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Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

How Will AR and VR Improve Safety in the Food Industry?

By Megan Ray Nichols
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Megan Nichols

The food and beverage sector is a huge presence in the U.S. economy. As of 2017, the industry employed 1.46 million people across 27,000 different establishments. Total food and beverage sales stand at around $1.4 trillion and add $164 billion in value to the economy as a whole.1 This presents significant opportunities and risks alike. Companies that trade in food products are held to some of the highest regulatory standards. With globalization ongoing and a higher demand than ever for variety and niche products, companies find they need to expand the mobility of their services. They must also broaden their product choices without missing a beat when it comes to quality.

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have emerged as unlikely allies in that quest. These technologies are already having a positive impact on food and worker safety in the industry.

Improves New Employee Training

Onboarding and training new employees is a costly and time-consuming endeavor in any industry. Moreover, failure by companies to impart the necessary skills, and failure by employees to retain them, can have ghastly consequences. Errors on assembly lines may result in faulty products, recalls, worker and customer injuries, and worse.

The stakes in the food and beverage sector are just as high as they are in other labor- and detail-oriented industries. VR provides an entirely new kind of training experience for employees, whether they’re working on mastering their pizza cutting technique or brewing the perfect cappuccino. Other times, “getting it right” is about much more than aesthetic appeal and immediate customer satisfaction.

Animal slaughtering and processing facilities represent some of the more extreme examples of potentially dangerous workplaces in the larger food and beverage industry. Between 2011 and 2015, this U.S. sector experienced 73 fatal workplace injuries. Excepting poultry processing, 2015 saw 9,800 recordable incidents in animal processing, or 7.2 cases for every 100 full-time employees.

Some adopters of VR-based employee training claim that virtual reality yields up to an 80% retention rate one year after an employee has been trained. This compares extremely favorably to the estimated 20% retention rate of traditional training techniques.

Training via VR headset can help companies get new hires up to speed faster in a safe, detailed and immersive environment. Food processing and service are high-turnover employment sectors. The right training technology can help workers feel better prepared and more engaged with their work, potentially reducing employee churn.

Helps Eliminate Errors in Food Processing

Augmented reality is already demonstrating great promise in manufacturing, maintenance and other sectors. For instance, an AR headset can give an assembly line worker in an automotive plant detailed, step-by-step breakdowns of their task in their peripheral vision through a digital overlay.

The same goes for food and beverage manufacturing. AR headsets can superimpose a list of inspection or processing tasks for workers to follow as they prepare food items in a manufacturing or distribution facility.

In 2018, there was an estimated 382 recalls involving food products. Augmented reality alone won’t bring that number down to zero. However, it does help reduce instances of line workers and inspectors missing critical steps in processing or packaging that might result in contamination or spoilage.

Eases the Learning Curve in Food Preparation

There are lots of food products in the culinary world that are downright dangerous if they’re not prepared properly and by following specific steps. Elderberries, various species of fish, multiple root vegetables, and even cashews and kidney beans can all induce illness and even death if the right steps aren’t taken to make them fit for consumption.

In early 2019, inspectors descended on a Michelin-starred and highly respected restaurant in Valencia, Spain. The problem? A total of 30 patrons reported falling ill after eating at El País, one of whom lost her life. Everyone reported symptoms similar to food poisoning.

The common element in each case appeared to be morel mushrooms. These are considered a luxury food item, but failure to cook them properly can result in gastric problems and worse. Augmented reality could greatly reduce the likelihood of incidents like this in the future by providing ongoing guidance and reminders to new and veteran chefs alike, without taking the bulk of their attention away from work.

Brings New Efficiencies to Warehousing and Pick-and-Pack

Consumers around the globe are getting used to ordering even highly perishable foodstuffs over the internet—and there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle. Amazon’s takeover of Whole Foods is an indicator of what’s to come: Hundreds of freezer-equipped and climate-controlled warehouses located within a stone’s throw from a majority of the American population.

Ensuring smooth operations in perishable food and beverage supply chains is a major and ongoing struggle. It’s not just a practical headache for companies—it’s something of a moral imperative, too. The World Health Organization finds that around 600 million individuals worldwide fall ill each year due to foodborne illnesses.

Augmented reality won’t completely solve this problem, but it may greatly reduce a major source of potential spoilage and contamination: Inefficiencies in picking and packing operations. Order pickers equipped with AR headsets can:

  • Receive visual prompts to quickly find their way to designated stow locations in refrigerated warehouses after receiving refrigerated freight.
  • Locate pick locations more efficiently while retrieving single items or when they already have a partial order of perishable goods picked.

In both cases, the visual cues provided by AR help employees navigate warehousing locations much more quickly and efficiently. This substantially lowers the likelihood that food products are stuck in limbo in unrefrigerated areas, potentially coming into contact with noncompliant temperatures or pathogens. The FDA recognizes mispackaged and mislabeled food products as a major public health risk.

For food and beverage companies, AR should be a welcome development and a worthy investment. FSMA recognized that 48 million Americans get sick each year from compromised foods. The act required these entities to be much more proactive in drawing up prevention plans for known sources of contamination and to be more deliberate in standardizing their processes for safety’s sake.

AR and VR Boost Food, Worker and Customer Safety

Augmented and virtual reality may seem like an unusual ally in an industry where most consumers are primarily focused on the aesthetic and sensory aspects of the experience. However, there’s a whole world that lives and dies according to the speed and attention to detail of employees and decision-makers alike. Augmented realities, and entirely new ones, point the way forward.

Reference

  1. Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board. (March 2017). “Economic Contribution of the Food and Beverage Industry. Retrieved from https://www.ced.org/pdf/Economic_Contribution_of_the_Food_and_Beverage_Industry.pdf.
Home food delivery, food safety

Home Food Delivery: “It’s Kind of a Wild West Out There”

By Maria Fontanazza
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Home food delivery, food safety

As the popularity of home delivery services for food (i.e., online grocery shopping, prepared meals from restaurants, meal kits) continues to gain traction, the industry has been grappling with clear-cut guidance on how to ensure food safety during what is known as the “last mile” of delivery to the consumer. For example, how do third-party delivery services address concerns such as maintaining the right temperature of food during transit? How are allergen risks controlled? Do the people who deliver the food undergo any food safety training?

“It’s kind of a wild west out there,” said Donald Schaffner, Ph.D., professor at Rutgers University during a panel discussion on the topic of home food delivery at the IAFP annual meeting last week in Louisville, Kentucky.

In April, Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, M.D. and Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas acknowledged that there are food safety challenges presented by “evolving business models” such as e-commerce, and stated that the agency will be looking at ways to work with federal, state and local stakeholders to address the issues. During the IAFP panel, food safety professionals from Amazon, Uber Eats, The Kroger Company and FSIS shed some light on how their respective organizations are handling the food safety risks associated with home delivery.

Home food delivery, food safetyTraining the People Who Deliver Your Food

The overarching consensus among panelists was that there is not a one-size-fits all approach to training the people who deliver food to the consumer, because there are so many different business models out there. The key to developing successful training will be to first understand the risks associated with each of those different models.

“Everyone needs training, but we don’t want to over-engineering it—not everyone needs ServeSafe training,” said Schaffner. For example, training the person who is simply putting food in the car and delivering it to an address should be different from the training necessary for an employee selecting food in the grocery store versus the warehouse employee packing food. “Figuring out the right-size training and what kind is currently available is one of the things that we’re trying to figure out on the [Conference for Food Protection] committee.” (Note, the Conference for Food Protection committee is developing guidance that addresses home food delivery.) Schaffner indicated that training surrounding time and temperature, allergens and product tampering are important considerations.

Howard Popoola, vice president, corporate food technology and regulatory compliance at The Kroger Company provided the retailer perspective. “Our challenge is multiple in nature,” he said, emphasizing that stores try to keep labor at a minimum. Designing training for workers who are getting a $.25-per-hour raise presents a different hurdle. “What we’re doing in the store today is something we’ve never done before, and [we’re] asking individuals to do things they’ve never done before,” said Popoola. “The training we’ve done before is slowly becoming obsolete.” He said that The Kroger Company is evaluating its current basic food safety training and is looking at building on the segments of its stores that are involved in picking, packing and preparing food—especially the fresh items that are more susceptible to potential microbial contamination.

The Allergen Risk

A question was raised about whether delivery services use the same bags over and over, introducing the potential for cross-contamination. As part of its restaurant community guidelines, UberEats encourages restaurants to put food in tamper-resistant packaging. According to Joseph Navin, senior manager of global safety at the company, in order to reduce the possibility of cross contamination, all food should be placed in a bag before it is put in the insulated bag for transport. UberEats also has guidelines for how those bags should be cleaned. Further addressing the allergen risk: “How do we optimize the way that consumers can disclose that they have a food allergy? We don’t want to have food allergies going in the same free form text [box] that says ‘send extra napkins’,” said Navin. He added that UberEats is developing ways in which dealing with allergens is more conspicuous for restaurants when their employees are preparing food.

Allison Jennings, director food safety and compliance North America at Amazon, said the company has experimented with multiple types of packaging, but there isn’t one perfect set of variables and inputs. Amazon currently uses single-use bags for delivery to mitigate risks with re-cleaning, she said.

Consumer Complaints

As a best practice, integrating relevant information from consumer complaints should become part of a company’s food safety program, said Schaffner. An important role of technology will be its ability to collect feedback that allows companies to generate actionable insights related to food safety, identify any gaps, strengthen controls and be able to develop ways to mitigate risks, said Navin. Amazon currently monitors customer feedback using automatic detection for keywords related to food safety and quality that arrives via the phone, online chats with customer service and social media outlets. When necessary, the method can prompt an investigation, look for trends or help engage in continuous improvement processes. “We are constantly looking for any potential blind spots with our processes,” said Jennings. “We also mystery shop ourselves and make sure we’re meeting our requirements.”

The most common consumer complaints reported among the panelists were not related to food safety, but rather food quality—the product was crushed, didn’t look appealing, etc. “Since we rely on third party partners, we’ve walked through with them on those processes…[and are] challenging our third party partners on who they hire to deliver food, training, etc. and taking caution on delivering food,” said Popoola.

Schaffner said common complaints noted during a study conducted by Rutgers University and Tennessee State University were the following: The product was received out of temperature control; there was evidence of packages leaking (meat, poultry, and fish); a lack of cooking directions; and no mechanism to provide feedback to the company if you have a complaint.

According to Navin, among the top complaints that UberEats receives is missing food or a replacement for items that might be out of stock.

Recalls

In general, recalls in the home delivery segment would apply to products that are received via online grocery shopping services. Since consumers must sign up for these services by providing either an email or phone number, companies can contact customers in the event of a recall. For example, Amazon requires an email account, so it directly emails customers when there is recall or known safety risk associated with a product purchased. Similarly, when a customer uses a loyalty card at a grocery store such as Kroger, the retailer can use its robocall system to notify customers if they purchased an item that is subject to a recall or is associated with an outbreak.

Target, Kroger

Rumor Mill: Target and Kroger Talk Merger

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Target, Kroger

Rumor has it that Target and Kroger are talking about a merger. Citing unnamed sources, an article by Fast Company reports that the companies started discussing the prospect last summer, as the deal would be a boost to Target’s grocery business, while Kroger would reap the benefits of more merchandise and e-commerce.

However, CNBC is reporting that the two companies are not in talks to merge but rather are discussing Target’s acquisition of Shipt, a same-day delivery company, which occurred in December.

Fake news

Find the fake news: This article is part of the Food Safety Tech April Fool’s edition. To find out which stories are fake and which are real, log onto our site on Monday afternoon (April 2) and click on each story for the update.You can also sound off in the comments section.

Think this is the fake news? Wrong! Here’s our April Fool’s story.

New Handheld Scanner Detects Pathogens, Puts Curators at Ease

 

Amazon Fresh

Amazon to Grab Grocery Business, May Open Stores

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Amazon Fresh

Amazon may have plans to expand its grocery delivery service into convenience stores. According to The Wall Street Journal, the retailer may open convenience stores and offer curbside pickup to Amazon Fresh customers (the online grocery delivery service). Amazon Fresh currently offers traditional grocery items such as packaged goods, beverages, condiments, baking goods, seasonings and pasta, along with perishable items such as cheese, eggs, frozen foods, and meat and seafood to consumers in certain cities. Based on location, consumers would also be able to order items from local retailers. Through the new reported expansion, Amazon Fresh customers would order shorter shelf life food items via their mobile devices for in-store pick up, and items with a longer shelf life would be available for online order and delivery. It’s possible that Amazon will open one of these locations in Seattle within the next few weeks, according to the Journal.