Convergence of Standards, Technologies Creates Food Safety Conformance
On the horizon, traceability regulations that are not yet defined could require pharmaceutical serialization and farm-to-fork food track-and-trace capabilities. News stories range from tainted peanut butter, to food allergens, to melamine in baby formula and lead in children’s toys, to deadly outbreaks such as E. coli in various produce and meat products.
In the short term, the situation may appear overwhelming. But in the long run, important public interests will be served as well as corporate imperatives to protect billion-dollar brands from ruin that can come without warning, overnight, through trial-by-social-media. For the latter, witness the “pink slime” incident, an all-too-easy attack on a sustainable protein source. This is particularly ironic in a society with a TV show titled “Bizarre Foods.”
It used to be that safety was an esoteric topic reserved for detail-oriented administrators, specialized lawyers, and expert witnesses. No more. Food safety conformance has the attention of senior corporate leadership at the world’s largest companies. But what kind of insurance policy will protect both their customers and their shareholders?
The FDA dubs food safety conformance as “risk-based.” That means the greater the risk, the greater the likelihood (or frequency) your plant will be visited by a SWAT team of inspectors. As the term implies, this approach targets the processes and food products most likely to cause public health risks.
But approaching safety merely for the purpose of regulatory compliance misses major benefits of deploying best practices and state-of-the-art safety technologies.
Thoughtful automation technologists understand that the safety initiatives noted in the opening paragraphs are not isolated activities, even though they are being driven by entities that don’t necessarily interact under normal circumstances. When governmental agencies, technology providers, industry standards groups, and consumer packaged-good producers seize on an issue, we need to recognize that it is a convergence.
It should be noted that this really is an opportunity for automation technologists to reach up through their corporate structures with a holistic solution that will improve productivity. As with Pareto analysis, by solving the biggest problems first, other problems start to go away. It is imperative to communicate what needs to be done, how much it will actually cost, and what it will cost to ignore the issues or take the easy way out.
The various initiatives are approaching different aspects of safety—from preventing injuries on the plant floor to preventing contamination of the machinery that can be spread to food. Much of this revolves around mechanical design, but the replacement of hardwired safety circuits with networked, programmable safety systems is also vital to the holistic solution.
Through these safety systems and more, automation has an increasingly crucial role to play in terms of monitoring, communicating, responding to, documenting, and analyzing machine operation. Automation can also track raw materials and product through manufacturing, packaging, and logistics, while controlling and documenting conditions, such as temperature, that can impact food safety.
Functionalities, enabling technologies converge
Sound familiar? These same functions promote product quality, preventive maintenance, overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), six sigma or operational excellence, sustainability, and supply chain optimization.
This is the essence of the convergence in terms of outcomes. But there is also a convergence in the automation technologies that will be used for implementation.
Mechatronic design also plays a vital role in the new safety. It is part of the convergence of the new technologies, such as replacing mechanical drivetrains with networked servo motors.
Stricter regulations for cleaning machinery dictate sanitary machine designs that are inherently quicker and easier, and therefore less costly, to clean. Sanitary design is typified by stainless steel construction and elimination of geometries that can harbor pathogens.
The parameters of sanitary design for food, beverage, dairy, and meat processing and the pharmaceutical industry’s good manufacturing practices are already well understood. They can readily be migrated to food packaging, where FSMA will likely require even secondary packaging machinery (not in direct contact with food products) to follow sanitary design.
The streamlined machine structures of sanitary design may also present fewer pinch points and other opportunities for injury. Using mechatronic design, simple servo-driven mechanisms replace gears, chains, pulleys, housings, and fasteners that must be routinely disassembled, cleaned, and reassembled under FSMA.
Networks will replace hardwiring to reduce the limited number of wires and hoses that will be practical to install on a machine frame, as they can no longer be contained in conduit due to potential contamination. Instead, wires and hoses would have to be spaced at intervals that allow access for cleaning. These networks include networked safety systems that run on the same network used for machine control, thereby replacing hardwired safety circuits.
Learn from the past
Flash back 13 years, when automation technologists were preparing for Y2K. That scenario is an interesting anecdote about the chasm between what corporate engineering managers projected it would cost to prevent the problem, and what Wall Street perceived would be needed. Some engineering organizations experienced one-time budget windfalls, because if management spent less on Y2K preparations than Wall Street’s expectations, the stock could very well have tanked.