the cost Of doing nothing

Food Safety – Diagnosis or Prevention?
By Robert White

I was recently at a food plant discussing the food safety issues they were experiencing. They had a very well organized and thorough BRC food safety program that reduced food safety issues. However, they were not fully preventing them.

The problem was that they were relying on people to complete safety tasks on time and fill out paper forms. The reality is that this is prone to human errors. Many times, forms get filled out without ever performing the task. In fact, one of their metal detectors was not functioning. Examination of its internal data log showed that the settings were not changed over the last 6 months. Yet the test and calibration forms were all filled out and signed.


In another instance an employee was discovered to be photocopying prefilled out task forms and filling in the date and her name to save her the time of doing the actual task recordings. Yet no one noticed or caught this during the verification step. It was accidentally discovered when one of the forms was left in the copier.

The cost of added manpower is one thing, but the reliability of the data and adherence to schedule is another. Relying on inaccurate data collection may result in a recall or worse, damage to your brand name. Pencil Whipping, extrasensory inspections, lick 'em and stick 'em, or whiff-n-poof (whiff—blow on it—and poof, you’re done). Although amusing expressions, they describe the serious alternatives to doing the right job, the right way. There are also inaccuracies caused by simple human error, such as transposing numbers. 

Pencil whipping (faking paperwork) occurs for a variety of reasons, from employees taking short cuts to avoidance of writing down out-of-spec data. Whenever record keeping is done manually, the reliability of the data is ... well ... not very reliable.

In another frame, it can be debated whether the falsification of food safety records can be viewed by the federal government as a violation of Food Safety Laws. What is discussed on the FDA’s website has to do with knowledge and intent behind the falsification of records and it makes interesting reading.

Notably it would be better to prevent the safety issues rather than diagnose who did what and when - after the fact.

Major food retailers are requiring that their suppliers be certified to demonstrate that they have the highest level of safety and quality standards in place. However, no matter which Food Safety Management System you wish to be certified with, there is a significant on-going cost of manpower involved, which involve people manually recording information and people following up on reported problems and people verifying that food safety tasks were completed.


99% of the companies I spoke to their food safety processes and tasks are implemented almost exclusively through manual, paper-based methods. Plant employees collecting data on the plant floor, recording this data on paper forms, and then returning these forms to the plant Quality Assurance group for verification, validation, analysis and archiving.

At some point, the data on the forms is analyzed and formatted in preparation for a food safety certification or compliance audit. This is a painstaking task that requires the plant Quality Assurance and Operations personnel to collate and manipulate the collected data by hand, sometimes manually typing the data into analytical programs such as Microsoft Excel. Once that data is collected and returned to the QA group, many hours are required to complete the verification and analysis of the data and to prepare the summary materials that are required to accommodate the food safety audit process.


This manual process is both costly, in terms of the human resources required, paper and toner consumption, and most importantly prone to errors and omissions. There is little assurance that the data that was collected on the plant floor is accurate and complete. Several plants performed an analysis on the cost of paper and toner alone. The numbers reported to me were ranging $3,000 to $5,000 yearly.

The solution is to ensure that employees perform these tasks as scheduled and as written. However, this is extremely difficult to do using a paper system.

In 2006 Focus Works, a provider of food plant software automation systems, witnessed the problems faced by food processors as they struggled to comply with food safety program requirements, and designed a software package that addresses these problems from the perspective of Prevention rather than Diagnosis “after the fact”, which eliminates the problems associated with paper-based data collection and manual data analysis.

It is a software package that automates the collection of plant data and eliminates the use of paper. Data is electronically collected from points in the plant through a variety of means. The system can be directly interfaced to previously-installed, stand-alone devices such as temperature and humidity meters, Metal Detectors, X-Ray machines, and Check Weighers that were previously monitored by a plant employee. The system can also be directly attached to PLC-based control systems – such as the ones that might control freezer or proofing room temperatures, for instance. Plant-floor computers can also be interfaced – those that might already be controlling plant floor processes, or new systems that might be installed to facilitate the collection of data on the plant floor (either through manual keyboard entry or through a direct connection to plant floor equipment). 


Wireless, hand-held devices can also be connected to the computer system. These devices may be used by plant floor personnel to record Food Safety data (using electronic forms that are created specifically for the purpose) at various locations on the plant floor – perhaps the status of rodent traps, or the sanitary condition of equipment. Data can also be easily integrated and imported from third-party software packages. The major point here is that the tasks are recorded in real-time and verified in real-time. Thus, eliminating the end of shift or day manual validations of paper records.

As the food safety data has been collected, it is stored in the centralized database that is a part of the software system. A “data dashboard” can be created and customized that allows plant management to keep tabs on the level of various data points collected by the product. Normal values are presented in green, borderline values in yellow, and values that are outside of the acceptable range in red. Electronic notifications to plant management (e-mails, text messages, etc.) are automatically generated and sent to plant management in the event that monitored data points are outside of tolerance. All data and food safety documents are archived in the product’s historical data files.

When it is time to prepare for a food safety compliance audit or a visit by a credentialed food safety expert aimed at gaining a food safety certification (SQF, BRC, etc.), the computerized system radically reduces the effort required on the part of the plant Quality Assurance staff. Pre-formatted reports allow historical data to be presented in a meaningful format to auditors. Reports can be created by plant personnel to present data that is unique to the plant or its products. There is no longer the requirement that paper records be painstakingly analyzed and collated in preparation for the audit. What previously may have taken days or weeks can now be accomplished in no more than a few minutes. The plant’s savings in paper and toner has been calculated to average $5,000 per year. The other savings is that it may be possible to reduce the size of the plant’s QA staff because of the radically diminished manual workload of verifications. The big saving is the reduction of the risk of recall.

Employing a computerized system will stop non-compliance and human errors in their tracks. You will not only be assured that the food safety tasks were actually done and on time, but be able to prevent an issue before product leaves the door. You will be able to see the performance of your food safety system in real-time and you can also do it remotely. It’s also the only food safety System that can connect directly to your plant floor equipment. 


For additional information about the SQF-Sentinel food safety software system, contact us today.

  • Eliminate Human Error
  • SQF, ISO & BRC Compliant
  • Paperless Food Safety Solution
  • Data Collection and Record Keeping
  • Stop Food Safety Issues Before they Occur

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