Warehousing and Distribution - The Moving Link in the Food Chain
When we talk about the food chain, we often get a mental picture of farms growing crops, perhaps a manufacturing plant and then a romantic restaurant setting, but it is not often that a warehouse stacked with packed products and a fleet of trucks make it into our “Farm-to-fork image”. And yet they are critical components with more and more food companies outsourcing the warehousing and distribution of their products to specialised third parties.
So, what does it take to be a reputable distributor who is dedicated to and consistently apply food safety best practices throughout their operations—from truck to warehouse to delivery?
On the road to best practices
Changing fuel prices, potential food spoilage, safety regulations: These are just a few of the everyday challenges for food and beverage distributors. This in addition to keeping a handle on your inventory and ensuring prompt deliveries. It is a lot to manage and as you grow, it is unlikely you will be able to do all of this manually.
Technology is an obvious solution but when you make that considerable investment make sure the tool makes provision for the following 5 key food safety factors.
- Recall programmes
- Returns and quarantine
- Good Food Handling Practices
- Security to ensure Food Defense and prevent food fraud
What have you got and where is it going? - Traceability
All food companies need to know what they are sending and receiving at all times, and they are required to implement the associated record-keeping practices. In addition to good recordkeeping, cleanliness and organization in receiving/despatch areas and in the vehicles goes a long way toward preventing products from being sent to the wrong destination and enhancing your ability to quickly locate items in the warehouse (or on the road).
Good practices mean adhering to a “first in/first out (FIFO) rotation policy or First expired/first out (FEFO), so that product that arrives first or is due to expire first at the warehouse is despatched first.
Your system should be able to identify the products, their batch numbers(perhaps this can be automated capture), their location in your warehouse and their destination.
Picking activities must be done accurately, again automation is ideal to ensure the product you are sending is not damaged in anyway and all the information you have is accurate.
- Implement good records for traceability – ideally by batch to customer
- Implement FIFO/FEFO
Product Recall/Withdrawal Programme
All food companies, including food transportation and distribution operations, should have recall/withdrawal procedures in place. Do you have updated names and contact information of responsible parties to contact in the event of a recall, including emergency or after-hours phone numbers. Have to worked through procedures with the brand owners to ensure a seamless integration? When last did you have a mock recall to determine whether your policies and procedures are working and/or identify any potential problems to be corrected before they rise to the level of a recall situation.
- Develop a recall plan
- Practice your recall plan
Keep an eye on what’s coming back and why?
Everyone hates returns as it seems all the efforts getting it there are wasted. But these are important food safety and quality indicators. Complaints should be recorded and investigated. Complaints related to customer brands are critical feedback opportunities to your customers and you must ensure someone is handling these with the correct level of urgency. Your customers will rely on you fo information on problems. Make sure the warehouse systems can cope with segregating returns and nonconforming products to keep a handle on how much you have and preventing it from being dispatched.
- Create a quarantine area and manage this inventory
Good food handling practices
If product is not stored in the warehouse or transported in the truck at the correct temperature and conditions, the safety of the food will be compromised. When transporters attempt to reduce fuel costs by shutting off the refrigeration systems in the truck trailer, the product clearly will undergo some level of temperature abuse, perhaps to a level that allows the growth of undesirable pathogenic organisms in or on the product or packaging.
Distribution companies should ensure that all personnel who handle food product containers, including warehouse forklift drivers, loaders and truckers, understand what happens when the cold chain is broken and establish clear procedures for multi-drops, vehicle breakdowns and correct loading.
Are you downpacking? Are you repacking damages? Your system must ensure traceablity is maintained the whole way through. Downpacking should also be assessed in terms of risk of contamination? Is your warehouse really designed to handle open food? Probably NOT.
- Focus on maintaining the cold chain
- Train staff on the importance of the cold chain
- Down packing is a specialised activity that will require a designated controlled area.
Don’t be surprised if your customers request a food security risk assessment. Your physical security measures or systems in terms of vehicles, warehouse access and inventory management are critical. For example, buildings should be secure and locked, cameras may need to be installed, and truck trailers should not be left open when unsupervised to prevent potential product tampering. You will need a food defense plan documented thoroughly and regularly reviewed. The application of seals and recording this information is fundamental to this. Your security measures assist your customers in combatting food fraud too. Your system should ideally be able to accommodate these and other controls such as password control and escalation protocols.
- Know where you are vulnerable
- Implement the right security measures to limit your vulnerability
And the point is?
The food industry is under more and more scrutiny about food safety and food fraud controls. Having the correct systems in place may help you gain preferred provider status with customers. You should even consider FSSC 22000 certification which is now available to food warehousing and distributors. Its about doing the right things the right way for your business. And while you are at it, try and do them the easiest way possible.
© Doug Hunter of Syspro via Food Focus