Food For Thought: Comply or Die

Posted on 21 Aug 2008 by The Manufacturer

Nick Turnbull, EMEA director of sales for Marathon Technology looks at one of the biggest challenges currently facing IT within the food industry supply chain. He argues that manufacturers need to ensure their IT systems are geared up to cope with round the clock monitoring that is necessary to keep the regulators away.

The past 15 years has seen a flood of increasingly tight regulatory measures imposed on the food and beverage industry, spurred on by a series of public-facing food scandals and health scares. Understandably, the industry has now become one of the most closely monitored and heavily regulated sectors in the UK. If consumers do not receive their goods in mint condition, manufacturers come under the cosh and have to prove that they were made to standard or identify exactly what went wrong and where.


Food and beverage manufacturers are bound by a plethora of regulations and standards from industry bodies. Failure to comply can mean huge recall charges for the withdrawal of contaminated products, heavy fines levied by the Food Services Authority (FSA), and having to stomach huge dents to reputation and brand. Ever more strict and intrusive regulatory environments, have hit home with many manufacturers, which has forced big change upon those involved behind the scenes in the supply chain, and these can’t be ignored.

Traceability and assured consistency of food preparation lie at the heart of all these regulations. New FSA guidance notes on compliance with General Food Law Regulation cover food safety, traceability and the need to notify withdraw and / or recall products not conforming to the requirements. If food or drink is found to be contaminated, regulations say that the manufacturers have to produce a traceability report within four hours discovering the problem.

Traceability is essential for food safety and refers to the completeness of information about every step in a process chain. While guidelines do not dictate how the system should be constructed, it states that there has to be a method to accurately trace the source throughout the entire supply chain. Compliance guidelines also state that manufacturers have to be able to prove that each individual food product has been cooked to the required standard. Each manufacturer needs to produce an audit trail to demonstrate that each product meets the regulations.

They need to be able to accurately identify all batches of all ingredients and products as well as historical information on when and where they are moved or transformed. If they can not guarantee the quality and preparation of their food, they can not sell it – a series of recent high profile cases has seen manufacturers struggle to pull through from falling foul of regulations. Therefore, constant close monitoring and collation of data from the supply chain is without doubt, the most mission critical aspects for food manufacturers.

Technology: The solution or the problem?

IT sits at the heart of food production, so it’s key to ensuring the integrity of food. This means that manufacturers need to be sure that the technology they deploy can monitor the supply chain for regulations around the clock. So, for the last 15 years, manufacturers have turned to the latest and greatest technology to support their systems and meet the regulator’s requirements.

Manufacturers have used command style-centre traceability systems which monitor the supply chain and give visibility from production through to the check for clear forecasting and preventing issues. These are great solutions up until the time they fail. The only way that these solutions can be 100 per cent effective is if they can be sure to receive and monitor data continually, 24 hours, 7 days a week, with absolutely no hiccups.

If manufacturers are not right on the button all the time, it’s their livelihoods at stake. If downtime occurs, the ability to monitor and trace goods fails and the whole chain is effected.

Some manufactures deploy a high availability or fault tolerant solution to ensure continued uptime. Today, many are turning to a virtualised environment which means improved system management as well as greater and more flexible control because servers are consolidated. Other benefits include greener IT, lower capital and operating expenses, and greater flexibility to meet the regulator’s requirements. But, food manufacturers should be issued with a word of caution: virtualisation can also bring with it some unintended consequences. The most important for them is that it dramatically increases the need for rock-solid availability, because server consolidation can result in the server becoming the single point of failure for multiple applications, the implications of downtime are much greater.

If the servers that track the food experience downtime, the whole set of data is lost, the whole lot of food has to be put in the bin and production will stop.

With this in mind, manufacturers need to be sure that when adopting the newest ‘safest’ technologies, they also ensure that it comes with rock solid availability. Continuous uptime for the food and drink industry is not a luxury, it’s absolutely essential to the success of the business as well as the safety of consumers. It’s for good reason that the industry is so heavily regulated and so it needs to respond by ensuring that it can meet guidelines, and the only way to do this is through fail proof technology.

Article written by Nick Turnbull of Marathon Technologies – specialist in fault tolerant, high availability and DR software for physical and virtual servers.

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