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Another top five trouble-shooting tips

Most technical people working in the food industry will at some time be involved in trouble-shooting activities. Wayne Morley, head of Food Innovation at Leatherhead Food Research, outlines another set of five tips for trouble shooting. See his first five tips The first five of my top 10 trouble-shooting tips:

  1. Keep it simple
  2. Microscopy starts with the eye
  3. Analytical tests
  4. Compare with ‘good’ product
  5. Don’t trust the specification

Wayne MorleyThe remaining five tips, starting with perhaps the biggest and most difficult challenge, finding out what has changed.

Tip 6 – What’s changed?

If the quality changes to an unacceptable extent after producing a product for a long time, then something must have changed. So, as well as getting started on the various trouble-shooting tests described here and elsewhere, it is important to try and find out what has changed. Of course everyone will tell you that nothing has changed, so you will need to keep asking and digging deeper until you find something.

The first place to look is the ingredients. I previously described in Tip 5 the difficulties that can be encountered in identifying the critical ingredient specification parameters, and it is doubly difficult to identify a change to a parameter that has not been specified! For example, it may be that the manufacture of an ingredient has transferred from one factory to another, which happened to me in the case of a particular grade of carrageenan. The material from the new factory did not work as well as that from the old factory.

As well as the ingredients, you should look for changes in the manufacturing arrangements for the product in question. For emulsion-based products, homogenisation is a key processing step and high-pressure homogenisers in particular should be replaced with care. The new homogeniser for example may require different pressure and temperature settings to result in the same product quality.

Finally in the ‘what’s changed’ section you should consider the packaging. The packaging is of course the ‘skin’ of the product, protecting it from the outside environment. It therefore follows that any change to the materials or composition, especially for multiple-layered laminated packaging, may result in the quality of the product changing at a different rate. Even changing from a plastic to paper tamper-evident feature may be important.

Tip 7 – Storage abuse

Changes in product quality resulting from abuse during storage and transport may be considered to be an extension of Tip 6 as changes here are likely to be important.

The quality of a product changes from the time of manufacture through to consumption, and the best that product developers can hope for is that these changes are controlled and reproducible. This may not be the case, however, if the product is subjected to elevated temperatures, temperature cycling, or excessive shear action such as shaking. This even extends to sending samples to labs for trouble-shooting diagnosis – it is no good sending a chilled product by ambient courier as further uncontrolled changes will occur!

Tip 8 – Consumer mis-use

Consumer complaints may be described as a ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ as the unacceptable product quality may have nothing to do with the ingredients, manufacturing, or anything else in the control of the producer.

The storage by the retailer or the consumer may be at fault, and it is also important to consider whether the consumer has read the on-pack instructions or not. This applies to the storage time and temperature, and cooking instructions if appropriate, and all of this information should be easily understood by the consumer.

If you can establish that the consumer has abused the product and therefore is at fault for the poor quality, you can politely explain how to do better next time, although you may still have to provide compensation to avoid bad publicity!

Tip 9 – Malicious contamination

The ‘compensation culture’ that exists these days may encourage consumers to complain about product defects that they know were not caused by the producer, and in some cases the contamination may even be deliberate.

Glass contamination is a classic example. All factories will have glass control procedures and those that do not use glass as a packaging material may ban it completely from the manufacturing environment. Any glass complaint should therefore be investigated to determine the type of glass and the likely source, and compensation should not be paid if it can be demonstrated that the glass is from the consumer’s home.

Further, it is extremely difficult for insects to get into food packs so for thermally-processed foods it is a good idea to determine whether the insect has been ‘cooked’ or not. If not then it is likely again to have come from the consumer’s home.

Tip 10 – Don’t be afraid of a quick fix

The final tip is a plea to not be too precious about your product or packaging, even if they have taken you many years to perfect! If you can identify a quick solution during your trouble-shooting activities, even if it is not the root cause of the problem, then my advice is to accept this and implement it without delay.

Many years ago a fault developed with a product that I was responsible for, however the product formulation was due to be changed anyway so it was not necessary to resolve the fault as it was more important to concentrate on getting the new product right. In any case the new product contained less fat, was more preferred by consumers, and resulted in fewer complaints than the old one, so everyone was happy!

Earlier article: Top five trouble-shooting tips

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