Hello, Professor Kimmich. Modern food production would be unthinkable without quality management systems, or “QM systems.” The number of new QM systems introduced since the early 1990s has shot up. What has led to this development?
The trends toward QM systems actually missed the food and beverage industry the first time around. It wasn’t until practically 100% of the big industry sectors like automobiles and electronics had gained ISO 9000 certification (and the ISO 9000 standard was no longer just a marketing instrument, but a given) that the standard started impacting business in the food industry as well. As a “lead auditor” for ISO 9000, I was in a position to witness the positive impact an effective QM system had on many clients – in terms of process management, continuous improvement processes, etc. Before everything trickled down properly to food and drinks, the trade set its own priorities with the International Food Standard, or IFS. Version 6 is now in place. It’s a standard for evaluating the quality and safety of food and drinks. Since IFS certification is a prerequisite for the trade, hardly any food and beverage companies can wriggle out of it. Initially, the IFS was purely a risk management system. Until Version 4 the focus was on hygiene. The IFS was designed to shield the trade from recalls, scandals and negative headlines. When Versions 5 and 6 came along, more elements from ISO standard 9000 were incorporated. This resulted in lots of food and beverage companies pulling out of ISO 9000 certification. As a result, ISO standard 22000 (a food safety management system) has also not become established in Europe.
At your Steinbeis Transfer Center – Quality Management in the Food Industry – which you’ve headed up for 15 years now, you work on holistic quality management concepts. Why did you decide to take a holistic approach and how is this applied to business practice?
The aim of a holistic or integrated management system is to allow the company to put a lean, pragmatic documentation system in place. This is not only to meet trade requirements (IFS 6) and requirements laid down by lawmakers (food safety, occupational health and safety, environmental protection), but also the goals of the company, especially continuous improvement processes. A good starting point is the process-based standard ISO 9001. Whether the QM system is certified under ISO 9001 is of secondary importance. The process description can be used as a basis for setting up a variety of transparent certification systems.
There’s been a sharp rise in customer expectations regarding food and drinks in recent years. What impact has this change had on QM systems? And what challenges do you think there will be for your future projects?
You have to make a distinction between the quality expectations of different target groups. In Germany, people are still less prepared to pay an appropriate price for premium quality food. Following all the recent food scandals, the main priority is that food is safe. The technology used is the most important factor. The number of people looking for organic produce is growing, however. So as a result, managing the supply chain is becoming more important. Close long-term collaboration between the growers and food companies will also gain in importance, as will traceability of foodstuffs back to the originator and how this is checked, typically using modern analytical methods.
One particular challenge for food and beverage companies is posed by allergens in food. Allergy sufferers react and have health problems even after contact with the tiniest trace of allergens. So producers of ready-made meals have to show all ingredients on the packaging. There are special declaration requirements for the main allergens like peanuts, celery and egg, even if only small amounts are needed in a recipe. If producers have to process foods with a high potential to cause allergies, they’ll face completely new analytical requirements. Production processes have to be validated to eliminate the risk of contamination from allergens. So process validation, which until now was only known in medicine production, is also becoming more important for the food and beverage industry.
Your Steinbeis enterprise also provides customers with training on QM in the food and beverage industry. What does this focus on?
The focus lies in process management (ISO 9001) and risk management (HACCP). A burning issue at the moment, which lots of mid-sized companies still don’t know much about, is sensory techniques. My background is in instrumental analysis and I never cease to be amazed at the information and detail a trained sensory panel can provide during an assessment. At big food companies, the sensory function is the hub other departments revolve around. At this point it’s worth mentioning our sensory labs at Albstadt-Sigmaringen University. As part of our degree in foods, nutrition and hygiene, we train students in sensory techniques, and we also offer courses to people from outside the university.
Hygiene plays an important role in the food and beverage industry. What sort of things are your customers asking about at the moment, what kinds of projects and services are in demand?
We looked at the distribution of topics covered in the theses produced in our bachelor’s program over the last three years (210 theses), and it clearly showed what issues are the priority for food companies at the moment. 20% of the theses were about quality management, 14% looked at nutritional issues, 13% were about hygiene topics and 10% had something to do with product development.
Prof. Dr. Reinhard Kimmich runs the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Quality Management in the Food Industry at the University of Albstadt-Sigmaringen. As well as developing holistic quality management concepts and advising clients on the introduction of QM systems, his center also provides training to people working with food and drinks, including courses and training on quality management fundamentals.
Professor Dr. Reinhard Kimmich
Steinbeis Transfer Center Quality Management in the Food Industry (Allensbach)