Tracing your steps: Product Quality

Billionaire investor, Warren Buffett, once famously said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” And from the findings of AON’s bi-annual “Global Risk Management Survey”, it looks like senior executives agree.


For the second year in a row, damage to a business’s reputation/brand topped AON’s Top Ten “most feared” list. And, for food and beverage manufacturers in every line of the industry, this is a deep concern which never truly goes away.


Just think of the food scandals which have hit the headlines in recent months. From mislabelled sandwiches to contaminated curries, there are a myriad of issues the food industry has had to face and, as you’d expect, this only serves to wear away at consumer confidence.


Of course, this isn’t simply an issue for consumers - it also eats away at the bottom line for manufacturers. As a result, food and beverage companies are left with mass product recalls, lost contracts and colossal legal fees to contend with.

Answering to allergens

Naturally, consumers want to know exactly what is in the food they purchase. For those with allergies, of course, this is more than just a concern of calories – their health is at risk. What’s more, more than 20 percent of the population (around 13 million people) have at least one allergic disorder. As such, it’s an issue which manufacturers know they need to prioritise.


To keep up with this growing concern, food and beverage companies are having to revise their traceability measures along the supply chain to ensure no batch recalls take place. However, this is by no means a simple task: there are the added safety levels needed for precise identification of vestigial allergens, improved sample analysis, stringent recording of ingredients, and accurate label printing to reflect which allergens are present in the product. In many scenarios, this leaves manufacturers with a lot of data to process.


Thankfully, when digital systems are installed (in particular, biosensing strategies) the guesswork of identifying and eradicating allergens can be taken out of the supply chain and analysed in real-time. This makes the manufacturing process simpler, speedier and more cost-effective in the long-term.


As Keith Thornhill, Head of Food and Beverage at Siemens, acknowledges, there is an impetus to move to these smart digital systems to give greater control and traceability:


“There is now a lot of innovation going into sensor technology, in particular, regarding immunosensors, genosensors and aptasensors, in order to guarantee there are no traces of allergens in the final product. And to make the Cleaning In Process more efficient.”

In touch with trends

Whether one is ordering a skinny flat white at the coffee shop or picking up porridge at the supermarket, consumers are now aware of, and have access to, an expanding product range. 

One of the most prominent markets in 2019 is health and fitness. Today, around two-thirds (72%) of consumers seek out a healthier selection of foods in the supermarket aisles, with organic (+43%), vegetarian (+26%) and ‘free-from’ foods (+133%)* seeing exponential growth.


To match consumer expectations, however, it is about more than simply removing meat, dairy or farm fertilisers from products; to meet consumer and regulatory demands they must also be low in salt, sugar and fat, while producing the same great taste. 


As manufacturers will already know, keeping up with such specific, highly-regulated demands can induce a logistical headache. Bringing these ever-changing trends to the factory floor and reformulating products or redefining labelling systems is a complex – and costly – business.


You only need to look at soft drink staples, Lucozade, Ribena and Irn-Bru, to see that reformulating, while necessary, comes with its own unique set of risks. As John Graydon, Food Industry Specialist at Siemens, says, “In order for a food and beverage business to be successful during these demanding times, you have to be highly responsive but also to analyse carefully every aspect of the problem.”


With digitalisation and the digital twin, food and beverage companies can freely tweak and test formulations, revise packaging in an instant and, in certain cases, personalise products, all without the need to pass the financial burden through to consumers. This enables manufacturers to be flexible in how they respond to new markets.


Keith Thornhill reminds us that, to stay ahead of the curve, manufacturers need more than robust R&D systems: 


“With digitalisation, you can provide real-time work instructions for every SKU and process, and also identify the impact that any supply chain or environmental variabilities have on the product and or production process. This not only takes away the opportunity for human error, there is also the efficiency element that simply wouldn’t happen without complex digital systems doing the work.”

Sustainability matters

Climate change has long been on the nation’s radar, but it is only recently – around the last ten years - that this concern has been seriously chewed over by heads in the food and beverage industry.


One of the most harmful and, thus, concerning elements in this arena is livestock, namely bovines. Currently, the global livestock industry causes 15 percent of all global greenhouse gases. Other areas of increasing concern are long distance ‘food miles’, unsustainable sourcing practices and non-biodegradable packaging, all of which have heavily impacted the way food and beverage companies run their factories. 


Just look at the way supermarkets are changing already: the world’s first ‘plastic free’ aisles were launched in the Netherlands last November, with plans to roll out nationally. Similarly, organic produce, a previous non-entity, is now worth £2.2 billion and sustainable seafood products have increased 60 percent in certain leading supermarkets. 


To tackle these key issues, manufacturers are turning their attention to lab-grown meats, locally-sourced ingredients, and plastic-free packaging, to name but a few measures.


However, to do this in tandem with competitors, and to respond quickly to consumer concerns, there is a growing reliance on digitalisation to do the thinking for factory workers. Essentially, this leaves manufacturers with a choice: do they push on with the same dwindling product or do they expand into a new, more profitable, market?


For example, for a meat manufacturer to begin to formulate products for an increasingly vegetarian, vegan and ‘flexitarian’ consumer base, they must undergo rigorous R&D, along with mass label changes.


This is where digitalisation comes in.


Digitalisation gives food and beverage companies the special power of prediction in a relatively unknown market. Using the digital thread across their enterprise, manufacturers can sample and verify new formulations, autonomously manage supply chains, and flag serious errors in real-time. 


In any instance, whether it is caring for the environment, improving traceability along the supply chain or keeping up with ever-changing food trends, the future, while unpredictable, can be made simpler with the backing of digital systems. 





*Excluding free-from foods which are high in salt, sugar or fat.