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Achieving suitable export quality in processed food products.

Adhering to the quality requirements of target markets is essential for successfully exporting processed food products. Such products must comply not only with official product standards and regulations in the import market but also the specifications of buyers and the preferences of consumers. To achieve food products of a suitable export quality, processing firms in developing countries should have a thorough knowledge of these various requirements and set up the necessary arrangements in their companies to meet them.

Quality considerations should be kept at the forefront of all of the firm's operations, from the receipt of the raw materials for the production of the product through the final distribution of the export product, in order to obtain the desired quality level over the long term for selling successfully in export markets.

Sources of defects

Defects in finished food products can be traced to different causes, including substandard raw materials, insufficiently trained and motivated staff, and inadequate processing methods.

Examples of defects are cans of processed food that are dented, rusting or bulging; dehydrated products such as dried fruit that are mushy, browning, poor in texture or discoloured; and packaged food that is contaminated with foreign matter or that weighs less or more than the requirement. Defects of this type are not acceptable in export markets.

The sources of such problems relate to the factors below. Raw materials:

Most of the raw materials used in processed food deteriorate over time. The quality of the materials determines to a large extent the quality of the finished export product. Raw materials of a poor standard cannot be expected to give a final product of high quality, even with the best processing methods. Understanding the nature of the raw materials that go into a given food product and of their possible defects is, therefore, an essential step in building quality into that export product. Likewise, a thorough understanding of the likely effects of defective raw materials on both processing efficiency and the quality of the finished item is important. A description and classification of defects in raw materials can be useful in establishing a company approach to controlling them.

Defects in raw materials used in food products can originate at the growing site, during transport and at the warehouse of the food-processing plant. Such defects can be classified as follows:

* Mechanical damage: caused by inadequate handling on the farm, en route to the plant or at the plant. Example: bruises on fresh bananas.

* Insect infestation: occurring on the growing site, during transport or in storage. Example: insect holes in fresh fruit.

* Microbiological contamination and chemical changes: hastened by mechanical damage and insect infestation. Examples: rot in damaged fruit; sliminess in frozen chicken.

* Genetic and other physiological defects: mainly resulting from inadequate farm management. Examples: curved cucumbers; misshapen papaya.

Each of the above defects, when found to a large extent in raw materials, can greatly affect the yield and efficiency of the food-processing operation. For instance, the use of damaged fruit for producing diced fruit in syrup lengthens the processing time and reduces the yield. The damaged areas of fruit first have to be removed, thereby delaying processing, reducing the volume of raw material available for processing and cutting the yield.

In addition to the types of defects above, food processors should ensure that the materials do not contain foreign elements, such as additives, preservatives and similar substances that can have a significant effect on quality and that may represent potential health risks for consumers.

Food manufacturers should deal only with reliable suppliers of ingredients and should carefully control the products that they buy from them.

Along with food raw materials, the selection of packaging is important. Defects in package design can make the packaged product unacceptable to the foreign buyer and can also seriously shorten the product's shelf-life. A food product that is initially of high quality can be rendered unacceptable in the export market simply by the wrong choice of package. Personnel:

The staff's commitment to their work and their ability to perform their tasks well are also important considerations in a food manufacturer's quality control programme. Defects in finished products are often traceable to the negligence of those working in the food-processing chain. Poor handling of perishable materials and the lack of attention to equipment upkeep and plant operations inevitably cause product defects.

Failure of production personnel to follow good manufacturing practice, especially in maintaining high standards of personal hygiene while on the job, is also a major cause of defects in food manufacture, with repercussions on export performance. In-process problems:

Many problems of quality loss in food products result from an insufficient understanding of the processing methods and from the use of inadequate machines. It is important for a food manufacturer to check the capability of the plant's machines to meet requirements, before the company embarks on a new export production venture. The use of a defective sealing machine, for instance, is highly detrimental in any canning operation.

Machine breakdowns are a major cause of product defects, particularly in small companies. In food processing, these breakdowns and the subsequent delays in processing can lead to the deterioration or even spoilage of raw materials. Delays can become particularly detrimental if spare parts are not immediately available for repairs. The lack of spare parts has frequently been a reason for the occurrence of defects in food products.

Plant sanitation is likewise a key to producing quality food products. Food-processing operations should never be carried out in a hot, humid atmosphere and on unclean plant premises. Wet, unswept floors and inadequate ventilation should be avoided. Screens are necessary on windows to keep out insects and foreign matter that could contaminate food. Poor sanitary conditions will lead to rejection of the plant's output in the export market.

Measuring defects

In export companies with a well organized quality control system, the characteristics desired in a given raw material, intermediate product and finished export product are defined, and the means of measuring them are stipulated in a manual of specifications, which also serves as a basis for controlling defects. The procedures for identifying defects and taking corrective action are described below. Raw materials:

Warehouse personnel should note the date of receipt of all incoming materials on the individual containers. They should also visually inspect the containers and segregate and mark any shipments received in bad condition.

The company's laboratory technicians should then sample, inspect and label the raw materials. The materials should be sampled according to established sampling plans. For raw materials requiring microbiological testing, samples should be drawn from all of the lots. For other materials samples should be drawn from at least the first five deliveries.

In carrying out the tests on the raw materials, the laboratory technicians should use methods prescribed in the company specifications for raw materials or contained in recognized international or foreign national standards. They should note the test results in a record book. Each analyst should keep such a record as well as a file on the analytical background data and the computations involved. After the analysis has been completed, an analytical report should be prepared.

Based on the analysis, several courses of action are possible concerning the raw material:

* Approved: if it passes all specified test requirements.

* Restricted: if the material is found to require special handling, complete inspection, reworking or reprocessing in accordance with an approved procedure, after which it should be resubmitted for approval.

* Hold: if the material is to be subjected to a trial run because of the presence of properties that go beyond the specifications.

* Rejected: if the material fails to meet the specifications.

The materials should be retagged in accordance with the decision taken.

Only approved materials should be issued to the production department. If possible, all materials placed on hold should be moved to a quarantine area; no material should be moved out of that area without the approval of a quality assurance officer. Rejected materials must also be segregated and marked, indicating the reason for rejection.

Each lot or batch of material should be assigned a control number (a chronological number), which is entered in a master ledger. The master ledger must also contain the following information for each delivery: item received; receiving report number; source or supplier; quantity; date received; date released; expiry date; reference in the laboratory analysis book; name of analyst; follow-up action.

The stocking practice of "first-in-first-out" should be followed in the warehouse, especially for materials with a limited shelf-life. All containers must be thoroughly cleaned before being handed over to the processing department. Operators and processors should examine the materials immediately after the containers are opened. Any doubt about the appearance or quality of the material needs to be reported at once to the immediate supervisor or to the designated quality assurance officer. Processing stages:

Assessment for quality compliance should also be carried out during the various processing stages. If a defective product is observed at a critical stage in production, that item should be rejected.

At the end of the processing line, finished products should be sampled. This is a "go or no-go" stage, and items not meeting specifications should be removed from the stock.

Good lots should be packaged, labelled and transferred to the export warehouse.

Quality audits should also be carried out at the packaging stage and while the products are in storage awaiting export. When possible quality checks should likewise be undertaken upon arrival in the export market.

Production quality controllers and quality auditors play a key role in a company's quality control system. They are responsible for ensuring that approved procedures are followed and that the materials at all stages conform to technical and quality specifications.

Preventing defects

To prevent defects in exported food products, processing firms should draw up specifications for their products, based on requirements in the export markets, and set down the necessary procedures for meeting them. The requirements specified may be equal to, or more stringent than, a given standard or technical regulation in the foreign market (standards are minimum requirements that an export product must comply with). Exports of food products must comply with all mandatory standards first. Any other additional requirements are designed mainly to increase the product's marketability to foreign buyers. Market requirements:

Information on the foreign market is needed before the specifications can be established. One of the first steps in developing specifications for food products is a thorough understanding of the characteristics desired by the foreign buyer. Some questions that should be studied:

* Who is the target consumer for the food item in the market (age, sex, economic status and so on) ?

* What is the probable response of that consumer to the product ? What are the characteristics that are critically important to that consumer for the type of product concerned ?

* What is (or would be, in the case of new products being developed) the position of the company's product relative to those of competitors in the foreign market? The export firm should identify the brands and characteristics of competing products and make a comparative assessment of their quality characteristics.

* What are the features that could (or already) make the product superior to the other similar food products in that market ?

* What is the shelf-life of the product? What are the conditions required for storing it? Based on this research, specifications can be formulated. This process should ideally precede export product development, as knowledge of the likely level of consumer satisfaction is of utmost importance in planning large-scale export production of a food item. Company specifications:

A food-processing firm should next establish company specifications for its raw materials, production processes and the finished product, taking into consideration existing standards and regulations in target markets and also international standards. Examples are those of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the Codex Alimentarius as set down by the Joint Food Standards Programme of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), and those recommended b the UN Economic Commission for Europe. Without specifications, no serious quality control activity can take place. Unfortunately, most small food-processing plants give this matter little attention and produce export products of varying quality.

For raw materials: The quality of the raw materials used in food processing should be properly defined and clearly understood. Specifications for these materials are useful for preventing variations in the quality of fresh produce received and also changes in the products during storage. As produce is not always graded according to standards, food processors should develop their own specifications for such raw materials. In defining the quality characteristics that they require, processors should take into consideration features important to the foreign consumers, such as appearance, size and extent of mechanical damage. Equally significant are qualities related to the processing operation, such as the physical state and chemical composition of the materials.

For processes: In-process specifications refer to the requirements that must be adhered to by intermediate products during processing and particularly to those that have critical effects on the quality of the final export product. They form an integral part of the quality control system and are specific to different processing methods, conditions and products. Among the most common specifications to be used during food processing are the following:

* Operating instructions: settings for timers, pressure and temperature gauges, and the like.

* Temperature: As temperature is a critical factor in food preservation, it should be carefully monitored during the entire processing operation, particularly for such treatments as canning, drying, freezing and curing.

* Time: The length of time that a food product stays in the processing line strongly affects the quality of the finished product.

* Weights and proportions: The use of wrong weights and proportions can affect the flavour of a product, as well as its performance. Exceeding quantitative specifications may result in under-processing, thereby shortening the final product's shelf-life in the target market, raising the number of rejects and reducing the total output. Going below requirements, on the other hand, can lead to over-processing, damaging the product's appeal to the foreign buyer.

* Physical and chemical properties of the food product as it goes through processing: Properties such as colour, pH (degree of acidity or alkalinity) and moisture content change in a predictable manner during processing. Their measurement is therefore a useful guide in monitoring the processing operation.

For the finished product: The quality of a finished export product depends on the extent to which the raw material and processing specifications have been adhered to. It is also affected by the degree to which the product has the characteristics that meet the requirements of both the foreign buyers and governmental regulations in the foreign market. The specifications for finished food products should relate to these characteristics. Specifications should take into consideration the kind of product, the country in which it is to be exported and the importer's requirements.

Some of the major factors for which quality specifications should be set for finished food products:

Sensory characteristics: These, which relate to the aroma, flavour, colour and texture of the finished food product, are affected by the quality of the raw materials and the correctness of the processing methods. The use of raw materials that do not meet specifications will certainly result in finished items of a low standard.

Appearance: This is a sensory quality that refers to the overall physical features of the product, including size, shape, colour and texture.

Chemical indices of product quality: These concern chemical measures of the sensory properties of the food products. For instance, the content of free fatty acids in fried food serves as an index of the degree to which rancidity has set in.

Levels of additives: The use of additives in foods has attracted much attention, with the result that many countries have issued regulations governing them. Food processors are now required to declare any additive on their food labels. They are likewise obliged to adhere strictly to the maximum allowable actual or residual levels of additives.

Microbiological indices of quality: These are of two kinds. One is counts for the presence of spoilage organisms (for instance mould), which are an indication of the sanitation measures and processing methods of the food processor. The other is counts of disease-causing organisms (such as salmonella), which also reflect the level of sanitation in the processing operation.

Extraneous material: Among such substances are insects, stones, dust, dirt and twigs that get into food because of poor plant sanitation. These are obviously undesirable elements in food products and must be highly controlled.

Quantity of contents: This refers to the net weight, net volume or, for solid products in liquid, the drained weight.

State of the packaging: Factors concerned are the cleanliness of the packaging, whether the packs are broken or torn, if seals leak and so on.

Accuracy of the label: The label

must show all of the information required by law or used according to trade practice in the export market.

Shelf-life: "Open-dating" or "consume before" dates are required in some countries to specify the length of time that the product remains usable, especially for items such as canned goods, frozen foods, dairy products and fruit juices.

Miflora M. Gatchalian is an ITC consultant on export quality management who is currently serving as Chief Technical Adviser with an ITC project in Asia on pre-shipment inspection and quality assurance. This article is based on a fortcoming ITC manual that she wrote, Quality Control for the Food Industry: An Introductory Handbook.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Trade Centre UNCTAD/GATT
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Gatchalian, Miflora M.
Publication:International Trade Forum
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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