Tag Archives: consumer behavior

Jennifer van de Ligt, Food Protection and Defense Institute, University of Minnesota

Q&A: Pandemic Puts Worker Health & Safety, Leadership Skills and Business Adaptability at Forefront

By Maria Fontanazza
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Jennifer van de Ligt, Food Protection and Defense Institute, University of Minnesota

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 Now Now 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.

Wendy Stanley, Radley Corp.
FST Soapbox

The Future of Food Production: IoT and Blockchain

By Wendy Stanley
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Wendy Stanley, Radley Corp.

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.

Connected Factory, manufacturing
The IoT adds a layer of technology to the food manufacturing process. (All photos licensed through Adobe Stock)

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 enhances the safety of the business of food production itself.

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.