Over the past 9 years, the Food Safety Consortium Conference & Expo has built a reputation for delivering perspectives and insights from the most knowledgeable and influential experts in food safety. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, last year’s event was converted from an in-person event into a 14-week series of virtual themed-episodes during the fall. Continuing the momentum from 2020, the 2021 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series will take place as a four-week Spring and five-week Fall program. Both the Spring and Fall programs will feature critical thinking topics that are for industry veterans and knowledgeable newcomers.
“As you know, the online experience is very different than in-person, so last year we deconstructed our in-person program and re-engineered it for virtual. Instead of having a virtual conference for three straight days, we set up our program in short 2.5-hour themed episodes that ran every Thursday in the fall. We received great feedback from attendees, speakers and sponsors. I think we were one of the few conferences that successfully pulled off the pivot to virtual,” says Rick Biros, president of Innovative Publishing and director of the Food Safety Consortium.
Building on the strong success of the 2020 Food Safety Virtual Conference Series, the 2021 Consortium will be presented into two seasonal programs. “This will allow us to continue the conversation throughout the year, while also taking into consideration the busy lives of food safety professionals,” Biros adds.
Food Safety Tech is the media sponsor and will feature exclusive content from the event.
The Spring Program will run every Thursday in May, with each episode starting at 12 pm ET. The weekly episodes will tackle a range of critical topics in foods safety, including FSMA and traceability, food protection strategies, COVID-19’s lasting impact on the food industry by segment, audits and supply chain management. Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response, is the confirmed keynote speaker for Thursday, May 6.
The Fall Program will run every Thursday beginning on October 7 at 12 pm ET through November 4. Episode topics include food safety hazards (emerging threats and new technologies), food defense strategies, an FDA update, and personal development, training and mentorship.
Registration for the 2021 Food Safety Consortium Spring and Fall Virtual Conference Series is open now.
Companies that are interested in sponsoring a 10-minute technical presentation during the series can contact Sales Director RJ Palermo for more details.
About Food Safety Tech
Food Safety Tech is a digital media community for food industry professionals interested in food safety and quality. We inform, educate and connect food manufacturers and processors, retail & food service, food laboratories, growers, suppliers and vendors, and regulatory agencies with original, in-depth features and reports, curated industry news and user-contributed content, and live and virtual events that offer knowledge, perspectives, strategies and resources to facilitate an environment that fosters safer food for consumers.
Since 2012, Food Safety Tech audiences have learned to respect and expect our high-quality content—via FoodSafetyTech.com, our weekly newsletter and by attending our educational programs. Food Safety Tech keeps professionals current with the latest information about technology, best practices and regulations, and how innovative solutions and approaches can be leveraged to further advance food safety across the globe.
About the Food Safety Consortium Conference
The Food Safety Consortium is an educational and networking event for Food Protection that has food safety, food integrity and food defense as the foundation of the educational content of the program. With a unique focus on science, technology and compliance, the “Consortium” enables attendees to engage in sessions that are critical for advancing careers and organizations alike. Over the past 9 years the Food Safety Consortium has built a reputation for delivering the most knowledgeable and influential perspectives in food safety. The speaker line-up has driven key food safety decision-makers to the event (both in-person and virtually)—facilitating an environment for vendors, suppliers, food industry professionals, and consultants to network and build long-lasting business relationships.
Due to COVID-19, the 2020 Food Safety Consortium was converted to a virtual conference series that featured specific topics in a weekly episode series. The 2021 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series will feature a Spring and Fall program, running in May and October, respectively.
The coronavirus pandemic has impacted the food industry on several fronts from production to consumer purchasing habits to in-restaurant dining adjustments. While facility operations might look different, the demand for product is certainly still high, so operations should be tighter than ever.
Unfortunately, pest activity has not slowed down during the pandemic. From rodents and cockroaches to stored product pests and birds, your facility is susceptible to pest disruptions. With shipments coming and going and limited staffing, it’s also highly likely you don’t have time to prioritize your pest management program. An unchecked, contaminated shipment leaving your facility and making it into the homes of consumers is all it takes to wreak havoc on your business.
If you already have an integrated pest management (IPM) program in place, you’re heading in the right direction with securing your facility. IPM programs help food processing facilities keep pests from entering and destroying your product by applying preventive measures such as identifying potential and existing sanitation opportunities and regularly evaluating the state of facility maintenance.
The last thing you need right now is a failed audit due to preventable pest issues. Failing a first, second or third-party audit can lead to many consequences such as a damaged reputation, reduced profits and worst of all, lost customers. With most regulators resuming on-site audits, offering remote options or a hybrid of the two, ensuring your facility stays within regulations is still possible, and highly encouraged. After all, pest control plays a significant role in all major food safety audits and can account for up to 20% of your score.
Food Safety Audits during the Pandemic and New Changes
Not only do facility managers have to regulate operations during a pandemic, but they also must maintain strict food safety standards to ensure that the food supply chain stays healthy. With the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, there is some hope that the pandemic may be under control soon, but it is not over yet, and food safety audits should not be avoided because of a pandemic. To accommodate, many auditors implemented new measures such as remote and hybrid audits for food processing facilities, in addition to on-site audits.
If your facility is still unable to conduct on-site audits at this time, special accommodations can be made. The following auditors have made updates to their food safety audits amid the pandemic:
- BRCGS: In addition to blended audits, BRCGS is offering certificate extensions for up to six months with a risk assessment and review. Although not benchmarked by GFSI, remote assessments are also available and involve a video audit of your facility’s storage and production areas in additional to reviewing internal audit results and documentation.
- SQFI: SQFI is postponing certifications for extenuating circumstances and implemented additional processes for risk assessments. Certifying bodies will have to conduct risk assessments to determine whether a certificate extension is needed.
- FDA: After temporarily suspending all facility inspections last March, the FDA has resumed domestic inspections on a case-by-case basis when safe to execute. Foreign inspections have not yet resumed so, take extra care if your facility regularly receives foreign shipments.
- FSIS: Inspections of meat, poultry and egg facilities continued through the pandemic. These regulated facilities continue to require sanitation SOPs to help maintain food safety and prevent the spread of diseases.
Whether your facility is able to resume onsite audits or needs to switch to a remote or hybrid option, pests will still be trying to take advantage. Working with your pest control provider to ensure your documentation and pest management measures are in order is one of the best ways to ensure any audit or risk assessment goes smoothly. While each auditor has specific requirements, here are some key considerations for your next third-party inspection.
Implement an IPM Program
We cannot stress enough the importance of a proactive pest management program for food processing facilities. The best way to reduce pest issues is to build them out. Your pest control partner will identify and communicate to you on ways to reduce, or in some cases even eliminate food, water and harborage for pests. Ensure your contract specifies the roles and responsibilities of your pest control partner and you, the scope of service and a risk assessment plan. If you’re unsure of what your contract entails, now is the time to get in touch with your pest control partner.
Invest in Your Employees
Train your staff to spot and record signs of pest activity so you can address them immediately with your pest control partner. This is particularly important if you had to adjust employee schedules during the pandemic to enforce proper social distancing. Fewer staff means fewer opportunities to spot pest issues, so making sure all employees are trained can help you in the long run.
Keep Up with Documentation
Your documentation is an integral part of your audit process because it shows third-party auditors that you can verify that you have an effective pest management plan in place. Three types of documents are needed for your audit: Proof of training and certification, pesticide documentation and general facility documentation. Most pest control providers now maintain digital documentation for their partners which makes it easier to track and monitor for pest trends, treatments and updates to your plan. Even with a proper pest management program in place, facilities can still lose points for not having proper documentation so don’t overlook this part.
Hold Practice Runs
A good pest control partner will encourage test audits to ensure you’re prepared for the real deal. An annual assessment is one of the best ways to make sure your pest management program is still working and to address any gaps if it isn’t. Don’t forget to review your documentation during test audits in addition to joining your pest control partner for a physical inspection of your facility (socially distanced, of course).
Prepare your Facility
Your goal, and the goal of your pest control partner, should be that your facility is ready for an audit at any time. However, if you have an upcoming scheduled audit, a week before your audit, work with your pest control partner to conduct interior and exterior inspections as well as a documents review. Make sure you are familiar with how to access your customer web portal so that you can access data if requested. During these inspections, make sure any monitoring devices meet auditor requirements and are properly placed and maintained. The day before your audit, make another run through the facility to be sure your facility is ready. You don’t want your auditor finding cobwebs in your storage room or debris showing up in the background of a video audit.
Food safety should be a top priority for your business—your reputation depends on it after all. As the food industry continues to navigate operating in a post-pandemic climate, maintaining a successful pest management program and updated records will give you a head start when it comes to audits no matter the format. With public health concerns at an all-time high, consumers and suppliers alike will be grateful for your increased attention to maintaining industry regulations.
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.
Who would have even thought to put the topic of a pandemic in your business continuity plan? I know, I sure never thought of it, even as a senior auditor. I think that most of us are familiar with the typical subjects of tornados, floods, power outages and disgruntled employees, to name a few. We now need to focus on adding a pandemic to the to-do list of your plan, as this global issue has become a reality since early 2020.
It is quite likely that your plant has been affected by COVID-19 in some way, therefore your site has put into place actions to mitigate the risks posed by the pandemic. What may not be likely, is that any of these actions have been documented. I have currently seen plants evolve actions based on the severity of the pandemic in their locations. Travel restrictions, reduced work force, changing employee personal protective equipment, additional employee monitoring, and remote work environments are some of the examples directly affecting sites that I have witnessed during the first half of this year. As plants learn and experience more issues, they tend to adapt to how they are mitigating the risks in their facilities.
Capturing what actions went smoothly and what has gone astray will aid in strengthening your business continuity plan. Pandemics as well as other extraordinary events are handled by a multi-step approach that needs organization and good communication. That is why it is imperative to build and document actions, then verify how those steps are to be used. Involving key personnel–not just the quality manager–at the site is a best practice in getting a full grasp on what needs to happen during an emergency. In several instances, I have witnessed that key personnel are not informed about where a site’s business continuity plan is located; or the plan was updated right before an audit and after goes back on the shelf for the next 12 months, collecting dust. Employees should be trained on the contents of the plan, their responsibilities (if they are part of the business continuity team), current contacts, updates, and ways to initiate proper channels, if or when a time comes to do so. Hopefully, it never does, but it sure does not hurt to be prepared.
The business continuity plan is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach for plants. An important consideration, when defining what actions to take, if your area has been plagued by a pandemic includes determining what risks are brought by employees, visitors (i.e., contractors), location, and type of product being produced. Plant A making a high-risk open product may implement additional hand washing and sanitation, whereas Plant B making a low-risk closed product may implement additional health screening (i.e., temperature checks) for employees. You should ensure that it makes sense, and it is beneficial for your site and your interested parties, such as customers, consumers and stakeholders.
Your business continuity plan should be built to be a great resource to you in the time of need. And in return, you will have to put some elbow grease into shaping the document in a way that fits the ever-changing food environment. Keeping your plant current will assist your business to quickly respond to a negative event. In consequence, not having a plan that works for your site, or any at all, could lead to closed doors.
With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to take a toll on live events, Innovative Publishing Company, Inc. has made the careful decision to convert the Food Safety Consortium, which historically has taken place in Schaumburg, IL, to a virtual conference. This move takes into consideration Illinois’ COVID-19 plan to reopen its economy, which is a Five-Phase Plan. Phase 5 occurs when groups larger than 50 (conferences and conventions specifically mentioned) will be allowed. The state enters Phase 5 only when a vaccine or an effective treatment is in place. The decision to take the Food Safety Consortium virtual is based on the Illinois reopening plan, along with considering the safety and well being of staff, attendees, speakers and sponsors.
Every Thursday, beginning on September 10 through November 12, the Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series will host two presentations and two sponsored Tech Talks, followed by a panel discussion with attendees. Food Safety Tech is the media sponsor.
“This will be much more than a bunch of webinars. We are excited to offer a virtual platform that facilitates greater human interaction,” says Rick Biros, president of Innovative Publishing and director of the Food Safety Consortium. “Whether it’s a random connection in a hotel lobby, a stroll by a booth at a trade show, or a seat next to a new friend in a learning session, we recognize that human connection is important for events. That’s why we’ve invested in new tools for the FSC Conference Virtual Platform to ensure those discussions, discoveries and connections can go on whether our event is offline or online. The new platform provides attendees with a way to keep track of live sessions, connect with sponsors and engage with peers, all in a familiar way. It will also include an event App that offers interactive features.”
Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response, will remain a keynote speaker, with the new presentation date to be announced.
Call for Abstracts
We are accepting abstracts for participation in the Food Safety Consortium Virtual Series. On the Submit an Abstract page, select Food Safety Consortium 2020 in the drop-down menu.
- Food safety
- Food defense
- Food integrity
- Food safety supply chain management
- Lessons learned COVID-19
- Regulatory compliance
- Facility design
- C-suite executive forum
Tech Talk Sponsorship
Companies that are interested in sponsoring a 10-minute technical presentation during the series can also submit their abstract through the portal. For pricing information, contact IPC Sales Director RJ Palermo.
About Food Safety Tech
Food Safety Tech publishes news, technology, trends, regulations, and expert opinions on food safety, food quality, food business and food sustainability. We also offer educational, career advancement and networking opportunities to the global food industry. This information exchange is facilitated through ePublishing, digital and live events.
About the Food Safety Consortium Conference and Expo (The live event)
Food companies are concerned about protecting their customers, their brands and their own company’s financial bottom line. The term “Food Protection” requires a company-wide culture that incorporates food safety, food integrity and food defense into the company’s Food Protection strategy.
The Food Safety Consortium is an educational and networking event for Food Protection that has food safety, food integrity and food defense as the foundation of the educational content of the program. With a unique focus on science, technology and compliance, the “Consortium” enables attendees to engage in conversations that are critical for advancing careers and organizations alike. Delegates visit with exhibitors to learn about cutting-edge solutions, explore three high-level educational tracks for learning valuable industry trends, and network with industry executives to find solutions to improve quality, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the evolving food industry.
Last week FDA announced the extension of the application period for importers that want to participate in the Voluntary Qualified Importer Program for FY 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in travel restrictions and advisories that have hampered efforts by accredited Certification Bodies (CBs) to both conduct the onsite regulatory audits and issue certifications to foreign entities, which are required by the VQIP application.
The application portal will stay open until July 31.
VQIP is a voluntary fee-based program that was established under FSMA. Approved applicants are granted an expedited review and import of human and animal foods into the United States if they prove they are achieving and maintaining a high level of control over their supply chains from a safety and security standpoint. Eligibility criteria includes ensuring facilities of foreign suppliers are certified by a CB that has been accredited via FDA’s Accredited Third-Party Certification Program.
Food and beverage manufacturers are seeing the effects of the coronavirus when it spreads through their workforce. Recently, there have been multiple closures of facilities operated by meat processors, including Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods as COVID-19 has infected hundreds of workers.
The backdrop of stressful operations and work: Employees now face increased questions before entering plants and feelings of isolation as lunches and breaks are now solo activities due to social distancing. All of these stressors are compounded when you think about what we’re asking them to do: Go into work and keep food on the grocery store shelves. This is a completely new way to operate, and it has a very real emotional effect on our workers.
We’ve received reports from customers where management is getting out of the back office and putting on hairnets to work the production line. The shortage of workers is a very real problem, and our customers are rising to the challenge. Plus, managing this overall labor shortage while doing more safety and sanitation checks than ever before to make sure transmission risks are eliminated is putting stress on everyone working in plants. It’s never been harder to work in the food industry.
In response to California Governor Gavin Newsom’s actions related to the pandemic, we stand behind any effort that is taken to accommodate the needs of these vital, valuable workers, including the executive order to provide supplemental paid sick leave. Such actions, both locally here in California and at the federal level, are critical to elevating the safety of our food manufacturing and distribution workers. Some heroes wear hairnets.
Temp Workers and Lack of Training Protocols
COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the availability of skilled workers in food facilities. Through all the layoffs stemming from the economic standstill, food manufacturers and grocery workers are reporting increases in hiring to help keep up with demand—and to mitigate the effects of sick employees going on quarantine for two weeks. For instance, Albertson’s, a large food grocery chain store, reported that it was hiring for 2,000 positions.
But hiring temporary workers is only half the battle. The task of training people who may have never worked in grocery or food manufacturing has become more critical in the face of new demands on sanitation and social distancing. With these measures in place, it’s no longer a case of a new employee showing up for work and shadowing another employee or supervisor. Technology can close the gap, especially in food production where the regulations and safety standards require strict adherence to processes. For example, software can facilitate shorter employee training in the areas of quality policies and good documentation practices.
Same Volume with Fewer Workers
We are working closely with customers and partners to cope with new guidelines for social distancing inside food facilities, providing the capability to do remote audits as visitor restrictions have increased. Our software is also being used to screen food manufacturing workers for symptoms of COVID-19 before shift work starts to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus to other essential workers.
In response to increased needs from customers, we have developed three solutions to address the impact of COVID-19. These solutions, which include a personnel screener, changeover manager and remote supplier auditor, can help food and beverage manufacturers efficiently manage physical distancing measures, symptom screening, and travel restrictions.
It can’t be stressed enough: The people who carry out food safety protocols are doing more checks and using more labor time to conform to regulations and guidelines for COVID-19. And, adhering to the systems, regulations and processes used to promote safe, high-quality products (in the same or even higher volumes) remains as crucial as ever. Simplifying these processes by leveraging software has been shown to cut 8 to12 hours of labor per day for a single facility. This is critical at a time when even one person being sick can cause lower throughput.
Plus, this isn’t like manufacturing a car where a line will be built to produce hundreds of thousands of cars over a two- to three-year period. Food manufacturers must often change a line over to produce a different flavor, package type or food type altogether, in as little time as possible to keep production going. Robots and automation can help, but in a crisis like this where immediate productivity gains are needed, software can make the much-needed difference.