Grocery store aisles

To continue the conversation from the Food Safety and Sanitary Design Panel at the FPSA Annual Conference, we followed up with Brian Perry, Senior Vice President of Food Safety and Quality at TreeHouse Foods. Perry has been with the company for eight years.

As a private label manufacturer and distributor, TreeHouse Foods works not only with its own brands, but with the brands of its retail customers. Their portfolio includes meal solutions, baked goods, and beverages. 

With the responsibility to protect their partners’ brands comes a dedication to food safety, quality, and differentiation in the marketplace. Perry says, “Sourcing materials, sourcing equipment, and providing a reliable supply chain are important parts of what we do.” 

Collaboration in sanitary equipment design

Part of managing food safety lies within the design of processing equipment. Perry names two key equipment features that simplify sanitation.

  • Hygienic design: It’s important to have machinery that can be taken apart for cleaning without tools, as well as parts that don't have components that can potentially become harborage areas.
  • Intuitive user interfaces: A straightforward and simple interface cuts down on operating errors, especially when it comes to new or inexperienced employees. You can have the most innovative product or program on the market, but if it’s not intuitive, it may cause more headaches than help for its users.

To ensure that new equipment meets the right specifications for the job, Perry recommends gathering input from various departments and stakeholders during early ideation and design phases. “The more you progress in a project,” he says, “trying to make changes becomes much more complex and expensive. So it’s important to have that connectivity up front, with a decision-making process that defines the customer requirements for a system or a piece of equipment.”

That collaborative attitude should extend beyond the plant, because an incident can impact the entire industry. “If one of us sneezes we all get a cold,” Perry says, meaning that if there’s an issue in one product, like lettuce, at one company, there's a good chance that people will stop eating lettuce altogether.

“There are a lot of working groups now, especially in the meat industry, that focus on cross-industry collaboration,” Perry says. “It took a major food safety concern to drive it, but now these groups are sharing sanitary design concepts not only with OEMs but across the industry.”

He recommends other verticals follow the meat industry’s lead as a proactive approach to food safety.  “Whether it be in meat, bakery, or pasta, we want to build sanitary design concepts across multiple categories and then share those concepts. There should be some that are broad enough that they don’t create a competitive advantage for food safety.”

The promise of blockchain technology

Beyond equipment, one of the biggest challenges to food safety is that the global supply chain is layered with complexity. As a product moves through the chain, it may pass through several different systems and databases, which creates problems for traceability and transparency. If food safety is compromised somewhere on the line, it can be challenging to pin down the root of the issue. Likewise, companies that want to build trust with consumers will find it difficult to share accurate sourcing information on their products. “How do you take those things and make them simple,” Perry asks, “so that at each point of the process, the product can be traced and its identity maintained?” 

Blockchain technology provides a possible answer to this question. Blockchain is essentially a ledger system that originated with the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. In the food industry, instead of keeping track of financial transactions, the technology can provide end-to-end supply chain tracking. “The promise of blockchain is real,” Perry says, “and I think there are areas today where it can be used, specifically in single commodity items.” A can of tuna, for example, could be traced all the way back to the body of water it came from and the vessel that caught it. 

And with consumers looking for organic, natural, and healthy foods, this kind of technology has benefits beyond food safety. “Tracing a product from its origin — whether that be the field, the farm, or the orchard — through its life cycle in a more succinct way helps us tell the story of our food.”

While blockchain may be feasible in the near term for single commodity items, it still has a way to go before it can handle more complex products. “It’s going to take some scale to provide traceability for products with multiple components from multiple areas of the world that all come together in a processing, bottling, or packaging plant,” Perry says. “Think about all of the components that go into a bottle of salad dressing. That’s a very different blockchain than for fresh produce. As we build on that type of technology — build mass and scale to get systems that talk to one another across the global supply chain — that's when it will really make a big difference in some of these complex food systems.”

In general, Perry believes that technology is on the cusp of being able to solve all kinds of food safety challenges, from detecting pathogens to tracing outbreaks. “Technology is rapidly changing the ability to foresee when we have issues in the marketplace,” Perry says. “Whether it’s through sanitation elements, microbiological testing, or building in preventive controls, we've just got to have the technology in our plants.”