Coronavirus

Pandemic Forced Food Companies to Assess Agility, Focus on Data

By Maria Fontanazza
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Coronavirus

The companies that survived and even thrived during the crisis were swift to adjust their business processes.

COVID-19 was an eye-opening public health emergency that brought a renewed focus on hygiene and safety across all industries. For McDonald’s Corp., this change prompted a deeper focus on science, including the use of analytical data, and consumer perception, according to the company’s Director of Global Food Safety Gary van Breda. “There are certain things that are important to our supplier base and for us moving forward, [including] harvesting information from different sources— information from audits, social media and being able to know whether we have the right inputs and algorithms in place to generate information to help us make decisions,” said van Breda in a panel discussion during the final episode of the Food Safety Consortium’s Spring Virtual Conference Series in May. These data-driven insights also helped the company take a closer look at attributes such as air quality and how to clean and sanitize high-touch areas in its restaurants.

Many organizations in the food industry were forced to completely change their strategic approach to doing business. “COVID was a once-in-a-generation disruption,” said Jorge Hernandez, vice president, quality assurance at The Wendy’s Company. “Many of the businesses didn’t survive, and many thrived. What’s the difference? In the leadership and approach: To be able to pivot, be flexible, and adapt to the changing circumstances—talk about flying a plane while you were building it.”

One of the key lessons learned from the pandemic was in the ability to remain flexible and make decisions based on the best information available at that time—and using the latest information to continuously improve processes, said Hernandez. For example, many food service and retail establishments took a giant leap forward in providing contactless ordering and delivery to customers—something that became an expectation versus a nice-to-have advantage. From an internal perspective, Wendy’s developed a much stronger connectivity between different job functions (i.e., operations, human resources, management) that helped them strengthen practices, guidance and procedures necessary to thrive during the pandemic.

During the pandemic, food safety fundamentals were brought to the forefront. “Handwashing became so critical. It would be silly not to take advantage of that moving forward,” said Hernandez. “Before the pandemic this was one of the biggest reasons for foodborne illness [outbreaks]. Now it’s up to us: With this pandemic, to use that momentum to move [these practices] forward and make it part of our routine. We have a unique opportunity to make that change to make safer food.”

Up next week: An update on food safety auditing in the age of COVID and beyond.

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Maria Fontanazza, Food Safety Tech

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