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Laura Gutierrez Becerra
Women in Food Safety

Always Seek Opportunities for Improvement

By Laura Gutierrez Becerra
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Laura Gutierrez Becerra

This month I had the pleasure of interviewing Neshat Soofi, president of JIT Experts Hive, for the Women in Food Safety Column. She shared some of her inspirational experiences working with multicultural teams and companies, and how she eventually became an entrepreneur, launching her own business. “As food safety experts, our primary job is to minimize the risk of contamination in food and protect consumer health and safety. Of course, there are other aspects of our job such as contributing to the profitable growth of companies we work for. Sometimes we get caught in conflict situations with a lot of pressure on us. Most of the time it comes down to assessing risk in uncertain situations and with limited information. Even food safety situations are not black and white. To make the right decision we need to assess the risk-taking multiple factors into consideration. One thing that always helped me was to remember why I was hired and that my reason for being in a company was to minimize risk to the consumers,” says Soofi. “Being a food safety professional also helped me understand business holistically, since as a food safety lead you have to work with many functions in a company, from sourcing to customer service, marketing and sales. As part of my career path, I even worked in different functions that provided me with different perspectives of business. This knowledge helped me be a better product safety and quality leader, and later helped me set up my own business, which provides consultation and expert knowledge in many areas of business.”

Join Women in Food Safety for a special episode about career development and mentorship during the 2020 Food Safety Virtual Conference SeriesSoofi was born and raised in Iran and has lived in Canada and the United States for the past 30 years. She has more than 25 years of experience in product safety, quality and development working for small to large companies like Target, Cargill and Multifoods (Pillsbury). After working with some of the largest corporations, she decided to join start-up company “Brandless” to build their product safety, quality and integrity programs from scratch. After three years working in a fast-paced, autonomous environment, she started her own business called JIT Experts Hive. She leveraged her broad and diverse background to fill a gap in the market, connecting like-minded and purpose-driven hands-on experts to companies in need of those expertise in a just in time fashion. Connecting knowledge to innovation. The mission of JIT Experts Hive is to help accelerate the growth of CPG companies in food, supplement, CBD, cosmetic/beauty and household industries by providing just-in-time expertise.

Working in consumer-packaged goods (CPG) industries including food for more than 25 years, Soofi felt fortunate with what she has learned over the years. “I learned that in order to grow and succeed, I needed to step outside my comfort zone. Every job I took was very different from the previous one. Even going so far as stepping completely out of food safety and working in other areas of business like leading data governance and business intelligence, or getting into new product categories such as personal care, cosmetics and even household cleaners. What I found was that these learnings and experiences made me a better product safety and quality expert and leader. Product safety jobs are quite unique; one is responsible for results of work of many functions with no direct control over them. The ability to understand other functions, their priorities and pressures and look at situations through different lenses helps one assess the risks better and come up with better solutions. One can also articulate the risks and benefits in a way that would be more compelling and effective,” Soofi explained.

Neshat Soofi, JIT Experts Hive
Neshat Soofi, president of JIT Experts Hive

With a unique multicultural background and experience working in large corporations leading teams in different countries, Soofi advises that when working with multicultural teams one should: Learn about each country’s work ethics, how to address someone (i.e., first name or with titles), what is the appropriate way of greeting and interacting during and after work hours, and the level and importance of hierarchy.

Tactical details are also important: Be cognizant of time zone differences and schedule meetings on a rotating time zone basis; in virtual meetings/calls and in the absence of getting the non-verbal cues and body language, pay more attention to pauses, silence and the importance of clear communication so things are not lost in translation or misinterpreted.

Last but not least, remember: Never assume, and never stereotype. Each person is unique and may be very different from the stereotype in their countries, so don’t go with assumptions. And if in doubt, ask, because it not only helps you understand their preference, but also helps break the ice.

As a female leader, Soofi has also learned a lot from her multicultural female team members. “As Cheryl Sandberg has mentioned in her book ‘Lean In’, women generally have a harder time taking a seat at the table! In some cultures this feeling is even stronger due to cultural factors. What I found for myself and many great talents in my teams was that gradually pushing ourselves out of comfort zones by taking challenging assignments, leading projects and teams and being the voice and face of the team was a great way to build confidence in yourself and take your rightful seat at the table. Don’t be afraid of failure and do not internalize it if it happens. Having a mentor to help you in this journey by providing advice but also constructive criticism and course correction when needed is key to success,” Soofi says.

Another aspect is that as a woman, building strong negotiation skills is a must. “Whether negotiating for a new position, salary, etc., do your homework, know where the bottom line and the absolute non-negotiable variable are for you, but also understand where you can compromise. At the same time, do not be afraid of hearing “no” and do not take things personally.”

Laura Gutierrez Becerra: What would be your number one piece of advice to young women professionals who are planning to be leaders in food safety?

Neshat Soofi: Don’t be shy! Reach out to experienced professionals in the industry; there are plenty of higher-level peers who will be willing to help you. A good mentor is priceless. I have a personal story to share: About four years ago, I got a message through LinkedIn from someone who has just moved to the US. I had not met her before, and she asked me if we could meet and talk about the food industry and jobs in the US. We met and I happily shared my experience and advice in seeking jobs, helped her with a mock interview and resume, and anything else I could. Four years later, she is a quality assurance manager in one of the largest food companies here in the United States. We have stayed great friends, and I am so proud of her resilience and success.

Gutierrez Becerra: Is there an unforgettable story during your career journey that still has an impact?

Soofi: When I was working in Canada in food manufacturing, I was called to the processing line one day regarding a potential foreign object issue. I stopped the line to find out the root cause. At the same time there was a lot of pressure to resume production since this was an order for a major account. Under pressure, I agreed to start the line with adding inspection and controls that I knew in my guts were not sufficient. The products were shipped, and we started to get a series of complaints about foreign objects in the product. Thank god there was no injury, but as you can imagine, that major account was not happy with the situation and we lost the business with them. It was a major loss and my boss from the head office came for a visit to our plant. I tried to explain why I had allowed the production to resume and release the product because we couldn’t have a late shipment. In response he asked me one question, “What’s your job title?” I responded, “I am the food safety and quality assurance manager.” His comment was, “I am glad you remember. Your first priority is minimizing risk to consumers and company reputation. I am sure you took that into consideration when you okayed the release, [but] if not, please remember in future”. I expected him to be angry and was even prepared to be fired, but his quiet answer was more impactful. This is a lesson I remember to this day—there are rarely black and white situations in life, even in food safety. The key is to assess the risk and not let outside pressures impact your assessment and decisions.

Gutierrez Becerra: What do you hope to see in the next three to five years in terms of development and mentoring women in the industry?

Soofi: I see a need for networks like yours to connect new industry professionals regardless of gender to the more veteran experts on an as-needed basis—almost like a hotline, where food safety professionals can ask for advice and mentoring in a confidential and safe environment. This is becoming easier in a post-COVID era where virtual connections are becoming more of a norm than exception, and people from all over the world are learning to connect in ways that were not easy and personally comfortable in the past.

I also want to see a better appreciation of the importance of food safety programs in organizations, especially at leadership levels. We need to better articulate what additional values (efficiencies, better cultures, productivity, etc.) a great food safety program brings to the organization. I want food safety functions to be at the leadership tables and part of developing company strategies and directions. We can’t be only remembered when bad things happen and in the middle of a crisis. Food safety and quality leaders should be at the forefront of organizational leadership, all the way to the C-suite.

Angela Fernandez, GS1
Retail Food Safety Forum

Can We See Some ID?

By Angela Fernandez
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Angela Fernandez, GS1

Several leading consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands and retailers started collaborating last year to address an issue growing larger by the day—inaccurate product data in the supply chain. They have challenged themselves to better serve customers who are shopping for their groceries more and more with smartphone in hand or shopping online. These companies worked together with the common understanding that standardization is imperative to have a consistent view of product data across the supply chain.

Verified GS1
A new, global cloud-based registry that will help trading partners confirm the unique identity of products. Image courtesy of GS1.

The group led by GS1 and the Consumer Goods Forum focused on the root causes of bad data in the retail grocery industry. Verified by GS1— a new, global cloud-based registry that will help trading partners confirm the unique identity of products—resulted from these discussions. It will serve as a single source for retailers, marketplaces and the solution providers they work with to automatically check core product attributes to help ensure the integrity of product listings.

For these recipients to access trusted data through this registry platform, brands must first provide seven core attributes for an “identification card” for products, similar to the identification card you carry around in your wallet. Much like eye color, hair color and height, products have attributes used by retailers to confirm the product is what a brand says it is. Each one provides a layer of trust to help increase efficiency and accuracy in the supply chain.

Let’s break down the importance of these attributes and learn why they are essential to confirm a product’s unique identity.

The Identification Number

Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) is used to uniquely identify a trade item in the global supply chain. This number is encoded into the U.P.C. barcode used at the point of sale or can be included in online product listings.

The GTIN plays a critical role in a product’s identity due to the way it is constructed. The brand owner selling the product is identified in the number itself in the form of a company prefix, the first few numbers of the GTIN. But over the years, erroneous numbers have plagued the CPG industry. A prefix that has four zeros, for example, is an indicator that the GTIN is not unique and might have been the result of human error. Also, some brand owners have found that GTINs were “borrowed” from other products during the setup process, resulting in duplicate GTINs in the supply chain, often tied to very different products. The GTIN is the key piece of information for a retailer to know they are working with a reputable company and can confidently add a product to their offering.

The Essential Descriptors

Brand name is another important part of a product’s identity, especially in relation to its GTIN. Verified by GS1 will provide a way for brands and retailers to make sure the right brand name is used in connection with the right GTIN. GS1 worked with member companies to set forth a common definition for brand name to increase consistency in the supply chain. It is a name provided by the brand owner that is intended to be recognized by the consumer as represented on the product.

Let’s say your company makes jam. The brand name would be Sticky’s Traditional, because that is what’s recognizable by the consumer. Some contributors to Verified by GS1 were surprised to find extreme inconsistencies with brand names in their backend systems, which caused confusion for consumers who searched online for familiar keywords and came up with nothing.

Product description is defined as a description of a product using a combination of key elements familiar to consumers, such as flavor or scent. The description should be unique so that consumers can properly distinguish it from other products. In our jam example, the product description is just what it sounds like it would be: Sticky’s Traditional Raspberry Jam, Low Sugar, 18 oz.

Front-facing product, product identifcation
An example of a standard, front-facing product image URL. Image courtesy of GS1.

Much like your driver’s license describes what you look like through eye color, hair color, or whether or not you wear glasses, the product description is what the consumer can visually confirm when they look at the package. Another key attribute in the Verified by GS1 identification card, the product image URL, serves the same purpose. A standardized product image clearly depicts the product being sold, and the industry can now align on a common naming convention for the image as well as how to communicate the image to trading partners.

The Necessary Technical Components

The three remaining parts of the product’s ID card are the components of identification most important for machines to read and understand and are less sought-after by consumers. Global product category, for example, is a classification code developed in accordance with GS1 Standards that provides buyers and sellers a common language for grouping products in the same way. It could be used as classifying option for consumers shopping online. In our jam example, the global product category is “10000581 – Food Glazes (Shelf Stable).”

Net content and unit of measure are essential to commonly represent a product’s weights and dimensions. This attribute makes it clear that metrics and units of measure go hand-in-hand—our jar of jam cannot just say NET 18. It needs to say it weighs NET 18 OZ. Either of these attributes independent of each other are red flags that the data is erroneous.

Country of sale or target market are used interchangeably and both indicate the location where the product is being sold. For multinational companies selling products in more than one country, this becomes important to ensure the right language is on the right product packaging to match the target market where it is being sold. For example, one product that has French on its packaging should signify France as its country of sale/target market, while an identical product with German on its packaging should be coded for Germany.

All seven attributes are pieces of information deemed important to consumer satisfaction and serve as a jumping off point for the transparency initiatives being demanded by consumers. While it is only just ramping up in the retail grocery industry now, Verified by GS1 is designed to help several different types of industries confirm product identity. It has the potential to significantly improve the foundational data that will only grow in importance as more consumers shop digitally.

Ultimately, as more data is shared consistently according to standards, incremental progress will be made toward the ultimate goal of cementing the trust of consumers, no matter where and how they encounter information about the products they purchase.