Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a four-part series on electronic record keeping to enhance companies’ food safety efforts. The series is sponsored by PAR Technologies. 

Whether it be for improved business management, safeguarding against food safety compromises or ticking all the boxes to keep the FDA at bay, record keeping is the backbone to a food company keeping the lights on and remaining in operation.

Paper is still the norm… for now
According to Matthew Botos, CEO of food safety software company ConnectFood, although paper-based records are still standard within the food industry, there has been a “slow but steady movement” to digital platforms. 

“The food manufacturing industry is one of the oldest verticals. Once populations started growing and products were shipped over longer distances, there was a need for more regiment to how we told the story of why our products are safe. The food safety instructor’s mantra is: ‘if you have not documented it, you have not done it,’” explains Botos.

“Paper was the natural way to record times, temperatures, and other metrics that show a company is delivering a safe food product. It has always seemed to be the easiest medium to scribble notes of the product onto and sign off quickly. Given the age of the food industry, we find it’s only now starting to think about investments in technology.”

Digital antidotes for headaches
To stay in compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act, a company must be able to turn over at least two years of its food safety records to the FDA upon request. This is to prove activities such as monitoring and verification within a food safety plan have properly occurred. On condition that records are legible and organized, the FDA will accept them in digital or paper formats. According to Botos, the ability to search for specific information with ease and identify patterns makes digital a more efficient system.

“Think about finger printing – comparing old paper records to data taken from a crime scene was so much more difficult prior to having digital records that can be searched and produced in seconds,” he explains.

“It is the same concept with digital recordkeeping: we will now be able to produce reports and adjust manufacturing on the fly to have a safer and more secure food supply. Digital records are the future of food safety documentation because they are quicker, more accurate, and more efficiently searched in the case of an inspection.”

While keeping track of years’ worth of records to hand over to FDA inspectors in a timely manner comes with its own unique challenges when navigating paper-based filing systems, it also limits accessibility. This is one area food companies find digital records stored on the cloud much more beneficial.  

“At the end of every day you can use technology to automatically review your manufacturing reports to make sure that everything was within tolerances,” adds Botos. “You will be able to easily compare lot codes to times of manufacturing and be able to compare many data points such as flavours, pH levels, times, temperatures, and many other factors to assure product safety and quality.”

Paper does have its uses
Before buying a shredder and going completely paperless, companies need to recognize the benefits of utilizing paper records in conjunction with digital, advises Donna Kristine Manley, president of Food Safety Advisor. Manley is a food safety auditor and consultant with a specialty in records management. 

“In my experience, both hard copy and electronic records are good to have. I don’t believe in just having all electronic records because of computer problems, i.e., computer crashes,” explains Manley. According to her, paper records are especially useful when reviewing temperature logs. “You can always recognize through hand writing who documented temperatures and there is more accountability.”

Making the transition
One of the reasons the movement to digital records has been steady is due an unwillingness to step out of comfort zones, concludes Botos.

“There are several reasons for this hesitation from food companies. The first being that once you are comfortable with a certain way of doing things, it is often difficult to transition to a new way of doing them. What is tried and true is what you innately want to stick with,” says Botos.

“Who would have thought that texting would be such a powerful tool twenty years ago?  Digital record keeping is a similar trend that I am confident will take over. We all carry small, powerful data recorders and super computers on our person every minute of every day. I guarantee you that we will continue to increase their use in recordkeeping.”

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