During World War II, food shortages in Finland led to one of the country’s more unusual forestry innovations, when people took to using ground tree bark in place of flour when baking their bread. It’s a story often repeated in the forestry industries here, but one which still resonates well with Finland’s reputation for supplying clean, fresh Nordic fibre as well as pulp, papers and board derived from them.
It may be surprising to learn, however, that the story also tells us something about product safety in the pulp sector today. Diving into the topic with several key personnel at Metsä Group, we come to understand that the demands of the food industry have shaped product safety requirements in every aspect of the group companies’ production. Could it be, then, that everything Metsä Group produces is good enough to eat?
Early standard setters IN FOOD CONTACT PRODUCTS
The safety standards established by the food industry represent the foundation of product safety at Metsä Fibre’s mills. In fact, the company was among the first in the industry to adopt them, with all its production facilities being granted the globally recognised ISO 22000 Food Safety Management System certification as early as 2003.
“The requirements for materials designed for food contact are very similar to those enforced upon food itself,” says Thomas Fant, Customer Service Manager at Metsä Fibre. “Everything that touches food is, of course, a concern, and in the cases of large brand owners, for whom the brand is such a valuable asset – risking any aspect of how they are perceived is simply not an option.”
As Marjatta Punkka, Product Safety Manager at Metsä Board, explains, product safety is not a metric; it is an absolutely fundamental part of the offering, and necessarily so.
“Product safety is an essential aspect of this business,” she points out. “The requirements, of course, come from food protection needs and the certification standards, but also directly from the customers as well. These strict requirements are the same for all Metsä Group’s businesses for food or other sensitive end uses. These needs must be considered in the total supply chain – from the raw materials to the mills and further onwards.”
The customer viewpoint ON PRODUCT SAFETY
With product safety an area of such extreme scrutiny and attention to detail, the customer’s own perspective is evidently of guiding importance. Oliver Ruppert, Senior Technology Manager at CP Kelco – who have established a plant as a major part of the eco system surrounding Metsä Fibre’s Äänekoski bioproduct mill – views product safety as both a mainstay and an area of constant development to be conscious of continually.
“While product and food safety have been always a key part of our company’s focus areas and one of the cornerstones of running a sustainable business, there is a growing trend in customer requirements to validate implemented product safety standards.”
But where is the redoubled emphasis coming from? According to Ruppert, the global trend towards sustainability is exerting an influence. “Sustainability goes hand in hand with the product safety trend. A shift in the mind-set of the population towards more healthy lifestyles and foods of higher quality is a key driver.”
The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), says Ruppert, has placed an increased emphasis on the food supply chain. “Our employees receive training, based on global standards, linking food safety with personal safety and sustainability. With their intimate knowledge of the process, many of our improvements are also driven by the workforce.”
To help accommodate these rising demands, CP Kelco has high expectations of its raw materials suppliers. “Cellulose used for our food grades needs to come from clean warehouses and stay clean during transportation,” explains Ruppert. “Also, the cellulose as such must fulfil high standards and be consistent in quality. This applies equally to non-food applications, where consistency of quality can be just as critical as in instances where food contact occurs.
Quality assured: Fresh fibre, MONITORING AND TRACKING, CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT, TRAINED PERSONNEL
Metsä Fibre’s ability to deliver on such stringent expectations comes down to two factors.
Firstly, the raw material itself: fresh fibre made from wood harvested in northern, sustainably managed forests. Notorious for its quality, this material is analysed, checked and tracked from the forest onwards. And let’s not forget that Metsä Group as an entity has the rare advantage of overseeing the entire supply chain under one roof, from wood to pulp, to board or tissue.
Secondly, there is the quality of its production processes, in which the maxim of ‘continuous improvement’ is absolutely core to the company’s working methods. Simply stated, there is no “how things are done” at Metsä Fibre’s mills. As any visitor will quickly learn, there is only “how things are done today”, with the emphasis on squeezing out a slightly improved result tomorrow.
But the safety “basics” in facilities like these are actually both highly developed and incredibly stringent, and must not be taken for granted.
“We have trained personnel who think constantly about product safety,” says Thomas Fant. “They know the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ and have them in mind at all times. They control the critical points in our processes which control and influence the safety of the product.”
This is an environment where factors like personal hygiene; clean clothing and shoes; eating in specially permitted locations; closed doors; shoe cleaning or removal; pest control, including keeping birds and insects outdoors; glass protection; glass bottle bans; and snappable-blade-free work all play a part. The level of control is far-reaching, and personnel are disciplined in its enforcement, all working to ensure a clean, safe, uncontaminated end result.
A two-way street
And these carefully monitored internal pressures are not the only factor. All the while, Metsä Fibre’s facilities are subject to regular internal and customer audits.
As Category Purchaser at Metsä Tissue Tero Alvoittu states, the need for constant improvement also comes directly from customers, in many cases leading brands that operate globally. “Many customers visit and audit our premises every year. This is a continuous process, which involves checking how we performed last year, the improvements we agreed upon then, how we have fulfilled them, and then looking to the future, to create the next plan.”
So there we have it. Product safety means continuous effort on everyone’s part – both customer and supplier driving each other towards constant improvement. For consumers and other end users, the world may never have been so safe. But somehow we can all be sure it’s about to get safer still.
Tissue on top
A recently published study initiated by the ETS (European Tissue Symposium) has unequivocally proven that there is no safer way to obtain dry hands after they are properly washed than by using paper towels.
The ETS chairman Fanis Papakostas explains that these findings have been initially established in laboratory conditions, and that now there are also supporting results from real-life conditions.
“This conclusion has also been reached in other studies without any involvement from our side,” he continues, “including two major German television channels which have broadcasted programmes demonstrating that they have executed similar tests in real-life conditions and measured the outcomes.”
Such studies have, in fact, been the subject of research spanning the last few decades. The case in point is particularly valuable, however, in that it incorporates a wider selection of competing methods. “Air jet driers which function utilising the speed of the air rather than the temperature, and have risen in popularity since the last major study in 2008, are now also included,” says honorary chairman Roberto Berardi. And, naturally, paper still emerged on top.
“The outcome of these very significant studies – aside from the fact that they are expected to provide strong argumentation for the tissue industry’s sales organisations, allowing them to do better business,” says Papakostas “is the addition of a sustainability dimension, as the studies demonstrate that by using paper to dry your hands, after they are properly washed, you are also contributing to the safest and most sanitary world possible.”