The advice that follows is adapted from responses by Erik Kurdelak, Manager of the Pilot Plant in Purdue University’s Department of Food Science; John Wisler, Consultant for the Food and Beverage Industry under Food and Beverage Consulting LLC; Mike Albregts, Owner at Pinhook Foods LLC and Chris Nutly, President of MSW Packaging.
The starting point: be prepared before you reach out to contract packagers
When you reach out to a contract packager for the first time, you’ll find yourself hit with a barrage of questions about your product. Ingredients, allergens, shelf life, flavor profile, viscosity – the list goes on. Having the answers handy will get you started on the right foot. The co-packer simply needs to figure out if they are equipped to get the job done for you. This is the time to mention specifications that can’t budge. Beware, however, of being too rigid in your specifications. Every co-packer will have different equipment and processes, and you may not find one that can run your product exactly the way you expected. Some details may have to be changed to some degree during your scale-up process. A formula developed in the test kitchen is very different from one that is made at 100, 200, or 500 times that size.
Searching for the right co-packer
So, where can you find a co-packer to help you navigate this? In short, the internet. Erik Kurdelak and Chris Nutly both recommend the Contract Manufacturing Association. You can search their member directory as well as submit a Request for Quote on their website. Here are a few additional directories that can help:
Should you expand your operations or find a co-packer?
Indicators that it’s time to switch to a co-packer
The primary indicator that it is time to make a decision is when you are running out of capacity. The customers you have worked so hard to bring on board might consider leaving if you cannot supply their needs consistently.
It takes time and capital to add capacity – a co-packer can provide that in a relatively short amount of time. You must also be sure an investment in your own capacity will not sink you – there must be a fairly high level of assurance that there will be enough future business on a consistent basis to keep the equipment running and pay off your capital expenditures.
Even though a co-packer will add a cost of doing business there are times when overall cost can actually be reduced by using them. The most common scenario is when their expertise and equipment allow their unit costs of production to be significantly lower than yours. They also may be able to procure raw materials and supplies at lower costs than you can which can help the bottom line.
Even if a co-packer costs you slightly more to produce, increased sales may more than make up for it. When you get bogged down in manufacturing your sales and marketing efforts can suffer. When you’re spending too much time making it and not enough time selling it, growth is compromised.
Maintaining product quality with a co-packer
Quality specifications of your products as reported in the COAs (certificates of analysis) your co-packer delivers to you will be critical. COAs will be how you monitor the quality your co-packer provides on a day-in and day-out basis. One thing you must remember is that every quality measure will have variable results – as long as they are in the acceptable range you can breathe easy.
The COA is not the only key to establishing and monitoring quality. Be sure you are involved in vetting ingredient suppliers and check the co-packer’s third party audit. Ask about their allergen and pest control programs and historical compliance and walk around the facility before you commit to a run.
When it comes to product performance (taste, texture, appearance, etc.) you will have certain expectations because this is your creation. It will be important for you to determine which points are fixed for you and which points are flexible. In defining your specifications, the tighter you define it the more likely that it is going to meet your expectations, but it also makes it much harder to find a co-packer who can or will work for you.
Trusting your co-packer for food safety
Even though the co-packer will provide insight to ensure you are on the right track, the processing parameters and design will be your responsibility to establish. There are process authorities in the industry to contract with that will help as needed.
Similarly, when it comes to ingredient selection, you will need to consider each ingredient in terms of a hazard analysis for your finished product. You will also need to consider the ingredient suppliers – their 3rd party certifications and inspection records. The co-manufacturer will provide insight here as well but the final selection will be yours.
One consideration with 3rd party certifications (SQF, BRC, etc.) is that even though they are important and provide assurance, they are taken at a snapshot in time. Manufacturers and suppliers get an advanced directive that auditors are coming so they have an opportunity to prepare.
As you tour prospective co-packers, keep in mind some advice given by a counselor from the Purdue Food Science Department who said, “any time you walk in a food plant the first place you need to look is up, because everything comes down.” Be sure to look at the ceilings. An additional area to focus on is air handling. What is their system allowing to come into the plant in the air and what is allowed to circulate? Another area to check on is where your products are stored in relation to the products from other customers – is that creating a risk? Lastly, but certainly not completely, if your product has a registered process, you should consistently ask the co-packer to provide documentation for each run that proves they are following it.
A Parting Reminder
To conclude, it’s important to note (as Newpoint does) that every company is different and every product is different. Every bit of advice on this page may not apply to your brand, but hopefully it’s a useful jumping off point to help you set your course and move forward. Ready for more insight on selecting a co-packer? Start reading part 2 now! Or check out these additional resources:
- Infographic: 12 keys for selecting the best contract manufacturer
- How to get a food startup off the ground with a co-packer
- To manufacturer or co-manufacture?