This guest blog comes to us from Megan Ray Nichols of Schooled by Science.

Keeping its food, beverage and pharmaceutical supply chains clean, efficient and lean is one of the most important challenges for advanced and developing economies. Findings published by Fortune indicate that spoiled food and foodborne illnesses make 48 million Americans sick every year and cost our economy $55.5billion annually in wasted spending, lost productivity, product liability, medical expenses and much more.

It's also a challenge that must be met one warehouse at a time, as employees and managers commit themselves to best practices and explore new tools and technologies to reduce product handling times and reduce the risk of spoilage. Here's what you should know.

Adopt a Pick-to-Voice Warehouse Management System

Just about all warehousing and product handling operations rely on speedy and accurate order picking to get shipments out the door and headed to their destination. In the food and beverage industry, this is an especially vexing challenge, as mis-picks and mis-shipments of foods and beverages are more than an inconvenience for the parties involved. It could also mean the product is past its prime or even spoiled before the error is corrected.

More and more warehouses are adopting pick-to-voice warehouse management systems for order picking. It works like this:
  • Instead of glancing at information on paperwork or a physical scanner, warehouse employees receive spoken directions on their way to the appropriate pick location in the warehouse.
  • Once there, the employee reads aloud the SKU number, or the last several digits, and voice recognition verifies they have retrieved the correct product from the correct racking location.

Choosing a voice-directed picking system brings several benefits. As mentioned, operators in your warehouse don't need to glance between paperwork and their surroundings, which is a boost for safety. Moreover, some warehouses that have adopted this technology have seen their rate of picking orders and/or mis-shipments fall by a stunning 80 to 90 percent.
Compared with a pick-to-light system, which has employees picking from bins called out by illumination, the pick-to-voice system requires no expensive retrofit for your warehouse racking.

Consider "Flow-Through" and Automated Sorting

Many products have finite shelf lives, such as foods, beverages, and medicines. Given this degree of perishability, the goal for warehouse and distribution center managers lies in reducing the time required to transport, de-palletize, re-palletize and otherwise stage these products for the next phase of their journey.
What, exactly, is flow-through sortation? It involves the following:
  • Autonomous vehicles bring products from the receiving area to the staging area in the order they were received.
  • In lieu of human material handlers, automated de-palletizing equipment breaks down pallets into case packs or individual products.
  • Additional material handling equipment re-palletizes as needed or uses totes and roll cages to assemble orders destined for store shelves.

According to some evangelists in the industry, adopting an automated flow-through sortation system could reduce the number of days required to receive, stage, re-palletize and re-ship perishable goods from 11 days to just two. It's hard to understate the value of eliminating that much time and employee effort from these kinds of daily, repetitive tasks — and it means a lot less time to have food items sitting around in your warehouse.

Keep Warehousing Sanitation Best Practices in Mind

Under the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, warehouses and other facilities that store and distribute food products are required are required to re-register with the FDA every two years. It also establishes guidelines outlining the circumstances in which the FDA may deem it necessary to officially inspect facilities like these. For example, warehousesthat distribute product to multiple U.S. states sometimes find themselves in the cross-hairs of a surprise FDA inspection.
The good news is, most of the best practices you can implement for acing your next FDA inspection are good for business all around. By keeping the following principles in mind, you can ensure your facility is in top shape, that it's ready to be inspected, and that it has minimized the risk of food spoilage:

  • Design and stick to a regular warehouse sanitation schedule and maintain records of your cleaning efforts so inspectors can refer to it as needed.
  • Make personal hygiene an inextricable part of new hire training. Warehouse employee turnover is high, so don't let cleanliness get lost in the shuffle.
  • The law requires that any additions or changes to pest control regimens in warehouses undergo regular reporting every three months. This includes efforts to eliminate insects, birds, rodents and other pests — as well as any changes to your structure to reduce animal incursions.

FDA cleanliness guidelines and regulations are far from frivolous. Gaps in window frames, leaks in your foundation or along the roof, standing water near your building, and the use of harsh pesticides and cleaning agents nearby can all pose health risks to your product and attract pests.
Take the time to carry out regular inspections of your own, perhaps with the help of a professional, to ensure your facility is as clean and well-maintained as you can make it, in advance of any federal or state-level interventions or inspections.

Know Your Product — And Take a Multi-Pronged Approach to Warehouse Food Storage

One of the final warehouse food storage tips you need to remember is to "know your product." A thorough labeling system will help you avoid storing incompatible products together, reduce cross-contamination and ensure you don't end up triggering your customers' allergies — or worse. Oxidationcan also be a threat while storing meat products. When it comes to food, appearance is one of the most important factors for shoppers. But deploying antioxidants is about more than visual appeal — it's also about keeping food fresh for longer.

Solving the expensive and dangerous problem of food spoilage in our warehouses requires a multi-pronged approach. Today, we've seen some of the emergent technologies used in modern warehouses to improve process accuracy as well as some of the mundane tasks that get overlooked sometimes, like regular cleaning and property maintenance, that can affect the integrity of your product and your reputation. Take the time to familiarize yourself with your options as well as the relevant regulations in your state to ensure your facility remains productive and above reproach.

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