Paradise Tomato Kitchens has never had a contamination incident. In its 10-year history, the company hasn't had a product recall or a single issue with product integrity, yet that doesn't stop Paradise's quality assurance team from constantly evaluating and upgrading security and safety procedures, finding new ways to improve packaging, monitoring, and ease of use, says cofounder and CEO Ron Peters. From the company's early decision to use plastic pouches instead of traditional cans, to recent additions of X-ray scanning equipment, tamper-evident cases, easy-open packages and product tracking software, Peters and his team have made bold decisions to improve their products that have changed the course of the specialty sauce industry. "Our perspective is that we can never do enough when it comes to food safety," Peters says. "It's our responsibility to make sure our products are as safe as possible."

Peters and his team have always taken big chances, which is how the company came into existence. Originally, Peters managed a PepsiCo plant in Louisville, KY. When the plant shut down in 1992, instead of looking for a new job he bought the facility. With 15 employees and Pizza Hut as his only customer, he transformed the Slice soft drink plant into Paradise Tomato Kitchens. Today, Paradise is a multi-million dollar operation with 65 team members. Though still relatively small, it provides specialty sauces and tomato-based products to several of America's most-recognized restaurants, including six of the top 16 pizza chains. Paradise is also one of the leading providers of signature tomato-based sauces for restaurant chains, in a field dominated by giants.

Peters attributes his success to the company's unique workplace environment and cutting edge equipment. "To be successful you need an edge," Peters says. "Our edge is our people, our technology and our culture." The company's corporate culture encourages the Paradise team to work side-by-side with customers to identify potential problems and to find better ways to serve them. Not only does Peters allow his team to make changes to meet customer's needs, he expects them to. Change is a difficult concept for most companies, he says, but not for Paradise. "You can't improve the quality of your service unless you are willing to change."

Thinking Outside the...Can
Peters' fearlessness and commitment to a progressive workplace culture turned the sauce industry on its ear from day one, when he eschewed traditional cans, opting instead to store his products in plastic pouches. It was a revolutionary concept at the time, he says. Stores were accustomed to cans. No one was using flexible packaging for sauces, but Peters and his team were convinced that it was what the sauce industry needed to do, so they forged ahead.

The original impetus for using plastic pouches was to extend the tomato sauce packaging cycle, says Justin Uhl, director of quality assurance. For freshness reasons, tomato canning only takes place from July to October during the tomato-growing season. But the Paradise team, working with engineers from Purdue University, developed an all-season process that allows them to produce products year-round. "Canned products are only produced once a year so they have to be viable for 12 to 16 months," says Chuck Davis, plant manager. "Our production cycle is constant so our products are on the shelves for less time."

The new process enabled them to use the flexible packaging, which was safer for customers to use, more environmentally friendly, and cheaper and easier to ship and dispose of, Uhl says. Plastic pouches are safer because restaurant workers don't cut themselves on jagged lids, and no metal residue from the can opening process ends up in the sauce--both common hazards associated with canned products,

Once the sauce is used, there also is much less waste because the collapsible lightweight packaging takes up a fraction of the space of an empty can. "A can is a box of air in a dumpster," Davis says. The pouches create less volume and density of refuse, and require restaurant staff to spend less time dealing with the trash.

Today, plastic pouches are a common packaging choice, thanks in part to Paradise's early initiative­ but it wasn't an easy sell. "We probably visited 200 stores in the beginning to demo the products," Uhl says, which is not uncommon for his team. In their efforts to improve the safety of their products and packages, the quality assurance team spends much of its time talking to customers, and working directly with their employees to see firsthand what their needs are. For example, Uhl recently spent a week at a client's store learning to make pizzas so he could see what challenges employees encountered when using Paradise products. He found that the biggest risk they faced was cutting themselves when they used scissors or knives to open the pouches. "We spent a lot of time after that asking how we could get away from all cutting tools," he says.

As a result of those visits, his team designed an easy-open sauce pouch featuring tear notches that allow restaurant staff to rip open the packages instead of cutting them, eliminating the possibility of injury or contamination from dirty cutting tools. "It's cleaner, it's safer, and no one is going to hurt themselves," Uhl says.

Such innovations to protect customers from accidental harm, such as cutting their fingers while opening a package, is only one aspect of the safety goals set by the quality assurance team. Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, their main priority has been on protecting consumers from harm caused by intentional contamination. "We wanted to be proactive," says Peters.

The plant already employed an array of metal detectors, filters and magnets to catch and prevent contaminants for getting into the sauces, but the quality team felt they could do more. For years they had searched for a tool to scan for non-metal materials in the products, such as glass, plastic or stone, but the technology wasn't sensitive enough­until recently.

Their post-Sept. 11 search led them to Smiths Heimann, a manufacturer of X-ray inspection equipment in Alcoa, TN. The company, which is known for its airport luggage inspection products, added a line of food inspection machines that use a hardware system similar to their luggage scanning products, but employ specialized software that evaluates scans of food products to identify foreign objects.

Before buying the machine, called the Eagle Case X-Ray Scanner, the Paradise quality team brought a selection of products­some with intentional contamination­to Smiths Heimann to test the machine's accuracy and to help their engineers optimize the equipment for each of Paradise's unique product lines. "Depending on the density and ingredients of each product and the size of the package, the software has to look for different variants," Davis says. For example, tomato paste is thicker than marinara, and salsa has chunkier ingredients, all of which need to be factored into the equation.

The Smiths Heimann engineers were able to calibrate the software to identify contaminants as small as 2 millimeters in diameter in a product case, and to tell the difference between foreign objects and product ingredients. "The sensitivity this machine offers us is better than anything on the market," Davis says. "It's a real breakthrough to be able to discriminate between a piece of plastic and a piece of tomato or onion without getting a lot of false rejections." The engineers also created a product menu within the software interface so that Paradise's technicians can easily recalibrate the machine to scan any of Paradise's product lines.

Paradise implemented the $130,000 machine in late 2002. Today, it sits on the end of their product conveyor belt, where it shoots an X-ray beam into every case of product, scanning for minute bits of contaminants before being sent to customers. "It's a real step up from relying on metal detectors alone," Uhl says.

Security on the Road
Beyond making sure products were safe before they left the plant, the quality team also looked for ways to protect the products from contamination after they were shipped, which led to several security innovations in packaging, tracking and shipping. For example, even though the plastic pouches are sealed, there is still the risk that someone could put something on the outside of the bag that could potentially be harmful, admits Nate Cosby, director of maintenance. To better protect products while they are enroute to customers, Paradise worked with Inland Paperboard and Packaging and Moen Industries to engineer a heavy-duty tamper-evident box with overlapping lids that are sealed with hot melt glue.

"This box is a bulletproof tank," Cosby says. It's more durable than a standard cardboard box, which is important because the plastic pouches require more protection than cans. And, the only way to gain access to the products while they are in the box is by pushing down on the lid. The seal tears when it is pushed, creating evidence that the box has been tampered with, he says. "It's like the seal on a medicine bottle."

Because the heavier container is more difficult to break down than lighter cardboard boxes, Paradise added an easy-tear zipper in the bottom of the box. "We didn't want customers using box cutters to cut the boxes apart," Cosby says.

Paradise also has its own set of pallets for shipping, built to ensure that their products are all transported in a pristine environment. "Most shipping companies reuse their pallets for all of their customers," Davis says, "which means you have no idea where they've been or what they've been exposed to." He's encountered pallets contaminated with chicken feathers, animal excrement and tar. "Having our own pallets built was the only way we could ensure that our cases weren't getting contaminated."

Finally, the company implemented a multi-million dollar Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software system to track every case that is sent out. The ERP monitors the life cycle of each product line, so that in minutes it can determine which raw materials went into which batch of products and where those products are at any given time.

The initial version of the software traced products by the lot number, which could involve 1,000 to 30,000 individual packages, but that wasn't good enough, Uhl says. So a recent upgrade sharpened trackability to the case number, which means that they could conceivably trace a contamination to a single case of six packages. "If there were ever a problem that required a recall, we could deal with it immediately," Uhl says. "We feel very good about that."

Customers Are Part of the Process
While many of these security innovations were a result of internal brainstorming with the quality team and vendors, they also involved direct input and participation from Paradise customers. "If a customer has a request or a problem we go in and see what needs to be done," Davis says. And when the Paradise team is considering any product changes, they talk to customers before making decisions. For example, Paradise worked closely with its customers to design the tamper-evident box and easy-tear pouch. "Our customers are excited about helping us makes these changes," Peters adds. "Security is a big concern right now and we want them to know that our products are safe."

Peters also wants to help other companies improve their safety procedures. He and his team regularly work with their suppliers, and the suppliers of their customers, helping them make similar improvements to the safety and quality of their products and to increase their cost savings. "We've held strategy sessions with suppliers in Mexico, Greece, South Africa and Australia to show them how we process our products so they can improve theirs," Peters says. "By helping them be more successful, we are serving our customer. It's a continuation of our culture of team spirit."

This dedication to customer service and the constant willingness to change to accommodate the needs of its clients has won Paradise praise throughout the specialty sauce industry. The company was given Pizza Hut's Quality Award two years in a row, and Domino's named Paradise Supplier of the Year two years in a row, as well as presenting the company with its International Award of Appreciation.

"For us, business is an evolutionary process," Peters says. "We are willing to continually change to give our customers what they need. That's what makes us successful."

Sarah Fister Gale is a contributing writer to Food Safety Magazine with experience as a feature writer and managing editor of Workforce Magazine (Crain Communications), Training Magazine and Inc. Magazine.