Food Engineering

The QA and Engineering Partnership

June 1, 2010
Collegial relationships between engineering and quality professionals in planning and operating food plants are becoming a condition of doing business.

A combination of cameras and lasers constitutes the vision system for the Key Technology sortation system on a line running dried plums at a Mariani Fruit Co. facility. When QA systems are part of the process, the loop is closed between quality assurance and production. Source: Key Technology Inc.


When the project team for Keystone Foods LLC’s award-winning new plant in Gadsden, AL (see Food Engineering, “Keystone Foods Puts Its Best Foot Forward,” April 2010) gave the quality assurance staff a seat at the planning table, it was following a path that others are likely to tread, as well.

During the preliminary planning stage, Dane Bernard, Keystone’s vice president of food safety and quality assurance, concluded the best possible outcome for the greenfield project could be achieved by embedding one of his colleagues on the project team dominated by engineering corporate staff and engineers from Stellar. “The engineering group didn’t always get the food safety support they needed, simply because they didn’t know mechanically how to implement it,” explains Bernard. He designated Ken Kenyon, a microbiologist with expertise in construction and equipment design, to serve as the QA/food safety voice at the table.

Materials of construction, caulking selection, fixture types, curb details, drain details-“Ken was part of the selection process and how they were installed,” says Keystone Project Manager Tim Easterling.

The template for Keystone’s approach could be found at Smithfield Packing Co.’s Kinston, NC project. Planning for the cooked-ham facility began in 2004, two years before the plant came online. Representatives from quality assurance, sales, R&D, operations, IT and logistics were all part of the core team, recalls David Dixon, senior director-strategic accounts at Burns & McDonnell. “The QA people always are a good voice to have in project planning, and these were all vice president-level people talking,” says Dixon, who provided process and facility design support to the Smithfield team as an engineer with Middough Consulting. “The impetus definitely came from senior management.”

The same was true in the case of Keystone, suggests John Surak, a quality and food-safety consultant at Surak & Associates. “Dane Bernard is part of the executive team,” observes Surak. “He is highly committed to food quality and food safety, and he makes sure it gets done.”

Sophisticated vision systems are taking automatic sortation machines to a new level, but unless the quality data influence how production runs, manufacturers are not going to meet customers’ zero-defects expectations. Source: Key Technology Inc.

Customers demand zero defects

Quality inspection of raw materials, work-in-process and finished goods always has been part of the food production system, and when volumes ratcheted up, tools to replace human inspectors were required. When demand for frozen French fries and other processed vegetables took off in the 1940s, plants in the Northwest employed legions of people to remove black spots from potatoes and stems from green beans, says Bret Larreau, optical product manager at Key Technology Inc., Walla Walla, WA. Today, the parking lots of those plants are almost empty, a consequence of the success of automated defect removal systems that began entering the market 25 years ago.

Inspection and sortation technology has steadily improved, with the combination of lasers and cameras giving a big boost to the object-based imaging systems that spot foreign materials, extraneous vegetable matter and nonfluorescent materials. A more significant advancement, however, is the event-tracking database Key calls FM (foreign material) Alert. Every quality defect is captured and stored with a time-stamped image to catalog and quantify deviations. “It hasn’t happened yet, but as processors look to optimize their efficiency while responding to the zero-tolerance for defects from McDonald’s and other customers, they’re seeing the value of 100 percent sampling,” says Larreau. “Engineers are starting to recognize the need for metrics of production quality that help meet customers’ expectations.”

Pharmaceutical manufacturers use defect databases to institute CAPA (corrective action/preventative action), points out Jeff Cawley, vice president-market development at Portland, OR’s Northwest Analytical Inc. Quality defects signal a process that is going out of control, and events should not be viewed in isolation. With CAPA, the goal is not simply to correct the problem; it is to institute changes to prevent it from happening again.

The statistical process control (SPC) software that Northwest Analytical specializes in has evolved to “a more integrated view” of plant-floor data collection for monitoring process and quality parameters, Cawley reflects. “Quantitative measurement of your process and your quality is a must if you want to stay in business,” he suggests, “and the supply chain is driving that.”

Forward-thinking food companies were focusing on quality indicators to predict customer satisfaction in the mid-1990s, points out Rick Cash, marketing technology manager for Minneapolis-based Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. Sunny Fresh Foods (SFF), a division of Cargill Inc., captured its first of two Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Program awards in 1999. The maker of further-processed egg products used SPC to optimize new high-volume production lines in 1995, and then selected quality indicators to predict customer satisfaction. “The supply QC program enables SFF to minimize costs associated with inspection and testing of ingredients,” the firm wrote in its Baldridge Award application.

SPC and quality-data management systems traditionally were viewed as quality assurance and food safety tools, says Cash, but that’s changing as production focuses on overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and recognizes their complementary nature. “Collecting the data is a starting point, and it’s becoming a requirement,” says Cash, whose firm produces a range of detection and measurement devices based on technologies such as guided microwave spectroscopy, near infrared and X-ray. “Customers are driving investment in the equipment and data-measurement tools.”

Caulk, curb and drain details, materials of construction and the design of freezers and other equipment all were subject to review by food safety and quality professionals at Keystone Foods’ Gadsden, AL plant.

Continuous supply improvement

Last year’s Peanut Corporation of America salmonella recall dramatized the vulnerability of food companies to food-safety breaches by their ingredient suppliers. Costco Wholesale Corp.’s Craig Wilson pegged the number of recalled products at 4,280. More than 140 companies were affected, and the aggregate cost of corrective actions exceeded $1 billion.

Poor quality also has a cost, and manufacturers pay a penalty for every production batch containing out-of-spec ingredients. Over time, these costs dwarf the cost of a single recall. Automotive and other durable-goods manufacturers long have attached a cost to components with quality issues. Borrowing from that example, Sargento Foods Inc. devised metrics to assign a cost to poor ingredient quality a decade ago.

In a workshop presentation sponsored by the American Society for Quality, Sargento’s Janet Raddatz outlined the quality management system’s evolution and how the cheese company assigned and tracked the cost of product holds, product rejects, consumer complaints and other issues. The goal is to identify areas suppliers need to improve. The program also produces a monthly report on the cost of poor quality from each supplier. Those reports lift suppliers out of the commodity category and provide a more precise snapshot of the true cost of poor quality and the true value of raw materials that machine well, don’t have to be reworked and don’t require multiple inspections and corrective actions.

“Supply quality works very closely with procurement, and procurement is very sensitive about blaming suppliers for something they didn’t do,” notes Raddatz, vice president of quality and food safety systems at the Plymouth, WI-based firm. Documenting the cost of defects is therefore essential. Feedback provided to the suppliers sustains the continuous improvement process.

A family-owned company with five plants and about 1,500 employees, Sargento operates three cheese slicing and shredding facilities in Wisconsin and is the market leader in sliced cheese and No. 2 to Kraft in shredded cheese. Assigning a cost to poor raw-material quality may or may not improve finished goods quality, but it does lower costs. “It’s an efficiency number,” Raddatz explains. “If we can be more efficient, we can deliver a quality product at a lower cost.”

Sargento’s overall QA staff is about 60. Efforts are underway to automate data collection of quality metrics, though it remains a largely paper-based system. The upside is that QA staffers approach operations from the perspective of customer quality requirements. Consequently, QA has become a path to supervisory positions in manufacturing, R&D and other areas.

While third-party plant audits have become time-consuming events and, from some manufacturers’ perspective, a distraction, Raddatz credits third-party scrutiny for fostering a closer relationship between QA and engineering and maintenance. “Before third-party audits began, QA handled it all,” she says. “When outside auditors started asking questions about maintenance and engineering, we went to the people who owned those areas and got them talking to the auditors. That was a big shift in how people interacted. There was the realization we’re all in this together.”

Raw-materials inspection and lab analysis can slow gross throughput, but that’s not an issue, Raddatz reports. “I always say, ‘It’s never less expensive to do it right the second time.” OEE, not gross throughput, is engineering’s and operation’s performance metric.

But collaborations between QA and engineering never happen on their own. “Whether it’s quality, food safety, occupational health & safety or anything else,” summarizes Surak, “if senior management is committed to it, it will get done.” Effective and productive partnerships begin in the corner office.

For more information:
David Dixon, Burns & McDonnell, ddixon@burnsmcd.com
Bret Larreau, Key Technology Inc., 509-394-3291, blarreau@key.net
Jeff Cawley, Northwest Analytical Inc., 503-224-7727, jcawley@nwasoft.com
John Surak, Surak & Associates, 864-506-2190, jgsurak@yahoo.com
Rick Cash, Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., 763-783-2500, rick.cash@thermofisher.com