Traceability as password
Thanks to Gamba Automazioni and Farmer, La Castellana is one of the first fodder companies to implement an efficient and modern traceability system.
By Leslie Rivara
Along the years the traceability process became one of the most dominant subjects in the agroindustrial sector. The necessity to know where a product is in a specified time, as well as, all the information regarding its production is becoming each day more important, specially in the meat sector.
After some emotional impact events relating to health, such as the dioxin problem found in some belgian farms and the well known "mad cow" disease, people involved in this sector started to be aware of some problematics latent until then.
Consumers, suddenly, realized that they were not able to know the origin and route of the food they were buying because of the loss of the historical bond of direct contact with meat producers. They also realized that they were giving blindly their trust and that they would have appreciated more the quality of products, specially of high-range and expensive ones, controlled thanks to information relative to their production.
Producers and distributors have understood that production traceability is the proof of having a high quality production system in the company; that restricting the collection of defective merchandise to the damaged production lot (for reducing collection costs and social alarm) is a great advantadge and that being able to individuate easily the problem origin helps also to identify correctly responsabilities, as well as, avoid big financial and law charges and select their own suppliers.
Finally, the public administration department realized that interventions speed and effectiveness could be highly increased when facing emergencies linked to food if the conditions for acting selectively on the recipient of the single damaged lot, as well as, on the specific chain levels were available. For this reason, some years ago the European Union started to promulgate regulations (for food and fodder, European Regulation 178/2002) in order to render production and companies traceability obbligatory for the various levels of the agroindustrial chain. Beside the European Regulation, there is an Italian traceability system companies can volountary adopt, composed of regulations elaborated by UNI (Ente Nazionale Italiano di Unificazione) constituting a practical tool for applying this work methodology. A commitee certifies, then, that the product route has been effectively documented according to those regulations and sanctions a "traceability certified" for the product or company/chain.
In the meat chain, in particular in the farms, now it is possible to trace information relating to a specified animal (breed, origin, diseases, drugs consumed, pregnancies) up to 70% but the 90% of the traceability difficulties is in the diet complexity of the breeding animals. As a matter of fact, a complete and natural diet uses around twenty products at the same time as flour, agricultural products, integrators and oil/fat. Therefore it seems that the biggest problem for applying a traceability system is in the fodder companies not only because of the high number of raw materials, flour and final products to manage, but also because of economical and cultural problems.
Many fodder companies, in fact, have dated plants still working properly and able to be automized with data collection and supervision systems only by facing high investments and difficulties. In those structures, therefore, the implementation of traceability systems is very complex. For the new ones, instead, the problem is reduced as the investment in modern and automized plants already takes into consideration the implementation costs for traceability systems.
There is also the cultural problem: operators working in the sector are traditionally far away from the technology world and moreover linked to a work methodology acquired along the years being, therefore, less disposed to adapt themselves to the new regulations. If from one side there is the problem of becoming a part of an automized world, on the other hand there is the resistance to a change considered not strictly necessary. While the first problem can be overcome thanks to the training, the second is more complex and often a long period (from 4 to 6 years) is necessary to help operators accept completely the new work methodology based on established and accurate methods for traceability correctly all the products.
La Castellana, a fodder company located in Corbetta in the province of Milan, was one of the first ones to implement an automized traceability system for all the products included in the diet of their swine breeding composed of more than 12,000 heads.
The demand to implement this system before the deadline fixed by the European Regulation 178/2002 is coherent with the company mission to guarantee complete transparency to consumers. Moreover, the traceability process gives a competitive advantadge to a company like La Castellana, which offers a high quality product letting the company be one of the suppliers of Parma Ham Cooperative. The renewal of the fodder company, as well as, its transfer to new headquarters, gave the green light to the development of an automized plant for managing all commands with a supervision system and collecting accurately all production data.
The production process, very simple at first sight, is composed of three macrophases: reception of raw materials, grinder of some of them in flour and mixing of various products for animal diets. Quantity is what renders this process complex (La Castellana produces almost 1,000 quintals of fodder per week destined to their breeding), as well as, the large amount of food to be managed and the diet diversification according to growth status (weaning, fattening) and swine typology (breeder type, meat type ...).
Lots identification was one of the bigger difficulties faced when developing the traceability system. Each raw material is identified with a different alphanumerical string according to the arrival day, typology (agricultural products, integrators, oil, etc.) and origin (the material can arrive from inside the farm of La Castellana or from an external supplier). The reception phase is very important because it is necessary to register accurately all information regarding a specified supply, identify correctly the lot and find easily, for example, the supplier. When a truck with raw materials arrives, it is weighed before and after being emptied out in order to establish the exact product weight. Then an authorized operator fills in the reception note with all information regarding the supplier, the food (type, quantity, reception date, etc.) and the silo assigned for the raw materials arrived. Finally, the truck is automatically downloaded and the silo filled. Because of the limited number of storage bins (about twenty) it may happen that various lots of the same product (for example, received in two different days) are stored in the same silo forming an accumulation of lots, that is a group of various lots of the same product. Until the silo is not completely emptied out or cleaned up, the material contained in it belongs to the accumulation of lots identified with a specific string. This procedure used by various fodder companies to optimize the available space involves a higher risk because becomes harder, if not impossible, to individuate accurately suppliers responsabilities. Therefore it is the responsability of the fodder company, which is naturally urged to avoid this procedure accumulating few lots and cleaning often the silos in order to limit the risks and be able to individuate easily the lots supplied in the manufacturing of the final product.
Some raw materials such as corn, wheat, etc. are then grinded in flour, the mixing phase for producing a specific diet starts when all recipe ingredients are ready.
It is possible to perceive by intuition the management complexity of the warehouse in charge of the coordination of the arrival, production and release of raw materials, flour coming from grinder phases, group of standard products (usually vitamins, integrators, etc.) used to produce various diets and final products passing first to the "kitchen" for adding water to finally be sent to the breeding.
Operators must follow specified procedures in order to allow the traceability system work efficiently, besides identifying all the products coming in, processing and coming out from the fodder company. Those procedures are also able to manage possible anomalies that are being classified as not serious, the ones operators may face without stopping the production, and as serious ones those in which it is absolutely necessary to stop the plant.
The implementation of the traceability system for La Castellana lasted a year plus six months to make it work efficiently. Mr. Crivelli, the owner of the fodder company, foresees that three or four years will still be necessary in order that operators "become a part" of the system, that is consider the new work methodology as normal procedures and not as something new, often unwelcome, that changes their traditional way of work. The cultural problem is hard to manage also for La Castellana, anyway according to Crivelli the way undertaken is the only solution possible, not only for adequating to the regulations but above all to render the work more transparent than ever towards a market without any trust left in meat chain companies.
The traceability system of La Castellana fodder company was developed thanks to the integration of the various levels of the enterprise information system composed, in this case, of three software: the administrative/accounting system, the production management system and the supervision system.
The last two constitute the supporting structure of the traceability system. The production management system was developed with Fyling T/R by Farmer, a company from Mantova operating historically in the production of additives and extracts special for animals which offers consultancy for traceability processes for foodstuffs, as well as, for zootechnical productions (meat, milk, eggs). The supervision system managing also the real production was developed with SUPER-FLASH, Automa's reliable development system by Gamba Automazioni, company specialized in the automation of different plants in numerous industrial sectors.
"Through Fyling, the nutritionist elaborates different fodder recipes defining the total quantity to produce and the typology of the aliments to be grinded. The software automatically optimizes the quantity of each aliment and communicates the operations to be executed to the production (raw materials to buy, flour to grind, mix to prepare and fodder to produce)", explains Ghassan Sayegh, director of Farmer's software department. The supervision system which controls both the store and the production prepares all the recipe ingredients and manages the mixing process sending to Fyling all information regarding stock, production data and final products sent to the "kitchen".
Besides receiving and sending information and data to the production management system, the supervision system manages and controls the plant as usual thanks to the presence of about 320 alarms and the possibility to let operators authorized or not through an appropriate badge, work directly on the plant through a PC (manual activation is possible for maintenance operations only).
Both the supervision and production management systems can be remotely accessed through a dial-up modem for controlling the plant and developing small modifications, if necessary.
"Both systems communicate constantly between them and are connected through an optical fibre network while the supervision system communicates with the plant S7/300 PLC through a MPI network and an Applicom board. The integration between both softwares was not that simple, not only because of technological aspects, but specially at data exchange level", points out Andrea Dioguardi from Gamba Automazioni who developed the supervision software. The bigger problem was found in the definition of data and information necessary to both levels. Today La Castellana fodder manufacturer has a high reliable, easy to use and capable traceability system, which together with the various chain levels systems follows the entire production cycle from the farm to the table, thanks to the expertise of both companies in the agroindustrial sector and the perfect team understanding when developing it.
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