Most of the tools used to analyze grain and flour can be divided into two groups: quality control and research and development. The needs and constraints of these two types of laboratories are different enough to warrant looking at them individually and, through the use of a few real-world examples, seeing how some of them operate and what could be improved.
The purpose of a quality control laboratory is to...control quality. These two words are important.
Let us start with quality. What does it mean? Is a flour "quality" because it contains 13% protein or because it makes it possible to manufacture a product that meets the expectations of future customers? This question is important because quality control often translates to "specifications."
These specifications are lists of analyses accompanied by values, or more precisely, ranges of values (sometimes minimum or maximum) which make it possible to accept or reject a product. Therefore, these are important values. And yet, we can ask ourselves two questions: why did we include this or that analysis in the specifications? And, for this analysis, why do we ask for this range of values?
A good illustration of this is the industry's extensive use of the reference to protein content, and without questioning the validity of this measure, let's examine it in light of our investigation:
Does the protein content ensure that the final quality of the product will be perfect? This is rarely the case, and by "quality of the finished product," we also need to be more specific. We'll come back to this later.
If the requested range is between 11.5% and 12.5%, what happens at 12.7%? Will the finished product be unsellable? Even if the protein level is respected, does this ensure that the finished product will be compliant? Not really, if the flour comes from a batch of ground wheat...
Here, we see two important concepts: the choice of analyses, and the setting of values. We believe that the choice of analyses should be based on the necessity of manufacturing quality, finished products with no issues on the production line. Unfortunately, what is all too often observed is a discrepancy between the laboratory and production. And yet we see all the benefits that communication between these two entities can bring.
A good example of this approach is the use of tools such as the Mixolab 2 Profiler (Figure 1) in secondary processing. The main purpose of the Profiler is to study flours that satisfy the needs of production as well as other flours.
On the basis of this feedback, we can then:
1) Identify the most relevant parameters
2) Determine values which correspond to positive results (and thus set limits)
3) Construct a target quality profile of the flour to be used for each finished product
It's clear that this approach, based on observation and not on "prior experience," has great potential. This has been confirmed everywhere it has been used.
However, it seems that this approach still faces a certain conservatism. Many secondary processing industries currently don't have control laboratories, their premise being that "it is up to the millers to do the analyses and deliver the right flour." This is understandable, but one could object to it, because on the one hand, trust does not exclude control and that by not controlling, you could be exposing yourself to "surprises"... on the other hand, for it to work, very strong and consistent feedback is required from the production lines to the millers. This is sometimes done, but not always.
What we often see, however, is the use of control devices "out of habit." In some countries, we've seen manufacturers ask their millers for certain types of analyses. When asked why this device rather than another, the answer is often "we've always done it this way." But in an increasingly competitive world, habit can also lead to a loss of business. This is particularly observed in very innovative quality control approaches based on the above-mentioned concepts implemented by some manufacturers.
Everywhere, quality is defined by the attributes which cause consumers to like and purchase products. The quality control of raw materials must integrate this dimension and give the means to work on mastering the indicators which really matter. This often requires a new approach which is more dynamic and open to laboratory innovation.