October 23, 2018

What eggs can teach us about traceability

Shan Zhan of ABB examines what food manufacturers can learn from the 2017 Fipronil contamination scandal and provides advice on how to prevent history from repeating itself in the future.


In summer 2017, 15 EU states, Switzerland and Hong Kong were affected by the Fipronil contamination scandal. The scandal originated in the Netherlands but had global effects. Around ten million tainted eggs were imported into Germany, with not only eggs themselves being contaminated, but also egg products such as sandwich fillers. Here, Shan Zhan, Global Business Manager for Food & Beverage within the ABB Control Technologies business unit, looks at what the scandal can teach food manufacturers about the importance of traceability processes.

One of the main concerns from the scandal was that authorities in the Netherlands had become aware of the illegal use of insecticide Fipronil in November 2016, which is not fit for human consumption. Due to a series of administrative errors and a lack of collaboration between authorities, the European commission’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), was not informed until July 2017, when the eggs were pulled from shelves across Europe.

Another concern was that the two perpetrators of the crime launched their product at a farming convention in March 2016, selling it as a miracle cure for lice infestation in chickens. When poultry farmers asked about the ingredients of the product, they were told it was secret and no further questions appeared to have been asked.

Food manufacturers have a lot to learn from this crisis. From the importance of traceability and knowing exactly what is used on products from farm to fork, to keeping an accurate record of data in the case of a similar scandal, the Fipronil contamination scandal emphasizes the need for an automation system that can perform these tasks as standard.

For the supermarkets who had used the eggs in recipes for other items, fortunately, their traceability procedures were strong enough to ensure that the products could be removed from the shelves and the food chain. All food manufacturers across the world, no matter what the local regulation, should be in the very least compliant with the ISO 22005:2007 standard for traceability in the feed and food chain.

This allows organisations to accurately record data pertaining to their products, including everything from the feed being used to the ingredients and packaging, and ensures that the necessary documentation is intact. Compliance to the standard also means that the different suppliers and authorities involved are constantly kept up to date.

There are two factors to improving traceability and ensuring minimum compliance to this standard. The first is the human factor. While it is vital to have standard operating procedures for traceability (SOPs) in a food processing facility, such as scanning an ingredient on receipt, employees are often responsible for doing this. Without this, no matter how good the control system, it will never be effective. The manufacturer must therefore ensure that all staff follow SOPs, using any method they deem necessary.

The second factor to improve traceability procedures is having a complete automation control system. This should gather data from every level of automation to feed back to the central Manufacturing Execution System (MES) or Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM). The implementation of effective SOP’s as well as complete traceability is supported by the MOM system.

From the first level of automation such as sensors at the feed level, the MES must process all this information, such as the timestamp, what supplier the product has come from, and which operator has handled the product. This must then be converted into production data, for the plant manager to review.

The MOM system guides the operators and ensures that they are performing their tasks in the correct way, avoiding deviations and non-conformances. In addition, all the relevant data such as material lots, quantities, test results and process parameters are collected along the complete process to ensure complete forward and backward traceability.

Not only does this information form a useful backup in the event of a food scandal, it allows the plant manager to see where there are stoppages in production and to review quality control, for example to see how quickly perishable products pass through the plant and make it to the customer.

Having such a comprehensive log of data can ensure that the food processing facility is prepared in the event of a recall or contamination scandal. This data can then identify where products need to be destroyed, and is able to present the data to the customers and authorities. Only by leaving no gaps in data collection, and ensuring that all parts of the manufacturing process are automated and connected to the overarching system, can food manufacturers learn from the mistakes of the Fipronil scandal.