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Could food recalls and their related illnesses be a thing of the past? Yes, according to Jay McEvoy, the Director of Food Processing, North America, at Cooper-Atkins Corporation. That is, as long as food processing companies adopt the latest technologies.

In 2016, we interviewed Cooper-Atkins’ Scott D’Aniello to learn about how the company’s cutting-edge temperature control and monitoring equipment helps food manufacturing companies meet FSMA regulations. Since then, a lot has happened. Earlier this year, Cooper-Atkins was acquired by Emerson, boosting the technical expertise and resources of both companies. They also coined the term “digital cold chain” to describe the new technology-enabled temperature control and monitoring process gaining steam in the food industry.

Last month, we spoke with McEvoy to learn more about the technology and how it can help food companies not only comply with FSMA, but possibly eliminate food recalls altogether.

The high cost of foodborne illness outbreaks

A world with no food recalls seems like a fantasy, especially after last spring’s deadly E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce.

But for food companies struggling to compete, working toward this goal is essential. The CDC estimates that 48 million people in the U.S. contract a foodborne illness each year. That’s bad news for food companies. According to Trace One research, 84% of consumers hold food retailers and manufacturers responsible for food quality and safety.

“A spaghetti sauce manufacturer can’t just forget about food safety once they put spaghetti sauce in a bottle,” McEvoy says. That’s because if anything goes wrong with a product, customers are unlikely to blame the stores where they bought it. They’re even less likely to blame the truck driver who brought it there. As soon as companies brand their products, they must be willing to own and monitor the entire journey. “From the moment we touch it, we own it,” McEvoy says. “Therefore, we have to take steps to ensure food safety for our kids all the way through the chain.”

Of course, foodborne illnesses aren’t just a serious public health concern. The consequences are costly. Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health recently estimated that a 250-person outbreak could cost a fast food chain $1.9 million. And that doesn’t even take into account the potentially much larger loss in sales due to broken trust.

Temperature monitoring and regulatory compliance

Taking end-to-end responsibility for products isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the law. FSMA calls for a tightly monitored and well documented cold chain.

McEvoy notes that although food processing plants control just part of the process, they must be able to monitor and report data “from harvest, to processing, to transportation, to distribution, and then all the way to the end user.” FDA inspectors have already started asking for this information during inspections. “A couple of big customers of mine have had a team of FDA people come in unannounced and go through their whole plant,” McEvoy says. “It's a big deal.”

It’s an especially big deal for companies that are still using pocket thermometers to take measurements and then recording the data using a pencil and a clipboard. This is not unusual — even some of the biggest food companies still do temperature monitoring manually. It’s also costly. McEvoy estimates that some larger companies spend up to $20,000 a month on the clipboard and pencil system, once you take into consideration labor and benefits for the QA workers.

If that’s true, then FSMA compliance will seem like a steal! The FDA estimates the annual cost of compliance with the Preventive Controls Rule to be $13,000 per facility.

The industry is at a critical turning point. The FDA doesn’t require digital records, but it does recommend them. And going forward, it will become more difficult for companies to survive with handwritten documentation because FSMA calls for thorough and accurate documentation, available on request. McEvoy explains: “In the past, you could take a temperature, write it down on a clipboard, and then file the paper in a file cabinet and forget about it. You're no longer legally allowed to do that.”

A temperature monitoring system that’s always on, everywhere

Cooper-Atkins’ measurement systems, coupled with Emerson’s automation expertise, position the combined company at the forefront of helping companies adapt to FSMA changes. Their devices and systems are capable of measuring everything from harvest, to arrival at the manufacturing plants, to the systems that function in the plant (processing and refrigeration, packaging and storing), to trucks in motion.

This means manufacturers have access to data for all links in the chain, ensuring ingredients are in perfect condition when they arrive at the plant and products are in perfect condition when they make it to supermarket shelves. If something goes wrong at any point in the process, the system is equipped to send automatic alerts to quality assurance teams to correct the issue. This prevents potentially harmful products from ever reaching consumers’ hands.

One thing that makes Cooper-Atkins’ systems stand out is that they’re cellular, cloud-based, and frequency hopping, using a 900 megahertz signal. As a result, they do not require WiFi connection and can continually operate in all types of environments. This is important because some other systems on the market are WiFi-based, and there are limits to the places WiFi signals can reach. This limitation makes the systems unusable in processing plants, which contain a lot of stainless steel equipment, and on delivery trucks. The technology behind Cooper-Atkins’ products is capable of operating through steel, concrete, and multi-story plants. “There's no plant in the world where our system won't work.”

Since Emerson came on board, Cooper-Atkins’ products have become more powerful and innovative than ever before. “It's like the difference between an iPhone 3 and an iPhone X,” McEvoy says. “It's just better.”

Plus, with the time and cost they save compared to traditional data collection and recordkeeping methods, the systems pay for themselves within weeks. “Our systems run 24/7, 365 days a year, and they work perfectly. They never make a mistake, they never get tired, and they never look the other way.”

Challenges modernizing the industry

Despite the benefits of digital monitoring, McEvoy says many food processors and manufacturers are resistant to change — they’re comfortable using outdated instruments and methods, and reluctant to trust new technology. “People have been manufacturing food since the Roman Empire. They've been manufacturing food for thousands of years. So the way that things are done is entrenched. It’s entrenched more than any other industry in the world.”

McEvoy says that some companies don’t want to go digital because digital systems don’t allow for data modification. McEvoy shares the disturbing story of one general manager, who, after being thoroughly impressed with the Cooper-Atkins presentation, told him frankly, “I’m not buying your product, because there are times when I need to fudge the numbers.” McEvoy believes it’s only a matter of time before a major recall, foodborne illness, or FDA inspection puts companies like these out of business.

Ultimately, McEvoy believes that embracing new technology will soon become non-optional. He predicts that more traditionally-minded companies are going to find it increasingly difficult to survive, and that their modernized competitors will have the advantage in the industry. “Five or ten years from now, no food manufacturer would ever consider not having digital cold chain monitoring.” He compares it to the rise of cell phones, noting that no one had a cell phone 25 years ago, but now they’re considered essential equipment for businesses and their employees. Changes in the workforce will aid the shift: as senior employees retire, the young people filling their shoes will choose technology over the old ways of doing things.

The bottom line is that the digital cold chain will soon be industry standard. It may not eliminate food recalls entirely, but it will go a long way toward preventing foodborne illness outbreaks.

If you’d like to learn more about how Cooper-Atkins can help you take control of your digital cold chain, be sure to add them to your PROCESS EXPO schedule. You’ll find McEvoy and his team at Booth 3614.