Founded in 1895, Sokol and Company has seen a lot of changes in the food industry throughout the years. But by producing a diverse range of products to meet consumers’ shifting demands, the company has stood the test of time and now makes a variety of retail and industrial products, including salsas, jams, peanut butters, anchovy products, and ice cream flavors and bases.
Based in Countryside, Illinois, the company produces roughly 150 products in its 100,000-sq-ft manufacturing warehouse and facility. Because many of the products meet specific dietary restrictions or specifications, such as halal, kosher, gluten-free and organic products, a robust allergy program is in place along with a variety of certifications.
Due to these specialty products, the plant is audited by both customers and regulatory parties. Because many of these audits are unannounced, it is essential for the company to be in a constant state of readiness. Thus, Sokol and Company has maintained exceptional SQF ratings of 96 or above year after year. The plant has been SQF Level 3 for nine years. And in 2017, it was awarded SQF Practitioner of the Year.
FSMA and the process of alignment
Because the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was the largest reform to food safety law in more than 70 years, many food and beverage companies struggled to meet the new requirements. Even though strong food safety and quality programs were in place at Sokol, the company found that the process of becoming FSMA compliant was rigorous, extensive and, at times, tedious, requiring a lot of paperwork and time to locate information needed to prepare for audits.
“One of the biggest problems I experienced with audits was tackling the paperwork problem,” says Bridgette Krueger, director of food safety and quality assurance. “We had a lot of documentation, and to fix an issue or address an additional customer inquiry — that’s additional paperwork. So, not only was it hard for our production team to get through everything, it took a really long time to review all the documents and make sure everything’s in spec.”
To be FSMA compliant, management realized Sokol and Company needed a solution that could keep necessary information for audits readily available and make retrieving it less labor intensive. Plus, maintaining paperwork on more than 150 products was unwieldy and had the potential for documents to be misplaced, incomplete or incorrect. The company needed a way to ensure that all the missing pieces would be put into place and that no lines would be left blank or boxes would go unchecked.
The digital solution
To mitigate the risks of human error in a paper-based system and solve inefficiencies, Sokol and Company transitioned to an electronic documentation by uploading its existing forms and documents into a quality management system from SafetyChain, a supplier that offers a flexible, user-friendly software platform that captures, manages and analyzes real-time operations data.
The facility’s staff learned how to use the SafetyChain platform and were able to provide feedback from the floor, which was then factored into enhancements to tailor features to users’ needs and preferences. Overall, staff found the system to be easy to use with familiar navigation systems incorporating drop-down menus, type-in fields and check boxes. For teams on the floor, having a quick, direct, hand-held mobile solution also proved to be helpful.
While Sokol and Company has yet to fully integrate all of its systems and processes into the platform, Krueger estimates that the volume of paperwork throughout the facility has already decreased by 30-50 percent. Also, the technology implemented allowed the company to spot inefficiencies and clearly see its processes and procedures, some of which were outdated.
Krueger now has the ability to quickly and precisely identify anything that is out of spec. For instance, if equipment breaks or there is a malfunction that leads to out-of-spec results, Krueger is automatically notified, and the problem can be addressed in real time. The incident can then be noted in the system, so that when records are reviewed days, weeks or months in the future, there is a complete, unalterable log. More importantly, real-time notifications prevent any out-of-spec products from being released.
With the technology enabling records to be pulled instantly, the auditing process is also more efficient, allowing auditors to review information quickly. Having information readily available and able to be printed for review, if needed, also gives auditors the ability to spend more time on the floor.
“I’m saving my quality team time, I’m saving myself time, and hope I am saving my production staff a ton of time on paperwork,” says Krueger. During audits, Krueger can pull up data, let auditors take a look and quickly move on.
Real-time alerts prompt for missing information in documents, thus preventing surprises by discovering incomplete records upon audits. With an electronic system, records cannot be hand-edited. This helps companies ensure a defensible approach to food safety and quality.
“The technology makes things more efficient, more effective and easier,” adds Krueger.
Technology supports continuous improvement
Sokol and Company realizes there is even further potential for this technology. The company would like to use the system to go through the entire SQF Code directly within the platform. Thereafter, it will only need to be updated when new revisions to the code are released.
Also, many suppliers provide raw materials to Sokol and Company, but the company manages them manually. This means a spreadsheet must be reviewed every day to check for forms that are expiring or outstanding documents. Being able to receive a notification when a certificate is expired or a report is out of date would save time and eliminate the risk of human error. Krueger says Sokol’s quality department would like to have a master list of each material and where it comes from on a centralized repository that can be dynamic.
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