July 2009

Process Automation

Farm fresh

Food safety is critical to Tennessee sausage manufacturer; new ERP, barcode system keeps identification on track


  • Sausage maker makes food safety a reality with proactive approach to track and trace.
  • Response to government requirements led to new enterprise resource planning (ERP) program.
  • Integrated barcode system tracks shipments from plants to retailer, distributor.
By Michael Hader

Toys coated in lead paint, tainted pet food, salmonella-infected peanut butter, cookie dough, and now beef-there is no doubt recalls have been a prime topic of news coverage the past few years. Consumers are not the only ones impacted; a recall can be devastating to a manufacturer's reputation as well as its bottom line. Tennessee-based meat producer Odom's Tennessee Pride understands the importance of food safety and is taking a proactive approach to prove traceability, provide rapid response, and ensure quick release of critical batch and lot data in the unlikely event of a recall.

Headquartered in Madison, Tenn., the company produces raw and fully cooked breakfast meats, appetizers, breakfast sandwiches, and gravy. With two production facilities in Little Rock, Ark. and Dickson, Tenn., as well as a third-party distribution center, the company relies on a rigorous quality assurance program and advanced technology to mitigate liabilities, such as recalls.


Governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which actually maintains offices within our production facilities, we must adhere to strict agency standards regarding product safety issues. Under these regulations, we must be able to perform comprehensive lot track and trace through chain of custody, from inbound raw materials to outbound finished goods, within two hours of a recall. To comply with these requirements, the company implemented an enterprise resource planning (ERP) program, specifically for process manufacturers, to provide product inventory data, shipment schedules and locations, and tracking details within the plant, along with an integrated barcode system that tracks shipments from the plants through cross docking or put/pick processes to the retailer and third-party distributor.

Bidirectional lot track and trace

It is imperative for process manufacturers to immediately be able to determine what raw materials created a specific finished good, as well as identify where we used a specific raw material in finished goods. In the Dickson plant, we produce breakfast sandwiches, inputting cheese, eggs, and bread from other manufacturers and sausage produced in our Arkansas plant. Although respective manufacturers lot-control all these raw materials, they do not typically use an entire lot of sausage in these breakfast sandwiches. They form some of the sausage into patties for the breakfast sandwiches while grinding the rest for use in the sausage-ball appetizer or gravy product. Should an issue arise with the breakfast sandwiches, prompting a recall, not only would we need to identify where all the breakfast sandwiches are within the supply chain, but also, how many other products we created with the sausage that may be affected.

The key to handling such a situation effectively is to have a holistic view of goods across the entire supply chain, which allows companies to track affected goods upstream and downstream. Our company does this by using lot control during the receiving of materials and placing this information into the ERP system. We must track and lot-control incoming material slated to become an ingredient in a product or that comes into contact with the product. Our supplier's assigned lot number is either a part of the barcode on the material or is printed on the packaging. We scan the lot number directly from the barcode into our ERP system during receiving, or (in the case that the lot number is not part of the barcode) we manually record it as a key field. When we begin production, we issue materials to a specific line by quantity and lot number. First, we issue a work order from the ERP system for a specific product that includes the precise quantities of items that make up the product's bill of materials. The work order process in our ERP system then selects the oldest available lot numbers and exact quantities to fulfill the production requirements. As we issue these materials to the production line, we scan the lot numbers using portable, hand-held, wireless barcode scanners. This action associates that particular lot of material and quantity to the production order.  As products come off the line, we scan them and report them as a finished good lot. In the event of a recall, the finished good lot tracks back to the meat working lot at the Arkansas plant, which then tracks back to the farm where the inbound hogs originated. On the downstream end, we can see where we stored or sold the finished good lot. We can also determine how much of it is still on the shelf or in transit. Being able to easily drill down through our finished goods and raw materials ensures we can quickly communicate any critical information to those who need to know-USDA, partners, suppliers, and most importantly, consumers.

Sub-lot quality control

When manufacturing companies have long runs of the same product, ensuring quality is usually a simple matter of determining if the last item off the line is exactly like the first. But for process manufacturers, nothing could be further from the truth, as raw materials change with time and age. Our quality assurance program begins with microbiology testing on each lot of inbound raw material, as well as subsequent testing throughout the production process, tracking that information in the system for verification and traceability.

We test every lot multiple times throughout the production process for microbial contamination. While we are testing the lot, our ERP system automatically places it on a micro hold, and we cannot assign the lot to a shipment. The idea is this safeguard will keep product from moving into the supply chain before all testing is complete.

By integrating the data from the ERP with the barcode system, we have been able to avoid some of the errors that plague other process manufacturers. Our ERP system will not allow even a single case to be put on the pick list for shipment until the entire lot is cleared, regardless of how many cases comprise the SKU. This keeps product still under testing quarantined within the warehouse. However, we have moved to a more cost-effective make-to-ship model since we have limited freezer storage space in our Dickson production facility.

The need to ship to the third-party distributor before testing is complete might seem risky, but because our system is fully integrated with our distributor, we simply send lot numbers, quantities, SKU, and holding status information via electronic data interchange. Our distribution partner has a system for segregating on-hold lots. Once our quality assurance team has completed testing, they remove the hold in the ERP system and simultaneously in the distributor's system. Also, our third-party distributor informs us of which lots, quantities, and SKUs shipped. This information reconciles every night, or the system will notify us of the variance, setting off a chain reaction of activities designed to identify and address the issue.

Quality means safety

Although food safety is at the forefront of all of the company's processes, a quality program not only provides safety, it ensures consistency and value. Quality assurance starts with the receipt of inbound raw materials subjected to rigorous inspection. This includes any material that comes in contact with the product, from the cellophane packaging holding the gravy to the seasonings in the sausage. We only receive goods that meet strict requirements and place them into the ERP system to assign to production lots.

The quality program defines minimum and maximum values for multiple triggers throughout the production process for the identification and isolation of problems. We monitor and record these values on a day-to-day basis. If a trigger trips and an employee suspects an issue, the employee will evaluate it to determine where the problem initiated and what other products might be affected. Although the idea is to head off a food safety issue before it happens, the quality program most commonly addresses consistency. Take the weight of a breakfast sandwich: If during production an employee notices the breakfast sandwich is under weight, they will monitor to see how often it happens during the run and determine if it is isolated to one or two sandwiches or if the entire run is affected, in which case the run can be discontinued/discarded while employees investigate the cause of the production irregularity. If the run is affected, we will determine if the weight of the patty or the biscuit was incorrect. We can then share this information with our sausage-making facility or the biscuit supplier.

Living in era of recalls

Recalls, a way of life now for manufacturers, could be occurring in part because of growing national distribution. Whereas in years past, products were produced and marketed locally, the rise of mega stores and grocery chains means distribution of these same products coast to coast. Therefore, what once may have been an isolated, local, or regional product recall can quickly become a nationwide incident. But food and beverage companies can mitigate the dangers associated with recalls by embracing technology as part of their quality assurance programs.

The best defense is a good offense; using barcodes to track lot numbers simplifies the process and improves the accuracy of records we need to provide vital track-and-trace of ingredients and finished goods. Properly executed integrated barcode and ERP systems supply real-time information to production supervisors, procurement analysts, quality assurance staff, supply-chain workers, and management. Not only can ERP technology and bar-coding help companies mitigate the risks associated with sourcing and production processes, it allows them to run mock recalls. Our periodic mock product recalls ensure we can collect and disseminate relevant information efficiently, and are compliant with ever-tightening government mandates.


Micheal Hader is director of information technologies at Odom's Tennessee Pride Sausage in Madison, Tenn.

Track and trace good business

Track and trace is not just a way to meet regulatory requirements for food safety; it is a good business move. Real economic imperatives are driving manufacturers to deploy the concept to manage their economic brand, said Craig Resnick, research director at ARC Advisory Group in Dedham, Mass.

"Today's consumers demand their products are manufactured using safe, energy-efficient, and environmentally friendly processes," he said. "A strong brand reputation is essential to the longevity of any manufacturer. Companies that produce the strongest brands will be those that continue to practice responsible manufacturing processes, even in a down economy."

Communities also demand responsible performance to grant a license to operate, and employees demand a safe work environment. "Product integrity strongly influences brand reputation. A product recall or quality concern can cause significant damage to a company's profitability in both the short and long term," Resnick said.


ID'd from farm to table

By David Sullivan and Ellen Fussell Policastro

Since the Mad Cow outbreak a few years ago, the U.S. government has pushed for mandatory traceability, where radio-frequency identification (RFID) would be an obvious solution, to isolate future outbreaks. RFID technology can provide a lifeline of any downed cow-where it was born, where it was raised (cows often transfer from one place to another to fatten up), and where it was delivered for slaughter. Proponents knew RFID could help the cattle and meat industry since it could help contain and isolate a scare. Opponents were weary of lack of control of their data as well as the costs to install scanners to monitor and track cows. Since there was a great push-back from cattlemen, registration of cattle information into a national database is largely voluntary.

Since registration is optional, the goal of companies, such as Destron Fearing out of St. Paul, Minn., is to convince cattlemen about the efficiency of RFID tags and electronic record-keeping. The company specializes in animal identification that uses an FDA-approved implantable microchip.

RFID technology can further track animal behavior and provide details of how often an animal is feeding and drinking. If an animal is not drinking, it could be sick, and its owner can intervene before it is too late. Through the use of long-range (100 feet) solar-powered readers, trackers can associate the animal's identification number (through RFID tags) with a particular activity or location.

The company's identification devices enable livestock producers to comply more easily with new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-mandated country of origin labeling (COOL) laws. While there are multiple ways for producers to comply with COOL, including the use of private-sector databases, Destron Fearing offers the devices to those producers interested in the USDA tag option, with the added benefit of an innovative, streamlined order and delivery system.

Such animal identification can "not only improve the ability of U.S. animal health officials to respond quickly to a disease outbreak, but [they] also help producers to simplify recordkeeping and reduce the number of animal identification systems they use," said Cindy Smith, USDA animal and plant health inspection service administrator.

Beauty of MES

Keeping track of the product, whether its before or after it enters the production line, is critical, yes, but the FDA does not have enough manpower to effectively enforce its own regulations, said Maryanne Steidinger, Wonderware manufacturing execution systems (MES) product manager in Lake Forest, Calif.

"Even with the bioterrorism act, and reporting on contamination within 24 hours and proving you've contained that contamination, it's not happening," she said. "The food industry says we need self-policing. But the problem is there are always companies that either because of their scope, management, or size feel they're beyond it. They didn't accurately portray the state of cleanliness and quality of their products. As a result, tainted peanut paste [for instance] got into their customers' hands."

One of the enabling technologies that can help manufacturers is MES, which works in conjunction with RFID. MES is a software solution or big relational database that can take real-time data coming from a process and adjunct processes (tracking parts after disassembly). "In the use of poultry with turkey processing, you may get a package of turkey parts-two wings, two legs, two breasts and thighs, but they might not come from the same turkey," Steidinger said. "You need to track the quality of those products that may be coming from multiple sources and being packaged in a single unit. That's what MES can do. It provides you with a record that tells you where the animals came from, who the suppliers were, how much yield you're getting from each. If you're noticing different yields from different suppliers, the manufacturer can rate those suppliers and negotiate with them according to the quality of product coming from them."

While MES can be helpful in heading off problematic recalls, the problem is manufacturers are not using it, especially in the meat and poultry industry, Steidinger said. "Most of these processes are manual-labor intensive. Their systems are simpler. They may be using a paper traveler to follow the disassemble process. Or they may be using barcode. As it gets portioned out, you associate that SKU or serial number to each piece. But that could be a manual process. Then it goes into a spreadsheet."

MES enforces standard practices, requiring signoff and data capture at each step it goes though. It captures data in a record that can be stored, retrieved, and analyzed with all that process data that occurs with it. "It gives manufacturers a better way to have visibility into their processes and a record to show government they've complied with government regulations," she said. "If you need a signature to prove this went through quality process, it'll require this step."

Yet, while the technology has been around for 25 years, it is not mandatory because "the government has to maintain they are noncommittal to any specific technology or company; they do tell manufacturers you have to have some system (paper, or computerized) that captures this information," Steidinger said. "If you have a breach, you can tell the government within 24 hours what was affected and where they are. You have to have some way of isolating and quarantining all that affected product, whether it's within your four walls, or distribution, or your local [grocery store]," she said.

The barcode is a way of at least capturing not necessarily process data but location data, she said. Adoption rate is slow mainly because of cost and sophistication. But it integrates to your business system as well as any control or manual systems you may have, Steidinger said. "That takes time to get that physical integration of data-getting new computers in, getting people trained and qualified to use the system. Once these manufacturers go through the process and ramp up; it's faster than an ERP system. Then they've got something that gives them the foundation for security and reporting, so they have better visibility in their manufacturing processes and they can react to them and isolate them."


David Sullivan is president of Destron Fearing in St. Paul, Minn. E-mail him at dsullivan@destronfearing.com. Ellen Fussell Policastro is associate editor of InTech. E-mail her at efussellpolicastro@isa.org.