What matters to consumers when they buy food and beverage products, and what do they see on labels? Next week, food safety professionals can gains from insight on this topic during a complimentary Food Safety Tech webinar.
Sponsored by DNV, this virtual event will present research results conducted by DNV and (independently) Natalia Velikova, Ph.D., professor and associate director at Texas Tech University and Sophie Ghvanidize, Ph.D., agribusiness lecturer at Geisenheim University in Germany on consumer behavior and trust, when buying well established and novice food and beverage product brands, along with the impact of information on labels regarding products nutritional and health benefits, environmental impact of production and social responsibility of producers on consumer choices.
COVID & Manufacturing, with April Bishop, Treehouse Foods
Impact of COVID-19 on Food Safety & Quality Teams, and Strategies for Moving Forward, with Jill Stuber, The Food Safety Coach
The Intersection of COVID, Technology and Consumer Changes, with Darin Detwiler, Northeastern University
COVID & Business Continuity Planning, with Douglas Marshall, Ph.D., Eurofins
TechTalks from RizePoint and Bayer
This year’s event occurs as a Spring program and a Fall program. Haven’t registered? Follow this link to the 2021 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series, which provides access to all the episodes featuring critical industry insights from leading subject matter experts! Registration includes access to both the Spring and the Fall events. We look forward to your joining us virtually.
COVID-19 has had a major impact on the food and beverage industry this year, contributing to everything from bare shelves and supply chain issues to changes in consumer behavior to plant shutdowns, and to historic grocery cost spikes. We continue to experience changes every day, along with challenges that must be overcome. Lessons from the last year can prepare us for the years ahead, but only if we learn to adapt and anticipate.
Nearly all parts of the supply chain have been impacted, from raw material sourcing and packaging shortages to manufacturing plant shutdowns to logistics capacity to bricks and mortar store operations to consumers. At the onset of the pandemic, major industry trade shows were cancelled and postponed, along with demos and in-person sales meetings, leaving the future of shelf resets with a dark cloud hanging above them. Staying in touch virtually with buyers and providing updates proved to be a best practice and will continue into 2021.
To keep things running smoothly on the manufacturing side, assets from some logistics providers were redeployed to where they were needed most, and with consumers dining more from home, the industry saw a huge move from food service to retail, which we will touch on a bit later. Moving into 2021, brands should ensure their raw materials and supply inventories, especially those that are imported, can cover any potential and unforeseen disruptions. It is critical to prepare well in advance of shortages or surges, specifically in at-risk chains.
Despite the attempts to mitigate against shortages, even the most well-known brands faced major out-of-stock issues and consumers turned to alternative, smaller brands. The shortages came from an increase in pressure from consumers stocking up on items, not from a lack of supply as many believed. Manufacturers increased hours and scheduled capacity on production lines to maximize efficiencies to keep up until things returned to normal. When possible, production lines were reconfigured to distance operators and shifts staggered to limit contact between teams. Senators even introduced the Food Supply Protection Act to help strengthen the chain, protect workers and reduce waste, as per the United States Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. Despite these efforts to keep shelves stocked, the unprecedented time presented smaller brands the opportunity to gain new loyal customers. The transition to e-commerce became an avenue for increased exposure for brands and continues to prove to be a vital option to explore if they have not already.
The retail sector made major headlines this year. In an effort to avoid crowds and follow stay-at-home orders, many consumers began shifting their purchasing behaviors. With today’s technology, it has been easier than ever to shop via e-commerce platforms, whether grocery pickup, delivery or takeout. We experienced temporary out-of-stocks at brick-and-mortar stores and increased wait times on deliveries due to fulfillment shortages. Consumer reaction to these changes—including stocking up on staple products such as paper towels and toilet paper—caused spikes in grocery costs. April saw the largest monthly increase in food at home indexes since February 1974, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Food service has not been exempt from the impact of 2020. With less dining out and more eating at home, restaurants, bars, college cafeterias and stadiums have had to adapt with major shifts in business operations, traffic and income, and practically hit a standstill. In September, the National Restaurant Association reported that nearly one in six restaurants, or about 100,000 nationwide had closed permanently due to the pandemic. Restaurant management had to amend all aspects of operations, including their takeout procedures and other established programs.
In order to survive, restaurants have been creative, building welcoming and distanced environments, and delivering new services to diners. The use of technology will play an even bigger role, now more than ever, to limit touch points. QR codes for menus and contactless ordering and payment options will become the new norm for establishments, if they have not already. Going into 2021, some restaurants are even revamping menus and finding ways to turn them into CPG products, a new trend that is sure to take off in the new year. In April Shake Shack announced a ShackBurger Kit, complete with all the ingredients necessary to cook the chain’s signature burgers using the same ingredients as the dine-in experience, but from the comfort of home. More recently, in November, Chipotle introduced its first digital-only restaurant, which will handle only pickup and delivery orders. Many local restaurants have adopted new best practices to serve their patrons and stay in business. When in-person dining was suspended in the spring, one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants began offering takeout for the first time. Initially, they required patrons to come in the restaurant to sign their ticket and pick up their order. They evolved into a totally online ordering and payment process, including tip, and masked touchless curbside pickup. They have continued this even as in-person dining resumed. We can expect to see more tactics like these, loyalty programs and digitized experiences in the coming year.
It is impossible to be certain what 2021 will bring, but what we do know is that it will require proactive planning and preparation. Learning from 2020 will play a pivotal role in survival for some brands, companies and establishments, and mitigating against breaks in the supply chain until we return to a sense of normalcy. The good news is the food supply chain has proven to be very robust and resilient. How we react to changes in the next few months is critical to maintaining a strong and secure supply chain to ensure we continue smooth operations.
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.
Issues with the health of frontline workers, supply chain disruptions, and changes in consumer behavior are just a few vulnerabilities that the food industry is experiencing as a result of COVID-19. Food Safety Tech recently had a conversation with Jennifer van de Ligt, Ph.D., director of the University of Minnesota Integrated Food Systems Leadership Program and Food Protection and Defense Institute about the hurdles that the industry is experiencing and where we go from here.
Food Safety Tech: What challenges is the food system facing in light of the COVID-19 pandemic? Where are the vulnerabilities?
Jennifer van de Ligt, Ph.D.: The food system is facing primary, secondary and tertiary challenges right now. I see two main drivers as disruptors as a result of COVID-19. The health and safety of employees is the first primary driver. As COVID-19 has more broadly spread through the U.S., ensuring the health and safety of employees in the food system has become essential; however, the pandemic has shown us the food system has struggled with that.
The other big primary challenge facing the food system has been the swift change in consumer behavior. Pre-COVID-19, nearly half of food was consumed away from home. When restaurants closed, and stay-at-home orders were in place, it put extreme amounts of pressure on our food retail segment, causing supply and demand issues.
Regarding the health and safety of employees: We’ve seen meat processing struggle with production demands because the health of their employees has been impacted by the virus. In mid-April, the beef and pork capacity in this country went down by over 40%. They are making great improvements and are approaching normal harvest capacity range for both [beef and pork production]. Meat cuts being produced are slightly different than normal, as this part of the meat plants are very labor intensive. This has really highlighted the need to make sure that we keep the health and safety of our food system employees front and center.
During the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series, Jennifer Van de Ligt will participate in a panel discussion on November 5 about Professional Development and Women in Food Safety | Register NowNow that the meat supply chain is beginning to recover, we’re also beginning to see increasing effects on non-meat supply manufacturing. This isn’t isolated to food manufacturing; as we experience broader community spread, COVID-19 will impact all aspects of our food system.
On consumer behavior: As consumers shifted to food retail, immense pressure was quickly put on our food supply chain logistics, manufacturing timing and processes, the speed to warehouses and delivery, etc.
One example that demonstrates a challenge in manufacturing and consumer demand is the difference in volumes for food services versus retail. I like to use the example of shredded cheese. At a grocery store, you’ll find a one-pound pack, but shredded cheese in food service might be in a 10-pound bag. There are not a lot of consumers who want to buy a 10-pound bag of shredded cheese. Well, why can’t cheese manufacturers just package bulk product into one-pound packs? There are several reasons that don’t allow producers to pivot quickly: They may not have the machinery or packaging to do that. Also, changing packaging from food service to retail requires different labels and regulatory approvals. Examples like this led to many of the spot outages consumers found in grocery stores. In the produce sector, it led to produce being plowed under in fields because they didn’t have the distribution channels to go into retail instead of into food service.
In the Integrated Food System Leadership (IFSL) program, we’ve recently discussed food equity and food injustice as a result of COVID-19. As food retail became stressed and unemployment increased, we saw a huge demand for our food assistance networks. Because food retail is one of the primary contributors to the food assistance networks, there wasn’t enough volume being donated. In addition, food service foods are not appropriately packaged to go into the food assistance networks and food banks, similar to the issue in moving to food retail. This led to tremendous pressure and innovative solutions to source and distribute food to a newly vulnerable population.
As we look ahead into the coming months, many of the vulnerabilities in the food system will be the same. We have to continuously monitor the health and safety of our employees to keep our food system as a whole functional. There’s a growing recognition that our primary agriculture workers are also at risk—the people in fields harvesting and planting. There are many groups providing recommendations on how to protect agriculture employees and communities where they work and reside.
We’ll see continued adaptation in the food system to the new reality of how restaurants and food service engage with their consumers with the shift in behavior to limited restaurant dining and increases in online ordering.
FST: In what areas do food manufacturers, processors or growers need to adapt moving forward in order to thrive?
Van de Ligt: There are several. First, I think this crisis has really brought worker health and welfare to the forefront, and there will be more emphasis on the essentiality of food system workers. They were previously a behind-the-scenes workforce. The issue of worker health and welfare is going to accelerate in many industries, but I also see a push to more automation. The human workforce is necessary, and people do a really wonderful job, but are there areas that might benefit from automation? I think those go hand in hand.
I also think the global food system needs to rethink how it remains resilient. In the past, there’s been a focus on resilience and efficiency through economy of scale. That still exists and may look different moving forward. Using the meat industry as an example, that economy of scale was also its biggest weakness that had gone unrecognized. Going forward, I think there are many companies that are going to consider alternative supply chains. Should multiple, smaller plants be utilized instead of one large plant to provide a more resilient framework for production? Other companies are going to think about installing equipment or processing lines that could more quickly pivot between food service and food retail. There’s also a huge opportunity now for local and smaller markets to really make an impact as people look for alternative supply chains and sources. We found that many of the local food markets and co-ops, especially those that provided into food service, pivoted pretty quickly to pop-up online marketplaces to provide food direct to consumer. I think we’ll see that trend increase as well.
In order to feed billions of people worldwide, it’s essential that the food industry take a broader systems approach versus the siloed approach path we’ve been using. The pandemic has highlighted how the food system is an intricately functioning balance and requires collaboration. Our food system will only be able to move forward faster with less disruption when we have food system leaders who understand the intricacies and the ripple effects of the challenges we face. Leaders who understand the impacts of decisions outside of their sphere will be essential to plan for impacts from natural disasters, another pandemic, etc.—and to create a more responsive and resilient food system in the future.
FST: Where does this leave folks who are either beginning or rising in their careers in food safety? Do you think the pandemic has changed food safety careers as they’ve historically functioned?
Van de Ligt: I like to say that ‘what got us here is not going to get us there.’ In general, if you think about where food safety careers have been in the past, the roles have been all about consistency, understanding regulations, making sure we do everything precisely right all of the time so we don’t have a food safety outbreak.
The focus on doing things precisely right all of the time will absolutely continue. What I think will shift is the need for food safety professionals to think more broadly than just the regulations that are required for compliance. Food safety professionals need to understand more about the system that is happening outside their facility; the impact of their work going backwards and forwards in the supply chain.
How things have worked historically in a food safety role has been having a consistent supplier network that provides the same type of product every time; you know what to expect, how to produce and distribute safe food for the customers you serve. In a situation like COVID-19, because of the disruptions from farm to fork, the suppliers you need to work with may be different and you need to quickly make decisions spontaneously as supply shifts. Having the knowledge and skills to navigate changes is essential to ensure the quality and safety of your product.
A highly technical focus that many professionals have when they start their career is often too narrow and won’t be enough for emerging food system leaders. Leadership skills are vital as well. In the IFSL program we teach food system professionals how to explore proactive viewpoints, not just managing people or responsibilities. Managers make sure things are done things correctly; leaders make sure we do the right thing. In order to learn how to do the right thing, we teach skills and tools on how to navigate uncertainty; practicing active listening, constructive feedback; and understanding the concerns of a supplier or customer are examples.
We emphasize and teach in the IFSL program that food system professionals and leaders need to be much more proactive. This means equipping them with the food system knowledge and leadership skills so they can predict and prepare for how decisions affect upstream and downstream. Having a broader viewpoint is critical to adaptivity, which will build resilience and help limit disruption.
Since the early 20th century, food safety has been a paramount concern for consumers in the United States. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which painted a bleak, brutal, and downright disgusting picture of turn-of-the-century food processing facilities led to the creation of some of the country’s first food safety laws. Today, federal agencies and statutes make up a comprehensive food safety system to ensure that the growth, distribution and consumption of foods are safe from start to finish.
While food safety has significantly improved in the century since Sinclair’s time, stories of major outbreaks of foodborne illnesses continue to pop up across the country. Over the past few years, a significant number of outbreaks as a result of pathogens have made the headlines. To mitigate the threat of public health crises and ensure food production and distribution is safe and secure, companies must rely on modern technology to trace the movement of food across the entire supply chain.
How Technology Is Changing the Food Industry
Technology is a powerful, innovative force that has changed the way even well established companies must do business in order to stay relevant. From easier access to nutritional information to digital solutions that make food manufacturing and distribution more efficient, greater consumer awareness driven by technology empowers consumers to make decisions that can greatly affect the food industry’s bottom line.
Technology-driven accountability is playing one outsized role in allowing consumers to make better choices about the foods they consume and purchase. Social media and smartphone apps connect consumers to a wealth of resources concerning the harmful effects of certain ingredients in their food, the source of products, and how particular items are made and produced. In 2015, for example, The Campbell Soup Company removed 13 ingredients from its traditional soup recipes as a result of a greater public demand to understand food sources. Neither food giants nor small producers should expect to remain immune from greater public scrutiny over food health and safety.
Nutritional research is also helping change the conversation around food, granting nutritionists and consumers alike greater access to food-related data. Through easily accessible scholarly journals, apps that provide real-time nutrition information, and meal tracking apps that help users log and understand what they’re eating, consumers can gain a better understanding of nutrition to make more informed choices about their daily food intake. Researchers can also use food-tracking apps to make discoveries about consumer behavior and foods that are eaten.
Technology is also being used to tackle food waste, one of the most pervasive problems facing the food industry. One-third of the total amount of food produced globally, amounting to nearly $1.2 trillion, goes to waste every year. Solving this pervasive crisis has become an industry imperative that is being tackled through a variety of innovative technologies to improve shelf-life, dynamically adjust pricing based on sell-by dates, and allow restaurants to automatically monitor their daily waste.
In the food manufacturing sector, digitally-connected supply chain systems are providing greater visibility into the production of foods and beverages. Supplier management technology delivers data that can be used to optimize processes and improve quality in real-time, making it easy to adjust to consumer demands, respond to logistics challenges, and boost government compliance. The enhanced operational benefits offered through improved supply chain visibility allows manufacturers to produce products faster, safer, and with greater transparency.
Online ordering has also ushered in a new era of food industry behavior. The growing assortment of online ordering apps has just given the consumer more control over quickly ordering their next meal. The trend in online ordering has also allowed restaurants to experiment with new business models like virtual kitchens that offer menus that are only available online.
IoT: The Future of Food Safety
From the farm to the carryout bag, the impact of technology on the greater food industry is already evident in daily practice. Through enhanced access to data, food producers can run an efficient supply chain that reduces waste, boosts productivity, and meets consumer demand in real-time. Using a variety of online resources, consumers are empowered to quickly make well-informed food purchases that are healthier, more convenient and more sustainable than ever before.
The Internet-of-Things (IoT) adds a layer of technology to the food manufacturing process to ensure greater food safety. A broad series of networked sensors, monitors, and other Internet-connected devices, IoT technology can oversee the entire food manufacturing and distribution process from the warehouse to the point of sale. Boosting transparency across the board, intelligent sensors and cameras can transform any food manufacturing operation into a highly visible, data-backed process that allows for better decision-making and improved real-time knowledge.
While IoT technology is a powerful tool that can improve the efficiency of restaurants and provide enhanced customer experiences, some of its greatest potential lies in its ability to safely monitor food preparation and production. Live data from IoT devices makes it possible to closely monitor food safety data points, allowing manufacturers and restaurants to reduce the risks of foodborne illness outbreaks through enhanced data collection and automated reporting.
Domino’s Pizza, for instance, embraced IoT technology to enhance management processes and monitor the food safety of its products. In the past, restaurants have relied on workers to record food temperatures, a practice that was occasionally overlooked and could lead to issues with health inspectors. Using IoT devices for real-time temperature monitoring, Domino’s automatically records and displays temperature levels of a store’s production, refrigeration, and exhaust systems, allowing employees to view conditions from a live dashboard.
In addition to boosting food safety, the comprehensive monitoring offered by IoT technology can help food companies reduce waste, keep more effective records, and analyze more data for improved operations.
IoT isn’t just a safe solution for improving food safety: It’s a smart solution.
Blockchain: The Future of Food Traceability
The ubiquity of QR codes has made it easy for consumers to quickly gain access to information by scanning an image with their smartphone. From accessing product manuals to downloading songs, QR codes make it simple to provide detailed and relevant content to users in a timely manner.
Blockchain technology provides a powerful opportunity to provide consumers with similar information about food safety. Able to instantaneously trace the lifecycle of food products, blockchain can report a food’s every point of contact throughout its journey from farm to table. By scanning a QR code, for instance, users can quickly access relevant information about a food product’s source, such as an animal’s health, and welfare. Shoppers at Carrefour, Europe’s largest retailer, area already using blockchain traceability to track the stage of production of free-range chickens across France.
Walmart piloted a blockchain implementation by tracing a package of sliced mangoes across every destination until it hit store shelves, from its origin at a farm in Mexico to intermittent stops at a hot-water treatment plant, U.S processing plant, and cold storage facility. Real-time product tracing can be conducted in just two seconds, enabling Walmart and other vendors to provide consumers with access to food safety information that could easily be updated should an outbreak or contamination occur.
Blockchain’s inherent transparency not only makes it possible to identify the safety of food production; it also enhances the safety of the business of food production itself. Because blockchain is based upon an immutable, anonymous ledger, record keeping and accounting can be made more secure and less prone to human error. Payments to farmers and other food suppliers can also become more transparent and equitable.
The High Tech Future of Food
Unlike the days of Sinclair’s The Jungle, food transparency is the name of today’s game. As consumers continue to demand greater access to better food on-demand, food producers must continue to find innovative ways of providing safe, healthy, and ethical solutions.
IoT devices and blockchain present food manufacturers with powerful technological solutions to solve complex problems. Brands choosing to rely on these innovations, such as Domino’s and Walmart, are helping ensure that food is produced, prepared and distributed with a foremost emphasis on health and safety. As these technologies continue to become more intelligent, well-connected, and embraced by leading food producers, consumers should rest assured that they’ll always be able to know exactly what they’re eating, where it’s from, and whether it’s safe.
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