The single biggest fear of food and drink manufacturers is contamination, but by introducing thorough checks and making use of outside expertise, it’s a risk that can be managed

With a turnover of just under £128 billion, the food and drink industry is the single biggest manufacturing sector in the UK.

However along with the disruption and challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic and economic uncertainty, companies in the sector are always alert to the threat posed by contamination of their products - and this is an issue that is only growing as customers demand more and more transparency around the food products they consume.

“Food safety is the industry’s number one priority,” says Keneth Chinyama, Technical and Regulatory Executive at the Food & Drink Federation (FDF). “Any issue concerning the safety of food products is taken seriously and every precaution is taken to ensure food produced is safe to eat. However, instances of contamination do occur.”
And when those instances do occur, the consequences can be severe. “With regard to the contamination of food and beverages, there are many risks to businesses,” says a spokesperson for the Food Standards Agency (FSA). “EU food law is clear that the onus to comply with the law falls to food business operators.
" EU food law is clear that the onus to comply with the law falls to food business operators" Keneth Chinyama, Technical and Regulatory Executive, Food & Drink Federation
“Food business operators, including in certain circumstances their directors and/or managers, who do not comply with relevant legislation, also expose themselves to penalties that include fines and up to 2 years’ imprisonment. There is a wide range of legislation which seeks to protect consumers from being exposed to harm from contamination of food and beverages; the main legislation includes the Food Safety Act 1990 and The Food Safety and Hygiene (England) Regulations 2013.”
Risk to reputation
Chinyama also points out that valuable customer contracts may also be jeopardised and consumer trust lost, which can have a significant impact on the reputation of the brand. “In addition, the business might subsequently be subject to more frequent inspection by enforcement authorities or audits by their clients, both of which require financial and staff resources,” he adds.
When and how contamination occurs is difficult to specify due to the often complex nature of food and drink manufacturing processes. “Contamination can be broadly caused by people, machinery, processes, packaging or ingredients at any stage of production,” explains Chinyama. “The type of contamination that a food or drink manufacturer needs to be careful of depends on their product, the ingredients used and the manufacturing process.”
RS Industry Sector Manager Craig Stasik works closely with customers to help them reduce the risk of contamination. “We help customers with a variety of contamination risks based around their maintenance and repair functions,” he says. “This is often around oils and greases leaking into food from machines and also the equipment, tools and clothing used around food when it’s being manufactured.
“For example, RS can provide companies with ‘food grade’ pens that have caps which won’t detach or metal detectable, mitigating any risk of contamination, and we can provide shirts that have studs or poppers so there is no risk of buttons doing the same,” adds Stasik. “We can also offer services to review the variety of oils and lubrication used onsite and make recommendations on the correct food-grade oils and greases – this can also include the provision of specialist Halal or Kosher oils and lubrication if required. We would work very closely with the manufactures to support all recommendations made.”
Diligent checking process
The key to removing or at least greatly reducing the risk of contamination, according to Chinyama, is for manufacturers to have a strict and diligent checking process in place. “Manufacturers need to have robust systems in place to ensure that from the time of harvest or slaughter to the time of consumption, product safety is monitored and maintained,” he says. “The best solution is to introduce the food safety management system called Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP), which is specifically designed to identify and control any risk associated with a product.
"Suppliers such as RS can provide really useful insight to help with Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP)" Craig Stasik, Industry Sector Manager, RS
“Businesses identify and regularly review the critical points in their processes and ensure that controls are applied at these points. In addition, companies also follow their customer standards – many companies set detailed quality standards that their suppliers have to comply with.”
Stasik is used to helping customers set up, refine and improve their HACCP system. “Suppliers such as RS can provide really useful insight to help with HACCP,” he explains. “That might mean that someone from RS walks the production line with a customer and helps them to evaluate potential hot spots and suggest possible improvements. We will also look at the type of PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] they are using, the oils and greases they’re using and even the lighting to make sure they have sealed lights, so that if a bulb breaks its glass can’t enter the food chain.”
Stasik believes that by working with suppliers like RS as well as industry bodies such as the FDF and FSA, who regularly publish advice and legal information to help the industry, it is possible for food manufacturers to greatly reduce the threat that contamination poses. “The consequences are potentially devastating for companies if something goes badly wrong,” he says. “Contamination is a major issue and it’s not something that’s going to go away, simply because consumers are demanding greater information about where their food is coming from. It’s up to manufacturers to keep improving their processes and setting higher standards in the future.”