Building Supply Chain Quality and Food Safety

Departments - QA

December 10, 2013

With so many certifications, standards and auditing agencies in the food industry, it is challenging to build quality and food safety in the supply chain. Achieving certification with a selected set of standards while conforming to changing food safety laws and expanded authority is creating consequences not before seen. Some consequences to suppliers are significant, such as a loss of business or a mandatory reporting to the FDA, and the challenge is increased with the globalization of supply with some country’s regulations and standards seen as incompatible. Add a longer transportation time and pressure of profitability and it is a wonder that quality in the supply chain is even doable. Years ago, W. Edwards Deming stated, “Without an adequate measure of quality, business drifts to the lowest bidder, low quality and high cost being the inevitable result.” How does one manage all of this? What are some practical solutions?

Quality and food safety in the supply chain is a fundamental element of any quality system, and it is never ending. Why is this so important? Because it assures that raw materials that comply with common standards at a competitive price are delivered to all facilities. What set of standards do you use? Once you select a certification scheme, such as GFSI, another scheme is certain to come along. A universal standard would be nice but is not likely to happen. Which auditing agency do you use? That depends on the certification scheme and global location. It is imperative to understand requirements of a certification scheme and standards being used in your business model and expand appropriate requirements into your supply chain. Building a partnership with suppliers working toward an agreed-upon benchmark is vital to success. How many suppliers are needed? Moving toward a single supplier for any ingredient has a way of getting a supplier’s attention. Minimizing the number of suppliers for raw materials will minimize your time and effort improving supplier consistency.

A frequent mistake with a problematic supplier is to tighten the specification, increase inbound inspection, place them on probation, and/or reject deliveries. But this tends to create an adversarial relationship. If it is a valued supplier, the root cause will be corrected. Another mistake is thinking 100% inspection will eliminate the use of any unacceptable material. Because that approach is not cost effective or practical, a better approach is to establish a statistically based sampling and testing plan with a high confidence level especially for any high-risk materials. COAs, HACCP, and GMPs are important in the supply chain and help to create a sustainable base for any certification activity, but they must be validated. Trust suppliers, treat them as partners, validate their quality and food safety programs, and verify their overall performance at regular intervals.

Effective communication with suppliers is critical to build quality and food safety in the supply chain. Focus on material requirements, specifications, conformance, and feedback for supplier accountability. In some cases, a web or phone conference is effective. But for any high-risk material, a face-to-face discussion provides a better understanding. Periodic customer visits should supplement any conferencing or certification activity the supplier is undertaking. International face-to-face visits are more difficult, costly, and time consuming, but are even more vital, due in part to crossing of language and cultural barriers. Supplier visits to a customer’s site is also effective. Touring the premises, discussing facts, setting objectives, and assigning clear accountabilities are good starting points.

With so many certifications, standards, and audits to manage, it is critical to keep quality and food safety in our products and on our plant floors. Extending quality and food safety in the supply chain is an important step in that direction and is worth every minute of your time. How well are you doing with your supply chain? How many raw material rejections are being encountered? Even one rejection is a symptom that something is not right in that supply chain.