Food engineers understand their responsibility in delivering a consistent product, but what is their role in delivering a quality product?

Steven Orlando (checkered shirt) and Mike Orlando oversee operations in the Sunnyland Mills plant in Fresno, Calif.
The food engineer drank deeply from his bottle of Budweiser, slammed the bottle down on the bar and loudly proclaimed, "I don't care what anybody says: that's the best-quality beer you can buy."

For what the product is, the engineer's words were true enough: from bottle to bottle and year to year, Bud is as consistent as Boston Red Sox futility. But can Bud be considered the highest quality beer, any more than a McDonald's hamburger can be labeled the best burger money can buy?

Within the four walls of the plant, many standardized measurements of manufacturing quality exist. The Swiss-based International Organization for Standardization provides ISO 9001 certification for process industries, including food and beverage; independent audit programs from organizations such as the American Institute of Baking and National Sanitation Foundation help quantify quality programs; and key customers aren't bashful about reviewing GMP, SSOP and HACCP plans to validate that manufacturing performance meets or exceeds their expectations. But policies and procedures alone do not produce a quality product. Product quality requires both manufacturing excellence and dietary and raw-material quality, and defining the latter depends on who is buying and consuming the product.

"When you're a quality manufacturer, you are a customer-driven manufacturer, and the customer defines quality," notes John Surak, a food science and nutrition professor at Clemson (S.C.) University and an authority on total quality management and the use of statistical process control (SPC) and other qualitative tools in food manufacture. "The customer expects a safe food product, but that's a must-have dimension of quality: if it's not there, the customer isn't satisfied. Customer quality goes beyond that to include unexpected delight. It's what the customer wants, not what I think he wants. The tough part is quantifying the sensory experience and performing the correct quality measurements in the plant."

The product need not be superior or best of class, Surak believes. "Having a sophisticated palette isn't the issue, it's, ‘Does the customer like it?' If he likes it, the other issue is quality of conformance."

Those preferences and expectations go beyond the tip of the tongue, however. "Taste, texture and consumer appeal is one aspect of quality, just as manufacturing standards are," suggests Mary Mulry, senior director of product development and standards at Wild Oats Markets, a Boulder, Colo.-based supermarket chain emphasizing organic and natural products. "Not everything in our stores could be considered healthy, but we look at a product's impact on health and wellness. Quality is multifaceted, and what we call quality varies from product to product."

Both Mulry and Surak make the point that quality is dependent on customer expectations and a product's ability to exceed those expectations. "In general, the food industry has viewed quality as a matter of consistency," says Mulry. "The educated consumer looks first at taste and texture, and then if it's microbiologically safe, is it good for my family's health, and does it satisfy the personal and environmental aspects that are important to me?"

Corny, yes, but effective: Roberts Dairy deploys the Quality Brigade to raise employee awareness of issues affecting product quality. Source: Quality Chekd Inc.

Pyramid reconsidered

The federal government took a stab at the issue in 1996 with the Food Quality Protection Act, though the law only deals with chemicals linked to birth defects or reproductive problems. The act is barely a blip on the consumer radar, and food manufacturers are reluctant to change that, even when it would be to their benefit: while the law says trace amounts of pesticides are perfectly fine on apples, for example, baby food manufacturers virtually ban them on their raw materials. Mothers who want to minimize their babies' pesticide consumption are better off with a processed than a homemade applesauce, yet companies such as Gerber do not promote that benefit.

Similarly, quality comparisons are off limits for branded food competitors. Instead of trashing Kashi's message of no-refined sugars or unnecessary preservatives, Kellogg simply bought its natural-cereal competitor. Likewise, makers of whole-grain breads opt for the high road of whole grain's goodness rather than point out the nutritional compromise of white patent flour.

Cracks in the armistice are beginning to appear, however. At a recent Oldways Scientific Consensus Conference to tout the health benefits of pasta and other "good" carbohydrates that are metabolized slowly and don't trigger a spike in blood-sugar levels, dieticians and medical researchers took pains to distinguish those grain foods from "flour used to make white bread." The conference was organized partly to rebut the low-carb message of Atkins and other popular diets, but the scientists scrupulously avoided the suggestion that all breads are created equal. However, Oldways is participating behind the scenes in a revamp of the USDA food pyramid that likely will make distinctions between grain-based foods.

Oldways is aligned with the Wholegrains Council, a group that has attracted representatives from some of the largest grain-based food companies, including Frito-Lay and General Mills. Council members are drafting a layman's definition of whole grain foods. Because the bran, germ and endosperm of cereal grain must be present to be considered whole grain, the definition necessarily excludes the vast majority of commercially produced bread and rolls.

"We don't put down refined flour," emphasizes Michael P. Orlando, council chairman and owner of Sunnyland Mills in Fresno, Calif. Instead, the focus is on the positive message of whole grain. "Even the Atkins people say whole grains are good," he says.

The mill operated by Orlando and his brothers handles specialty items such as bulgur wheat, a precooked grain used for 4,000 years in Middle Eastern meals. Traditionally dried on rooftops, Sunnyland's bulgur undergoes a triple-wash cleaning procedure. The firm devised a continuous process incorporating driers "that was a huge leap in quality," he says. Metal detectors and a HACCP plan were put in place as the mill began catering to major food processors.

In recent years, Sunnyland added certified organic bulgur to the mix. "Organic bulgur is a pretty simple product, but the requirement that we be able to track product from the source through milling down to the pound makes me a better manufacturer," says Orlando. "It's a combination of both a high-quality wheat and a quality manufacturing process. If one or the other is lacking, you don't have a quality product."

Healthy eating is not part of the quality equation when it comes to indulgent desserts, and indulgence is baked into every tart and $35 cake at Greyston Bakery, Yonkers, N.Y. At those prices, there can be no compromise on ingredient quality, points out production manager Rick Bolmer. Pure cocoa is used, not Dutch alkali, he says, and shortening never substitutes for butter. Even when prices recently doubled to over $6 a pound for dried egg whites, there was no thought to using frozen egg whites at 99 cents a pound. Despite the premium ingredients, however, Bolmer believes Greyston did not produce a quality product until a new $10 million facility opened this year.

Greyston Bakery caters to social elites, celebrities and the politically powerful-an ironic customer mix, given the bakery's practice of hiring recent parolees, graduates of substance-abuse programs and other hard-to-employ people. The bakery started in 1982 in a converted pasta factory in a low-income neighborhood a few blocks from the Hudson River. Orders for organic and natural brownies and biscotti from Ben & Jerry's and Stonyfield Farm helped push demand beyond capacity and led to the new facility.

Until the new facility opened, quality was prone to compromise because of inconsistency, says Bolmer. Rack ovens delivered an inconsistent bake, and swings in ambient temperature and humidity levels could push finished goods well out of spec. "We've got the right ingredients to make the best brownie possible as an ice cream insert, but quality has to be controlled by footwork, automated equipment and honest and accurate measurements," he says. A tunnel oven and spiral coolers where brownie cool-down is precisely controlled to avoid moisture loss have helped reduce plant visits by customers. Introduction of HACCP to "take the data-gathering function to the next level" should further reduce third party monitoring, Bolmer predicts. The bakery will produce 3 million lbs. of brownies for Ben & Jerry's this year, and the new plant should significantly reduce variation, he says.

Positioned as a healthy alternative to mainline soft drinks, SteaZ carbonated beverages back up their quality-ingredient image with certified quality manufacturing. Source: Healthy Beverage Co.

Quality's Mod Squad

Standardization in fluid milk products leaves little room to differentiate one dairy's products from another's on the basis of quality. That hasn't deterred Omaha-based Roberts Dairy from trying, however. The processor served as the beta site for Quality Chekd Dairies Inc.'s Quality Brigade program two years ago. The brigade helped Roberts' Iowa City plant gain recognition as the best plant in the cooperative this year.

White lab-coated workers outfitted in Devo-inspired sunglasses lend sizzle to the Quality Brigade. Besides making public appearances to promote the dairy's quality message, brigade members help raise awareness among coworkers of the cumulative impact of sanitary procedures and handling on bacterial plate counts and shelf life, according to Quality Chekd's Peter Horvath. "By raising awareness internally, we've seen significant upticks in plants' quality performance."

"In today's environment, quality is a given: consumers expect it," acknowledges Jeff Powell, Roberts Dairy president. "The devil's in the details, and there are a lot of details" to address if a dairy is to make any quality claims. "You've got to start out with a good raw product, and the raw milk we get from DFA is the best quality in three or four years," Powell says. Quality also is dependent on perspective: "For the consumer, does it taste fresh, is the tamper evident seal in place?" he says. "For the retailer, are they getting 15 days or 10 on the code dates? Are the containers clean?" The dairy's quality control department regularly polls 200 customers on a dozen quality dimensions, and the Iowa City facility's score has steadily gone up, from 7.74 to 9.02 on a 10-point scale.

In terms of manufacturing quality, few food processors can match the commitment of Bama Companies Inc. Since assuming the CEO's office of the $200 million, Tulsa-based maker of biscuits, cookies and frozen dough 20 years ago, Paula Marshall-Chapman has been recognized by quality experts and customers alike for continuous improvement efforts. Handheld pies are Bama's mainstay, and McDonald's is the key customer. Bama was in danger of losing the McDonald's account when Marshall-Chapman took over management responsibilities. Twelve years later, Bama received the Sweeney Award, the highest quality award given to a McDonald's supplier.

ISO certification is becoming a prerequisite to selling food products in the European Union, and major U.S. processors are making their facilities ISO compliant to prepare. Bama received ISO certification years ago. In 1999, the company began a Six Sigma quality initiative.

Six Sigma has been described as statistical process control (SPC) with additional measures to drive down defects. One additional tool at Bama is VAST (verbatim analysis statistical tool), an attempt to translate customers' definitions of product attributes into documented specifications, such as dough temperature and floor time. Quality scorecards of up to 20 desirable and undesirable attributes are created for each product. At week's end, sensory and processing scores are rolled up to generate a Sigma score.

"We are Six Sigma on defects for a couple of pies, though 4.5 Sigma is a typical score after bake-off," Marshall-Chapman says. "Six Sigma has really helped our processing people and our R&D people focus on factors that can cause variation and defects, and our cost of doing business is much lower as a result." Still, she worries "we can lull ourselves into a false sense of security" with the methodology, and customer satisfaction doesn't necessarily equate with "consumer delight."

Bama has increased its investment in "direct consumer feedback" in recent years, and people's concerns over trans fat, preservatives, carbohydrates and other ingredients have prompted Bama to expand its concept of quality. "People aren't going to eat something on a continual basis if it doesn't taste good," Marshall-Chapman allows. "But it's surprising what people are interested in, such as salt content and preservatives, so we've said, ‘Let's not formulate products with those five things that may not be good for you.' You have to be smart about it and only bring customers products that fit into this (quality) box."

"Marketing people rule the roost, but long-term, companies understand that they have to look at the health consequences of the products they make," adds Sunnyland's Orlando. "Concern is partly driven by liability considerations, but if you care passionately about your product, you want to produce food that really is good for people. Companies generally are improving product quality, and consumers are demanding it."

Orlando cites Frito-Lay's decision to eliminate trans fats from all its products as an example of health consciousness as a component in food quality. "That was a huge decision," he says. On the other hand, ad messages sometimes aggravate consumer confusion, such as KFC's recent claim that fried chicken is healthy because it is low in carbohydrates.

A tromp d’oeil of Greyston Bakery adorns the wall of the company’s bakery café in Yonkers, N.Y. The bakery’s new plant, located a few blocks away, is decidedly more modern looking, with state-of-the-art production equipment inside.

New quality yardsticks

The organic segment enjoys a quality perception in many quarters, and establishment of USDA's organic standards in October 2002 lent additional credibility to those products. Most organic categories continue to grow at a rate of more than 20 percent a year, according to Katherine DeMateo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association.

USDA's standards gave organic processors a leg up in the traceability and audit control programs that the rest of the food industry now must develop as part of the Bioterrorism Act. The one up, one down documentation for all ingredients and processing aids must be maintained for five years for organics, compared to one year for other foods. Unnecessary additives, fillers, artificial colors and hydrogenated ingredients are banned.

Until recently, organic processors were hesitant to compare quality dimensions with mainstream products, but that is beginning to change. When America's first BSE case surfaced in December, "we were able to say to people, ‘Here are a number of things we do that conventional industry doesn't," DeMateo says.

"Organic doesn't necessarily mean quality," allows Eric Schnell, cofounder of the Healthy Beverage Co., Newtown, Pa., "but certainly the perception is that the products are produced and processed in a cleaner manner and not with a lot of chemicals and additives." His firm launched a line of organic green tea drinks in 2002 and more recently introduced carbonated drinks using organic cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup (HFC). First-year sales quadrupled expectations. Schnell expects to rack up $3 million in sales this year through health-food stores and mainline supermarkets.

"We designed our product with the kids' taste profile in mind, took all the HFC out and developed a healthy alternative," says Schnell. To support the effort, the company's copacker, Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., became one of the nation's first certified organic breweries. Natural and organic solvents rather than bleach and chemicals are used to clean water lines, and new rodent- and pest-control programs were introduced to minimize the possibility of pesticides in the air. The program netted a manufacturing excellence award from Nutritional Outlook magazine.

A regional brewer with a 500,000 barrel capacity, Lion began production in 1905. Organic certification subjects the brewery to one additional annual inspection, and traceability requirements for every ingredient mean additional paperwork, but compliance has complemented ongoing quality programs, according to master brewer Leo Orlandini. "My CEO had some initial concerns about meeting the organic standards, but I knew we were really close before and just had to include some corrective steps," Orlandini says. "An old brewmaster once told me, ‘For quality, there is no finish line.'"

The involvement of mainstream manufacturers in organic, either as copackers or owners of brands such as Horizon Organic (Dean Foods), is a positive development, OTC's DeMateo believes. "It means companies are interested in producing a better product for their customers, and the major processors have the experience with quality and safety systems that will help the rest of the industry."

Products need not meet the organic standards to be considered high quality, of course, and starting a process with top-notch ingredients doesn't necessarily mean a quality product will be delivered. Both raw materials and manufacturing processes are part of the quality equation, and more than consistency is needed to achieve it.