Recent reports of aflatoxin contaminated peanut butter products are of major concern as they relate to how the issue of product quality is addressed by manufacturers in the country.
While regulatory authorities have acted to remove the contaminated products from the market, recalls are only the first step in addressing this issue. This is because some very important questions have not been addressed – specifically how were contaminated peanut butter products manufactured and released for distribution to the public without the contamination being detected or anticipated by the manufacturers?
‘Anticipated’ because given the manufacturer’s knowledge of the product, its potential for aflatoxin contamination, and the probable shipping and storage conditions of the finished product – was there any known possibility of aflatoxin levels increasing in manufactured peanut butter after packaging and during distribution to customers?
The answers to these questions not only provide the basis for preventing contamination issues from happening again, but also give an opportunity for manufacturers to review how they address and make improvements in product quality.
At first glance, it might be tempting to view matters pertaining to peanut butter as minor – after all, how many people in Kenya eat peanut butter? Yet, to dismiss the relatively small peanut butter market in Kenya while failing to consider the far greater risks of aflatoxin contamination across the national food chain is akin to only focusing on the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
This is because, aflatoxins from unprocessed peanuts, maize, other grains, and milk present a far greater exposure risk to the public than peanut butter.
What do we know about current aflatoxin levels in these common foods? What about other potential food contaminants such as pesticides and heavy metals? How do manufacturers of food products address these issues while ensuring the quality of their products?
As with any problem, solutions are found by addressing the root causes. For example, if the root cause in the current peanut butter cases is raw materials (contaminated unprocessed peanuts) and it is known that peanuts have a high incidence of aflatoxin contamination, then a manufacturer of peanut-based products must put in place controls to evaluate the levels of the contaminant in incoming unprocessed peanuts.
The focus of this article pertains to manufacturing, but it should be mentioned that a finished product can only be as good as the inputs that go into its production, including the raw materials used to for its manufacture. Since aflatoxins are produced by naturally occurring moulds, it is difficult to completely eliminate them. However, aflatoxin levels can be monitored and certain practices can be taken to minimise their levels in foods to permissible limits.
Suffice to say, at this point, that if the cause of the aflatoxin contamination is locally produced peanuts, then local peanut farmers need to address the issue or else manufacturers who use peanuts as raw materials will have to decide whether to; continue to use at risk (un-tested) peanuts for manufacturing (and potentially expose consumers to health risks) until a batch of their product with higher than permissible aflatoxin levels is detected and then recalled after regulatory inspection; or only use sources of peanuts which have known and permissible aflatoxin levels; or exit the peanut-based products business. Needless to say, option 1 is unethical and therefore unacceptable.
The main goal in the country is to increase manufacturing. Product recalls do not further this objective. Product recalls mean losses. A manufacturer not only incurs recall and disposal costs of material inventory (finished goods and raw materials), but manufacturing of the recalled product has to cease until the problem is resolved. The manufacturer’s brand value takes a hit, and in severe cases declines in the business due to diminished product sales may lead to job losses.
No one wins in this equation – not the manufacturer; not the customer (who is exposed to potential health risks); not the public which experiences a loss of confidence in the food security chain as well as the adverse effects of lost employment opportunities; and certainly not the government which experiences a drop in tax revenues if company revenues decline.
How can food manufacturers address this issue? By utilising quality improvement practices and systems that have been proven to reduce the incidents of defective products across many industries. Examples of quality improvement practices include quality risk management, six sigma, and lean manufacturing. One of the fundamental principles in manufacturing quality products is that quality cannot be tested into a product – quality instead, must be built into a product by design.
What is required from manufacturers? Firstly, a manufacturer must make a commitment to improving the quality of its products on a continuous basis. The entire company, including top management, must completely embrace a quality mindset. Manufacturers need to train and educate their employees in quality improvement approaches and techniques.
These approaches include solving (and preventing) problems in manufacturing using systematic and methodical procedures. Quality improvement techniques require thoroughly investigating the root cause of any problem that occurs in the manufacturing process and then identifying corrective and preventative actions to prevent the problem from reoccurring.
Contaminated, sub-standard or otherwise defective products arise from a lack of control by a manufacturer over of one or more of the “6Ms”: 1) man (the people involved in manufacturing a product); 2) materials (the components or ingredients used to make to the product); 3) machines (the equipment used to manufacture and package the product); 4) methods (the procedures used to manufacture and package the product); 5) measurements (the tests performed on the product to assess its quality); and 6) mother nature (the environmental conditions, for example the temperature and humidity in which a product is stored).
If a manufacturer, for example, traces aflatoxin contamination to materials, then the manufacturer must investigate why, when, where and how it purchased the contaminated raw material. It also has to put in place measures to rectify the issue and bring the process into a state of control by ensuring that it takes steps to ensure that contaminated raw material is not purchased again. This usually involves conducting raw materials risk assessments, developing appropriate specifications for raw materials, auditing and agreeing with raw material suppliers that only raw materials meeting specification will be accepted, and testing or assessing incoming raw material for potential contaminants before they are used in the manufacturing of finished products. Additionally, because storage time and conditions can contribute to aflatoxin levels, the manufacturer should conduct storage stability tests to assess the risk of aflatoxin levels rising post-manufacturing taking into account the stated shelf-life of the finished product. Similar stability assessments would also apply to incoming raw material and in-process goods.
Arguments that the implementation of quality improvement practices is too costly for manufacturers fail to take into account the bigger picture – the far larger costs and long term impacts that a company will face from experiencing product quality issues, lost revenues from product recalls, losses from purchasing defective raw materials and erosion of brand reputation. If anything manufacturers who make quality improvements will reduce the incidence of quality defects, eliminate wasteful procedures and increase brand value thereby becoming more efficient, productive and profitable. These are the companies that will be able to compete successfully in 21st century manufacturing.
Nasser N. M. Nyamweya, Lecturer, Industrial Pharmacy Co-ordinator, Department of Pharmaceutics and Pharmacy Practice, School of Pharmacy, University of Nairobi.