QA: Never On The QT
by Lynn Petrak
Quality-assurance tools and techniques run the gamut to help processors stay on track.
Chances are, there aren’t too many dairy processing operations where QA — quality assurance — is not part of the everyday lexicon. With cost, competition, safety and security issues coming to the forefront of priorities in recent years, methods and tools used to verify quality of products and processes have become paramount.
Quality assurance boils down to the systematic steps taken to ensure that a company’s products or services are of sufficiently high quality and meet specified requirements and standards. Sometimes, the function has a dedicated department, while at other sites it can be a team approach among different internal groups and with third-party consultants. In today’s manufacturing environments, quality assurance programs are at the heart of ISO 9000 standards and can go hand in hand with Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs and Good Management Practices (GMPs).
Manufacturers that sell products meant for the public — especially those that produce foods and beverages — typically have several quality-assurance steps in place throughout the operation. Indeed, in dairy manufacturing facilities, QA components can be found from receiving through shipping and points in between and cover product and nutrient analysis to the detection of foreign objects and leakage problems, among many other elements.
Suppliers of quality assurance tools report that QA is at the core of many dairy operations today. “As this industry strives to achieve the highest level of food safety, sanitation and product quality, it is only natural for QA to be more of a priority. QA professionals are now more involved from conception of a plant design until the product arrives at the retail store,” says Dina Austin Scott, quality systems technical manager for the Steritech Group Inc., Charlotte, N.C., which provides quality-assurance consulting services and commercial pest-prevention systems.
Likewise, Bobbie McManus, product manager for the Matthews, N.C.-based microwave-based instrument company CEM Corp., says quality assurance is on the minds, agendas and budgets of dairy manufacturers of all types. “It’s across the board,” she says. “It is used form the smaller dairies way up to the more corporate players.”
Quality-assurance tools are being used in places that weren’t a focus of previous systems. “It’s definitely grown in the last five years as people are becoming more aware of food safety in general,” says Trevor Brien, head of regional sales for Promolux Lighting International in British Columbia, which has seen an expansion of its low-UV lighting systems from retail to manufacturing settings in recent times. “There has also been a trend toward higher quality products and organic, with people spending more on maintaining freshness.”
New Tools of the Trade
As applications expand, dairy manufacturers can choose from a long list of QA products and services.
For basic product quality, which entails ensuring that the product at a given point meets a manufacturers’ specifications, there are several examples of higher-tech equipment and tools. Advanced Instruments Inc., Norwood, Mass., for instance, added to its line of analytical instruments and test kits with a new Model 4250 Cryoscope last fall. The diagnostic instrument helps users in dairy facilities measure the water content in milk and includes design features like new multi-language capability, an on-board printer, downloadable software upgrades and test results that can be stored in memory for later recalls.
Meanwhile, for products in which moisture and solid levels are key, CEM recently introduced a new SMART System for moisture/solids analysis. The system allows for on-line adjustment, includes a temperature feedback system and utilizes microwave energy versus traditional heating sources like infrared and oven technology. “The other technology takes a lot longer — these samples can dry in three to five minutes,” McManus explains, adding that the system is commonly used by dairy processors for raw product analysis, batch adjustment and final product testing for products including cheese, ice cream and milk.
As McManus points out, time is speed and so is accuracy when dealing with dairy solids. “It is used for quality but it is also used to save on ingredient costs and to maximize the usage of cream, because it is such an expensive ingredient,” she says. “They want to get the most for their money out of cream products, so it is important to monitor that.”
In addition to instruments and equipment that gauge whether or not products reflect stringent specs, processors employ various methods for detecting elements that can ultimately ruin a product. X-ray machines, for instance, have become more sophisticated in sensitivity and accuracy over the years to check for foreign objects like metals.
With the heavy emphasis on foodborne illness prevention, test kits used to determine the presence of certain microbes also have become faster and more reliable. For example, the PasLite indicator test for pasteurization verification developed by Lawrence, Mass.-based Charm Sciences Inc. helps assure processors that dairy items have been successfully and consistently pasteurized. Other recent upgrades include a new CellScan Innovate system designed to detect microbial contamination in ultra-high-temperature (UHT) and extended-shelf-life (ESL) dairy products and new RapiScreen Dairy bioluminescence-based rapid test from Celsis International, which has U.S. offices in Chicago.
Quality-assurance efforts also extend to the processing environment. Tests used to detect microbes on equipment and work surfaces have also become more advanced and rapid.
In dairy environments, even something as simple as lighting can make a big difference on product quality. For its part, Promolux offers low UV lighting for manufacturing plants and retail settings using a proprietary blend of phosphors and coatings. “A standard fluorescent light emits UV radiation that essentially has some effect on chemical reactions to light, so proteins are affected differently,” Brien explains. “Radiation can penetrate below the surface, so proteins and lipids can have some time of alternation. Some perishable products are more sensitive than others.”
Detection extends beyond the lab as well. The Optyx® 3000 Series Sorter from Walla Walla, Wash.-based Key Technology, designed to be located upstream from packaging operations, automatically detects and removes defects and foreign materials from the stream of such products as shredded cheese.
At Your Service
In addition, and often in conjunction with, investing in quality-assurance tools and tests, processors often enlist consultants to keep their QA programs running smoothly and effectively. Consultants and independent specialists provide a range of services, from initial audits to suggestions for specific tools to audits of final products.
Third-party QA specialists also regularly research and update the ways in which they help customers ensure quality at multiple levels. Steritech has upgraded on-site training programs for issues including GMPs, HACCP, sanitation and other functions as part of its in-depth consulting service, along with the development of more user-friendly reports. Recently, the company launched a certification program to recognize companies that are in substantial compliance with applicable foods safety and quality assurance standards.
Another company specializing in QA services is RQA Inc., Darien, Ill., which offers custom product development and crisis management counseling as well. “Dairy clients utilize our services for packaging supplier audits, dairy audits for on-going GMP and compliance monitoring; quantitative and qualitative consumer sensory research; product retrieval of samples from the market for on-going quality and compliance monitoring; and consumer complaint sample retrieval for immediate customer evaluation,” says executive vice president Mary Ann Platt, adding that the company’s product dynamics division offer research, sensory evaluation and product development services at a newly expanded, state-of-the-art facility near Chicago.
As independent experts offer more services and as companies that supply quality assurance tools continue to push the cutting edge of science and technology, it can be pretty much assumed that QA is a term that will be tossed around dairies for a time to come. As Austin Scott points out, “The production of a safe, higher-quality product will save the facility money in the long run as they do not face the expense of possible re-work or, even worse, recalls.”
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.$OMN_arttitle="QA: Never On The QT";?>