Put down that spreadsheet: ERP follows food to the plant floor, and out the door

Retailers looking to stock Berner Foods' line of meats and cheeses often ask Berner to demonstrate how nimbly it could respond to a food recall. When bidding for business, the Roscoe, Ill.-based manufacturer must show potential supermarket and big-box retail customers that it can trace the ingredients in each of its products to the supplier level within two hours.
By Jean Thilmany, contributing editor (thilmanyj@yahoo.com) December 1, 2007

Retailers looking to stock Berner Foods ‘ line of meats and cheeses often ask Berner to demonstrate how nimbly it could respond to a food recall.

When bidding for business, the Roscoe, Ill.-based manufacturer must show potential supermarket and big-box retail customers that it can trace the ingredients in each of its products to the supplier level within two hours.

In the processed food industry, mock recalls that demonstrate a manufacturer’s agility are pretty much a requirement, says Gary Gold, VP of quality systems for Berner Foods. During these tests, Berner Foods—which to date has never faced a recall—routinely shows it can trace each ingredient in a product to the supplier level in about 15 minutes. It spends another 30 minutes compiling supplier contact information.

That’s down from at least 12 hours—the norm before Berner began using technology to track all supplied ingredients, and follow fully processed products after they leave the plant. About three years ago, Berner deployed a Ross ERP system from CDC Software meant to follow supplied products right through production and out the door, says Beth Berndt, CDC director of industry solutions for food & beverage.

“Berner’s customers are saying, ‘As a way of getting our business, please show us you have control over your business,’” Berndt explains. Such a requirement isn’t surprising since a brand’s image relies on pulling tainted food from shelves within hours.

Those are the key words here: tainted foods , says Nick Bova, general manager of the food & beverage division of Junction Solutions , a business solutions supplier to midmarket retail and consumer goods industries. Retailers don’t want to see another wide-ranging recall, like Omaha-based Con Agra’ s October 11 recall of all Banquet pot pies, and store-brand pot pies sold under other names. Instead, supermarkets and big-box retailers would like to restrict the items pulled from the shelves to the limited number of products proven to include the contaminated ingredients.

To make a quick and limited recall a reality, food manufacturers are putting down their Excel spreadsheets and turning to specialized technology that lets them keep track of the raw ingredients down to the bin or batch level, Bova says. Often the very nature of food processing necessitates that processors turn to applications either created just for them, or targeted to meet their unique needs.

That’s why technology vendors are stepping up to fill this space.

When bidding for business, Roscoe, Ill.-based Berner Foods must show potential supermarket and big-box retail customers that it can trace the ingredients in each of its products to supplier level within two hours.

In February, Junction Solutions added a traceability feature specifically for food processors to its Microsoft platform-powered ERP system, called Junction Food and Beverage—or JunctionF/B). The feature allows food makers to assign one lot number to a large bin of a particular ingredient as it moves from stock area to the manufacturing floor. The packaged food that draws from that ingredient lot will include the lot number as it moves through the plant and into stores.

“Let’s say it’s spinach,” Bova says. “All the items that use spinach will automatically be tied to that lot because it consumed that lot number.”

The beauty lies in the system’s simplicity, Bova adds. The lines all draw from the same bin of spinach, no matter what the final brand stamped on that spinach, or its final product. Typically, many lines in a plant package different brands and products in tandem, though they all contain spinach.

Food processors might draw for hours from the large lot of spinach, with final products making their way to numerous stores across the nation. All the end products include the original raw-ingredient lot number, which enters the ERP system via bar coding.

If there’s a recall, the tainted spinach can be traced back to its original raw-ingredient lot and its attendant information, right down to the ranch and the field where the ingredient was harvested, Bova says. The capability allows the FDA to quickly isolate tainted fields, raw ingredients, and processed products.

So far, Junction F/B is mainly in place at bagged salad producers’ plants.

To date, not a single food manufacturer uses the Enovia MatrixOne product life-cycle management (PLM) system to track ingredients, but Michael Zepp, director of product strategy for material compliance solutions, sees that changing soon. This particular PLM system, which already tracks parts to the supplier level, is easily configured for the food packaging industry.

“We could trace a cow’s life through birth on the farm to the point that it is being sold and slaughtered; then test results after slaughter and track packaging all the way through labeling to the store,” Zepp says. The company is in talks with a Southeast Asian food product safety and testing company interested in such use.

News reports confirm that product recalls haven’t abated. For an industry that both Berndt and Bova claim still relies heavily on Excel spreadsheets to follow food from warehouse to processing plant, traceability is about to become the latest buzzword. And technology venders are stepping up to the plate.