Last year’s annual GFSI Conference was held in Seattle just weeks before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. This year’s event looked very different, as it joined the virtual event circuit—with hundreds of attendees gathering from across the globe, but from the comfort of their homes and offices. The 2021 GFSI Conference reflected on lessons learned over the past year, the fundamentals of building a better food system, and the idea that food safety is a collaborative effort that also encompasses training programs, effectively leveraging data and capacity building.
The pandemic provided the opportunity to reimagine safer, more resilient and sustainable food systems, said Dr. Naoki Yamamoto, universal health coverage, assistant director-general, UHC, Healthier populations at WHO. She also offered three clear messages that came out of the pandemic:
- Food safety is a public health priority and a basic human right. Safe food is not a luxury.
- Food safety is a shared responsibility. Everyone in the food chain must understand this responsibility and work towards a common goal.
- Good public private partnership can bring new opportunities and innovative solutions for food safety. We need to seek more collaborative approaches when working across sectors to achieve foods safety.
During the session “Ready for Anything: How Resiliency and Technology Will Build Consumer Trust and Help Us Mitigate Disruption in the 21st Century”, industry leaders discussed how the pandemic reminded us that a crisis can come in many forms, and how applying the right strategy and technology can help us remain resilient and equipped to address the challenges, said Erica Sheward, GFSI director.
“When you think about business resiliency—it’s about our own, but most importantly, it’s about helping our customers become more resilient to those disruptions,” said Christophe Beck, president and CEO of Ecolab. He added that being able to predict disruptions, help customers respond to those disruptions, and provide real-time control to learn and prepare for the next pandemic or serious crisis is critical. Companies need to ensure their technology systems and contingency plans are ready to go, advised David Maclennan, chairman and CEO of Cargill. The key to a resilient food supply chain system is access and the ability to keep food moving across borders. And above all, whether dealing with a health crisis or a food safety crisis, consumers must always be front and center, said Natasa Matyasova, head of quality management at Nestle. “In short term, [it’s] first people, then business contingency, and then help the community as needed,” she said.
The 20th annual GFSI Conference convened yesterday, but instead of bringing together an international group of food industry stakeholders in one central location, the event was held online, streamed throughout offices and homes across the globe.
Day one kicked off with a welcome from Wai-Chan Chan, managing director of The Consumer Goods Forum, Qu Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, who addressed the humanitarian and consumer perspective of food safety. “We need a strong engagement of the private sector for our agrifood systems to become more efficient, more inclusive, more resilient and more sustainable,” Chan stated. The conversation about the global importance of sustainability continued with a conversation led by Erica Sheward, GFSI Director, and Howard Popoola, vice president, corporate food technology and regulatory compliance for The Kroger Company and Roy Kirby, global director, microbiology, food safety and toxicology for Mondelez International. They talked about GFSI’s program, Race to the Top, and the /global Markets Programme capability tool, which was established more than 10 years ago to help companies implement continuous improvement to develop an effective food safety management system, and its potential in developing markets. “Think about what this could do for farmers, think about what it could do for families in Africa, in those places described as countries of opportunity, producing niche products, who just need an opportunity to be able to sell their products into the world stage,” said Popoola, who is also a GFSI steering committee member.
During the course of the day, stakeholders also discussed pandemic-specific issues including supply chain disruptions, and the role of crisis communications and messaging to consumers related to the safety of the food supply.
More exclusive updates will be available from Food Safety Tech. Read GFSI’s full update on Day One of the conference.
–UPDATE: August 10, 2020 —
Last week USDA’s FSIS issued a public health alert concerning ready-to-eat meat and poultry products that contain the onions recalled by Thomson International, Inc. (see below news brief). The products have been distributed by retail establishments that include Walmart, Kroger, HEB and Amana Meat Shop & Smokehouse. The USDA has made available the full list of products subject to the public health alert.
A multistate outbreak of Salmonella Newport has been traced back to red onions from Thomson International, Inc. a company based in Bakersfield, CA. As of July 31, 396 illnesses were reported in the United States, with 59 hospitalized across 34 states. In Canada, 120 cases have been confirmed, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
As a result, Thomson International is recalling all varieties of its onions (red, white, yellow and sweet) that “could have come in contact with potentially contaminated red onions”, according to an FDA alert.
The FDA, CDC, state and local agencies, as well as the Public Health Agency of Canada are investigating the outbreak. FDA recommends that consumers, restaurants and retailers refrain from eating, selling or serving any onions from Thomson International. The agency also states that any surfaces, containers or storage areas that may have come into contact with these products be cleaned and sanitized.
Think about this number for a second: Consumers spent more than $19 billion on online grocery in 2019. While this is still a small segment of the overall $800 billion U.S. grocery market, more consumers than ever before are turning to eCommerce for the fulfillment and delivery of perishable goods, positioning the grocery delivery market to grow dramatically, especially as companies like Amazon continue to innovate in this area.
Adding to this, a recent survey found that 68% of consumers feel the freshness of perishable items is the number one quality they look for in online grocery retail. This is where things become complicated, as shipping perishables introduces an entirely new set of quality challenges for eCommerce brands. This is hindering the market from reaching its full potential until the biggest problem is solved: Ensuring food safety and freshness in every order.
This is a double-edged sword for retailers, grocers and CPGs: Interest in their service is taking off, but it takes just one package of spoiled meat or wilted vegetables to potentially lose a customer to a competitor—or even worse, get someone sick.
Today, spoilage and food safety issues are primarily driven by breakdowns in the cold chain, and it only takes one mishap to affect the quality of food throughout the rest of the delivery lifecycle. To achieve optimal freshness and keep customers happy, grocers, retailers and their trusted partners need to focus on three primary food freshness factors: Temperature, storage and packaging.
Controlling each of these issues starts at the warehouse.
Freshness Starts at the Warehouse
For most parcels, such as clothing, books and other commonly ordered goods, temperature control is rarely an issue. However, facilities that store perishable foods have a constant component to manage—temperature fluctuation.
According to the NRDC, cooling and refrigeration inconsistency is one of the biggest contributors to food spoilage and waste. This is because every food item has a definable maximum shelf life, and storing them at less than optimal or constantly changing temperatures can exacerbate and drastically shorten its timeline.
Mistakes with heightened temperatures on items like meat and poultry can also lead to bacteria growth and foodborne illnesses. In fact, the CDC estimates that 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the United States, putting a spotlight on how seriously food safety issues need to be taken.
The Need for Proper Rotation Processes
First expiration, first out (FEFO) is a motto all organizations should live by when stocking inventory. In addition, it is a critical process when working to avoid the food spoilage crisis. It may come as a surprise, but not all distribution centers have this type of rotation system in place. This means organizations could send spoiled food to consumers because an item was pushed to the back of a refrigerator during the re-stocking process and unknowingly shipped passed its expiration date. Not only does this create massive amounts of food waste, tarnish a brand and eat into a company’s profits by replacing low margin products, but consuming a spoiled food item can also be detrimental to one’s health.
While it helps to keep these types of costly errors in mind, as warehouse operations grow, there’s no possible way to manually scale this system.
Luckily, breakthroughs in cold chain technology have produced automated solutions that help organizations track everything from expiration dates to potential recalls. These types of technology support the entire cold chain lifecycle and ensure that warehouses and their grocery partners have the visibility they need to ensure freshness from fulfillment to the customer’s doorstep.
However, when the product is ready to leave the warehouse, it’s arguably about to enter the hardest portion of the cold chain lifecycle: Delivery.
Key Considerations for Packaging
For fragile items, packaging is all about keeping the item protected from drops and damage, but for food the focus should be on keeping the item fresh and at optimum temperatures throughout the duration of transit.
Given many grocers outsource delivery, they have little interest in whether food spoils, mainly because they are unaware of the package contents and are more focused on getting the item to the right location fast and effectively.
Yet there are many obstacles that need to be addressed during the last leg of delivery. What is the temperature in the delivery vehicle? If no one is home or at the office, will the package spoil outside in the heat?
For perishables, it is imperative that spoilage rates, delays in shipping schedules and unattended delivery scenarios are important factors in determining the amount of cold pack and protective stuffing that goes into the package. If these factors are not considered, customers could return to spoiled, melted or even crushed perishables.
Getting Food Fast and Fresh
Today, grocers and retailers are bullish on building out omnichannel food initiatives. However, balancing brick and mortar locations while developing profitable and efficient online delivery systems is often more than one organization can take on. While there are trusted partners designed to support eCommerce fulfillment and delivery, few are purpose-built to handle perishable foods.
Either way, in order to see wide-scale adoption of online grocery initiatives, grocers, retailers and ecosystem partners need to start prioritizing the key temperature, storage and packaging considerations and challenges associated shipping perishable foods. Acknowledging these challenges and implementing solutions for them will not only keep your products and deliveries fresh, but they will also keep customers coming back for more.
2018 and 2019 were the years of the “blockchain buzz”. As we enter the new decade, we can expect a stronger focus on how technology and data advances will generate more actionable use for the food industry. Food Safety Tech has highlighted many perspectives from subject matter experts in the industry, and 2020 will be no different. Our first Q&A of the year features Sasan Amini, CEO of Clear Labs, as he shares his thoughts on tech improvements and the continued rise consumer expectations for transparency.
Food Safety Tech: As we look to the year ahead, where do you see artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain advancing in the food industry?
Sasan Amini: AI, ML, and blockchain are making headway in the food industry through advances in supply chain management, food sorting and anomaly detection, and tracing the origin of foodborne outbreaks. On the regulatory side, FDA’s focus on its New Era of Smarter Food Safety will most likely catalyze the adoption of the above mentioned technologies. On the private side, a few of the companies leading the charge on these advancements are IBM and Google, working in partnership with food manufacturers and retailers across the world.
Along those same lines, another area that we expect to grow is the use of AI and ML in tandem with robotics—and the value of new troves of data that they collect, analyze and distribute. For example, robotics for the use of environmental monitoring of potential contaminants, sorting techniques and sterilization are valuable because they ensure that end products have been through thorough testing—and they give us even more information about the lifecycle of that food than ever before.
At the end of the day, data is only valuable when you can transform it into actionable insights in real-time with real-world applications, and we expect to see more and more of this type of data usage in the year ahead.
FST: Where do you think food safety testing technologies will stand out? What advancements can the industry expect?
Amini: In 2020, technology is going to begin to connect itself along the entire supply chain, bringing together disparate pieces and equipping supply chain professionals with action-oriented data. From testing advances that improve speed, accuracy and depth of information to modular software solutions to promote transparency, the food safety industry is finally finding its footing in a data-driven sea of technological and regulatory advances.
Right now, legacy testing solutions are limited in their ability to lead food safety and quality professionals to the source of problems, providing insights on tracking recurring issues, hence having a faster response time, and being able to anticipate problems before they occur based on a more data heavy and objective risk assessment tools. This leaves the industry in a reactive position for managing and controlling their pathogen problems.
Availability of higher resolution food safety technologies that provide deeper and more accurate information and puts them in context for food safety and quality professionals provides the food industry a unique opportunity to resolve the incidents in a timely fashion with higher rigour and confidence. This is very in-line with the “Smarter Tools and Approaches” that FDA described in their new approach to food safety.
FST: How are evolving consumer preferences changing how food companies must do business from a strategic as well as transparency perspective?
Amini: Consumers are continuing to get savvier about what’s in their food and where it comes from. Research suggests that about one in five U.S. adults believe they are food allergic, while only 1 in 20 are estimated to have physician-diagnosed food allergies. This discrepancy is important for food companies to consider when making decisions about transparency into their products. Although the research on food allergies continues to evolve, what’s important to note today is that consumers want to know the details. Radical transparency can be a differentiator in a competitive market, especially for consumers looking for answers to improve their health and nutrition.
Consumers are also increasingly interested in personalization, due in part to the rise in new digital health and testing companies looking to deliver on the promise of personalized nutrition and wellness. Again, more transparency will be key.
FST: Additional comments are welcome.
Amini: Looking ahead, we expect that smaller, multi-use, and hyper-efficient tools with reduced physical footprints will gain market share. NGS is a great example of this, as it allows any lab to gather millions of data points about a single sample without needing to run it multiple times. It moves beyond the binary yes-no response of traditional testing, and lets you get much more done, with far less. Such wealth of information not only increases the confidence about the result, but can also be mined to generate more actionable insights for interventions and root cause analysis.
This “multi-tool” will be driven by a combination of advanced software, robotics, and testing capabilities, creating a food safety system that is entirely connected, driven by data, and powerfully accurate.
Industry from the public and private sector joined for a record turnout during the FDA public meeting yesterday to discuss the agency’s initiative, a new era of smarter food safety. The meeting, which was at maximum capacity for both in-person as well as webcast attendance, began with a call to action from FDA Deputy Commissioner, Office of Food Policy and Response, Frank Yiannas on the importance of all stakeholders in the industry to work together to drive the change. As Yiannas has previously commented, the food industry is in the midst of a revolution. The world is changing faster than ever, and the FDA is challenged with not just creating a safer, more technology-centric and traceable food system, but also getting there faster and more effectively. “I’ve always believed that words we use are important,” he said. As the day’s various discussions would be around the new era of smarter food safety, Yiannas gave the audience a definition to consider: “A new era is a memorable or important date or event, especially one that begins with a new period in our history.”
FDA held breakout sessions centered on areas critical to the initiative:
- Tech-enabled traceability and outbreak response
- Smarter tools and approaches for prevention
- Adapting to new business models and retail modernization
- Food safety culture
During each session, FDA facilitators asked the audience questions. The following are some key points brought out during the breakouts.
Tech-Enabled Traceability and Outbreak Response
- FDA should consider all parts of the supply chain when thinking about traceability
- Take into account considerations for sharing sensitive data along the supply chain
- Speaking a common language and creating data standards, along with necessary minimum data elements for traceability is critical
- Better communication related to data sharing as well as more meetings with FDA and stakeholders, especially during outbreaks
- Show industry the ROI of the data
- Provide a roadmap or recommendation for companies on where they can begin on their traceability journey
- Request for unity across government agencies (i.e., FDA, USDA), as it would provide more clarity during an outbreak
Smarter Tools and Approaches for Prevention
- Trust and transparency are key
- Safeguards that address privacy concerns and liability
- Data sharing: Concern about retroactive investigations
- Types of data: With the “treasure trove” of existing data out there, which is the most important and helpful in improving food safety?
- Environmental assessments and root cause analysis—more dialogue between FDA and industry
Adapting to New Business Models and Retail Food Safety Modernization
- More need for collaboration
- Globalization and use of best practices
- Establishing a common standard to level the playing field
- Establish best practices for tamper resistance
- The last mile: Food safety training for food delivery personnel as well as harmonization for last mile delivery
- More consumer education
Food Safety Culture
- Emphasis on behavior and humanizing the work: Focusing on what happens within organizations at all levels
- Clarity and communication are important
- Leveraging current food safety culture best practices as well as any relevant existing standards (i.e., ISO, Codex)
- Partnerships are critical, finding the balance between compliance and collaboration
Other Factors FDA Must Consider
The FDA meeting also included panel discussions that drew out the realities FDA must consider in this rapidly changing environment. “These are exciting times and this initiative is recasting our thinking in a whole new light,” said CFSAN Director Susan Mayne, adding, “We need to get ahead of these challenges and not be in reactive mode.”
Consumer awareness and demands for healthy, locally sourced and minimally processed food, for example, are creating increased pressures on food companies and retailers. In addition, the digital savvy and diverse Generation Z (the population born between 1990 and 2010, which will comprise nearly 40% of the U.S. population by 2020) has buying habits and a strong desire for transparency that is shifting how food companies will need to do business, according to Mary Wagner, president of MX Wagner & Associates.
“Trust represents safety, quality and commitment on a much more personal level to our consumers,” said Dirk Herdes, senior vice president at the Nielsen Company, emphasizing the need to communicate with authenticity. “Consumers have never been more informed, but never have been more overwhelmed with information. It’s not data—it’s trust. Trust is the new currency with which we’ll operate.”
FDA and USDA also remain committed to building a stronger relationship between the agencies, said Mindy Brashears, Ph.D., deputy undersecretary for food safety at USDA. “As science moves forward, we have to allow our policies to move forward to keep consumers safe,” she added.
The comments shared during yesterday’s meeting, along with written and electronic comments (with a deadline of November 20), will be considered as FDA puts together its blueprint document for a new era of smarter food safety. More information about providing comments can be found on the Federal Register page.
Food is no longer a commodity. With an increase in special interest consumer groups, it’s taking on a more nuanced character. Consumers are increasingly seeking out specific attributes for their food. Whether the focus is on organic and natural, foods with superior eating quality, or simply a better price—consumers are more discerning than ever.
Their expectations around transparency and authenticity are growing as well.
According to Food Marketing Institute research, nearly 93% of consumers are more likely to be loyal to a brand when it commits to full transparency. Transparency and traceability go hand in hand. In a study conducted by SMS Research, traceability was at least somewhat important to 75% of participants and very important to 45%.* Animal welfare emerged as a contributing factor with 75% of consumers claiming they would be at least somewhat more likely to buy beef if they knew about the animal’s living conditions.
These are useful insights but challenging to make fully actionable in our commodity-focused infrastructure that’s simply not built for the nuance of our new reality. Successful companies will design a supply chain within the existing infrastructure and industry capabilities that meets customers’ unique needs and desired attributes.
Two major retailers are developing their own supply chains to control quality. Last year, Costco announced it is bringing chicken production in-house, largely driven by its rotisserie program, to ensure size specifications are met. In April, Walmart announced it is developing an end-to-end supply chain for Angus beef. Companies like Tyson are upgrading some of their supply chains with improved traceability systems using DNA technology. The use of this technology was pioneered in North America a decade ago in partnership with IdentiGEN, a global expert identifying and tracing food products with greater precision and accuracy.
Leveraging DNA Technology
DNA traceability was first developed nearly 20 years ago in Ireland by IdentiGEN to protect market access for Irish beef. The technology can serve as the backbone for a comprehensive set of origin, handling and processing practices that work together to guarantee quality. Beyond genetics, a company’s quality improvement program should consider standards for feeding, animal health, humane treatment, environmental impact and the processing of the animal. DNA technology can help uphold these standards throughout the supply chain, providing a cost-effective way of tracking product and establishing meaningful accountability.
Here’s how the technology works. At the slaughterhouse, a DNA sample is taken from the animal, and the ear tag is then scanned to create a digital link. With this information, the origin and handling of product throughout the supply chain is verifiable, even after disassembly and packing. From a safety standpoint, the technology can support recall mitigation efforts, allowing for swift and specific identification of the animals involved, helping protect consumers and limiting financial damages.
To create the most effective supply chain, companies should still supplement DNA testing with time-tested initiatives for quality improvement, such as customer feedback mechanisms and facility audits conducted both by internal groups as well as external partners and USDA-approved auditing companies. The data collected should not be siloed but rather correlated in some capacity to create a holistic view of all supply sources and the quality they deliver.
Building a Foundation for Success
There are many elements beyond technology that come together to make traceability and quality initiatives successful. One is a company’s big-picture, strategic view. It helps to look at these programs and systems as supporting an evolving process. Continuous improvement means creating and refining the right mix of methodologies, partners and technology—it’s about evaluating and eliminating anything that no longer adds value. Some companies have banned electric cattle prods, for example, because they cause stress on the animal that negatively impacts quality. As standards continue to strengthen and the supply chain is better organized, everything works together more cohesively, and it becomes easier to continue updating and adding new elements.
The foundation for any initiative of this type must be built on a shared vision, strategy and end goals, starting at the organizational level, and then with external partners. A supply chain should be organized for better production, but it also should be organized for mutual benefit, recognizing that everyone has different goals and interests. Structure your economic models so that every link in the supply chain is pulling in the same direction. Participating in the supply chain should mean doing at least a little bit better, however each partner defines it—enhanced financial performance, higher quality, lower shrinkage or improved safety and compliance. Farmers and packers will be willing to participate in the systems—and use tools like DNA technology—if they gain insights that help them achieve their goals, sell more product and improve their bottom line. It’s all about building a system that works for everyone involved.
Consumer demand for foods that offer greater choice and a wider variety of attributes will only continue to grow. Companies can successfully mature brands through a customized supply chain grounded in increased accountability and traceability. The potential to re-engineer supply chains and meet customer needs more effectively exists across many different product categories and attributes. It’s a valuable opportunity many companies may find well worth exploring.
* The survey was conducted by SMS Research on behalf of PFG among a sample of 2,001 general consumers in the U.S., weighted to census. This survey was live on March 28 – April 1st, 2019. All statistical tests were performed at a 5% risk level. PFG had no role in survey design, data collection, data analysis or data interpretation.
Over the last two decades I have had the utmost privilege to work with food manufacturers from every sector. From dried goods, meats, poultry, school lunches programs, etcetera. I have seen almost everything. The leading trend I have seen over the last 20 years is the steady rise of beverage companies. Everyone likes a different type of beverage: Water, juice, cold coffee, teas, energy drinks, kombucha… the list goes on. The two most important things a small company entering the market needs to remember is to make sure that first, you can comply with the regulators, and second, that the people you are selling your products to also understand their market (buyers and retailers).
The marketplace loves new and innovative products. We need, as an industry, to continue to support innovation in the beverage industry. Healthcare trends, nutraceuticals, supplements, and “fresh” are some of the many things consumers are looking for in a product. We often have questions such as, “I have the perfect recipe for a new beverage product—how do we get it out into the market?” The first question to ask yourself is: Do you understand your product and its intended use? And, second: Do you understand how the physical properties of this product impact how it will need to be transported as well as stored and used by the final consumer? Both of these questions come back to—and can be answered by—food safety. Companies can have the greatest product ideas; however, if you do not have the ability to make sure it has a safety factor during transportation, as well as the ability to communicate your food safety plan, an entrepreneur can jeopardize the future of their company before it is even allowed to begin.
I have used the analogy that food safety best practices are like a sport—the more you train, practice and focus on the “basics done well,” the better your plan will be on a day-to-day basis. Bottom line: The focus is making the food supply safer. Please take note the transition to new practices does not mean that an existing HACCP plan (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) is invalid! As a matter of fact, HACCP and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP’s) should be looked at as the foundation of FSMA’s Preventive Controls for Human Food. Local departments of public health still rely on HACCP as their main line of defense for the food safety industry. We have seen so many small processors and restaurants that have inspections where HACCP is still the focus, even though Preventive Controls has some more advanced techniques for protection. Both HACCP and Preventive Controls focus on making sure you have good sanitation practices, employee training, and have done a hazard analysis for biological, chemical and physical hazards. I believe the lines are blurring a bit—companies, academics and regulators don’t often understand the differences between the two and, to be honest, the differences are not that substantial from a fundamental level. Ultimately, companies are responsible for their own food safety best practices.
As we trend toward new and innovative beverage concepts, we need to be partners with both our regulators and our customers. There is so much information across the United States and companies that are in emerging markets will only grow and develop if they have proper food safety plans as a foundation. Emerging companies should get connected early and learn from other companies and organizations, and become more proactively involved in the food safety element of their product.
I believe 2019 will be an incredible year for the rise of food and beverage startups. We have already seen much growth in the knowledge of food supply due to easily accessible information about products. Keeping a transparent conversation with regulatory personnel and customers is key to the success of any food or beverage company.
FDA has issued a final guidance that reviews the situations in which a company should warn the public about a voluntary food recall. This includes the appropriate timeframe for issuing the warning and what information a company should include in the warning. The guidance, “Public Warning and Notification of Recalls”, also discusses when the FDA may decide to take action to issue a public warning, should one that a company issues is not sufficient.
In an agency statement, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD., also addresses the buzz around folks feeling that there have been more recalls. “In actuality, for fiscal year 2018, there were a total of 7,420 recalls with 831 that were classified as the highest risk. That figure represents a five-year low in recalls. However, the reason why recall notices might seem to have increased is that our publicizing of these events has become more prominent,” said Gottlieb. “We’re routinely providing more information on recalls and other safety issues that have happened.” He added that the ability to detect, track and trace product issues has improved with the help of technology, including whole genome sequencing.
“Our labs are currently testing cutting-edge technology that can screen for multiple allergens simultaneously and even technology that shrinks the genetic testing of pathogens from machines that were once the size of an entire room to a device that’s smaller than many smart phones. We’ll also be working to improve product traceability by tapping into modern approaches, such as blockchain technology, to further advance our mission of protecting public health.” – Scott Gottlieb, M.D., FDA
In addition, the agency is looking at how new technologies can be used notify consumers about whether a product they purchased has been recalled.