When it comes to food packaging, food safety and quality are the top priorities. Even though there are sufficient food packaging regulations, standards and guidelines in place to protect consumers, there is still room to go above and beyond industry standards to improve food safety and quality. At GSC Packaging (www.gscpackaging.com), we are looking to the pharmaceutical industry for inspiration on raising the bar on food safety and quality.

Rising to the top

The product safety and quality requirements for pharmaceutical packaging is often more stringent and extensive than requirements for food packaging. Pharmaceutical products that are improperly produced, mislabeled, incorrectly packaged or mishandled carry a high risk of causing harm to consumers, especially since many pharmaceutical products go directly to the bloodstream. Even though many of the pharmaceutical regulations, standards and guidelines are not imposed on the food packaging industry, food safety and quality can be improved by applying select pharmaceutical best practices to the food packaging industry.

Below are some examples of areas where pharmaceutical best practices can be applied to improve food safety and quality.

Internal audit programs

Taking a proactive approach to internal audits is one way to raise the food safety and quality bar. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducts audits at food packaging plants periodically; however, the FDA does not require food packaging facilities to conduct internal audits in addition to the external FDA audits. While internal audits are not required, they are key in detecting and correcting deficiencies before they affect consumers, which is why GSC Packaging has instituted a voluntary monthly internal audit program. Audits are not announced to employees and they take place at various times. If any deficiencies are found during an audit, the auditor issues a formal report. Formal follow up procedures are then followed to address the issue. Though not required, this best practice closely reflects the pharmaceutical industry, where voluntary monthly, quarterly and bi-annual internal audits are more commonplace.

Contamination and food safety

One of the most effective ways to fight food contamination is to isolate products into separate rooms that only handle one specific product at a time. This is a best practice frequently used in the pharmaceutical industry. However, many food packaging facilities have multiple packaging machines in a single room. Having multiple products in the same room increases the opportunity for cross-contamination. Providing dedicated lines in separate rooms can reduce cross-contamination opportunities drastically.

In addition to isolating products, limiting the number of people who have access to a product while it is exposed is also key in preventing contamination. Although multiple people are allowed in a packaging room while a machine is operating according to industry standards, GSC Packaging designed its 100,000-square-foot facility to limit the number of people in each room by moving secondary packaging activities to a space outside of the primary packaging room. The packaged products travel through a small opening in the wall to a separate secondary packaging area. This also allows GSC Packaging to provide separate entrances for employees who fill products and employees who provide secondary packaging services to further limit the number of people in areas where food products are exposed.

Warehousing, inventory and distribution

Warehousing, inventory and distribution are an important part of the food packaging process. Even though packages are sealed by this point, stringent food safety and quality procedures must still continue. GSC Packaging uses a pharmaceutical best practice of “quarantining” products, which includes caging products that have not yet been tested or approved so they are not mistakenly shipped. Caging products is also useful for sequestering products that have been found to have a defect. In addition to caging, products that have not been tested or approved to ship also receive a large “quarantine” label, which is changed once products are approved to ship.

Customer service, communication and complaints

Formalizing communication processes is also a pharmaceutical industry best practice that can improve the safety and quality of food. GSC Packaging has developed a formal process for receiving and responding to all communication from customers, including complaints or reports of defects. The process includes strict guidelines on who receives the communication, as well as designated response times for launching investigations when necessary. The investigation process has also been formalized and is documented. Follow up procedures are documented, and a response is sent to the customer who submitted the inquiry. All complaints and inquiries are handled using the same standardized process to ensure effective and efficient communication.

Security and access control

A proactive approach to security and access control can prevent many food safety issues from occurring in the first place. At the ground level, this begins with an access control system that controls who is allowed in a packaging facility. At GSC Packaging, access cards limit employee access into sensitive areas to the hours the employee is scheduled to work. In addition to access control, security cameras add another layer of protection. Even though it is not required by the FDA, GSC Packaging has cameras in each individual room that contains a packaging machine for added security. This level of security is even above and beyond the practices of many pharmaceutical packaging facilities, but it represents another way to improve food safety and quality.

About the authors

Bob Shapiro is the CEO and founder of GSC Packaging. Marisol Garcia is the Director of Quality. GSC isnationwide provider of turnkey contract packaging and secondary packaging solutions for powdered food products, drink mixes, supplements, and diet products. The company specializes in stick packs, stand up and other popular flexible pouch formats. For more information, visit www.gscpackaging.com.