Convergence of standards, technologies creates food safety conformance

Safety standards and technologies converge to enable gains in productivity, operational excellence, and brand protection.

By John Kowal August 8, 2012

In a perfect storm for safety, several safety standards in the food and beverage industries are emerging and converging: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), harmonization of U.S. and EU machine safety regulations under IEC 13849 and ISO 62061, networked safety standards exemplified by openSAFETY, and PackSafety from the OMAC Packaging Workgroup. In addition to these, there are various related safety initiatives, such as the robotic industry’s ANSI/RIA R15.06 and many standards from the ANSI B11 Committee. 

On the horizon, traceability regulations that are not yet defined could require pharmaceutical serialization and farm-to-fork food track-and-trace capabilities. News stories range from tainted peanut butter, to food allergens, to melamine in baby formula and lead in children’s toys, to deadly outbreaks such as E. coli in various produce and meat products. 

In the short term, the situation may appear overwhelming. But in the long run, important public interests will be served as well as corporate imperatives to protect billion-dollar brands from ruin that can come without warning, overnight, through trial-by-social-media. For the latter, witness the “pink slime” incident, an all-too-easy attack on a sustainable protein source. This is particularly ironic in a society with a TV show titled “Bizarre Foods.” 

Beyond compliance

It used to be that safety was an esoteric topic reserved for detail-oriented administrators, specialized lawyers, and expert witnesses. No more. Food safety conformance has the attention of senior corporate leadership at the world’s largest companies. But what kind of insurance policy will protect both their customers and their shareholders?

The FDA dubs food safety conformance as “risk-based.” That means the greater the risk, the greater the likelihood (or frequency) your plant will be visited by a SWAT team of inspectors. As the term implies, this approach targets the processes and food products most likely to cause public health risks. 

But approaching safety merely for the purpose of regulatory compliance misses major benefits of deploying best practices and state-of-the-art safety technologies. 

Thoughtful automation technologists understand that the safety initiatives noted in the opening paragraphs are not isolated activities, even though they are being driven by entities that don’t necessarily interact under normal circumstances. When governmental agencies, technology providers, industry standards groups, and consumer packaged-good producers seize on an issue, we need to recognize that it is a convergence. 

It should be noted that this really is an opportunity for automation technologists to reach up through their corporate structures with a holistic solution that will improve productivity. As with Pareto analysis, by solving the biggest problems first, other problems start to go away. It is imperative to communicate what needs to be done, how much it will actually cost, and what it will cost to ignore the issues or take the easy way out. 

The various initiatives are approaching different aspects of safety—from preventing injuries on the plant floor to preventing contamination of the machinery that can be spread to food. Much of this revolves around mechanical design, but the replacement of hardwired safety circuits with networked, programmable safety systems is also vital to the holistic solution.

Through these safety systems and more, automation has an increasingly crucial role to play in terms of monitoring, communicating, responding to, documenting, and analyzing machine operation. Automation can also track raw materials and product through manufacturing, packaging, and logistics, while controlling and documenting conditions, such as temperature, that can impact food safety.

Functionalities, enabling technologies converge

Sound familiar? These same functions promote product quality, preventive maintenance, overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), six sigma or operational excellence, sustainability, and supply chain optimization. 

That’s because a safe machine isn’t stopping for corrective action during its scheduled production (Figure 1). Not stopping is a prime tenet of producing good OEE values. Not stopping means not restarting with high inrush currents, which means that not stopping also equates with energy efficiency and therefore sustainability. Uninterrupted runs at optimum speed mean less scrap and more consistent product quality. Smooth running operation means less wear and tear on equipment as well as meeting production schedules. It’s all good. 

This is the essence of the convergence in terms of outcomes. But there is also a convergence in the automation technologies that will be used for implementation. 

Mechatronic design also plays a vital role in the new safety. It is part of the convergence of the new technologies, such as replacing mechanical drivetrains with networked servo motors.

Stricter regulations for cleaning machinery dictate sanitary machine designs that are inherently quicker and easier, and therefore less costly, to clean. Sanitary design is typified by stainless steel construction and elimination of geometries that can harbor pathogens.

The parameters of sanitary design for food, beverage, dairy, and meat processing and the pharmaceutical industry’s good manufacturing practices are already well understood. They can readily be migrated to food packaging, where FSMA will likely require even secondary packaging machinery (not in direct contact with food products) to follow sanitary design. 

The streamlined machine structures of sanitary design may also present fewer pinch points and other opportunities for injury. Using mechatronic design, simple servo-driven mechanisms replace gears, chains, pulleys, housings, and fasteners that must be routinely disassembled, cleaned, and reassembled under FSMA. 

Networks will replace hardwiring to reduce the limited number of wires and hoses that will be practical to install on a machine frame, as they can no longer be contained in conduit due to potential contamination. Instead, wires and hoses would have to be spaced at intervals that allow access for cleaning. These networks include networked safety systems that run on the same network used for machine control, thereby replacing hardwired safety circuits. 

Learn from the past

Flash back 13 years, when automation technologists were preparing for Y2K. That scenario is an interesting anecdote about the chasm between what corporate engineering managers projected it would cost to prevent the problem, and what Wall Street perceived would be needed. Some engineering organizations experienced one-time budget windfalls, because if management spent less on Y2K preparations than Wall Street’s expectations, the stock could very well have tanked. 

The lesson here is to embrace corporate motivation for brand protection and parlay it into automation investments that should—but otherwise might not—be a corporate priority.

In recent years, the buzzword has been sustainability. Safety should be considered an element of sustainability, as should quality and operational excellence. Because these can increase yield and efficiency, they therefore can affect the total system carbon footprint. That’s why the corporation’s chief sustainability officer should be your ally. 

Combine forces with food safety and sustainability advocates to reduce food waste at each stage in the supply chain. There are predictions of another perfect storm, that of a growing world population intersecting with insufficient agricultural resources a few decades from now. While this topic is as controversial as climate change, progressive food companies recognize the importance of preventing unnecessary food waste. And assuring the safety of the food supply is the first step toward preventing waste. 

John Kowal is market development manager at B&R Industrial Automation. He is also a board member of OMAC and of PMMI.

Sources for safety standards mentioned in this article




ISO 12100

Safety of machinery—Basic principles for design—Risk assessment and risk reduction

IEC 61508

IEC 62061

ISO 13849


Functional safety of electrical/electronic/programmable electronic safety-related systems

(IEC 62061 and ISO 13849 take different approaches to the topic of functional safety.)

IEC 61511



Safety instrumented systems for the process industry sector

(covers systems designed to bring a process to a safe state)


FDA: Food Safety Modernization Act,

amending the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA)


Author Bio: Director, business development, B&R Industrial Automation Corp