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Quality assurance in the supply chain

Published: 4 Oct 2021

At global supply chain service group Czarnikow, CEO Robin Cave says a philosophy of continuous improvement leads to consistency of quality.

Quality assurance is an essential part of any supply chain, and has become a top priority for both buyers and sellers in the food and beverage industry. In many instances, the quality and procurement functions are becoming merged, as they are co-dependent. When prioritised, a focus on quality reduces operational costs and business losses in the form of rejected goods, delayed shipments, storage fees, container charges, and more. Non-conformities can even bring entire operations to a halt, leading to massive losses. Such examples demonstrate the importance of quality management and the high consequences when it is ignored. 

Czarnikow is mainly owned by Macquarie Group and Associated British Foods, owner of British Sugar, and a large part of our business involves trading in the sugar industry. One of the most common quality incidents we deal with is caking, where sugar clumps and hardens as a result of excess moisture. If sugar from a supplier arrives in this condition, the buyer may reject the cargo or request numerous tests and inspections, which leads to additional costs for the supplier. 

Also, whenever customer confidence is low because of such setbacks, surveying is typically required, which incurs further costs on surveyor or laboratory services.  

This forms the foundation of my belief that controls should be built on preventative, rather than corrective, actions. Having control of a potential issue before it becomes high risk is much more manageable and cost-effective. It is important to research and anticipate potential risks in our supply chains, and ways of eliminating or mitigating the consequences. In supply chain management, it is also vital to have prerequisite controls – such as monitoring and traceability – in hand, and to check for trends in the data. For example, when faced with excessive caking in our deliveries from a new flow, we considered geographical or climatic risks, such as humidity differences, as a possible source of the problem. Knowing this, we planned better and were able to mitigate further caking incidents. 

Embracing continuous improvement 

Continuous improvement leads to consistency over time, even when some defects are not fully avoidable. We find that it is often better to maintain partnerships with historically reliable suppliers whose quality we know and understand, and to work towards closing gaps, instead of quick alternatives that may be competitive at times, but not sustainable in the long term. A new supplier may not only produce goods to a different quality, but may also have differences that impact delivery speed, documentation, and more. This is not to say we don’t work with new people – we do – but it is important to create and maintain sustainable working relationships so that quality is not destabilised, resulting in valuable resources being exhausted unnecessarily on post-trade support.  

In my role, it is important to research and anticipate potential risks in our supply chains, and ways of eliminating or mitigating the consequences

Robin Cave

In terms of transferrable skills within food quality, there are many I could mention, but these four are handy: familiarity with global quality standards, multtasking, problem-solving, and data analysis. Anyone looking for a career in quality should familiarise themselves with the ISO 9001, which is the most common and widely known quality management certification, applicable across most industries. For good manufacturing practices in the food industry, the ones to be familiar with are HACCP, BRC and FSSC22000. 

Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI)-recognised certification schemes, such as BRC and FSSC, form the basis of supplier and service provider approvals at Czarnikow Group. The world’s top food manufacturers adhere to – and typically require their counterparties to adhere to – GFSI or equivalent standards, so it is advantageous that we have modelled our quality approval system on this. It increases customer confidence in our processes and, in many cases, reduces the bottle neck of assessment and approvals, as we have already covered this step.  

Evolution and sustainability 

At Czarnikow, we have a wide portfolio of products that is constantly growing and evolving, and which ranges from sugar to food ingredients such as fruit, dairy, sweeteners and other additives. This means I am often tasked with quality issues across a range of products – and not just for food quality, but also for logistical, operational and packaging issues that impact upon quality. The products are in different forms – including solids, liquids, gels, powders and fresh fruit pieces – so every case is unique. This is where problem-solving comes in. Experience from each product category can be applicable across other sectors in an interesting way. Finally, data analysis is essential for identifying patterns of defects or nonconformances. While the data is often quite boring, boring is good in this case, as it means there is consistency.  

Currently, we use internal systems built by Czarnikow’s highly skilled IT professionals. This is uniquely built as a multifunctional tool across various departments. For example, the data is captured efficiently for use by the operational team for traceability and logistics, the quality team for capturing nonconformances and monitoring quality, the insurance team for logging claims, and so on. This also helps multiple departments to collate trends to optimise the business as a whole. 

Sustainable relationships are built, in part, by repeatability and customer confidence in our business. For this, we keep a close eye on the individuality of each customer and their needs, and build processes to ensure efficiency in all the key details, such as product specificity, logistical precision, cost-saving substitutes, and emergency programmes. 

Understanding how these areas lock together adds layers to personal and professional growth, and are key takeaways in any quality role.