The digital transformation of food safety management programs is a common topic of discussion today, across the full range of media including print, blogs, websites and conferences. It has also been generally acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly accelerated the adoption of various digital technologies. However, let’s be clear, COVID-19 may have accelerated the process, but the process was under way as the only way for food companies to efficiently cope with the increase of required compliance documentation for regulatory bodies, such as FDA, USDA, etc., non-regulatory organizations such as GFSI, and customer specific requirements. COVID-19 has added a sense of urgency, as the fragility of both domestic and international supply chains has been exposed with long-term sources of ingredients or equipment being cut off overnight. We must also overlay the need to manage food safety risk and food fraud vulnerability in real time (or even predict the future, which will be discussed further in a future article). The food industry has also had to adjust to dealing with many aspects of work and production without typical face-to-face interaction—a norm of operating within the environment of a global pandemic over the past two years.
What is not clear, however, is the meaning of “digital transformation” or the “digitization” of a food safety management program. What is not clear is what these terms mean to individual organizations. The frenzy of buzzwords, “urgent” presentations, blogs and webinars help to create an improved level of awareness but rarely result in concrete actions that lead to improved results. I admit to being guilty of this very hyperbole—in a previous article discussing “Chocolate and Big Data”, I said, “If a food organization is going to effectively protect the public’s health, protect their brand and comply with various governmental regulations and non-governmental standards such as GFSI, horizon scanning, along with the use of food safety intelligent digital tools, needs to be incorporated into food company’s core FSQA program.” Sounds great, but it presupposes a high level of awareness of those “digital tools”. What is not clear to many organizations is how to get started and how to create a road map that leads to improved results, more efficient operations and importantly, to ongoing improvement in the production of safe food.
Addressing a new concept can be intimidating and paralyzing. Think back to the beginning days of HACCP, then TACCP, then VACCP, and post FSMA, preventive controls! So, where do we start?
Nikos Manouselis, CEO of Agroknow, a food safety data and intelligence company with a cloud-based risk intelligence platform, Foodakai, believes the place to start is for food companies to perform an honest, self-assessment of their digital risk maturity. Think of it as a digital risk maturity gap analysis. While there are certainly different approaches to performing this self-assessment, Agroknow has developed a simple, straightforward series of questions that focus on three critical areas: Risk monitoring practices and tools; risk assessment practices and tools; and risk prevention practices and tools. The questions within each of these areas lead to a ranking of 1–5 with 1 being a low level of maturity and 5 being a high level of maturity. One of the goals of the self-assessment is to determine where your company stands, right now, compared to where you want to be or should be.
While this is not a complete nor exhaustive process, it helps to break the inertia that could be holding a company back from starting the process of digitizing their food protection and quality systems, which will allow them to take advantage of the benefits available from continuous monitoring of food safety risks and food fraud vulnerabilities, artificial intelligence and predictive analytics.