Tag Archives: COVID-19

Derek Stangle, Squadle
Retail Food Safety Forum

How the Pandemic Raised Stakes for Food Safety

By Derek Stangle
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Derek Stangle, Squadle

Food safety concerns are constant across the food industry. From grocery stores to restaurants to meatpacking plants, the industry has doubled down on creating greater transparency into how food is stored, handled, cooked and delivered to the end customer. At the same time, new technology is helping food executives execute everything from contactless transactions to track, record, and promote their safety policies as never before.

Both independent restaurants and large chains see food safety as an issue that grew in importance during the pandemic. Diners have come to rely on restaurant policies for staff hygiene, such as washing hands, wearing gloves, and tracking personnel temperatures at the beginning of every shift. Their patrons expect that each restaurant will demonstrate how they are adhering to safety protocols. Restaurants are publishing their policies via signage, flyers added to take-out orders, social media posts, updated website language, or even safety protocols published to Yelp.

What’s more, their customers can easily access guidelines published by the CDC such as “Avoid Food Poisoning: Tips for Eating at Restaurants”, which explain how to check a restaurant’s safety score at the local health department website or find information, such as certificates that show kitchen managers have completed food safety training and posted it in the physical restaurant.

For restaurants, a transparent safety policy can become a competitive advantage, used to win new customers and attract the very best job candidates.

Grocery stores face similar challenges. From the checkout line to deli employees and the inventory clerks stocking the shelves, grocery employees are essential workers who also experience an unusually high level of public contact. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), which represents 1.3 million workers in food and retail, since the pandemic began, there have been more than 100,000 frontline and grocery union workers infected or exposed to COVID-19.

The UFCW has called for better safety precautions for grocery workers, including free PPE, paid sick leave, and vaccination prioritization that reflects their role as essential workers. As the national vaccination program picks up steam, more states are recognizing the need to vaccinate these essential workers, and they’ve been moved up in the prioritization line.

Until vaccines become more prevalent, however, grocery stores have adopted measures, much like those in restaurants, that are designed to protect both workers and shoppers. Mask mandates, one-way aisles, six-foot distancing, and Plexiglas shields at checkout are now commonplace.

Expanding Takeout and Delivery

Both restaurants and grocery stores have seen a huge shift to delivery ordering or curbside takeout over the course of the pandemic. Customers expect their favorite brands to give them the option of a frictionless, contactless experience where they have minimal contact with employees.

In order to offer a contactless takeout experience, both grocery stores and restaurants have invested heavily in technology. Curbside pickup and home delivery require an up-to-date website synched to inventory and menus. In addition, mobile apps enable guests to order remotely regardless of their location. The ability to pay via the app or a mobile wallet is the next step in a seamless contactless experience. Guests can pick up groceries or restaurant orders curbside, or pay a little more to have them delivered to their doorsteps.

The big advantage for shoppers is that they never come into contact with store employees, thus reducing the possibility of virus transmission. However, shoppers are finding that they also like the speed and convenience of the contactless experience. For this reason, many restaurants, such as McDonald’s and Chipotle, are expanding their drive-through capabilities.

Big brands like Amazon are doing the same with grocery. The Amazon Go concept store provides a “Just Walk Out Shopping” experience. There are no lines and no checkout. Customers download an Amazon Go app, and their items are automatically scanned and billed to their account. Other innovators include Wegman’s, which has partnered with Instacart to facilitate free delivery for its online shoppers, and brands like Safeway and Albertson’s, which also have curbside pickup facilitated via their mobile apps.

Back-of-House Technology

Back-of-house technology completes the food safety paradigm for restaurants and grocery stores. New systems that combine wireless networks with temperature monitors and data analysis make it simple and compulsory to track food temperatures throughout a facility. Remote sensors automatically record temperatures in coolers, the kitchen, and as orders move on to the customer.

Workflow automation in the back-of-house has become equally indispensable as food compliance has become increasingly more complex. Whether it’s a multi-unit restaurant or grocery brand, operators crave the data and visibility that only a digital solution can provide. Automation reduces the amount of time spent on tasks otherwise done manually, cuts down on the chance of errors, increases customer satisfaction and improves overall efficiency.

Technology helps the foodservice industry to stay on track, ensure compliance and encourages employees to stick with these practices. With a digital solution that keeps an electronic record of all the protocols that need to be completed, restaurants and groceries can record each inspection, such as taking photos of clean equipment and walk-in coolers at proper temperatures, as well as reminding them of their most important tasks and cleaning schedules.

Greg Staley, SynergySuite
Retail Food Safety Forum

Pathway to Progress: How to Invest in Food Safety Technology when Future Is Uncertain

By Greg Staley
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Greg Staley, SynergySuite

The last 18 months have been tremendously difficult for the restaurant industry. Six years of growth were undone by a global pandemic, and industry sales were $240 billion dollars lower than pre-COVID-19 projections, according to the National Restaurant Association.

While the pandemic accelerated the adoption of trends like online ordering, off-premise dining and delivery, it also brought others to a halt. Revenue loss from the pandemic meant many restaurants had to put other technology upgrades on hold.

Now, despite diners eagerly returning to dine in, other costs have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Supply chain and labor disruptions, rent, and other operational costs are still making margins razor thin. This likely means the technology teams at many brands will be looking to do more with less for several years as the industry normalizes again. And oftentimes that means food safety will take a back seat.

Traditional ways of trimming budgets are no longer feasible, so operators looking to restore profitability will need to find new ways to boost operational efficiencies. These challenges do not mean you can’t make strategic investments, but they do mean you will have to be thoughtful about how and where you put those tech budgets.

Operators are facing a number of challenges while trying to regain their footing as COVID restrictions wind down. However, there are ways you can still invest in food safety technology, even while profits are recovering. Let’s look at what roadblocks are potentially introducing risk into your food safety program and how you can still create an effective food safety culture to protect employees and guests.

The Challenges

The following are just a few of the issues introducing risk into your food safety processes.

Challenge 1: Staffing shortages have employees spread thin.
Many people left the restaurant industry during the pandemic, exacerbating an already tight labor market. This has led to closing for some days or specific times, slower service, drive thru or take out only, and routine tasks falling behind.

While safe food handling should be routine, time crunches put pressure on even the best staff. Your employees may be fudging line checks, not throwing out food that reached unsafe temperatures, or forgetting specific tasks at the busiest times.

Challenge 2: Supply chain and transportation disruptions threaten safe food supplies.
Global supply chains are still fluctuating, and transportation has been disrupted as well. This means many restaurants are not getting the entire inventory they need when they need it. Trucks may take longer to transport food and high temperatures across North America could mean food is going out of temp when it normally wouldn’t. This is particularly troubling if employees aren’t checking deliveries, as you won’t know if food has been delivered outside safe temperatures.

Challenge 3: Dropping revenue leads to more manual processes and temp checks.
According to the National Restaurant Association’s annual report, 86% of restaurants say profitability is lower than it was prior to the pandemic. This is not an unexpected statistic in a year that saw unprecedented challenges to the industry, but it has had a number of domino effects.
One of those effects is restaurants that may previously have been using operational software to monitor and report on safe food practices returned to spreadsheets or clipboards to save on tech costs. Or those that had smart devices such as Bluetooth temperature probes or fridge and freezer monitors replaced them with non-smart devices if they broke or became out of date.

Challenge 4: Employee turnover threatens food safety culture and institutional knowledge.
It’s no secret that a food handler’s permit is not the end-all-be-all of food safety in a restaurant. The longer employees work in foodservice, the more experience they have with safe food handling practices, and they are able to pass this down to new employees to reinforce best practices.

However, the loss of many longtime foodservice employees leaving the industry has left huge gaps in institutional knowledge that affect everything from how smoothly a restaurant runs to how well employees follow safe food handling.

The Solutions

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for every restaurant. However, here are a few things operators can focus on to help bolster food safety practices and bring in modern food safety technology even while profitability is lower than it was prior to the pandemic.

Solution 1: Look for improvements in existing processes or technology.
You don’t have to immediately look to new technology. There is a lot to be gained from optimizing what you already have that’s working well. This can mean looking for new ways to take advantage of technology you already have in place or making small adjustments to processes that work well but could be tweaked to be more efficient.

For example, if you are using some sort of digital checklist tool, think about ways you can integrate a previously manual food safety process into it. You may not think it’s a big change, but even skipping the step of having to transcribe data from checklists or spreadsheets means you will get faster, more accurate reporting. Or you can use existing temperature probes and add the step of checking deliveries as they arrive to ensure they are within a safe temperature range.

Then talk to the customer success manager at any company you already use. There may be features you are paying for and don’t even realize you aren’t using. One example is that many inventory systems also carry food safety capabilities as a side offering, and their customers aren’t using it because they originally signed up for inventory help.

You can begin with seemingly small changes that will ultimately add up to a big reduction in risk as you snowball strategies and build safer processes.

Solution 2: Look for places where you can consolidate technology.
In today’s restaurant technology ecosystem, you can find virtually anything you want. If you’ve been building a piecemeal tech stack, it’s time to take another look at what’s out there. Many restaurants are paying for separate software for things like operations checklists, inventory, food safety, scheduling and training.

If you’re using separate systems because you feel like that’s giving you the best technology, then carry on. But if it’s just because that’s how you added them, and you never took a look at where you could consolidate multiple systems into one platform, then get acquainted with your options. Many back-of-house platforms can help you cover multiple areas of your operations more efficiently and you’ll be able to bundle pricing rather than paying for disparate systems.

Solution 3: Focus on systems that pay for themselves.
The idea that software is only a cost center has been around for a long time. Some systems may not tie back directly to revenue, but there are more places than you realize that cover their own subscription costs with the money saved.

First, look for any areas you can consolidate technology and piggyback food safety tools into that. If you are gaining a new restaurant management system, odds are you will find food safety technology as part of that package, and you can justify the overall upgrade on food and labor savings.

Second, food safety is so reliant on employee buy-in and consistency that technology that improves retention and training will also have a positive effect on your food safety risk reduction. Labor management and scheduling systems will bring down one of the two major costs of running a restaurant, with a secondary benefit of making food safety practices stronger.

The longer you retain employees, the better they are at teaching correct practices to others as well as adhering to brand food safety practices. Plus, training systems that come with labor tools allow you to provide micro learning moments that reinforce proper practices for even the most experienced employees.

Life during the pandemic has taken a toll on all areas of restaurant operations, including food safety. Now that guests are dining out more, you don’t want to take a chance that a foodborne illness will destroy business just as it is being rebuilt. Times are tight to pay for new technology, but there are things operators can do to make food safety programs stronger without breaking the bank.

Susanne Kuehne, Decernis
Food Fraud Quick Bites

A Shift In Fraudulent Activities

By Susanne Kuehne
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Susanne Kuehne, Decernis
Food fraud, moonshine
Find records of fraud such as those discussed in this column and more in the Food Fraud Database, owned and operated by Decernis, a Food Safety Tech advertiser. Image credit: Susanne Kuehne.

Many things have changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and here is some good news: Organized crime activity related to food crime has decreased during the first months of 2020; the crimes shifted to medicines and medical devices instead. Apparently, the pandemic has disrupted the criminal activities and supply chains. During another successful Europol and Interpol operation, OPSON IX, 12,000 tons of products with a value of $40 million were seized. The top of the list of affected products were animal feed, alcoholic beverages and produce. The two million liters of fraudulent and substandard alcoholic beverages seized show that these products continue to be a significant threat to human health.

Resource

  1. Europol. (May 27, 2021). “Operation OPSON IX – Analysis Report”.
Coronavirus

Pandemic Forced Food Companies to Assess Agility, Focus on Data

By Maria Fontanazza
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Coronavirus

COVID-19 was an eye-opening public health emergency that brought a renewed focus on hygiene and safety across all industries. For McDonald’s Corp., this change prompted a deeper focus on science, including the use of analytical data, and consumer perception, according to the company’s Director of Global Food Safety Gary van Breda. “There are certain things that are important to our supplier base and for us moving forward, [including] harvesting information from different sources— information from audits, social media and being able to know whether we have the right inputs and algorithms in place to generate information to help us make decisions,” said van Breda in a panel discussion during the final episode of the Food Safety Consortium’s Spring Virtual Conference Series in May. These data-driven insights also helped the company take a closer look at attributes such as air quality and how to clean and sanitize high-touch areas in its restaurants.

Many organizations in the food industry were forced to completely change their strategic approach to doing business. “COVID was a once-in-a-generation disruption,” said Jorge Hernandez, vice president, quality assurance at The Wendy’s Company. “Many of the businesses didn’t survive, and many thrived. What’s the difference? In the leadership and approach: To be able to pivot, be flexible, and adapt to the changing circumstances—talk about flying a plane while you were building it.”

One of the key lessons learned from the pandemic was in the ability to remain flexible and make decisions based on the best information available at that time—and using the latest information to continuously improve processes, said Hernandez. For example, many food service and retail establishments took a giant leap forward in providing contactless ordering and delivery to customers—something that became an expectation versus a nice-to-have advantage. From an internal perspective, Wendy’s developed a much stronger connectivity between different job functions (i.e., operations, human resources, management) that helped them strengthen practices, guidance and procedures necessary to thrive during the pandemic.

During the pandemic, food safety fundamentals were brought to the forefront. “Handwashing became so critical. It would be silly not to take advantage of that moving forward,” said Hernandez. “Before the pandemic this was one of the biggest reasons for foodborne illness [outbreaks]. Now it’s up to us: With this pandemic, to use that momentum to move [these practices] forward and make it part of our routine. We have a unique opportunity to make that change to make safer food.”

Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series

2021 FSC Episode 4 Preview: Food Safety Supply Chain Management

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series

This week’s episode of the 2021 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series will discuss the challenges that the industry faces in managing the supply chain, including in the realm of audits. The following is the agenda for this Thursday’s session:

  • Food Safety as a Supply Chain Management Problem, with John Spink, Ph.D., Michigan State University
  • Supplier Certification in Today’s Supplier Quality Management Programs: A Discussion with Gary van Breda, McDonald’s; Jorge Hernandez, Wendy’s; and moderated by Kari Hensien, RizePoint; Sponsored by RizePoint
  • What Needs to Change in Food Safety Certification: A GFSI Panel Discussion moderated by Erica Sheward, GFSI
  • Auditing Update in the Age of COVID: FDA Standards and Regulations Alignment Pilot, with Trish Wester, AFSAP

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.

USDA Logo

FSIS Changes Mask, Social Distancing Requirements Effective Immediately

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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USDA Logo

Following CDC’s latest guidance announcing that fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or social distancing, FSIS issued new guidance for agency personnel in plants, laboratories and in-commerce.

Effective immediately, personnel fully vaccinate (at least two weeks past the final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine) are not required to wear a face mask, face shield or practice physical distancing in federal establishments, facilities that request voluntary inspection, labs or where in-commerce work is conducted. However, fully vaccinated personnel can continue to wear face masks or shields if they so desire.

Personnel that is not fully vaccinate must continue to wear a face mask or shield and maintain social distancing requirements as mandated by the agency.

Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series

2021 FSC Episode 3 Preview: COVID-19’s Lasting Impact on the Food Industry

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series

This week’s episode of the 2021 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series will examine The New Normal: COVID-19’s Lasting Impact on the Food Industry. The following are highlights for this Thursday’s session:

  • 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.

Food Safety Consortium

FDA Focusing on Fostering Food Safety Culture, Truly Bending the Curve of Foodborne Illness

By Maria Fontanazza
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Food Safety Consortium

The past year has tested and stressed the food system, putting tremendous pressure on worker safety and supply chain resilience. Despite the challenges, the industry continued to work day in and day out to meet the needs of Americans. “Consumers could still go then and now to their favorite supermarket or online platform and have access to thousands of food SKUs that are available,” said Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response. “We have the people in the food and agriculture sector to thank, and that’s you.”

Last week Yiannas gave his third Food Safety Consortium keynote address as deputy commissioner, reflecting on the past year and recognizing the progress and the work ahead. “I appreciate the larger conversation that the Consortium facilitates on food safety.” The Spring program of the Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series takes place every Thursday in May.

Since the Fall of 2020, FDA has made advances in several areas, all of which take steps to advance the agency’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative. The goals set as part of the New Era aim to help the agency more efficiently and efficiently respond to outbreaks and contamination, and other food safety challenges. The intent is to go beyond creating food safety programs into fostering a culture of food safety and truly bending the curve of foodborne illness, said Yiannas. In September the FDA issued the proposed FSMA rule on food traceability with the intent on laying the groundwork for meaningful harmonization. Nearly 6200 comments were submitted to the docket on the Federal Register, and the agency held three public meetings about the proposed rule in the fall, hosting more than 1800 people virtually. Yiannas anticipates the final rule will be published in early 2022.

The pandemic has shown how enhanced traceability might have helped prevent supply chain disruptions during a public health emergency, and the FDA continues its efforts to establish greater transparency and traceability. It is supporting the development of low-cost traceability technology solutions that are accessible to companies of all sizes. The agency also continues to explore the role of predictive analytics via the use of artificial intelligence. It has moved its AI program involving imported seafood from proof of concept into the field. Based on the results, it is expected that AI will help the FDA better manage the ever-increasing amount of imported foods by targeting inspectional resources in a more informed manner.

Efforts to strengthen food safety culture within organizations include collaborating with partners, industry, academia and consumers to define food safety culture in a transparent way. The agency will also be developing and launching internal training modules for FDA inspectional staff to introduce them to important concepts such as behavioral sciences. “We want to make food safety culture part of the dialogue and part of the social norm,” said Yiannas.

The agency will also be proposing new agricultural water requirements, a move as a result of feedback that FDA received in response to the Produce Rule. “Produce safety is one of the last frontiers because of product being grown outside,” said Yiannas.

In addition, FDA continues to review and evaluate feedback from proposed lab accreditation rule. It is expected that the FDA will issue the final rule early next year.

“We just lived through a historic year and historic challenges. These have been the most difficult of times in my profession. We have been able to move forward nonetheless,” said Yiannas. “We’re going to get through this stronger and more resilient than ever.”

Jim Yargrough, BSI
Retail Food Safety Forum

COVID-19’s Impact on Food Industry Reaches Far Beyond Supermarket Shelves

By Jim Yarbrough, Neil Coole
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Jim Yargrough, BSI

2020 proved to be the most challenging year for the food industry in decades, significantly testing the resilience of food supply chains. Many of the industry’s challenges stemmed from the spread and aftermath of COVID-19, forcing food organizations to adjust in new ways to maintain their supply chain continuity, integrity and overall resilience. Yet, at the same time, the spread of the virus also exacerbated known threats that the industry has grappled with for years, such as food fraud, theft and safety issues.

A recently released report about supply chain risks identifies the trends and associated risks most likely to impact global supply chains in the year ahead, and observed that the pandemic’s longer-term effect on food supply chains is expected to result in increased threats, including fraud, theft and safety issues.1 These threats will continue to have an impact in the future, requiring wider adjustments to continuity and resilience planning.

Stockpiling, Panic Buying and the Global Rise of Food Insecurity

As we all saw in local supermarkets and grocery stores in March 2020, panic buying and stockpiling created significant disruptions to supply chains that ultimately led to empty shelves.

According to the World Bank, last year as many as 96 million additional people were pushed into food insecurity across 54 countries. This number, combined with the “137 million acutely food insecure people at the end of 2019 across these countries, brings the total to 233 million people by the end of 2020.” Coupled with COVID-19-related supply disruptions stemming from challenges around movement restrictions of people and goods as well as illness-related plant closures and availability of workers in the food sector, job losses across all industries reduced household income, which has accelearted the number of people facing increased food insecurity.

Food Fraud on a Global Scale

Unfortunately, the risk of corruption by individuals working in a supply chain correlates with the risk of food fraud. Approximately 85% of countries with a high risk of supply chain corruption also have a high risk of food fraud. This can create scenarios that criminals can exploit, most commonly by producing substandard food for distribution in that country or substituting labeled products with potentially harmful alternatives.

For example, in India, adulterated dairy products, especially domestically produced milk, were often found to be linked with fraud reports, with some reports indicating that approximately 89% of milk products had been adulterated. Countries such as India sometimes have gaps in legislation and enforcement that can reduce the ability to detect and seize fake food, making this issue one that is likely to continue post-pandemic. Our intelligence reveals that gaps in legislation and inadequate enforcement of regulations reduce the ability to detect food fraud and lead to prolonging the threat.1 At the same time, criminals continue to outpace poor regulatory regimes and grow more aware of their opportunities and advance the sophistication of their tactics.

Other forms of food fraud, in particular smuggling and disguising provenance, are common and are bound to continue in countries where the price of food continues to rise to a point where it becomes economically viable for criminals to take advantage of higher prices and smuggle it across borders. It is also possible that criminals will benefit from lower levels of enforcement, allowing other fraudulent methods, such as adulterating labels or expiration dates or using substandard or alternative ingredients, to proliferate fraud schemes around the world.

Food and Alcohol Become Top Targets for Theft and Safety Issues

The spread of COVID-19 also resulted in an increase in targeting and theft of products considered unusual for cargo theft incidents—arguably the most pronounced shift in this area in the last year. Initially, thieves began to target essential goods with a much higher frequency as the limited supplies and spikes in demand drastically increased their black-market value. Thefts of products such as PPE and food and beverages increased in frequency worldwide, overtaking the theft of historically targeted goods more, such as electronics.

The increase of food, beverage, alcohol and tobacco commodities theft can likely be attributed to their increased value as a result of panic-buying, shortages and increases in consumption, along with the ease with which they can be sold on the black market. However, the increasing value of these items has not only created a greater vulnerability for theft, but also means these commodities are at an elevated risk for counterfeiting and food safety violations.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 significantly affected governments’ capacity to enforce food safety regulations, which means that some foods may not have been checked as thoroughly. As the spread of COVID-19 reduces, government resources will likely be freed to increase food safety controls. However, further virus-related complications may reintroduce this risk.

COVID-19’s negative effects on the food industry have been pronounced, but it is worth noting that there have been areas of positive impact, too. As the industry adapted in novel ways, industry leaders developed a more holistic awareness of resilience, embracing the benefits of agile innovation, including remote auditing, and adapting their pre-pandemic ways of working to focus on meeting consumer demand.

Furthermore, organizations within the food industry learned the importance of resilience and the ability to proactively identify critical suppliers to ensure that appropriate continuity measures are in place in the event of further unplanned disruptions.

As the world begins the next phase of reopening, and many food industries remain on fragile footing due to the economic impacts of the pandemic, it will be critical that they remain aware of the changing regulatory landscape, shifting supply chains and potential disruptions to ensure they remain resilient.

Reference

  1. BSI. Supply Chain Risk Insights Report. (2021).
James Gunn-Wilkerson, CMX
Retail Food Safety Forum

The Future Is Now: AI Takes Journey from Supply Chain to Today’s Restaurant Kitchens

By James Gunn-Wilkerson
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James Gunn-Wilkerson, CMX

Futurist Ross Dawson has said that AI and automation will shape the future of work, and it also promises to transform our lives beyond the office. According to the World Economic Forum, when AI, which provides the ability to “enable devices to learn, reason and process information like humans,” is combined with Internet of Things (IoT) devices and systems, it creates AIoT. This super duo has the potential to power smart homes, smart cities, smart industries and even our smartwatches and fitness trackers, a market estimated by Gartner to be worth $87 billion by 2023. More importantly, this “interconnectedness” will change the way we interact with our devices as well as the way we will live and work in the future.

In the restaurant industry, we’re already seeing glimpses of this interconnectedness take shape, and in the past year, we’ve experienced major technological advancements that have transformed every facet of the way food establishments work. Reflecting on those advancements, I want to take a moment to share three areas of AI impact that are bubbling up in the restaurant sector in 2021.

1: AI-powered Intelligent Kitchens

From ghost kitchens to traditional kitchens, the “back of the house” continues to be a prime target for AI and automation. While great progress has been made, in many ways it seems like we’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to how far AI can take today’s restaurants. But every now and then, we hear examples of AI powering the future of our industry. For example, Nala Robotics, Inc. will be opening what it calls “the world’s first state-of-the-art intelligent restaurant” in Naperville, Illinois this year. The company says the AI-based robotic kitchen “can create dishes from any cuisine around the world, using authentic recipes from celebrated chefs”. A press release from Nala Robotics states that its flagship restaurant is taking “the first step in the food service industry with AI-powered service, addressing many of the issues affecting restaurant owners during COVID-19,” and it will “provide consumers an endless variety of cuisine without potential contamination from human contact.” This is the new frontier in intelligent kitchens, and it couldn’t have come at a better time, with the pandemic forcing restaurants to reimagine the way they do business.

2: AI-Driven Labor Shifts.

You can’t talk about AI in the restaurant industry without also having a conversation about the implications for the modern workforce. With AI in restaurant kitchens and beyond, the impact on the labor force is undeniable. By 2024, Gartner predicts “that these technologies will replace almost 69% of the manager’s workload.” But that’s not entirely a bad thing. Instead of manually filling out forms and updating records, managers can turn to AI to automate these and other tedious tasks. “By using AI…they can spend less time managing transactions and can invest more time on learning, performance management and goal setting,” Gartner adds.Managers can also use the extra time to focus more effort on the customer and employee experience. And indeed they should: In a recent Deloitte report, 60% of guests surveyed indicated that a positive experience would influence them to dine at a restaurant more frequently.

Looking at the impact of AI on labor at all levels, from the CEO to the entry-level wage earner, the shift, at its best, will be a transition to more meaningful—and less mundane—work. The evolution of humanity has taken us to the point we’re now at now, with food production and delivery processes becoming increasingly automated. This has been an evolution generations in the making. In an ideal world, everyone at every level of the organization should benefit from this new wave of technology. For example, automation can and should be used to open the door to new training and new opportunities for low-wage earners to learn new skills that elevate career paths, increase income and improve quality of life.

3: AI and Global Supply Chain Transformation

From the farm all the way to the table, AI is now poised to transform the global supply chain. From my perspective, the biggest impact will be around driving sustainability efforts. Restaurant and grocery brands are already beginning to leverage AI to forecast their food supply needs based on customer demand, leading to less over-ordering and less food waste to support sustainability initiatives. One company in this space, FourKites, is creating what it calls “the digital supply chain of the future.” Using real-time visibility and machine learning, FourKites powers and optimizes global supply chains, making them “automated, interconnected and collaborative—spanning transportation, warehouses, stores, trucks and more.”

In addition to predictive planning, more and more brands will start to use AI to create incident risk management models to identify trends and risks in the supply chain to determine whether bad or recalled products are originating from a specific supplier, distributor, or due to an environmental variable.With all of these changes, the need for comprehensive data standards will multiply as suppliers and distributors around the world work together to bring us produce and packaged food from all corners of the globe. Data standards will be critical to traceability and the exchange of critical tracking events and key data elements, and advances in data standards will power the meta-data needed to provide better insight for food quality and regulatory compliance, crisis management, and recalls—at scale.

Research firm Forrester states that, in the end, the greatest impact resulting from an investment in robotics and other technologies that automate operational tasks is improved customer experience (CX). “Most companies believe that investment in AI, automation, and robotics for engagement will decrease operational costs. While this is true, our research shows that the revenue upside from delivering better CX could deliver a greater impact on the bottom line over time,” Forrester states.

As a business engaged in digitizing and transforming supply chain operations, our team couldn’t agree with Forrester more. But we believe it will take striking the right balance between technology and the human touch to not only drive stronger CX, but to also create a world in which AI is implemented for the greater good—a world in which people, processes, business and technology all win.