THE QA CHAIN
Follow the Ingredient
Like millions of people around the world, I enjoy having dinner at a traditional sit-down restaurant. Or, when time permits, I LOVE Chinese fast food. What can I say? It’s a guilty pleasure.
Just the other day I was in my favorite Chinese fast food place in Los Angeles, and as I was eating I thought about what kind of life this little piece of breaded, orange chicken had before it came to my table.
It’s weird what a person in Quality Assurance thinks about during their free time.
People who don’t work in the food industry rarely ask themselves the question, “[intent]What does farm to table actually look like?[/intent]”
Sometimes even the experts don’t get the full picture unless they have actually worked in those departments.
So follow me through the journey:
There are multitudes of Farms out there. However, for the sake of keeping this blog to the point, we will focus on just two types. Those that are owned (or partially owned) and operated by a large and vertically integrated company, and the regular farmer who sells his livestock to a large manufacturer.
Although many people would think that at this point in the food cycle there isn’t much need for regulation, you may be surprised to learn that farmers have strenuous guidelines to abide by.
If you ever bought an organically certified piece of meat, it’s the farmer’s job to ensure that the livestock is raised under those stringent organic regulations. Most of the time that involves compliance inspections and audits of the farm by a third-party auditor. The same types of regulations exist for any meat sold under the pretense of ABF (Antibiotic Free), Non-GMO, Hormone Free, and Free Range.
And you thought farming was easy.
On top of all of that, farmers must subject their livestock to inspection by USDA’s farming agency, as well as regularly scheduled veterinary visits. Like any other mammal on this planet, animals get sick and need medical attention. This is usually where giving an animal an antibiotic (for health nurturing purposes only) becomes the subject of many foodie blogs.
Abattoir or Processor
“Abattoir” is just a fancy word for a slaughterhouse. Earlier in my career I had the distinct “pleasure” of being sent to a slaughter facility for a few days so I could learn about meat processing. Let me just say that I have a profound amount of respect for anyone who works there.
Livestock arrive in truck loads, and within a matter of minutes they are incapacitated, blood drained, de-feathered or shaved, split into halves or quarters, and almost every single piece of that animal is washed, cleaned, and segregated for a particular purpose. Almost 100% of an animal gets used by a food processor.
All of this is takes place under the watchful eye of the USDA inspector, and sometime an in-house veterinarian. Why, you ask? Meat is inspected for signs of illnesses or diseases that could be harmful to the facility employees, or subsequently the general public (the consumer). As stated previously, the facility is regularly inspected by the USDA for health purposes, as well as for grading purposes (Think USDA Prime, Choice, and Select Beef).
Additionally, each of these facilities must have a highly qualified QA team with a well-developed HACCP plan, an incredibly strict sanitation program, and great knowledge of food microbiology for common food bacteria and pathogens.
Cutting and Sorting
Although large manufacturers that are vertically integrated (e.g Tyson, Cargill, etc.) typically do everything under one roof in regard to killing, processing, and packing, you’d be surprised how many hands a piece of meat has to go through. Cutting and packing are jobs that branch off into many directions. Let’s say that a processor has 10,000 lbs of chicken thighs (which, by the way, is a tiny amount in comparison to their throughput ability). Out of that amount they may have to de-bone them, marinate them, cut them into smaller pieces for a restaurant, package them into a retail container with a diaper (the absorbent mat), or just sell it as is to another specialty processor.
Further Processing Manufacturers
Manufacturers that specialize in this field of food are specialists that are able to meet the needs of the market place. This involves taking raw meat and turning it into a finished product for retail (Supermarkets) or food service purposes (Fast Food Restaurants).
This means that a specialty customer (Supermarket or Restaurant) will ask the manufacturer for a particular product with a specific set of requirements (e.g. Breaded chicken, which is cut into 1 inch squares, fully cooked, and needs to have a shelf life of so many days/months). This process alone may sound simple, however, it involves the following:
- R&D Chefs: Develop and create multiple samples for customer ideation purposes and establish an overall flavor profile.
- Technical Service Team: Ensures compliance with nutrition and any health related claims (e.g. Low Sodium, 0g Trans Fat, Non-GMO, Correct Nutritional Fact Panel, etc.).
- QA Team: Ensures that agreed upon physical specs, food safety and overall quality of the product when produced is up to par for the customer.
- Micro Testing: Required by the in-house QA team for food safety and shelf-life purposes.
- USDA Inspection: Ensures the product has met the US government requirements for food safety (e.g. Cooking and Chilling).
- Purchasing Team: Ensures that correct retail packaging with marketing logos is used.
Shipping to a Distribution Center
Once the product is cooked and packed, it most likely doesn’t go directly to the store. Many of the large stores have their own DC’s or distribution centers.
So how do you transport hundreds of thousands of pounds of fresh or frozen meat?
Don’t get excited. Or hungry. It’s a common industry term for a refrigerated eighteen-wheeler truck.
Before this truck even picks up a single load it must be properly washed, sanitized, and inspected by a QA Technician. Upon successful loading of a trailer, the facility personnel typically seal the trailer with a numbered (one time use) cable seal. This is to ensure that neither the trailer nor the product are tampered with during a typical 1-5 day cross-country trip. Upon arrival at the DC, the QA personnel at the distribution center conduct their own inspection for compliance (e.g. Seal integrity, temperature and condition of the trailer, product integrity, product quantity, etc.). Only then will the product be considered acceptable for storage inside the DC. The product is then stored in a pre-designated cooler (e.g. Large Freezer or Refrigerator Warehouse).
Fast Food Restaurant or Supermarket
Finally, the product is shipped to a designated supermarket or restaurant. If it is sent to a restaurant, the meat is cooked in the back of the house, and sold to the guest.
If the product is sold in a supermarket, it is up to that supermarket’s stocking personnel to ensure proper storage of the product in terms of rotation and refrigeration, and then it is sold to the consumer.
[intent]All of that work just for a simple order of Chinese Orange Chicken![/intent]
Now I’m hungry again. Who’s up for some lunch? My treat.