By: Robert Smith
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From the laboratory to the production line, Robert Smith looks at the technologies that are helping the food and beverage industry control product quality.
Food and drink manufacturers the world over are under constant pressure to produce goods that meet the high, and ever-adapting standards demanded by clients and consumers.
As with any industry, however, mistakes are inevitable.
In January 2013, the food industry came under serious fire from all sides when a sample taken from a Tesco beef burger was judged to contain around 29% horse DNA.
Two years later and coverage of the ’horsemeat scandal’ is still widely publicised.
Its effect culminated in the release of the Elliott Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks which was published by Professor Chris Elliott, director of the global institute for food security at Queen’s University Belfast in September last year and which looked at food supply networks (see box below).
It is no surprise, therefore, that as a result of the horsemeat scandal, and Professor Elliott’s subsequent review, consumer standards have intensified. Ultimately, food manufacturers must either meet these standards, or face the consequences.
Fortunately, there are a number of technologies at a manufacturer’s disposal that can be used to help maintain and increase product quality, and satisfy the demands of customers and clients.
Increasingly, food and drink manufacturers are having to adapt and are therefore taking advantage of the quality control technologies applied throughout other industries.
Combining data analysis with sensing technology is one such approach.
“There is a renewed interest in lean and six sigma methodologies,” says Craig Leadley, principal research officer in the Department of Food Manufacturing Technologies at Campden BRI.
According to the British Quality Foundation (BQF), ’lean’ is a set of principles, practices and tools aimed at creating precise customer value, which enables the creation of high-quality products.
Similarly, ’six sigma’ is a highly-disciplined, structured programme aimed at delivering near-perfect products.
It is used to analyse processes to discover where and how defects occur, measure them and eliminate the problem areas.
Neither lean nor six sigma methodologies should be considered new approaches, however.
Six sigma, for instance, was first introduced in the mid-1980s by telecoms firm Motorola.
However, Leadley says that many people are beginning to revisit lean and six sigma methodologies after reconsidering their relevance and value.
“Some of these techniques have historically been the domain of the ’stats geek’ but modern on-line sensing and data acquisition techniques coupled with powerful, user friendly, analytics software is now enabling companies to have a much greater understanding of which factors in the process are having the most influence on process variability,” says Leadley.
An example of the data acquisition technology that manufacturers can employ is the ProFicient software platform developed by manufacturing intelligence software supplier InfinityQS.
“InfinityQS food and beverage clients choose our software solutions for a variety of different reasons,” says Doug Fair, chief operating officer at InfinityQS International.
“[In part], clients use the ProFicient platform for shop floor process control, laboratory data entry and analysis, high-level management reporting, as well as compliance needs such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) and other food safety initiatives,” Fair says.
The Right Mindset
The company’s ProFicient platform is designed to give manufacturers better control of product quality throughout the entire product lifecycle.
Using a combination of lean and six sigma methodologies, defects and variations can be limited to 3.4 per one million products manufactured.
Fair says that because ProFicient has the ability to gather data from almost any electronic device or external system, it can be used to consolidate and aggregate data throughout an entire production plant.
“As a result, six sigma project teams have a single repository for data analysis,” Fair says.
It is an approach which has been widely adopted in other industries and is starting to be picked up by the food industry, Leadley adds.
However, Leadley says that very few food companies - if any - could actually achieve a perfect six-sigma process given the inherent variability of natural raw material, unlike a factory which manufactures machine components, for example.
“[Lean six sigma] is more about engendering the mind-set of reducing variation [and] revisiting and reassessing where there is value for the food manufacturer,” Leadley says.
Though complete lean six sigma methodologies might not quite be a reality for food manufacturers, Fair says the ProFicient’s flexibility in data collection and analysis can help users - particularly within the food and beverage sector - uncover information and manufacturing intelligence that “can be used to dramatically reduce costs and defect levels, ensure compliance with regulatory requirements and improve overall business performance”.
For those food manufacturers that do not want to implement this type of technology, or simply cannot justify the expense, there are many other ways of ensuring product quality.
Many types of processed foods, including cooked meats, jams and fruit juices have historically been hampered by restrictions such as a diminutive shelf life.
Fortunately, techniques such as high pressure processing (HPP) can be used to help alleviate this problem, assuring product quality over a longer period of time.
HPP is a cold pasteurisation technique by which sealed products, such as ready meals, are subjected to a high level of isostatic pressure transmitted by water.
In recent years, food manufacturers have increasingly turned towards HPP to help inactivate microorganisms found in food products, thereby extending their shelf life.
“High pressure processing offers a number of significant advantages over conventional heat processing,” says Mark Linton, HPP facility manager at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI).
“Much like conventional pasteurisation, HPP inactivates spoilage microorganisms to allow an extension of shelf-life,” Linton says.
Linton says HPP also has many other functional uses for food manufacturers.
“For example, HPP is widely used in the seafood industry to shuck oysters, clams and other bivalves and can very efficiently remove raw lobster meat from the shell to produce a totally unique product,” Linton says.
According to Linton, HPP can also be used to give a significant reduction or elimination of pathogens present in foodstuffs.
“Significantly, although the shelf life is extended and pathogens inactivated by HPP, there is little change in the organoleptic quality, as flavour and aroma molecules are largely unchanged after HPP,” Linton says.
All of this is achieved, Linton says, without adversely affecting a food manufacturer’s energy bill.
“Running HPP equipment is more energy efficient than its heat processing counterparts as energy is not required to heat and then cool the product,” Linton says.
For measurement technology firm Agilent Technologies, efficiency of operation is also a key component of its microwave plasma-atomic spectroscopy (MP-AES) system, the 4200 MP-AES.
MP-AES can be used to analyse trace metals and determine the chemical fingerprint of food and beverage products.
“The interesting thing about the 4200 MP-AES is that unlike atomic absorption (AA) technology, you don’t need acetylene to run it,” says John Lee, food market manager at Agilent Technologies.
“The major consumable it needs is the air from your laboratory,” Lee says.
Lee says that MP-AES technology represents a time and running cost saving for quality control/quality assurance laboratories wanting to replace AA.
“It also offers labs an advantage in terms of looking at multiple elements simultaneously,” Lee says.
Increasingly, MP-AES is being used by food labs and food manufacturers to determine authenticity and ensure product quality, Lee says.
“We currently have customers doing research into the use of MP-AES, and other forms of atomic measurement, to fingerprint these types of food,” Lee says.
“In some cases the question that needs answering is simply whether a raw material looks the same as it did last week.
“When it doesn’t, these labs can then initiate further investigations.”
Food and beverage firm Nestlé says it has scouted Agilent’s first generation MP-AES technology, achieving an 85% success rate when determining elements within its milk products, infant cereals and healthcare products.
“That’s why this technology is included in our analytical strategic plan for the next five years in order to firstly implement it in factory laboratories replacing flame atomic absorption spectroscopy (FAAS) and costly inductively coupled plasma-atomic emission spectroscopy (ICP-AES),” says Eric Poitevin, a lead researcher at the Nestlé Research Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland.
However, Poitevin does not think MP-AES will be the leading technology for multi-matrix laboratories analysing both major and trace elements.
“Inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) technology with collision/reaction cells is nowadays sufficiently performant to manage and support high throughput multi-elemental methods for elemental concentration in food matrices ranging from parts per billion to % in the same run,” Poitevin says.
“However, MP-AES could replace progressively atomic absorption spectroscopy (AAS) or ICP-AES in small laboratories with lower operator qualifications and environmental capabilities.”
The Elliott Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks, which was published in September last year, set out eight recommendations designed to tackle issues and address failures in the food and beverage supply chain. Recommendation four looked at laboratory services and method standardisation for carrying out food authenticity testing. During March, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which commissioned Elliott’s Review, released a report which responded to Elliott’s fourth recommendation. According to DEFRA, the report recognises that there is already a robust food authenticity testing framework in place in the UK but makes further recommendations for improvements. Furthermore, the report provides practical guidance for enforcers and industry on how to ensure testing for food authenticity is reliable and consistent between laboratories, as well as information on how to ensure the sampling and testing methods used are the correct ones for the particular food being tested. The report was carried out via DEFRA’s independent Authenticity Methods Working Group (AMWG) and can be found on the government’s website.