Understanding food ingredients and the variances among them is a must in order to ensure food quality and safety.

There are thousands of ingredients used in the food processing industry. For each ingredient, there may be dozens (or even hundreds) of permutations of that ingredient. Consider something as seemingly simple as dried onion. Dried onion is available as a powder, dice, granule, flake or slice. It comes in different colors or, thanks to specialty treatments such as irradiation or steam, it may be available with different microbial loads. The bottom line is food processors have a number of choices to make in terms of what and where they buy. Careful selection of ingredients and vendors can enhance food quality and safety, reduce operating costs, minimize potential production problems and even improve a company's image.

Processors are constantly looking for ways to reduce costs and improve efficiencies, and reducing ingredient costs is one avenue that many companies follow. But, less expensive isn't always better. In one case that I know, the purchasing department found and purchased a frying oil from the spot market that they thought could be used in production. The price was right and it met company specifications. Shortly after starting production with this new product, the oil in the fryer began to foam, overflowing the vat and halting production. The oil was priced low for a reason. It was loaded with alkali as a result of a poor refining operation and that "soapy" oil caused the foaming. The company did not have a specification for soaps in oil, so although it met the specification, it had an inherent fault. The vendor did not volunteer that fact.

Food processors need a well-organized and rigid vendor quality program, which includes a vendor selection and approval process. The purchasing or procurement people may be the ones doing the purchasing, but the quality or technical staff must be involved to evaluate the ingredients and the vendors and either approve or reject them as suppliers. Approval may be dependent on the vendor making changes to its processes, systems or documentation programs. Simply asking a potential vendor to fill out a questionnaire that describes what they do and how they do is not enough. Part of the vendor approval process should be an audit of the proposed vendor so you can see what they are doing, how records are maintained and whether the quality, safety and sanitation systems are rugged enough to ensure that the company's products are safe. The vendor should have implemented systems for employee hygiene, sanitation, pest management, allergen management, food safety (HACCP), product traceability and recalls, plant security and others. The more "bullet-proof" these systems, the greater the chance that there will be no problems. In the allergen example cited above, the quality persons who investigated the recall immediately saw that their processing operations posed a high risk for cross-contamination. The plant audit would have disqualified the supplier and saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The vendor approval system should be only one part of the equation. Processors should consider conducting a hazard analysis on every ingredient. This risk assessment should be set up to determine whether that particular ingredient is associated with any biological, physical, or chemical hazards and if that ingredient has been associated with any quality problems. Potential allergen concerns should be included in this assessment. Issues that should be factored into the assessment are final use of the ingredient (sensitive product, for example), historical analytical data, information generated from product receiving records, vendor performance and ability to adhere to requirements. Buying ingredients on price alone is a surefire guarantee that something, sometime will come back to bite you.