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Quality is critical for all companies in the process manufacturing industry and an unannounced audit from a retailer can be a painful experience for some.

This is the story of Laura, a quality manager who I once met, and number two in a three-part series of stories.

Laura the Quality Manager – Specialty Peppery Salads (SPS)

Wednesday morning

Laura parks her car in her reserved spot and thinks through the day ahead; scheduled quality review of the plant, a team meeting and a report for the board, a nice easy relaxing day.

But an hour later…

The phone rings. “Hi Laura, I have the Mr. West from WASACO here. Shall I send him up?” Laura stares at the phone in horror. Mr. West was WASACOS’s supplier quality auditor, and this was an unannounced audit.

Pleasantries over and the routine audit questions, HACCP procedures and certification checks all in order, everything was going well, Laura thought to herself, “Now for a tour of the factory.”

A successful tour of the factory, no non-conformances, just an observation over a used coffee cup left lying on the warehouse floor. Laura would sort that out later. West then walked over to the main packing line and picked up two bags of salad. He turned to Laura, “Can you get me the full trace data for these please?” Laura had waited for that dreaded question. You see, this should have been easy but all SPS trace data was on paper. This could take some time and she only had four hours to complete— a requirement of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) accreditation, and accreditation was critical to the survival of SPS.

Laura and her quality team were busy wading through the contents of some box folders full of warehouse receipts and production bookings. The documents were all dated and signed. They were assembling the sheets in order and cross-linking them to build up the traceability tree. Laura was typing the batch numbers into a spreadsheet and cross-referencing them to the documents. The paper system was working well, but there was a problem. “Where was the production sheet for the washed baby leaf? It can’t be missing!” she exclaims and turns to James saying, “Go check the factory.”

Mr. West returns to Laura’s office as the four hours elapse. Laura is preparing to explain when James suddenly bounds into the room and hands Laura a torn, coffee stained piece of paper. Laura grabs the sheet and quickly checks the lot number and sighs with relief as she slides it neatly into the pile on her desk. She quickly types the batch number into the spreadsheet, prints it off and hands it together with the bundle to Mr. West. “That was lucky just a few minutes late,” she thinks.

Mr. West leaves and Laura stares at the audit review. SPS just received a minor non-conformity. “But that could have been far more serious, a fine or delisting from the next range review,” Laura thinks to herself. “But what about next time?”

It doesn’t have to be this way

Failure in traceability can have disastrous outcomes for everyone in the supply chain, from producer to consumer. Retailers and wholesalers hold traceability as pivotal since it is their names that are remembered when things go wrong. We can all probably remember one of the biggest recalls of the century, the Sudan Red scare. We remember the products it went into and the retailers who sold them, but do we remember who made Sudan Red? I think not.

Many companies still allow paper and hand-written records with no validation to dominate as the source of their traceability, ignoring the potential risks to their business and to public health.

Almost all modern enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions provide full traceability as standard, capturing and validating data at the source and providing full, top-down and bottom-up traceability. a simple click of a button to save the risk of the traceability paper chase.

So, what’s next?

When e-labels become mainstream, consumers will get the opportunity to see transparency and traceability for themselves. A quick scan from a smartphone will reveal the lifecycle of the product together with company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) and green credentials.

The ‘holy grail’ of traceability is to be able to trace from raw materials through multiple levels of manufacture and manufacturer to the product on the shelf and then back again. Currently, the requirement is to be able to trace one up and one down, but with emerging Blockchain technology, the possibility of connecting up the global and complete end-to-end cycle of traceability is finally becoming a possibility.

If you enjoyed this blog, look out for the final story in this three-part series of Mike the Maintenance Manager at SPS.

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