Any food processor will tell you that maintenance and sanitation are critical to food safety. Many of the food safety challenges our industry faces today impact maintenance and sanitation. As a result, firms are finding it progressively more difficult and costly to upgrade their in-house programs to keep pace with demands.
Food safety now ranks among the top consumer concerns in developed countries. Consequently, regulatory agencies insist that food processors increasingly come forward with full disclosures on suspected and confirmed food safety concerns. Causes are often traced back to maintenance and/or sanitation problems.
Take for example a recent incident at Montreal, Que.-based Saputo Inc. that involved the recall of nine cheese products. The culprit turned out to be a bearing housing on a chill roller. Over $1.9 million, or 150,000 kg of cheese, were implicated. The costs of disposing of the contaminated products and replacing them could easily double the product cost. The cause of the recall may have been due to the failure of a small and inexpensive part that went undetected, but the cost of the failure has been a very costly and a very public matter.
Anyone who has ever dealt with large foodservice or retail accounts is accustomed to their demands for lower prices. Now added to that are stricter sanitation and operating standards brought on by global audit programs such as BRC Global Standards, SQF certification and the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). The well-intentioned audit programs often place new demands on maintenance and sanitation programs that can be challenging to smaller firms. These costs must be absorbed by the firm because they can rarely be passed on to the customer if the supplier wishes to retain the business.
Sustainability and Six Sigma Programs
For food processors, sustainability means finding ways to run leaner and meaner. In other words, getting more out of the resources they have and/or getting by with less. Six Sigma programs are well-suited to finding cost savings.
Maintenance and sanitation are frequently the first places bean counters look for savings, based on the belief that the cuts will go unseen. Cuts to these departments usually go unnoticed until output suffers due to equipment failure or a product is recalled for a food safety issue. If cost-saving measures are to be implemented in sanitation and maintenance, they should only be done after a thorough risk assessment is completed and approved by management.
Access to global markets has provided the needed economies of scale to Canada’s food processors. Achieving economies of scale almost always comes from acquiring larger and newer, more highly automated equipment. Yet processors making these investments often overlook the incremental investments needed to upgrade maintenance and sanitation programs for the new equipment.
If the supplier does provide training, these training programs only cover the major and most frequent issues that they believe will need attention and which may not be in your specific application. If the equipment is “one of a kind” or “the first of its kind,” processors need to be aware that the supplier will have little experience on which to base training. It’s a case of the blind leading the blind. Supplier maintenance contracts in the first year are well advised in these situations.
With this in mind, processors should scale up production slowly so personnel can learn to properly run, maintain and clean the new equipment. Beginning at full capacity produces more products that may all have to be recalled for food safety or out-of-compliance reasons due to improper adjustments or inadequate maintenance/sanitation.
Even today, sanitation jobs are considered entry-level jobs for unskilled, uneducated foreign workers desperate for work. Skilled maintenance workers are rarely loyal to the company these days and will change jobs for as little as 10 cents per hour or for the promise of more overtime. Food processors that don’t have adequate retention programs for their skilled labour and trades find themselves constantly challenged to keep their equipment in operation, get it adequately cleaned and keep foods safe.
Some food processors are contracting out their maintenance and sanitation programs to third parties rather than upgrading in-house programs. The number of third-party sanitation companies in the U.S. has grown from a handful 10 years ago to the point now where building cleaning contractors are providing this service. Some auditors and customers prefer in-house programs, while some welcome third-party services, especially when outstanding compliance issues get addressed on a timely basis.
Failures in maintenance and sanitation can result in huge liabilities for food processors. Often the problem is due to a failure in performing a simple cleaning step or replacing a small part, something costing a trivial amount compared to the damaged caused. So are your maintenance and sanitation programs assets or liabilities in your company’s quest for food safety? Also consider whether or not you’re making the necessary investments in maintenance and sanitation to protect your company’s assets.
Dr. Ron Wasik, PhD, MBA (Dr. Fix It), is president of RJW Consulting Canada Ltd. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org