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7 principles for quality control in your food manufacturing business

A simple truth lies at the heart of any food business: the final product will enter other people’s bodies. It’s mind-blowing to think about that. It’s an immense responsibility, but a special kind of honour, too.

So, whether you’re new to food safety or need a procedural revamp, these quality control principles for food manufacturers are crucial to ensuring food safety compliance, product consistency, and customer satisfaction.

What is quality control and assurance in the food industry?

First, we need to distinguish between quality assurance and quality control in food manufacturing.

Quality assurance guarantees that a product is what the label says it is and made according to the correct process. For example, to label and sell yoghurt as “low fat,” it must contain less than 3% fat.

Quality control is about ensuring that the product is safe to eat and consistently meets a certain standard of goodness (or even excellence). This is what makes working with food such a dynamic and unique challenge.

Example of quality control practices in food manufacturing

I’d like to introduce Buttery Bakes, an artisanal cookie factory famous for its shortbread. We’ll go through the steps to get Buttery Bakes’s quality control practices in shape:

What to include in a food quality control checklist:

  1. Ingredient specifications

With food, quality is almost entirely determined by the characteristics of the ingredients used. Using ingredient specifications holds suppliers accountable for consistently providing quality produce.

Ingredient specifications include:

  • Ingredient name, e.g., Butter
  • A brief description, e.g., Emulsified cow’s milk fat
  • Composition, e.g., 80% milk fat, 16% water, 2% milk solids, 2% inorganic salts
  • Shelf life, e.g., best before dates
  • Delivery and storage conditions, e.g., Butter to be delivered in a refrigerated truck and stored below 4°C.
  1. Approved supplier list

For each ingredient, specify from where it needs to be sourced.

Approved supplier lists include:

  • Ingredient name, e.g., Butter
  • Supplier name, e.g., Over the Moon Dairies
  • Supplier’s code for the ingredient, e.g., BX330
  • Supplier’s contact details, e.g., Phone number, email address (for placing orders).
  • Any special arrangements, e.g., Orders, must be made by noon; minimum 10kg.
  1. Product formulation (recipe)

This defines what the product is made up of, ensuring that it contains the same ingredients, in the same ratios, every time.

Product formulations include:

  • Name of product, e.g., Shortbread cookies
  • List of ingredients, e.g., flour, butter, sugar
  • Percentage formula, e.g., 57% flour, 29% butter, 14% sugar
  • Batch formula, e.g., 1kg flour, 500g butter, 250g sugar
  • Batch yield, e.g., 1.75kg
  1. Product standards

Product standards set your values and vision for your product. This document traditionally defines the item by physical, chemical, and microbiological characteristics. However, from a food sensory perspective, there are other equally essential attributes, such as appearance, aroma, flavour, and texture. At an absolute minimum, all applicable government regulations must be met.

Product standards include:

  • Physical characteristics: Size, shape, weight, volume, and count per unit. E.g., Each cookie is round, 10cm diameter, 5cm height, weighs 35g, 8 per box.
  • Chemical properties: Moisture, fat, protein, carbohydrates, sodium, cholesterol, and anything else nutritionally relevant. E.g., 1 cookie = 183 calories, 12g fat (7g saturated fat), 31mg cholesterol, 2mg sodium, 18g carbohydrate (6g sugars, 0 fibre), 2g protein.
  • Microbiological standards are concerned with food safety and spoilage. If your product is vulnerable to food poisoning organisms during manufacturing, it’s vital to identify and regularly test for pathogens such as salmonella and E-coli. A “Standard Plate Count” is a basic chemical test commonly used to track a product’s bacterial, yeast, and mould content.
  • Sensory attributes: Appearance (e.g., shortbread is light blonde in colour – include pictures where possible), aroma (e.g., nutty, toasted), flavour (e.g., buttery, sweet), and texture or mouthfeel (e.g., short, crumbly, fine crumb).
  1. Manufacturing procedures

Think of this step as the “method” part of a cookbook recipe, but with exact specifications. This will also become the work instructions for your employees and are useful for training and ensuring a consistent product, no matter who’s on shift.

Manufacturing procedures include:

  • How ingredients should be transported and stored (e.g., butter stored in the fridge, between 2°C and 4°C).
  • Equipment and settings (e.g., 20L floor-standing mixer, with dough-hook attachment).
  • The method of combining ingredients, with specified weights, times, and temperatures/speeds (e.g., Cream 500g butter (20°C internal temp) and 250g sugar together for 20 mins, mixer speed setting #2).
  • Employees responsible for each part of the process, including keeping in-process records (more on this below).
  • Instructions for properly packaging, labelling, and storing the product for safe distribution.
  1. In-process records

Tracking what’s happening to your product during each step of production gives you the power and information to address any areas where things could go awry. These are called Critical Control Points, and they potentially expose your product to pathogens, incorrect handling or technique, hygiene vulnerabilities, wastage, spoilage, etc. Each business’s in-process records will be unique, depending on the environment, processes, technology, and ingredients used.

Examples include:

  • Ensuring that the product is the correct size, shape, and weight,
  • Properly sanitising equipment between use,
  • Taking internal temperatures, and
  • Swabbing for microbiological testing.
  1. Good manufacturing procedures and sanitation

“Good manufacturing procedures” refer to the basic conditions and standards used to ensure food safety by preventing food contamination and controlling for health hazards. Ultimately, it’s about keeping a squeaky clean operation with a culture of honouring food safety at every production level.

The onslaught of COVID-19 has made the use of specialised personal protective equipment (PPE) when handling food even more important, and incorporating stringent hygiene practices is now a legal and public health obligation.

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Why is quality control crucial for food and beverage manufacturers?

Other than not making people sick and wanting to craft something beautiful, these five reasons ought to keep the books happy too:

  • Reduce production costs: Minimise wastage and poor quality, and avoid future costs due to refunds, recalls, or even lawsuits.
  • Boost brand reputation: People come to trust that your product is consistently good.
  • Increase sales: Better brand reputation equates to higher demand and more sales.
  • Improve production techniques: Detailed instructions mean everyone must follow the best methods. Instructions can also easily be updated as new tech becomes available.
  • Bolster employee morale: Insisting on high quality tends to instil pride in the work done.

Software, tools, and resources for improving food manufacturing quality control

A centralised platform, such as a cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution, is a fundamental part of ensuring traceability in the food supply chain. But simply catching errors is not enough. If things go wrong anywhere along the chain, you’ll want to pinpoint exactly where. Being able to address those errors immediately is what makes all the difference.

Here are a few useful resources to help you improve your food quality control:

No matter how carefully you’ve planned things, in the end, everything comes down to the people who execute your quality control procedures. Time and attention should be spent regularly training (and refreshing) everyone in the team and updating controls and processes to comply with new legislation. Getting food quality control right is infinitely easier when everyone on board is proud of their work and is committed to delivering the quality your business and customers deserve.