Millers premium on quality
Last year BSE brought home the importance of maintaining consumer confidence. Amanda Dunn visited Allied Mills in Knottingley to see How it plans to maintain trust amongst its customers
DEMANDS on growers for tighter quality control and assurances of food safety are being driven by customer demand, insists Allied Mills.
"Our clients are constantly demanding tighter and tighter specifications," says Charlie Fillingham, wheat director of Allied Mills. "We need to supply them with the quality product they request, which means consistently meeting the criteria they dictate and constantly assuring them of product safety.
"In order to achieve this we need to be confident of our own supplies.
"Wheat in itself is not a product – it is a raw material and we fully understand that. To introduce tight constraints over wheat specification is impossible and impractical. To an extent, blending can accommodate variable intake quality. But what we do need to be sure of, and what is an issue with our customers, is product safety.
"In short, we want to give McDonalds confidence that their flour doesnt have to come from Holland like their beef does."
Quality assurance schemes have been used in the Allied Mills group since 1987. "We introduced systems like HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) and BS5750 for two reasons. Firstly to ensure everyone knows what they ought to be doing and secondly, to maintain quality and consistency," says Robin Armstrong, technical and projects executive.
"These standards dont take away initiative and so offer us the ability to continue improving our operation."
A farm assurance scheme that offers certainty of raw material safety by the use of external auditing is welcomed by the company.
"Our clients understand that heavy investment in upgrading farm facilities may be impractical. But signing up to a scheme that offers them confidence of raw material safety is a good step forward," explains Mr Fillingham. External auditing brings credibility to a scheme, he adds.
Grain supply must also be consistent to help the mill meet the flour specifications of customers.
Variability in the quality of flour produced could have an impact on the processors end-product, so flour must be completely consistent, says Mr Fillingham.
"Our customers are looking for a product that meets an exact criteria and also functions correctly. For example, they need flour that will make burger buns, where any top will fit any bottom, or bread with slices that will fit neatly into manufactured sandwich cartons.
Allieds Knottingley mill uses technology and consistent grain quality to pursue that goal.
Although flour recipes have a minimum and maximum specification, it is important to target the precise requirement, to allow for laboratory equipment tolerances, says Mr Fillingham.
Grain and flour are therefore blended continually until the exact recipe is met, that makes complete traceability of loads impossible.
"The concept of being able to identify the exact farm source of wheat that goes into making a loaf of bread is unrealistic in our operation, which places more emphasis on quality and safety assurance of our supplies," says Mr Fillingham.
"We pride ourselves on being at the forefront of technology," says Mr Armstrong. "Already were part way through a £100m investment programme that aims to improve the efficiency of our operation rather than increase production.
To eliminate glass contamination, the plant has no windows, and all sight glasses and light cases are plastic. Visitors and staff are required to wear protective clothing and hats to maintain hygiene levels.
The mill is completely automated, operator input only being required at set-up and for regular monitoring and maintenance. Indeed, plants can be controlled from off-site, using a lap-top and modem link. That allows 24-hour operation with minimum staffing.
"In order to keep the plant operating 24 hours, we take in up to 15 lorries daily in a 10-hour intake period," explains Howard Motley, head miller, at Knottingley.
Mill throughput varies according to recipes. "With the mill running at 12t/hour throughput we need to operate the plant at 16t/hour to ensure a continual supply of clean grain."
There are well over 100 recipes for flour, says Mr Fillingham. Allied Mills produces 1m tonnes of flour each year from 1.3m tonnes of wheat.
Once on site, vehicles are representatively sampled and then weighed. Grain undergoes visual assessment and intake tests. Any samples with queries are retested.
Equipment is checked for accuracy regularly. Calibration upgrades are supplied by the groups NAMAS accredited research and development lab. All staff are trained in varietal identification.
"We try to maintain flexibility at intake by offering fall-back contracts. Because of tighter flour specifications, its now necessary to segregate grain to a greater degree.
"Varieties behave differently, even those within the same class now need to be separated. Simple logistics often dictate our inability to handle grain which falls outside contract criteria. Consequently rejections do still occur," explains Mr Fillingham.
Once authorised, vehicles are tipped into a 100t/hour intake and from here loads are conveyed directly to the sixth floor of the mill. Grain then works down through a series of 17 cleaning and milling processes to outloading of finished product at ground level.
Initial pre-cleaning passes grain across rotary sieves with aspiration points. Undersized grain, foreign matter and light material are all extracted. A magnetic rotary cleaner provides useful backup to remove grain-sized metallic contaminants, such as nuts, bolts and nails. Damping then enables easier scouring of the outer husk.
After grinding the grist enters a series of cyclones. Up to 32 sieves, with between 12 and 132 apertures/inch ensure exact particle size distribution is achieved.
Flour specification is tested frequently and results logged on to the plant computer. Any deviation from the recipe may require further blending. Baking tests are also undertaken.
"Flour wont leave the premises unless it meets our criteria," confirms Mr Armstrong.
"Farmers are rightly nervous about the introduction of a quality assurance scheme," appreciates Mr Fillingham. "But its a necessary step forward in maintaining safety of end product and securing consumer confidence."
Unless grain entering the mill meets specification it becomes tricky to produce flour that bakes good loaves, explains Allieds wheat director Charles Fillingham.
On-site tests check flour quality, which can be controlled from this sophisticated operations room, says Robin Armstrong, technical and projects executive.
Milling wheat rejections 96
• Visual assessment.
• Specific weight.
• Varietal identification.
Quality assurance is on the tip of everybodys tongue. Protecting consumer safety, reassuring the public and meeting buyer needs closely is a key issue for the late 1990s. This series of articles aims to look beyond the farm gate to see why quality assurance is so important to users of arable crops.