Most food retailers today have very clear ideas about what they expect from their respective supply chains. To be approved, suppliers need to meet criteria ranging from a proactive approach and thorough staff quality training to being able to apply today’s advanced systems as protection against contamination and mislabeling incidents.
Below are five key ways in which retailers are driving higher standards in food production and how today’s more advanced product inspection technologies can help food manufacturers and packagers meet retailer expectations.
1. Brand definition
Retail brand values are built as much on a base of customer loyalty and cultural expectations as they are on the appearance and taste of the food they sell. The product, the packaging and the process by which both are produced must demonstrate support for brand values that range from healthy eating and ethical sourcing to product quality and price point.
Product inspection technologies are not just about contamination detection; they can support brand image in many other ways. For example, checkweighers can ensure consistent portion control, while X-ray systems can scan for product defects other than contaminants, such as irregular shaped products, or missing items in multipacks. Following packaging, vision systems are invaluable for checking that labels contain complete and correct information–especially as related to allergens–and are applied correctly and smoothly, free of wrinkles that can cover important ingredient information.
Consumers are more interested than ever in where their food comes from. As a result, retailers are increasingly emphasizing product traceability, insisting that their suppliers implement effective and verifiable traceability systems from raw materials through finished products.
The evolution of increasingly sophisticated software means that product inspection systems are now capable of not only performing critical quality and integrity checks, but are also assimilating data and analyzing it to add value. Use of Ethernet and Fieldbus connectivity makes it easy for food manufacturers to retrieve this data and generate reports to meet retailer traceability audit requirements.
3. Packaging innovation
For the retailer, proper packaging can ensure that the products it sells are tamper-proof, protected from damage in transit, kept fresh for longer periods and stand out on its shelves. Increasing consumer awareness about the environmental impact of waste plastic is also adding urgency to the drive for more sustainable packaging. As a result, suppliers increasingly must meet detailed criteria for the types of material, designs, quality and sourcing of packaging materials.
But unique, eye-catching packaging designs can sometimes be complex and create blind spots in which physical contaminants can be difficult to detect. Many of today’s advanced X-ray systems can now be configured to overcome this challenge, improving food safety. Packaging material can also interfere with the detection of contaminants. For example, for older model metal detectors, metalized film can mask the presence of metal fragments (contaminants which often can be introduced within a facility as processing equipment wears). Innovations in metal detection techniques, including Multi-Simultaneous Frequency detectors and Product Signal Suppression technology, have virtually eliminated this issue.
4. Training and skills
Retailers expect their suppliers’ commitment to developing and maintaining their employees’ skills to be the same as their own. Appropriate skills create greater efficiency and fewer mistakes, resulting in higher product quality. For suppliers, this means providing adequate training on aspects of their operations ranging from the essential knowledge of how to use equipment correctly to ensuring a hygienic production environment to the importance of maintaining accurate production records.
The intuitive software incorporated in today’s product inspection systems can offer semi- or fully-automated product set-up routines that reduce the possibility of human programming errors. The systems’ software can also optimize sensitivity levels to reduce false reject rates and the costs of wasted product. Leading suppliers of inspection systems, such as Mettler Toledo Product Inspection, also offer their customers’ workers training on the correct application and maintenance of product inspection systems to optimize machine uptime and maximize productivity.
5. Crisis management
Food recalls are a retailer’s worst nightmare, particularly when due to health-related issues such as undeclared allergens or undetected contaminants. Such incidents are damaging to the retailer’s reputation and can destroy the value of a brand name in a dramatically short time. As a result, to protect themselves and their brand images, many retailers have developed comprehensive crisis management procedures that define the responsibilities of suppliers within their contractual obligations.
During normal operations, product inspection systems are strategically deployed to prevent contamination, ensure product and packaging conformity and check that the correct and complete information about ingredients and expiration dates is clearly displayed on labelling. But it is their ability to record events in real time that is priceless in a crisis such as a recall, ensuring that critical data–including batch codes and production and shipping dates–are readily available. Indeed, inspection data from metal detectors, captured photos of inspected labels and inspection images from an X-ray system can prove invaluable in demonstrating that a packaged product left the supplier’s facility uncontaminated and clearly and completely labeled.
In the industry that supplies food to the public, retailers are the closest link to the consumer, and the first to suffer when food is found to be contaminated or improperly labeled. Their best defense is to demand that the suppliers they partner with employ the most advanced and most effective inspection systems to ensure that the products on their shelves are uncontaminated and properly labeled. Suppliers, in turn, must recognize that by protecting the brand image of their retailer partners, they are protecting their own reputations, and ensuring the continuation of that partnership.
Robert Rogers is Senior Food & Safety Advisor at METTLER TOLEDO Product Inspection Group.