Food safety is the practice of minimizing the risk of food-borne disease outbreak or similar illnesses through specific handling, preparation, and storing activities. It encompasses a broad set of rules and routines that are implemented to reduce health hazards. In the food and beverage industry, food safety activities span far and wide, impacting the supply chain all the way from food’s origin points to where it reaches the final consumer. Practices could encompass food labeling, hygiene, management of import and export inspection, among others.
While it has always been an utmost concern for the food and beverage industry, food safety has become even more of a central topic of focus in recent years. Significant changes have led companies to intensify their emphasis on food safety plans and implementation. Compliance with regulatory changes, for instance, is one major factor that now plays a significant role in most companies’ approach to food safety. Moreover, recalls have been on the rise: while undeclared allergens continue to be the primary cause of recalls, issues like listeria, E. coli, and salmonella contamination continue to draw headlines across the U.S.
Food safety is a full-time job in and of itself, and the factors impacting food safety plans vary from one facility to the next. With that said, there are a few basic principles that apply industry-wide, which we’ll explore here.
The Must-Have Components of a Food Safety Plan
- Build a Product & Facility Plan
- Perform a Comprehensive Risk Assessment
- Identify Preventive Controls
- Monitor Continuously
- Establish CAPAs and Perform Reanalysis
- Document Everything
If your facility falls under the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the first element of your food safety plan will entail the development of a product and facility safety plan. These written plans should be developed around every specific product or group of similar products your facility processes or manufacturers, as well as the facility itself. While this is a detailed, tedious process, it is important for compliance purposes and for the overall safety of your products. With that said, plans cannot simply be written and then set aside. Your facility must have demonstrable evidence that the food safety plan is being implemented – and monitored – on a continual basis. We’ll cover this in greater detail in an upcoming section.
To identify the steps that must be taken to minimize food safety hazards, you must first identify all risks that are reasonably likely to occur. Hazards could include biological, chemical, and physical sources. Companies should assess risks based on experience, the history of their products, or that of similar products. You must also factor in risks prevented by the suppliers providing your ingredients and materials. Like the development of the product and facility plan, this process can also become very resource-intensive.
Once risks have been established, you must then develop controls which will be implemented to mitigate them. The preventive controls should aim to do everything possible to prevent identified risks from occurring. If your facility falls under FSMA, food safety plans should extend beyond hazard analysis critical control points (HACCP) alone to address factors like process controls, allergen controls, sanitation controls, training, and recall plans. Managing these controls is one of the most important – yet also demanding – aspects of a food safety manager’s role.
Continuous monitoring, verifying, and validation of preventive controls is necessary to ensuring a food safety plan is achieving its intended outcome. With FSMA, continuous monitoring, as well as actual proof that monitoring is being conducted, is required. The entire purpose of FSMA, after all, is to prevent food safety outbreaks from occurring, and the only way to do so is to routinely monitor for effectiveness.
Tracking your controls and documenting continuously are two critical food safety activities. To ensure your food safety efforts are working effectively, you can measure parameters such as temperature and other key metrics. You might also monitor your environment, test product batches, or establish a similar means of tracking data. Of course, continuously collecting and analyzing this data can be an administrative burden on personnel if offline or paper-based systems are being used.
When a preventive control fails, you must have a means of addressing it. This is where corrective and preventive actions (CAPA) come into play. For compliance purposes, all information surrounding CAPAs should be thoroughly documented.
Your food safety plan must also be reviewed regularly to determine whether there are any areas of improvement that must be addressed. In general, plans should be revisited every three years at the very least, or if a food safety incident occurs as a result of a failure in Preventive Controls.
Of course, the purpose of a food safety plan is to identify CAPAs before they are needed. Thus, whenever possible, CAPAs should be established prior to an incident. This will prevent you from scrambling to develop solutions after a safety issue occurs. When CAPAs are established in advance, your facility will also have the ability to take swift remedial action, thereby minimizing the impact of any food safety incident.
The aforementioned processes must all be documented. Every element of a food safety plan should be carefully recorded for compliance purposes, including the programs of your food safety plan, proof of completion, all test results, and CAPAs. When this is achieved, it leaves your facility prepared for audits and leaves no gaps which inspectors might otherwise question. Instead, you’ll have a complete narrative about how your facility approaches safety, including its plan and its risks, and what actions you’ve taken to overcome food safety challenges over time – which brings us to our next key point.
Common Food Safety Challenges
While the process for establishing a food safety plan described above may appear straightforward, most professionals in the industry know food safety is anything but. In fact, food processors and manufacturers face a number of complexities and challenges. Here are just a few of the primary issues commonly encountered surrounding food safety:
Mitigating risks is essential for controlling product loss, providing safe end products for consumers, maintaining brand image, and avoiding potentially crippling costs of recalls. Yet, preventing nonconforming products from going into commerce requires an immense amount of time and attention. Most facilities lack the visibility to consistently monitor activities in real-time to effectively implement proactive risk mitigation strategies.
Ability to Meet KPIs
Monitoring key Performance Indicators (KPIs) such as waste, re-work, and customer complaints gives companies the blueprint they need to perform better, remain competitive, and consistently deliver safe products. Yet, without the ability to track KPI performance over a specific period of time, it’s impossible to gauge where you’re underperforming or excelling. Most times, KPI data is collected then filed away and rarely revisited again.
Food and beverage companies face pressure to do more without overwhelming their already limited resources. Companies must find a way to satisfy their growing needs that doesn’t require them to continuously hire more personnel, while still going beyond compliance alone to develop and implement robust food safety plans.
Compliance & Audit Readiness
The majority of companies don’t have food safety records that are always audit-ready. In addition to FDA inspections, companies must also be consistently prepared for GFSI and customer audits, if applicable. Yet, compliance becomes a significant challenge when food safety data is stored in filing cabinets and binders. The process of retrieving necessary data to prepare for audits can become cumbersome and time-intensive. Worse, it takes the attention of food safety professionals away from operational activities, thereby potentially creating oversights.
Operational Visibility & Business Intelligence
Lastly, without a standard process for measuring food safety outcomes, companies lack a consistent way of gauging progress or any critical red flags that need to be addressed.
How Technology Can Drive Food Safety
Food safety will continue to be one of the greatest challenges that the food and beverage industry faces, but its complexity can be alleviated with the help of modern technology. Food safety and compliance software uses mobile data collection and program automation to turn data produced by food safety activities into business intelligence, making it simpler for companies to ensure compliance with regulatory, GFSI, and customer requirements.
Tools such as mobile forms can instantly update all documents, records, programs, and tasks associated with food safety to save time and ensure accuracy. This also ensures that your facility is consistently audit-ready. Rather than rifling through piles of papers or navigating complex spreadsheets, personnel is able to capture, upload, and access critical food safety data instantly from the plant floor. The powerful insights retrieved from these systems give managers ongoing visibility into food safety performance, allowing them to catch issues sooner, monitor KPIs, and ultimately, do more with less. With this access to business intelligence, food and beverage companies are able to make strategic decisions that support better food safety outcomes.
About SafetyChain Software
SafetyChain is a Quality Management System (QMS) that helps food and beverage companies improve productivity, profitability, and compliance with a flexible, user-friendly software platform that captures, manages, and analyzes real-time operations data.