USE of advanced traceability systems in the agri-food processing chain has helped underpin Ireland’s global reputation for food excellence, says one expert in this technology field.
Gerard Foskin, chief executive of business solutions firm Simply Dynamics, says Irish food companies are leaders both within the EU and globally when it comes to traceability.
Among other services, Simply Dynamics has a shelf-integration software package to manage and report on factory floor production, which it delivers with food technology company Emydex.
Among Simply Dynamics’ clients is Horgan’s Delicatessen Supplies in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, a food retailer and distributor to multiples such as Tesco, Dunnes Stores, Super-quinn, Marks & Spencer, SuperValu, and Aldi.
Horgan’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system allows it to share real-time product, pricing, inventory, and invoicing information with multiples. The contract is valued at €200,000 over three years.
"Irish agri-food companies’ traceability standards are way ahead of their competitors," said Mr Foskin. "The sector has been very conscious about quality. That comes at a cost. We are not going to be the cheapest in Europe, but the sector is delivering on its promise of being high quality."
Simply Dynamics’ ERP solution is based on Microsoft Dynamics’ NAV. Food companies also use its Electronic Data Interchange systems. Its voice-based warehouse tracking delivers rapid data transfer, giving instantly traceable digital data without having to key in the information. Very efficient, low cost.
But, if so many Irish food companies are buying into this technology, what is the likely source of the horsemeat scandal?
Mr Foskin explains that quality control is like an inverted food pyramid, monitoring the intake of ingredients at the plant through to the final distributed processed product.
For EU food plants, data from each link in that chain is monitored. The problems are most likely to arrive when "middle men" such as non-EU traders move goods from one EU-approved plant via a third party, or where goods are relabelled.
"There needs to be greater vigilance and control of this area by suppliers and manufacturers," Mr Foskin said. "With lasagne, for instance, there are four batch processes, with the bolognese sauce, cream sauces, etc. There is a lot of traceability in the chain."
Food production companies, shops, and restaurants now understand it is essential to perform audits themselves as they want assurance that if they are called upon because of a food safety problem they can stop the problem before their brand is damaged.
Mr Foskin said: "Because of the low-value nature of some retail foods, such as a lasagne or a box of burgers, the traceability is in batches rather than individual units. That is why when there is a need to recall, it is the warehouse which recalls everything off the shelf of every retailer, based on the lot number.
"Ten years ago, when volumes were lower, the manufacturer would have known which store he’d sent which unit to. Now he sends all of his batches to the warehouse. The manufacturer doesn’t know which exact store the product has gone to."
Simply Dynamics’ ERP system allows backwards and forwards traceability. The manufacturer can trace goods back from the finished lot and supplier number. Keeping the costs of this traceability demands smart, low-cost technology.
Mr Foskin said: "A lot of our warehousing is being done with voice-based systems that are fully integrated back into the ERP system. Manufacturers are constantly under pressure in terms of cost, and this approach delivers savings."
All products are required to have a specific lot number that would allow for the product to be returned to the supplier in the case of a recall. The Dynamics NAV records lot number of product and packaging, name, address, phone number, fax number, email address, date of receipt, transportation carrier, bill of lading number, and mode of transportation.
It also records all relevant QC test data, shelf life, data on movements, inventory, allergens, tests, incubations, and has a management system for handling complaints. This system is typical of the traceability heights attained by Irish food companies in recent years.
"Very rigid QC and QA systems are needed, which comes back to vendor rating," Mr Foskin said.
"Vendor rating gives some payback for food manufacturers, who know that there are good and bad suppliers out there.
"This technology gives them firm data to back up their stringent controls. It tracks late deliveries, short deliveries, quality of packaging, etc.
"When you rate a vendor, the payback comes when you negotiate future contracts with a supplier. You have the data on their poor performance.
"The Irish food industry deserves a pat on the back in terms of the quality standards and efficiency it delivers. It is a flagship industry, and understandably so. I have worked all over the world in this area for many years. Irish standards are way ahead of the competition."