Quality vs. Quality

How food businesses can increase margins and reduce risk

Published online: Sep 04, 2018 Articles Karel Strubbe
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This article appears in the September 2018 issue of Potato Grower.

What matters more for food businesses: quality and safety or quantity? The longstanding consensus among food growers, packers and processors is that quality is crucial. Delivering a safe, high-quality product—uniform in size, shape and color and free from contamination, foreign materials and damaged items—results in maintained consumer trust and maximized sales and profits, while ensuring the brand is protected.

But do food quality and safety and food quantity have to be opposing factors, so that as output increases quality suffers? The fact is, food businesses must increase production to meet growing global demand for food, and many are also looking to diversify into new markets and categories. It is more vital now than ever before that these businesses ensure the highest food quality and safety.

There isn’t one simple solution, but there are various actions food businesses can take to cut out defective produce, optimize yields and keep the customer coming back.

 

Risk of foreign objects

Foreign objects and materials can cause food manufacturers serious consequences. A recent report from the Stericycle Recall Index noted that foreign materials are the leading cause for product recalls in the U.S. The study found that 78 percent of the recalls caused by foreign material were due to metal being found in the product, highlighting how evident this issue is in today’s supply chains.

Materials such as plastic, glass, wood, cardboard and animal contamination tend to also be among the biggest issues when it comes to foreign objects. There are also instances where mice, frogs and rats are found in fresh and processed foods, and businesses around the world are known to check for rattlesnakes during the sorting and grading of green beans.

From a consumer’s perspective, finding a foreign object within packaged food isn’t just shocking, it can be a deeply unsettling and upsetting experience that breaks trust in a brand. This inevitably results in a negative impact on relationships throughout the supply chain.

 

A multiple, not single, solution

Manual sorting alone cannot possibly generate foreign material-free products. Within automated sorting and grading systems for vegetables, fruit or potatoes, an average of 100 metric tons of produce passes through the process per hour during harvest. The reality is that human eyes aren’t able to pick up on all foreign objects in these large volumes, so it needs to be a machine-led exercise.

Still, it is not simply a case of replacing manual labor with sorting technology. Instead, businesses must implement a multi-step processes to eradicate the risk of unwanted materials finding their way through the supply chain, and invest in high-quality systems to ensure no defective materials are generated by the chain—a bolt that has come loose somewhere during the process from processing equipment, for example. This means effective sorting at every stage of the supply chain and processing line: during harvest, processing and packaging.

 

Optimizing imperfect foods

A prominent area of the perceived quality of food is its attractiveness and appearance. But with the implementation of premium grading systems, various qualities of product can still be used throughout the supply chain.

If a product has a slight bruising or blemish, this doesn’t mean the entire item must be thrown out and wasted. Correct technologies can remove the less-than-premium aspects and maintain a high-standard end product.

Similarly, to ensure a reduction of waste within the potato industry, stringent size profiling measures are taken to optimize the end product. A well-rounded potato creates the highest-quality wedges, as it can be can be split into eight equal parts of the same size and shape, while a curly fry requires a much larger potato to produce its attractive curl.

This brand consistency is a key driver in bolstering food quality; if the produce isn’t perfect for one purpose, it can likely be reviewed and repurposed for another.

 

Future innovations

To maximize the supply chain efficiency and reduce the number of incidents when it comes to food quality and foreign objects, continuous developments in the industry are required.

The future of food quality is coming from a connected supply chain, with the internet of things (IoT) enabling machines to interact with one another and share data with owners. Through enabling the communication of in-depth data between growing, sorting and distribution technologies, the condition and journey of a product can be optimized across the entire supply chain.

These advancements are allowing food manufacturers to go back through each stage of a product’s journey and identify not only where the issue occurred, but which time of day and what growing location. We will soon be able to monitor, optimize and trace every step in the supply chain, helping ensure increased quality of end products.

 

Quality, quantity and safety

There’s no denying that there is a greater requirement from customers for increased quantities of produce to meet consumer demands in the marketplace. It isn’t a case of neglecting quantity for quality and safety; it’s about those three aspects working parallel to one another to deliver the best end product possible. The processing power, width and capabilities of sorting machines have been adjusted to address huge throughputs, adhere to strict quality regulations and operate as safely as possible.

Take a field of crop as an example. In the past, when the crop had been impacted by adverse weather conditions, the decision may have been made not to harvest the plot at all due to the potential poor quality of produce.

However, with today’s automated high-throughput sorting machinery, the field can still be harvested and the premium produce can be retained, with lower-quality produce repurposed or removed from the chain in its entirety. This, in turn, works from both a quality and quantity standpoint: all the produce is being used to its best purpose in the supply chain. 


Author Karel Strubbe serves as the sales director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at, Tomra Sorting Food.