Karen Everstine, Decernis
Food Fraud Quick Bites

More Than 100 Incident Records of Fresh Produce Fraud

By Karen Everstine, Ph.D.
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Karen Everstine, Decernis

Fraud in fresh produce can occur in several ways, including fraudulent organic certifications, counterfeit branding, misrepresentation of geographic origin, and the use of unapproved ripening agents. Since most fresh produce is visually identifiable, partial dilution or replacement with less expensive substances is usually not possible. Fraud in produce is commonly related to labeling claims about production practices, production location or brand names. In some parts of the world, unapproved substances may be used to speed or enhance ripening or to make fruits look more visually appealing.

In 2019, a company in Canada was charged with misrepresenting broccoli grown in California as “Product of Canada.” In 2018, 500 kg of mangoes were seized from a market in Puducherry, India, for being ripened with calcium carbide.

Food fraud fresh produce map
Figure 1. Geographic distribution of incidents of fraud in fresh produce

There are currently 108 incident records and 54 inference records for fresh produce in the Food Fraud Database. Many of these are related to fraudulent organic certificates, but there are also examples of varietal misrepresentation, falsification of geographic origin, the use of substances such as ethephon, artificial color enhancement, and counterfeit labeling.

Do you work in the fresh produce sector in the U.S. or U.K.? Please consider responding to a survey to collect information about the use of food fraud tools by members of the fresh produce sector. This is an exploratory an anonymous survey that will take six to eight minutes to complete. The results will be used in a P.D. thesis by a student at the University of Central Lancashire in the U.K. A copy of the published research will be available on the University’s website. Experience the survey or copy and paste the following link into your browser: https://uclan.eu.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_3Qcog9H1V09wF01

Tom Gosselin, DNV GL
FST Soapbox

Time to Get More Value From Social Audits

By Tom Gosselin
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Tom Gosselin, DNV GL

If global supply chains were considered complex before COVID-19, it’s hard to imagine what we’d call them now. Is there a single business operating exactly as it did before the pandemic?

All the more surprising, when survival would seem to be the top priority, pre-pandemic risk factors are not only alive and well, but they also actually outweigh coronavirus as strategic business concerns. In fact, COVID-19 didn’t even make the top five risk factors in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Risk Report.

In its analysis of the WEF report, consulting firm Ernst and Young stated the following:

“While the risk of a pandemic was noted as important in the report, and something for which we are unprepared globally, it was not identified as one of the top five risks in terms of likelihood or impact in the 2020 survey. High-impact and highly probable risks, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and water crises, are just as present now as they were before the pandemic started . . .”

In our experience, some pre-pandemic business trends have actually gone from “warm and fuzzy” to red hot in spite of, or perhaps even due to, the COVID chaos. One prime example is in the case of social audits.

Social audits have been increasingly used over the past decade to evaluate corporate social responsibility and, indeed, the ethical conduct of entire supply chains. We’ve worked extensively with some of the biggest names in consumer electronics to conduct hundreds of social audits among component suppliers of all sizes. These assessments are mandatory, not by law, but by business policy. The vast scope reflects the importance—and business value—of operational factors that go beyond pure economics, whether it’s related to labor practices, health and safety, or environment.

A growing number of organizations strongly believe that social responsibility and profits are not mutually exclusive; they are in fact enablers of one another—but only if you commit to mining the full value of these programs. Think of it like data mining. Within any large body of information, you can almost always find hidden value. If you know how to look and have the proper tools. In the case of social auditing, the tools are the insights and methods employed by the auditing teams.

This is such a vital concept that we have designed its social auditing process to exceed even what the Responsible Business Alliance requires in its code of conduct. As a baseline, like every other auditor, we first look for nonconformities, which are the most serious issues requiring immediate attention. We also report “observations”, a second level of findings that speaks to things that are suboptimal but are not out of compliance, per se. That’s where it usually stops. This is the mentality of fault finding. And it has defined social auditing for a long time.

We can, and do, break that mold. Taking another critical step to ask, “what’s going right?”, provides an extra level of inquiry that probes for opportunities embedded in the fabric of the way things work. It could be an unrecognized best practice, something that people have been doing but nobody took the time, or had the awareness, to document and share. Often times, it’s something frontline workers have done as a response to an unexpected development, like a pandemic that makes you work from home.

In one service-based organization, we found that the sudden shift to working from home led to an unwelcomed rise in cases of domestic violence. We discovered this during audits of pay rates and working hours. The company was able to develop an innovative response, establishing a framework of verbal signals that workers now use to communicate stress or threat. In another instance, while auditing a large industrial company for workplace safety, we found that employees were using a shortcut to avoid a required safety measure. By probing and asking questions in a non-accusatory way, those same workers recommended a very simple workaround to the workaround—thereby restoring the safety measure without adding complexity to the task.

The key to all of this is mindset. Not just ours (the auditors), but the client organization’s as well. You must be willing to broaden the very idea of “compliance.” Sometimes, things that are out of spec are that way for a reason. Rather than lump every outlier as a flaw, you should look beneath the surface and see if there’s a good reason for it. That doesn’t automatically mean nonconformities are suddenly something else. But if you are only looking for problems, that’s all you’re going to find.

Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

Four Influential Technologies Changing Food Manufacturing

By Megan Ray Nichols
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Megan Nichols

Some impressive technologies are not only impacting the food industry right now but will also have a huge impact in the future. As their use grows to be more prevalent, the industry will change to be smarter and more efficient, with continued improvements across the board.

1. AI and Advanced Robotics

While artificial intelligence and advanced robotics are two distinct technologies, they are frequently paired together. AI, and the data it digests, is used to command robots, allowing them to be more precise, more intelligent and more aware.

Most robots on their own are capable of completing only repetitive and clearly defined tasks. Throw something unique into the mix and they’ll either fumble or fail. However, when governed by data-based intelligence solutions like AI or machine learning, those robots become something incredibly advanced.

In the food industry, machinery and robots are leveraged to improve operations, further maintaining quality and efficiency, at affordable costs. They often work alongside human laborers to augment or enhance processes. They come with several unexpected benefits as well, such as much-improved safety for workers, faster and higher product output and consistent, reliable quality.

For example, JBS, one of the world’s largest meatpacking firms, deployed robotic butchers within its plants. The robots were used to slice more challenging meats, which reduced workplace injuries.

2. Automation

Automation stands alongside AI and advanced robotics, even incorporating those technologies to create a streamlined system. As of 2017, 73% of surveyed companies in the food and beverage manufacturing industry either had or were in the process of establishing automation within their facilities.

Many systems are designed to replace or enhance repetitive tasks, boosting their speed and accuracy, to significantly improve output, without incurring a loss in quality. It’s not just about hardware, like swapping a human laborer for a robot. It’s also achieved through software. Think supply chain management solutions that help plan for various events and experiences without human input.

When many of these technologies are used side-by-side, it strengthens their application and usability. As is true of advanced robotics, for example, AI can also be used to create more intelligent automation platforms. Instead of carrying out rote or simple tasks, they can be programmed to react and engage through any number of parameters. The system might slow production, for instance, based on a decrease in product demand. Or, it might swap to an alternate component or ingredient because of a shortage somewhere.

With the right controls and support, automation technologies are game-changing. With the global population growing and demands increasing more with each year, food manufacturers will look to streamline their operations and boost output in any way possible, and automation will be a go-to.

3. Digital Twins

Digital twins in food manufacturing are essentially simulated copies or a virtual representation of a physical system. That definition might seem confusing, but think of it as a clone that can be manipulated for testing and analytics.In other words, it is a twin of the actual system and information, in every sense of the word, albeit one that is more versatile and less vulnerable. It allows manufacturers and distributors to run simulations by feeding specific information into the system to identify patterns, recognize outcomes and much more.

As the systems and controls supporting the field become smarter and more digitized, digital twins in food manufacturing will find their way into product development, testing, post-production, distribution and nearly every other facet of the industry. It will become an integral component to not only understand what’s happening in the market but also for keeping up with the ebb and flow of supply and demand.

4. Blockchain

Even well before the pandemic, people had become much more conscious about the foods they consume. They want to know the origin of their goods and whether they’ve been sourced using safe, healthy and environmentally friendly methods. The problem with such demands is that, until recently, there haven’t been many solutions for increased visibility within the food supply chain.

Growing concerns for health are now a priority, and visibility is an absolute must. Blockchain technology is the answer, providing precisely the kind of visibility, efficiency, controls and collaboration that consumers want.

With this food manufacturing technology in place, someone could trace a head of lettuce back to its initial seeding. They can see who grew the plants and where, and which methods they used to mature the crop. Then, they can follow its journey to the store shelf.

How is such a thing possible? It all has to do with the technology. In its simplest form, Blockchain is a digital ledger or complete and digitized record of a particular data set. The data that goes in is added to something called a block, and as more is added, it is tacked on to the end of that block to create a long, linked record. Every bit of information is visible across the entire chain, hence the name blockchain.

Walmart is using the technology to track potential food contamination outbreaks. It empowers them to not just find the source but also find the many branches involved — like where goods might have been shipped and who may have purchased them.

Food Manufacturing Technology for the Future

While each food manufacturing technology discussed here is incredibly influential and will have a direct impact on the future of the industry, they are not the only solutions making waves. Some additional examples include:

  • Drones and automated delivery vehicles
  • 3-D printing for edible goods
  • Smart or precision agriculture
  • High-tech packaging
  • Smarter waste disposal and recycling

The takeaway is that technology is vastly improving the operational efficiency of the food supply chain, from farmers and manufacturers to the retail stores featuring goods on their shelves. There’s no right or wrong buy-in, as any one of these technologies can be used to streamline separate processes. The biggest challenge will be deciding what to upgrade first, especially when it comes to delivering high-quality, fresh goods in a prompt manner.

Susanne Kuehne, Decernis
Food Fraud Quick Bites

A Truly Bitter Herb

By Susanne Kuehne
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Susanne Kuehne, Decernis
Food fraud, oregano blossom
Find records of fraud such as those discussed in this column and more in the Food Fraud Database. Image credit: Susanne Kuehne.

The European Commission’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) Portal shows a notification about the use of olive leaves in oregano in Turkey. Addition of cheaper bulking agents to herbs and spices is a common way of achieving a higher profit margin for pricier herbs. The olive leaves were classified as an unauthorized novel ingredient; however, they are known to be used for the adulteration of oregano. An investigation of commercial oregano samples showed that one quarter of samples were adulterated with other plant leaves, and two of the samples didn’t even contain any oregano.

Resources

  1. European Commission RASFF Portal. (August 14, 2020). Notification details – 2020.3270 “Unauthorised novel food ingredient olive leaves in oregano from Turkey, via the Netherlands”.
  2. Black, C. et al. (November 1, 2016) “A comprehensive strategy to detect the fraudulent adulteration of herbs: The oregano approach”. Food Chemistry.
Mike Owen
Retail Food Safety Forum

The Changing Psychology of Grocery Shoppers

By Mike Owen
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Mike Owen

The grocery sector has always been the bedrock of traditional brick-and-mortar retail, and it is no surprise why. How many people have wanted to check first-hand the ripeness of a tomato or how fresh the lettuce looks? The up-front examination is everything.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a change in the psychology of grocery shoppers. Health guidelines that have encouraged lockdown and working from home have focused the mind of many people on health consciousness with a need to keep financial stability in the throes of unemployment or furlough. Purse strings are tightened, more home cooking and fewer luxuries mean there is no longer a need to buy specialty products when basic provisions can be met at home.

Home Is the HQ

Staying at home has meant larger purchase sizes, which has led to fewer trips to the supermarket, bigger basket/cart size when you get there and an increase in private label purchases. People have also become more conscious of what they are putting in their bodies.

Social distancing has made many consumers resort to online grocery shopping. As long as there is availability, at a right price and an efficient delivery time, consumers are prepared to forego their normal habits for the sake of convenience and time saving. There is also no denying the surge in online purchasing for groceries during the pandemic. Interestingly, the market has seen an exponential increase in conversion in the over-50 age group—a group that may have ordinarily resisted this activity.

Health Concerns Sway More People to Shop Online, Regardless of the Product

According to Accenture, there is expected to be a 160% increase in e-commerce purchases from new and low frequency users. The vast majority of consumers who have increased their use of digital and omnichannel services, such as home delivery, curb-side pickup or shopping via social media platforms, expect to sustain these activities into the future.

The Wunderman Thompson Future Shopper Report 2020 highlights that online shopping—and shopping on Amazon in particular—is a popular choice across most industry sectors (including health and pharmaceutical, entertainment and toys); 30% of those purchasing luxury products and 40% of those buying groceries would never buy these products online. But with lockdown measures still firmly in place for most countries, consumer resolve is likely to be tested, and loyalty to physical stores continues to wane.

Consumers are taking stock of their own concerns in terms of home cooking and shopping for local produce and the process for reducing food waste. They are also taking more time to decide what they will need for food or grocery items, and it is likely that many choices will be made before consumers enter the supermarket, as much of the research is done online for product information.

Research undertaken by Bazaarvoice revealed a 21% increase in online orders in March 2020 versus March 2019, with 41% of respondents stating that they were currently shopping online for things they would ordinarily shop for in-store. By April, they were spending more time and making more purchases online, which pushed groceries out of the number one essential category. This may have been due to people getting used to spending longer periods of time at home, moving past the essential necessity phase, and as a result, product shortages have eased, and different product categories are being prioritized.

Changing Expectations for Greater Online Grocery Shopping Experiences

Every generations’ lives and shopping behaviors are now intertwined with digital commerce. They are driven even more strongly by factors such as range, ease, speed and convenience. Online grocery shopping—both delivery and pickup—is cheaper, reducing the number of trips that keeps shoppers out of stores, where personnel are also at serious risk of infection.

And for retailers, inserting a row of fresh vegetables on websites such as Walmart Grocery or Amazon Fresh to the same grid style as they use to sell laptops or smartphone cases can look clinical and confusing to consumers. Food shoppers want to touch the tomatoes. Slicing the grocery store up into individual, pixelated goods doesn’t feel like grocery shopping anymore.

Relevant Accurate Product Information Is the Key

In an article in The Atlantic, Bryan Leach, CEO of shopping promotions company IBotta, predicts: “Shoppers won’t lose the ability to manipulate the avocados, pick something up on short notice, or just browse aimlessly for meal inspiration”. Retailers will have to up their game to provide improved customer experience in product presentation and selection.

Some online grocery retailers are already providing online menus and the ingredients to cook for specific meals. Internet-grocery fetchers might come to be seen more as the small shopkeepers of the turn of the century, or the community-supported agriculture services that deliver fresh, local goods or provide specialized groceries or services.

By serving optimal E-commerce sites that provide specialized product information either through chatbots, specialized product range and knowledgeable staff will further enhance the experience and value.

Some companies such as Fortuitas and Javelin Group are supporting retail brands to provide more accurate product information to their E-commerce websites with the help of product information management systems. The provision of consistent data in an omnichannel environment means that up-to-date product knowledge and availability can be accessible on an on-going basis leading to better trust and online sales.

While access to marketplaces such as Google, Amazon Fresh and Ocado continues to grow for grocery products during the pandemic, some marketplaces have defined the following tactics to keep customers engaged through the use of product information.

1. Prevent Panic Buying With Product Badging

Brands can bring more responsibility to the shopping process on marketplaces like Amazon, Google and online retailer web catalogues by using product information to discourage panic buying through the addition of social cues. These can have a big impact on how customers view brands and products. Through this product badging, where, for example, you limit the purchase of essential products per user, consumers can shop more responsibly and feel more in touch with the brand as a ‘caring’ provider.

2. Promote Stay at Home

Offer a unique opportunity to improve customer experiences by promoting product categories that are most popular at a given time. Stay at home and work from home lifestyles are presenting new and unique requirements for users. There is a need to create relevant product categories designed for work from home and promote them on your website.

3. Back-in-Stock Notifications/Recommendations for Similar Products

Creating a landing page with relevant recommendations for similar products that other users have purchased can serve as a way to improve customer experience on your website.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 has changed the grocery purchasing mentality for purchasers, and it is likely to develop further during the pandemic. It is whether many of these habits are likely to remain post-COVID? What is certain is that increasing accuracy of product information will be key to a continued growth for sales both online and in-store.

Sudip Saha, Future Market Insights
FST Soapbox

Five Trends Defining the Food Industry Post-COVID

By Sudip Saha
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Sudip Saha, Future Market Insights

Food retailers and the entire food and beverage (F&B) industry are now operating very differently than they did some six months ago. The pandemic has brought immense shifts in supply chains, imposed new hazard controls, and—perhaps most importantly—turned consumer preferences upside down.

To accommodate these changes, food manufacturers, retailers, restaurants and others stepped up to innovate and secure the continuity of their services. But now, as many industries begin to drop the notion of ever going back to what once was, it’s time we started thinking about how many of the newly introduced processes will stick around for the long-term.

What will be the main trends defining the food industry as a whole post-COVID?

Learn more about COVID-19 in the food industry, technology and food safety culture during the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series  | Episodes run every Thursday through December 17Adopted Habits Aren’t Going Anywhere

The pandemic brought radical changes to our everyday lives, and it’s clear that many of the newly adopted behaviors won’t disappear overnight. Consumers will continue to rely on grocery retailers to keep them both fed and healthy while expecting minimum disruptions and a high respect for safety regulations—both in terms of handling and the state of delivered products.

Take-home grocery sales grew by 17% between April and July, breaking the record for the fastest period of growth since 1994. Online grocery shopping also gained popularity while managing to engage entirely new demographics. Some 10% of baby boomers now say they would buy more groceries online once the pandemic is over—compared to 34% of Gen Xs and 40% of millennials.

Due to consumer hyper-awareness of safety and sanitation, the whole food industry will continue to be defined by safety practices. Sanitizing common surfaces like keyboards, door handles, tables and chairs regularly will remain the norm. Beyond “manual” rules such as the mandatory use of facemasks, requirements such as regular health checks could boost the adoption of technology across the industry—transforming not only customer-facing interactions but also the processes behind the curtain.

Technology as an Enabler

Every crisis sparks innovation, and the food industry has certainly proved this thesis. Technology has become the ultimate aide, enabling interactions that would otherwise be impossible. These include contactless ordering, payments and pickup—processes that are likely to stick around even beyond COVID-19.

At the same time, the pandemic accelerated the usage of innovations that previously struggled to become mainstream. This includes virtual tipping jars or mobile order-and-pay, such as the options introduced by fast-food giants including McDonald’s, Subway, KFC, and Burger King.

There’s an obvious appetite for F&B companies to further incorporate technology. For example, the Coca-Cola Company is rolling out a touchless fountain experience that can be used with a smartphone for contactless pouring. Heineken, on the other hand, turned to virtual tech to launch a new product—a cardboard topper for multipack beer that will eliminate plastic from millions of cans. With travel restrictions hindering the mobility of engineers, the company leveraged virtual technology to install the new machinery needed at its Manchester-based factory.

But it’s not just solitary innovations; the market has already seen new AI-based technologies that help food businesses better manage risk in their workforce. Food manufacturing, distribution and provision require many different touchpoints; by predicting, monitoring and testing the health and safety of the workers involved in these processes, companies can ensure they keep their operations running, even if another wave of COVID-19 hits. Solutions like these will be crucial when looking to add another layer of safety that goes beyond mandatory governmental regulations.

Food Safety Revamped

Even though COVID-19 is transmitted through airborne respiratory droplets, and the risk of contracting the virus through food is low, people around the world are concerned about the possibility. After all, 40% of people are more careful about washing unpackaged fruit and vegetables than before the pandemic.

The pandemic has already made societies rethink various established concepts, such as wet markets or the consumption of wild animals. The pandemic could, therefore, lead to changed behaviors, and newly imposed rules such as formalizing small and micro food enterprises, provisions for direct sales by farmers, leveraging technology to ensure safety, and investments in a more robust food infrastructure altogether.

Such changes could also irreversibly affect street food—a sector that is bound to feel the hit of COVID-19. Particularly in countries with diverse street food culture, one of the emerging trends will be the rise of gourmet street food brands that can provide both great taste and high hygiene standards.

Food Sustainability to the Forefront

2020 will be a year of reckoning for the world’s food systems. The pandemic exposed the flaws of the global food supply chain that continues to be highly centralized and operating on a just-in-time basis. This is why we have seen panic food runs, urgent supply shortages and high amounts of food waste as many businesses were shut down overnight. In developing countries, several agencies expect that a “hunger pandemic” and a doubling of people starving could happen unless serious action is taken.

As we rethink the underlying principles of the food industry such as safety and supply, other concepts such as transparency and visibility into product sourcing and manufacturing also come into the spotlight. Consumers across the globe are more likely to prioritize offerings that are healthy and locally sourced than they were before COVID-19.

Food produced with the overuse of chemicals in monoculture cropping systems and large-scale animal farming significantly impact the availability of natural resources and cause substantial greenhouse gas emissions. Added to that, practices like industrial animal farming that operate with large numbers of livestock in confined spaces are a breeding ground for viruses, and have been linked to prior outbreaks such as the outbreak of swine flu in 2009. They also enable the spread of antibiotic-resistant organisms due to the common overuse of antibiotics administered to prevent infections caused by cramped living conditions.

Consumers are increasingly aware of this: Nearly 25% of Americans are now eating more plant-based food. As we move forward, diverse food companies are likely to tap into this trend, resulting in great opportunities for plant-based, nutritious, local, and even healthy DIY meals and products. For example, an Australian food producer has recently announced the launch of a new proprietary product range that will offer the first vegan ready-to-drink protein shakes on the Australian market.

A New Way of Dining

The restaurant market has been one of the direct victims of the pandemic but has shown impressive elasticity in adapting to the new realities. Many businesses have introduced service extensions such as deliveries and take-outs, as well as pop-up grocery stores. Enjoying great popularity, some of these options will stick around far beyond the pandemic.

However, there’s a counterforce hindering significant expansion: The simple fact that many consumers discovered a new joy in cooking. A recent study notes that 54% of Americans are now cooking more than they were before the pandemic, with 35% saying that they “enjoy cooking more now than ever.” But at the same time, 33% of consumers say they’re getting more takeout than before the pandemic. This implies that the post-pandemic normal will likely see a shift toward eating at home more often, whether that means cooking or takeout and delivery.

Therefore, restaurants are likely to continue diversifying their services, experiment with food bundles and DIY meal kits, or even luxurious in-home chef visit experiences as an alternative to high-end restaurant dining.

The past crises have shown that economic uncertainty is directly linked to changes in demand for private-label and value brands. After the 2008 financial crisis, 60% of U.S. consumers were more interested in reasonably priced products with core features than in higher-priced, cutting-edge products. So while luxury dining is not completely disappearing, it could take on other aspects.

In Denmark, for example, a two-Michelin star restaurant is moving to serve burgers. In China, a country that many look to as the model for the post-COVID world, there has also been a clear push toward more affordable dining as well. Hot pot and barbecue venues have been thriving, particularly among customers in their 20s and 30s. Many fine dining restaurants, on the other hand, have started offering affordable lunch menus or have cut prices to correspond to the current value-conscious behaviors.

It’s clear that the future of food retail and the F&B industry will be significantly marked by the pandemic. Its prolonged nature will also cause the newly adopted habits to become further solidified—and many processes will adapt to match them. For example, while contactless deliveries were accelerated in the past months, businesses are working hard to make them as efficient as convenient as possible, making it unlikely that such investments would be erased overnight, once COVID-19 is no longer a threat.

Susanne Kuehne, Decernis
Food Fraud Quick Bites

Inspector Meerkat: Fraudulent Coconut Oil

By Susanne Kuehne
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Susanne Kuehne, Decernis

Inspector Meerkat checking in with this week’s food fraud investigation: While scanning the Food Fraud Database, I found that coconut oil was recently added to the site. There have been six reported incidents of fraud in coconut oil since 2013, with the most recent incident reported May 2019. Five of the incidents involved coconut oils produced in India, and one incident involved products from the Philippines. Reasons for adulteration include fraudulent labeling claims, dilution or substitution with an alternate ingredient, and misrepresentation of botanical origin.

Resource

  1. Technology-Enabled Risk Management”. Food Fraud Database.

Find records of fraud such as those discussed in this column and more in the Food Fraud Database.

Kari Hensien, RizePoint
FST Soapbox

How to Enhance Your Food Safety Culture, Now More Important than Ever

By Kari Hensien
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Kari Hensien, RizePoint

I don’t have to tell you that COVID-19 is a crisis, and the consequences have been immediate and difficult. But as I speak to clients and look beyond the immediacy of the problems the food industry is facing, I am seeing positive insights that can help us now and in the future.

Food safety culture hasn’t always been clearly defined, nor has it been a “must” in many food safety systems. But the reality is that food safety culture—and the buy-in that needs to happen in your entire organization—is a direct and important element for staying up to date with new rules and being consistent and compliant at every location.

Join Kari Hensien for a complementary webinar, “4 Solvable Challenges for Enhancing Your Food Safety Culture 2020” | October 28 | Register NowWhat Does Food Safety Culture Mean Now?

The definition I have liked most is “food safety culture is what you’re doing when no one is watching.” But with the coronavirus pandemic, everyone is always watching, so the definition must expand.
Customers are carefully watching every employee at every location to gain a feeling of safety and trust at restaurants and eateries. And if employees aren’t up to speed or don’t have buy-in to your food safety culture, or even food safety in general, a single incident can turn away customers for good.

As an example, I recently visited a favorite taco joint. After the cashier rang me up, he put hand sanitizer on his gloves and proceeded to put handfuls of chips into my takeaway bag with those same “sanitized” gloves. I will not be going back.

So, food safety culture is still about what you do when no one is watching and when everyone is watching, making participation from every member of your organization critical.

What Can You Do Now to Enhance Food Safety Culture?

Practices that enhance food safety culture should initiate a shift in perspective before you implement more tangible activities. These shifts will be more challenging because they require your entire organization to be on board.

Perspective Shifts for Food Safety Culture

One or more paradigm shifts may be necessary to make enhancing your food safety culture successful. Sometimes initiatives like food safety culture can feel more like another addition to your to-do list rather than an asset that ultimately makes the job of a quality manager easier. So, consider these suggested shifts as you move forward.

  1. Food safety culture is part of your food safety system and your corporate social responsibility plans. With any crisis, not just the current pandemic, the values and expectations you instill in your employees can give you an immovable base, even if the surface is in constant fluctuation. And whether you’re dealing with an outbreak or a pandemic, showing you put customers and location employees first demonstrates good corporate citizenship.
  2. Location employees can be your biggest asset or your biggest liability. Employees perform better when they know the purpose behind what they’re doing rather than following rules that may seem arbitrary if they don’t have a clear understanding of why.
  3.  Punitive systems encourage hiding problems; supportive systems encourage collaboration and trust. If employees feel safe reporting issues or problems at their location, the more likely they’ll catch small issues before they become huge liabilities.
  4. Food safety culture can be a huge asset. In other words, instead of looking at food safety culture as another chore in your already crowded list, see it as an asset that improves food safety and creates better work environments, which inherently decreases risk and protects your brand.

In-Practice Shifts for Food Safety Culture

The paradigm shifts suggested above help build a support perspective for a strong food safety culture. The following shifts I suggest can help you implement tangible actions that benefit every level of your organization.

  1. Take great care of location employees. These employees are in direct contact with customers the most, and they are truly your first line of defense. Which means they can be an incredible asset or the weakest link.
  2. Consider audit and checklist software over laminated or paper checklists. The right software or app can instantly push new policies or standards to every location and employee at the same time, so everyone is always on the same page. Choose software or other tools that 1) makes it easy for all employees to get the information they need; 2) helps them quickly build behaviors that serve your quality and safety programs; and 3) empowers them to confidently share issues that need to be corrected so you get a true view of the health of any location.
  3. Consider quality management system software. With a platform (there are many that include audit and checklist tools), you can collect data points more quickly and from more sources to create a single source of truth and deepen insights. Software can directly support food safety culture, helping you:
    • Find new insights and continually improve your processes
    • Systematically rollout new policies and procedures
    • Drive adoption of new policies and “build muscle memory” so employees build good habits
    • Validate that your policies and practices are followed in every location
    • Identify locations or policies that need increased focus while you reward areas of successful performance.
  4. Look at your organization from a 30,000-foot perspective. This is not so easy to do if you are using manual processes such as paper, file cabinets or even spreadsheets. With those tools, you can see data points, but it takes a lot of work to build a big-picture view. Again, this is where software is invaluable. Many quality management system software options include built-in analytics and reporting, which means much of the work is done for you, saving you valuable time.

I hope your main takeaway from this article is that surviving a crisis requires a strong food safety culture. It helps unify employees across your organization, so everyone knows what’s expected of them and how their work affects the big picture. I see strong evidence that enhancing your food safety culture is more than the “next thing on your to-do list.” It’s a tool that you can put to work to decrease risk, increase compliance, and find small issues before they become huge problems.

Gary Smith, FoodChain ID
FST Soapbox

Are Remote Audits Here to Stay?

By Gary Smith
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Gary Smith, FoodChain ID

Starting in late March, based on travel restrictions and the risk of COVID-19 infection transmission, GFSI released direction to the food industry on the possibility of recertification extensions. The extensions enabled a one-time, six-month grace period to prevent certification loss.

In June GFSI updated guidance to allow up to half of the recertification process to be completed off-site using remote technology, while requiring completion of an audit’s on-site inspection within 28 to 30 days. In exceptional circumstances, a certification program could allow a maximum of 90 days for the on-site audit portion. As these “blended” audits began, fewer facilities sought extensions.

The remote portion of an audit, which includes program and record review as well as interviews, may increase audit time compared to pre-COVID audits, as all involved adjust to the use of technology and accessible electronic formats for records and programs.

After COVID-19, it is conceivable to predict that a portion of the audit could remain virtual. However, in food production, auditing requires the use of sight, touch and smell, not yet replicated without human observation. And, while COVID-19 has forced an audit evolution by pushing “virtual” adoption based on business needs, remote capabilities will still require a significant investment in technology, time and re-education of the industry. In the meantime, expect audit schedules to be disrupted for the next 9 to 12 months.

As the industry seeks to adapt for the future, we will likely see an acceleration in terms of digitized quality management systems. In the short term, manufacturers are putting their energy and focus into keeping employees safe, maintaining production and meeting customer commitments.

Several leading food safety groups have issued guidance on best practices for blended audits and the use of technology. And while the answer to “Are blended audits are here to stay?” appears to be “yes” for the immediate future, audits are expected to evolve over time. Although certain sections within audits are better adapted to remote capabilities, facilities will continue to use on-site auditors until new technologies enable them to do otherwise.

Susanne Kuehne, Decernis
Food Fraud Quick Bites

The Very Mellow Yellow

By Susanne Kuehne
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Susanne Kuehne, Decernis
Adulteration
Find records of fraud such as those discussed in this column and more in the Food Fraud Database. Image credit Susanne Kuehne.

Lead chromate, flour, curcuma, Metanil Yellow or Sudan Dye, anyone? These are just some of the possibly hazardous adulterants that may make their appearance in turmeric, a popular and pricey spice and ingredient in dietary supplements. The American Botanical Council published a laboratory guidance document to determine the proper methods for the analysis of a number of adulterants. The document gives lists of the methods with their pros and cons, grouped by type of adulterant.

Resource

  1. Cardellina II, J.H., Ph.D. (2020). “Turmeric Raw Material and Products Laboratory Guidance Document”. American Botanical Council.