, soy, peas, sweet peas, chickpeas and beans. A wide variety of shapes (pillows, tubes, bars, triangles and stripped products), surface structures, colors and textures are possible.

Snack Foods Around the World
The accelerated globalization of business and increased technological changes have intensified competition worldwide, and Latin America is no exception. Big and small manufacturers face unprecedented levels of pressure, resulting from competition with foreign products, new product introductions by competitors, rapid technological innovation and shorter product life, unanticipated customer shifts and advances in manufacturing and information technology. Competitive advantage for many manufacturing companies now lies in their ability to effectively implement ongoing product and process innovation, superior manufacturing, continual improvement of quality and reliability of existing products and development of a continual stream of high-quality new products.

As manufacturers realize the importance of high-quality production in establishing and maintaining a global competitive position, there has been an increasing interest in manufacturing practices that has led to improved performance. A large number of studies have examined the relationships between various manufacturing practices and the impact of such practices on quality performance. One of those studies was carried out by the Boston University Manufacturing Futures Group, which has been gathering data on manufacturing strategy practices in the United States, Western Europe, Japan and some other industrialized countries since 1981.

Manufacturing organizations today can no longer depend on previously proven quality practices, such as world-class manufacturing, which in its original form is no longer applicable in today’s manufacturing environment. Although many researchers have tried to incorporate new developments in world-class manufacturing, there is no consensus on the modifications proposed. A review of the literature shows that the majority of the empirical work is narrowly focused and tends to establish relationships between a few key constructs and performance. Despite the increasingly global environment in which many manufacturers compete, there is some evidence that cultural differences contribute to fundamentally different manufacturing strategies. There is, therefore, a need to clarify the way each country interprets commonly used protocols for world-class manufacturing, especially rapidly developing countries.

In a buyer’s market, purchasers are value optimizers and select products that provide the most satisfaction for the cost. In these cases, buying decisions are seldom made on price alone. Value may also include product appearance, taste, crispiness, color, shelf life, package appearance, effortless opening and temporary re-closure features, effortlessness of using the product, beliefs about product safety and wholesomeness, persuasion by prior advertising, lot-to-lot consistency and other factors. Since many companies can produce almost similar products, small differences may be the deciding factor for industrial buyers as well as consumers.

Developing countries, especially in Latin America, need good jobs as much as they need anything, and labor is usually relatively inexpensive. Sophisticated equipment needs skilled maintenance and support, which is not evenly distributed in the world. Older technology is often robust and used equipment is frequently available, lowering the capital cost, making it an attractive option in developing countries.

Putting Best Practices into Motion
Authors of technical and scientific articles started to doubt the efficiency of GMPs and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) systems over the last decade, especially in small- and medium-size enterprises (SMEs), and began to search for possible causes for potential failures and reduction of system efficiency. Meta-analysis of barriers during HACCP implementation has shown that among 21 elements, it is possible to isolate seven (i.e., training, human resources, planning, knowledge and competence, documentation, resources, management commitment), representing almost 50% (47.8%) of all identified barriers. The influence of each element on HACCP efficiency was ranked according to frequency of their citation in the data analyzed.

Practical experience and a review of the food safety literature indicate that success in developing, installing, monitoring and verifying a successful HACCP system depends on overcoming a complex mix of managerial, organizational as well as technical hurdles. This process presents a difficult challenge to even the largest and best-equipped food companies with significant economic resources, technical expertise and managerial skills. Meanwhile, the SMEs often feel that the challenges imposed by HACCP are potentially insurmountable, not to mention overwhelming.

Owners or managers are mostly not convinced that HACCP is either effective or practical for their businesses. They also have insufficient knowledge of food safety requirements and they are not competent to educate their employees. It is also important to consider the different levels of HACCP-recommended training needs for a given organization. Selection of competent food safety educators seems to be the most important factor to achieve the proper attitude of personnel and performance of technical solutions required to implement HACCP. An increase in the knowledge of food handling does not necessarily change workers’ food-handling behavior. Much depends upon the individual worker’s attitude.

Researchers suggest that a significant proportion of inappropriate handling of food by the consumer could be prevented through an integrated approach promoting knowledge of safe food treatment procedures (i.e., refrigeration, washing, cutting, cooking, etc.) in the home. Producers started to think about implementing integral control of each individual stage and activity in the production chain of their processes. Positive experiences have been developed and today we call them GMPs. From its first rules and principles promoted in 1968, the World Health Organization gave relevance to the meaning of enacting standard procedures dealing with personnel, building, equipment, documentation, production and quality control for this industry. A concerning fact is that some food producers do not understand the concept of GMPs or, even worse, they are afraid that they will weaken the effectiveness of an HACCP system.

Several questions come to mind. Are prerequisites a help or a hindrance to HACCP? How can trust regarding food safety between consumers and the industry be regained? Reports about food poisoning can reveal the need to search for failures of the system.

Clearly set principles and the success of GMPs have laid the foundation to develop many other good practices. Ensuring safe foods for the consumer should be part of the era of globalization in developed and developing countries. If the human resources aren’t adequately trained and appropriately educated, we cannot expect to have professionals with highly developed skills or knowledge who would implement relevant control and documentation.

The goal can be achieved only with intense global cooperation among all of those involved in different kinds of food activities, such as government, teachers and professors, controllers, producers, food processors, transporters and traders, including consumers, who stand at the end of the food chain.

In most countries in Latin America, Frito-Lay is the market leader; however, Frito-Lay has not filled all markets. That is the opportunity for medium and small producers to include their products in the market, mainly by mimicking Frito-Lay products and more recently by developing innovative raw materials and processes. Frequently, medium and small producers have to achieve the GMP requirements with creative and innovative approaches. Most of the GMP categories are achieved due to the low cost of labor.

For example, the general maintenance of physical facilities is accomplished by keeping a team of technicians working on fixing the mechanical and electrical issues of the equipment. Occasionally during production, it is common to see many workers cleaning floors, walls and even ceilings.

As it may be noticed while browsing through the GMP rules, some regulations are written clearly; consequently, their compliance is easily evaluated. For instance, the regulation that “no pests shall be allowed in any area of the food plant” is clearly defined. If an inspector found a pest, such as a mouse, or evidence of a pest in the food plant, then there obviously is a violation.

However, some GMPs contain phrases such as “clean as frequently as necessary to protect against the contamination of the food.” This vague regulatory language is obviously subjective. How often is “necessary” to clean the processing line? Daily, every two shifts or when we think it is needed?

Other GMPs might use the terms “adequately” or “sufficient,” which are both subjective. These issues highlight the potential problems of determining how often to clean and sanitize.

There are some other implications regarding the frequency of cleaning. For example, in ovens for tortilla chips (in some designs), it is possible to find accumulated product inside the equipment. If this accumulation is not frequently removed from inside the oven, it presents possible fire hazards. Thus, cleaning frequency has more implications than just “protecting against the contamination of food.” Cleaning seems to be one of the most important criteria to consider in GMPs for many producers. The extent of “cleaning practices” depends on the manager’s interpretation of them.

In my professional practice, I’ve visited several snack facilities located in several countries (developed and developing countries). The cleanest plant I visited was not in a developed country; it was in Mexico, in a small town about 70 kilometers (43 miles) northeast of Mexico City.

In this plant, an army of operators washes the floor (with soap, water, brushes and towels) at least twice a shift. Any product accidentally dropped to the floor is constantly removed and properly discarded. The whole line is sanitized once a week. This includes floors, walls and ceilings. Before the sanitation, a team of technicians from maintenance checks and fixes any issues with the equipment. This sanitization process can take a whole shift of 8 hours (usually during third shift).

Microbial Contamination
Because microbial growth directly depends on moisture content, among other factors, in the particular case of the salty snack industry, bacteria are not a big issue. Considering that moisture content of all products typically should be lower than 2.5%, with this amount of water in the product, microbial growth is almost negligible. There is a reason to have products with that very low moisture content. In the traditional salty snack industry, which mainly produces potato, tortilla and corn chips, when moisture content is higher than 2.5%, the product loses its characteristic crispiness and crunchiness. It becomes soggy. Actually, during shelf-life studies, moisture content is one of the critical variables to define the end of the product life.

Another approach to “cleaning practices” that has been achieved at low or almost no cost is related to the neatness and cleanliness of the workforce. Personnel are required to wear white cotton uniforms, hairnets, face masks, safety glasses and work boots. The use of jewelry, makeup and perfume is not allowed inside the facility, and nails should be not enameled and as short as possible. Every time a worker returns to the facility for any reason, he or she should wash their hands and then apply sanitizer to be allowed to return to the production line. The main goal of these techniques is to come out with food products that both the producer and the workers would feel proud of.

Product Transport
Some small businesses do not have a continuous process line. Sometimes, they have to manually transport the product from one operation unit to the next one. The easiest and cheapest way to transport the product is to use a huge plastic bag and slide it across the floor. However, the risk of punctured bags with consequent microbial contamination of the product is very high. One solution to this problem has been to place the plastic bag in a metallic cart to safely transport the product. Sometimes this metallic cart is handmade by the technicians from the maintenance department. Even though the use of plastic bags is not allowed according to the GMPs, that was how small producers solved the product transport problem in a noncontinuous production line. Other small producers have solved the problem by making metallic cart containers, usually of stainless steel.

Room for Improvement
One of the weak GMP categories in the snack industry in Latin America is employee training. Many small companies send their employees to short courses for GMPs, HACCPs or Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures training. However, that information sometimes goes no farther than the employee who attended the training. Many times, it is not shared with the line operators and other personnel involved in the production process.

As mentioned above, many small producers started their business by buying used process equipment and installing it in a place that was not initially intended or designed to house a factory. As a consequence, the plant layout constantly changes when new pieces of equipment are added or a new production line is installed. The shape of the new layout is mainly driven by the availability of room inside the plant and by trying to achieve the requirements of the GMPs.

Unfortunately, the quality assurance assessment is one of the GMP categories with which small produces struggle frequently. Again, many small producers started their business with a minimal budget. In such conditions, that money should be mainly expended on buying process equipment. Measurement devices such as thermometers, mano-meters, anemometers and such are not considered as necessary as the process equipment is.

Many times, those producers start selling their products by following a process recommended by the equipment seller, in many cases by doing no measurements at all. Moreover, several process parameters (e.g., moisture and oil content of product from any part of the process and final product) are not measured or monitored. What producers usually do is send samples of their products to an external lab for proximal analysis, getting the nutritional label and including it in the packaging material and the product is ready for sale.

One of the main criteria for process control is measuring. It has been said that what you are unable to measure, you cannot control. All quality para-meters are based on measurements; in such cases, many small producers can dramatically improve their product quality by measuring the critical process variables and obtaining data to estimate their variations. The necessary budget to get the minimal measurements (mainly moisture and oil content) is ridiculously low. As such, there is no reason for not having measurements done, even for very small producers.

In Latin America, medium and small producers have found different ways to accomplish all the GMP categories. Sometimes in an innovative way, sometimes with money; however, all of them are trying to sell a product of which they can be proud, which is the right spirit. What do you think?

Adriana Quintanar Guzmán, Ph.D., received her B.S. in biochemical engineering and her M.S. and Ph.D. in food science from the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico. She has worked for the snack industry for the last 15 years and was a researcher in the food science department of the National Polytechnic Institute and the Autonomic University of Mexico State for 15 years. Dr. Quintanar is also director/owner of a consulting services company that has served the salty snack industry since 2007, specifically in the tortilla and corn chip production and nixtamalization processes. She can be reached at adrianaquintanarguzman@yahoo.com.