Written by Alex Lewis, Parity Factory Corp.
The ongoing crisis has shed light on the need for innovation in the food space, even in the most fundamental processes.
If someone were to ask you which industries were most important to our daily lives, what would you say? Along with things like communications, construction, and clothing, one of the first things that likely comes to mind is also one of the most basic: food. The agricultural and food processing industries provide for our most key needs and enables our continued growth. It is unlikely anyone would argue against the importance of the food and beverage industry to our society, however 2020 has brought us a loud and clear reminder of just how crucial it is, in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In just a few short months, food and beverage manufacturers saw demand increases that haven’t been seen in a lifetime. At the time of writing, sectors of the food industry have experienced spikes in volume ranging from 32% in milk, 30-47% across the snack sector, and a staggering 77% increase in demand for meat, and this trend holds true for nearly every vertical within the industry.
The stay-at-home orders announced by most governments have sent consumers rushing to the store, clearing shelves and placing new strain on food and beverage processors. As they struggle to keep up with their order volume, many manufacturers are looking for new ways to improve their efficiency and reduce their liabilities. As it turns out, one of the most effective methods may also be the simplest: digitizing their lot tracing.
What is digital lot tracing?
All food and beverage manufacturers track their lots. In fact, it is one of the basic requirements for running a food processing business, with the specific standards and protocols defined at the federal level by organizations such as the FDA. By requiring tracking of all material that is involved in making a product, down to the packaging used, it ensures that recalls can be performed swiftly and protects the health of the public. Manufacturers manage their tracing using a variety of methods, from pen and paper, to Microsoft Excel, to fully integrated traceability software, with many using a combination of methods. Digital lot tracing simply means that a company is capturing and managing their tracing data on a digital platform, often integrating scanning and barcoding into the process. This approach has a drastically lower error rate than more traditional methods and tends to be significantly more efficient.
Despite tracing being a common daily task that all processors contend with, there has been surprisingly little momentum towards automated lot tracing in food. By some metrics, only 1 in 5 operations have fully automated their lot data capture, with a bit more having partially implemented the process. The food industry has always been slow to adopt new processes, but as demand and competition skyrockets, many are finally feeling the need for an upgrade.
The risks of a recall
Executing recalls, specifically executing them quickly and efficiently, is one of the biggest challenges that food and beverage manufacturers face. Under current FDA guidelines, food and beverage processors need to be able to perform a recall within four hours. Many of the major retailers demand even more of their suppliers; if you want your product on the shelves in a Walmart or Costco, you must be able to perform the same process in as little as two hours. The unfortunate reality is that for processors tracing on paper, particularly those producing at scale, these targets are difficult to hit. Also, the human element involved in manual tracing can allow errors to find their way into data, and this has become especially true for those who are dramatically increasing their throughput to keep up with new demand caused by COVID-19. Without true, reliable data, a recall can quickly go from difficult to impossible.
The consequences of a botched recall can be dire: the average recall costs a manufacturer $10 million, not including possible fines from regulators, or losing the aforementioned Walmart or Costco contract. One of the biggest losses is one that may not be immediately obvious: consumer confidence. Over half of consumers will quit purchasing a product once it has been recalled, and studies have shown that a company’s stock price will typically drop as much as 22% following a major recall. Once that confidence is gone, it can take months or even years to get it back, if it can be regained at all.
All these problems can be mitigated, if not completely prevented, through digital lot tracing. With a capable solution in place, recall times can be measured in minutes, not hours, as a few quick searches replaces shuffling through endless forms to find the lot in question (if it was recorded correctly at all). This guarantees compliance with even the most demanding of rules and regulations and eliminates all fear when inspectors and auditors show up for routine recall tests. In addition, the ability to execute a speedy yet thorough recall when problems arise minimizes the risk to both consumers, and the manufacturer’s reputation. The bottom line: most food manufacturers are going to face a recall at some point. It is crucial to have the systems in place to react appropriately when that time comes.
How does it increase efficiency?
Due to the huge importance of lot tracing, manufacturers using manual systems often have some of their most competent and experienced employees devoted to the task. Even if these staff would be better suited to other areas, it’s just not worth taking the risk of assigning less experienced employees to the job. Digital lot tracing solves this by drastically simplifying the tracing process. Scanning a barcode and letting software do the rest is far quicker, easier, and less error-prone than meticulously creating and tracking hundreds of lot codes by hand. Meaning that you end up spending less time on tracing, and therefore less money, while winding up with data that is significantly more reliable. This both frees up an operation’s most capable employees to pursue new opportunities and allows anyone in the operation to take part in the tracing process. New employees can be trained and onboarded quickly, which is particularly useful for processors hiring huge amounts of new labor in the wake of COVID-19.
All of this allows for greatly increased flexibility when it comes to staffing, and as COVID-19 turns the industry on its head the value of that flexibility has become crystal clear. While many of us have had the luxury to transition into working from home, that’s just not an option for many working in the food space. When employees are unable to attend work, for example if they are sick, someone else must step in. This can be a major threat to efficiency when the few people in your operation qualified to handle lot tracking are missing. In dealing with turnover and staff redistribution, there’s tangible benefit to having a system that allows employees to be effective, regardless of their experience level.
For those looking to digitize their lot tracing, there is no shortage of solutions to accomplish that task. However, a sufficiently robust solution should go beyond just traceability. If you are tracking each lot as it moves through your facility, it creates great possibility to capture additional data such as yields, storage locations, and quality information. In this way, digital lot tracing can be viewed as a foundation on which to build even more extensive efficiency improvements. These additional features are some of the most important considerations for any manufacturer to make when choosing between available systems.
Preparing for an uncertain future
COVID-19 has proven that swift, unpredictable changes can happen in any industry, even one as foundational as food and beverage. With new issues such as shifting demographics, climate change, and the variable nature of trade on the horizon, it is likely that changes will become more frequent and even the smallest efficiencies will be essential to thrive.
Customer consciousness is also changing rapidly, and businesses that want to stay competitive have no choice but to change with it. As consumers and regulators demand ever more transparency and accountability from the food industry, reliable tracing data is becoming ever more crucial.
Manufacturers will undoubtedly rise to these new challenges in the future, just as they are rising to the challenges of today. And along the way, many will find a comprehensive digital lot tracing system to be one of their most valuable tools.
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