> Why are Equipment Control and Integrity So Important to a Food Manufacturer? - The Food Safety Company Why are Equipment Control and Integrity So Important to a Food Manufacturer? - The Food Safety Company
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    Monday, 14 November 2016

    Why are Equipment Control and Integrity So Important to a Food Manufacturer?

    Equipment is the vital hardware of a production line. Its control and integrity is absolutely essential to any manufacturing operation. Indeed, when it comes to any industry, food-based or otherwise, the degree to which equipment is well-maintained can either translate into huge benefits or huge costs for the company. It is therefore worth unpacking exactly why control and integrity are so important to food manufacture, in order to underline what these terms mean, what they look like when practically applied, and what their variability can mean in terms of end products and beyond.


    Although the words may strike the ear as similar, the ‘operation’ and ‘control’ of equipment are quite different things:
    • To ‘operate’ a piece of equipment is to use it. For example, one might operate a forklift by driving it around the floor and using it to move heavy objects from one place to another.
    • However, ‘control’ is a broader term; an umbrella which covers the ‘operation’ of equipment and other things. To ‘control’ a piece of equipment is to ensure that:
    1. The equipment is operated correctly when it is being used.
    2. The equipment is stored correctly when not being used (everything has a home).
    3. The integrity of the equipment is checked frequently.

    A food factory incorporates a vast amount of equipment, with the majority being types of mobile equipment, utensils, tools and lubricants. Equipment control therefore covers many things. For example, in terms of correct operation, equipment control can be about using the correct piece of equipment in the correct area or for the correct product (allergen type or species). Good controls could, in such a case, therefore reduce the risks of cross-contamination.

    Integrity is about checking an item over to ensure it is intact. Broadly speaking, there are two dimensions to this:
    • Checking an item has no damage (such as cracks). This can, for example, help prevent foreign bodies finding their way into unwanted places. Identifying damage means the replacement or repair of faulty parts before they cause even more damage. As a good rule of thumb, then, a stitch in time saves nine.
    • Checking an item has no pieces missing. If pieces are found to be missing from equipment, it could mean the product is contaminated already, as the piece which has fallen off could have made its way into the product. See, for example, our article on how to prevent wire contamination, which considers how worn-out wire conveyor belts can be the culprits of consumers finding pieces of metal wire in their breakfast cereal. If you already have a potentially contaminated product, you need to act on this information; for example, by investigating what might be affected, placing material on hold and completing corrective action to salvage the product; or by disposing of the product altogether, depending on the type of foreign body found in the batch.

    Consequences of Poor Control and Integrity Measures

    Customer Complaints and Harm
    Generally, the food manufacturing industry believes that for every one complaint received, there were likely to have been another ten which went unreported. Nevertheless, that does not necessarily mean the consumer will forget their bad experience with your product. Word of mouth, especially with social media, can increase the impact without you even knowing.

    Tip:  Keep a close eye on trends: if there are multiple reports of the same type of foreign body being found in your products, or several complaints related to one product, a trend may be present. One complaint or report may be a coincidence, but two or more should be regarded as a trend and investigated.

    As a customer, finding a foreign body in your product can be annoying, off-putting, abhorrent, dangerous or even cause death! Not only is a customer unlikely to purchase that product again if they find it to be contaminated, but they might actually be harmed by it. Good control measures can prevent both eventualities.

    Lack of staff discipline
    Generally, staff come to work and do a good job. However, if they join a company and see a lack of control measures, or that their line managers have a laid-back attitude toward control in general, they will almost certainly follow suit. This can potentially lead to declines in staff morale , and can even mean that contentious employees seek alternative employment. The talent pool of the business may thereby ultimately decrease. 
    Tip: Ensure everyone, from line managers upwards, are leading by example when it comes to procedures around equipment integrity. Top-down leadership can be very effective.

    Withdrawals, Recalls, Prosecution and the Loss of Public Trust
    Given their potentially harmful nature, recalls can be necessary if contaminants are found in food. Metal, plastic, nylon, allergens and so forth can be especially dangerous if ingested, making recalls absolutely essential. However, such actions are very expensive, both financially and in terms of the manufacturer’s reputation. It’s not unheard of for high-profile companies to be forced out of business, or to become much smaller, due to serious recalls. Recalls have to be reported to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and will be posted on their website. From there, journalists and customers tend not to forgive or forget easily.

    Tip: If public trust seems threatened, a good method is a big, reassuring, over-compensatory response. Announcing a total clean-up of all your factories, for example, could be a good move, if only to show that the contamination of food is not something which is normal for your company. However, bear in mind that your customers may also have the same thing in mind, and might consider the severing of ties with your company as a similarly appropriate means by which to save face. 

    Rebuilding public trust, not to mention the brand’s reputation, can be extremely difficult. Indeed, customers have their own reputations to uphold, and can themselves lose face if their suppliers are not trusted by the consumers they in turn provide to. A loss of trust is extremely hard to reverse and takes far more effort than ensuring measures are in place to safeguard their trust in the first place. Once again, a stitch in time can prevent the loss of business, profits and the need to cut staff, wages or the rate of expansion. It can also mean the avoidance of prosecution – which can come in the form of fines or criminal charges, and can, in some cases, force the closure of the business.

    Benefits of Good Control and Integrity Measures

    Conversely, if control measures are set and implemented well, there are many potential benefits, including less complaints, increased consumer/customer confidence in the product, more sales and higher revenue, positive word of mouth, good staff discipline and high morale - which in turn ensures employees remain your best asset, and that a good calibre of staff will be happy to work for you. The avoidance of recalls is essential in keeping the press, public and customers happy, and thereby helps you retain existing customers and expand to provide for new ones. Moreover, if you were to be prosecuted, you can rest easy knowing you have a robust defence in terms of high standards of due diligence. Documenting your control measures and training your staff with regards these techniques, and you’ll be able to confidently defend your status as a trustworthy supplier.  

    Useful Methods for the Achievement of Good Equipment Control and Integrity

    There are several different types of method; and a combination of each is ideal. It is important to audit them frequently, in order to ensure they are being operated correctly.

    Paper-Based Control
    This type of control is generally used for issuing items (like tools) to individuals and then receiving them back at end of shift. In general, this is laid-out as a chart with various columns: the staff member’s name is recorded against the item (items normally have a unique number), with a column for ‘integrity’, usually using the acronyms ‘S’ (if the condition of an item is ‘satisfactory’ upon its return) and ‘US’ (if its condition when returned is ‘unsatisfactory’). Ticks and dittos should never be used. This type of control works well for tools like knives, scissors, chain mail gloves, pens, thermometers, probes, stop watches and so forth.  

    Colour-Coding of Equipment
    This is best used for cleaning equipment, utensils, knives, pens, thermometers, probes and so forth.  The beauty of colour-coding is that it can be assigned to certain areas, products, species or allergens, which makes control much more visual for both your staff and your customers. 

    Integrity Boards
    Integrity boards are extremely useful where equipment can be hung/stored when not in use. The boards can be colour-coded to the items being stored if required. They are not only extremely visual but also act as a set point where items can be checked for integrity collectively at the beginning and end of the shift; meaning such boards both save time and make checks more reliable and accurate.

    Recorded Integrity Check
    This is generally used for static equipment. It can be an important piece of paperwork: a form that details a number of items, listing all the equipment, as well as some key inspection points and details of any commonly-occurring problems, faults or issues which may occur with it. Ideally, checks should be risk assessed; so in terms of frequency, checks on some items may be carried out before and after each operation, whereas others might only need to be checked daily and others only weekly. This, however, depends on the likelihood and severity of the potential hazard.

    If the above measures are adhered to, you can consider your company as employing good control measures in the running of your manufacturing operations; and can therefore not only avoid the negative consequences of such not being the case, but can also reap the benefits outlined above.

    For more information on colour-coded products and integrity “shadow” boards, please visit this site.

    James Stannard

    James has a Bachelor’s degree in History and wrote his dissertation on beef and protest. His heroes list ranges from Adele to Noam Chomsky: inspirations he’ll be invoking next year when he begins a Master’s degree in London.
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