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.”
In today’s digital-first world, it might be surprising for those outside of the food manufacturing industry to learn that paper and pen are still considered state-of-the-art documentation tools. Answering food safety and quality questions such as: “What was the underlying cause of this customer complaint?” or “What caused the production halt this morning?” still require hours of research across paper documents, emails and spreadsheets. Maybe even the odd phone call or text message.
The good news is that many food safety and quality problems can be solved by leveraging modern-day technology. The challenge is taking that first step. By applying the following best practices, organizations can take small steps that lead to substantial benefits, including optimized food safety and quality programs, happier employees and safer operations.
Digital Transformation Best Practices
What if all the information food safety professionals require could be accessible through one unified interface and could proactively point to actions that should be taken? It can, with the right mindset and the right strategy.
While there is no “flip of a switch” to become digitally empowered, best practices exist for where to start. And, early adopters are injecting innovation into food safety programs with simple, but powerful technology.
Too often, food safety professionals push forward on a path to digital transformation by evaluating software and business applications against features and/or cost. But before taking this approach, it is important to look at existing food safety programs, identify where incremental improvements can be made and determine the potential return on a new technology investment.
Self-awareness is a beneficial leadership skill, but it’s also the key driver in understanding an organization’s business needs for food safety. Food safety professionals need to get real about common pain points, such as inconsistent or insufficient data, non-standardized practices, and delayed reporting. This is not the time to gloss over problems with processes or tools. Only by clearly documenting the challenges upfront will organizations be able to find the best solutions.
As one example, a common pain point is managing different formats and timing of reporting across facilities. See if this sounds familiar: “Well, Dallas sends an Excel spreadsheet every week, but Toledo only sends it on a monthly basis, while Wichita sends it monthly most of the time, but it’s never in the same format.”
Start out by identifying similar problems to help define the business objective, which will help determine how technology can be most effectively applied.
Eat, Sleep, Food Safety, Repeat
Food safety processes should constantly evolve to enable continued improvements in food safety outcomes. With that in mind, it’s helpful to dust off the corporate SOP and review it, especially if an organization is moving to a digital program. A common mistake many food manufacturers make is asking technology providers to configure an application based solely off the corporate protocol, only to discover at go-live that users don’t follow that protocol.
To avoid this situation, consider the following questions:
Why are food safety professionals not completing processes by the book?
Is that similar with every site?
Why has it been that way for so long?
Why did food safety professionals start to stray?
By locking down processes and identifying the desired way forward, leaders can configure a new application with the latest information and updated decisions. At a minimum, this step will help identify current issues that should be addressed, which can become measurable goals for the use of the new technology, ideally emphasizing the most pressing problems.
Less is More
Digital transformation doesn’t always need to become a “fix-all” project. Instead, it may revolve around a single operational initiative or business decision. For example, food safety professionals often maintain a spreadsheet with usernames and passwords for countless applications, some of which overlap in functionality and/or require a separate login for each facility. This is not only a safety concern, it’s an easy entry point when moving to a digital approach.
Consolidation of applications is a natural step from the standpoint of feasibility and fiscal responsibility. So, look for digital transformation opportunities that result in fewer applications and more consolidation.
Don’t Rush It
While digital transformation is inevitable, Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither should be an organization’s digital strategy. Unfortunately, the decision to go digital is often made, and a go-live date chosen, before determining what transformation requires, which is a clear-cut recipe for failure.
Technical vendors should play a key role in developing an effective implementation strategy, including sharing onboarding, planning, configuration and go-live best practices.
While technology is here to help the world become smarter about food safety, it is not here to replace human experience. Food safety leaders should continue to augment processes through supplemental technologies, rather than view technology as a full takeover of current approaches.
Barriers to entry for digital transformation are being lowered, as the ease of adoption of the underlying technologies continues to advance and access via cloud-based applications improves.
What to Do With All This Data? 5 Outcomes Food Manufacturers Can Achieve
Food manufacturers have benefited from digitally transforming environmental monitoring programs (EMPs) using workflow and analytics tools in a variety of ways. In the end, what matters is that the resulting data access and usability enables new insights and accelerates decisions that result in reduced risk and improved quality. Keep in mind these key outcomes that food manufacturers can achieve from digital transformation.
Enhancing an internal audit framework with digital tools will greatly reduce the burden of ensuring compliance for schemes such as BRC, SQF and FSSC food safety standards. Flexible report formats and filtering capabilities empower users with the right information at the right time.
Imagine, no more sifting manually through binders of CoA’s and test records to find a needle in a haystack. Exposing teams to a digital means of performing internal audits will not only boost confidence to handle requests from an auditor but will also help drive continuous improvement by providing easier access to insights about the effectiveness of internal policies. At the same time, digital tools will help ensure that only the required information is shared, reducing confusion and uncertainty as well as audit time and cost.
Outcome #2: Proactive Alerting and Automated Reporting
Threshold-based report alerts are an excellent way to reduce the noise often associated with notification systems. Providing quality and safety managers with automated alerts of scheduled maintenance or pending test counts can help them focus on activities that need attention, without distractions.
The benefit of threshold-based reporting is that it is a “set it and forget it” method. While regular “Monday Reports” are still a necessity, alerts and reports can be generated only when attention is needed for anomalies. A great example of this is being able to set proactive alerts for test counts in a facility that are approaching nonconformance levels. Understanding the corrective action requirements needed to control an environmental issue before it impacts quality, production and unplanned sanitation measures is a critical component of risk management and brand protection. In addition, reports can be automatically generated and delivered on a regular schedule to help meet reporting needs without spending time collecting data.
In other words—imagine a world where data comes and finds users when needed, rather than having to search for it in a binder or spreadsheet. Digital tools can provide email reports showing that a threshold has (or has not) been met and link the user directly to the information needed to take action. This is called “actionable information” and is something to consider when deploying technology within an organization’s food safety program processes.
Outcome #3: Optimize Performance with Tracking, Trending and Drilling
The Pareto Principle specifies that for many outcomes, about 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. Historical data that is digitized can be used to quickly identify the root cause of top failures in a facility in order to drive process improvements. Knowing where to invest money will help avoid the cost of failure and aid in the prevention of a recall situation.
Dashboards are a powerful tool that organizations can use to understand the risk level across facilities to make better, data-driven decisions. Reports can be configured through a thoughtful dashboard setup that enables users to easily identify hot spots and trends, drill down to specific test locations, and enable clear communication to stakeholders. Figure 1 provides an example of a heat map that can be used to speed response and take corrective actions when needed.
Outcome #4: Simplified Data Governance and Interoperability
Smarter food safety will drive standardization of data formats, which allows information to flow seamlessly between internal and external systems. One of the major benefits of shifting away from paper-based solutions is the ability to be proactive to reduce risk and cost. FSQA managers, within and across facilities, can benefit from a 360-degree operational view that reveals hidden connections between information silos that exist in the plant and across the organization. This includes:
Product tracing through product testing to environment monitoring and sanitation efforts
Tracing back a product quality issue reported from a customer to the sanitation efforts
Understanding why compliance is on track but quality results aren’t correcting
Outcome #5: Reduce the Cost of High Turnover
Successful GMPs, SSOPs and a HACCP program require leaders that continually ensure that employees are properly trained, which can be difficult with high turnover rates. To address this challenge, digital tools can aid in providing easily accessible documentation to empower users and reduce the cost, time and risk associated with having to re-train new employees on the EMP process. While training cannot be replaced with technology, it can be accelerated.
For example, testing locations within facilities can be documented with images and related information enabling new employees to visually see the floorplan and relevant testing protocols with accompanying video and click-through visualization of underlying data. Additionally, corrective action protocols can be enhanced with videos and standardized form inputs to ensure proper data is being collected at all times.
The Path Ahead
As the digital transformation of the food safety industry continues, food manufacturers should seek out and apply proven best practices to make the process as efficient and effective for their organization as possible. By avoiding common pitfalls, companies can achieve transformation objectives and realize substantial benefits from more easily accessible and actionable food safety data.
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.
Managing the complexities of a management system is challenging for any food and beverage company, particularly for the team tasked with implementing the system throughout the organization. That is because every regulatory agency (e.g., FDA, USDA, OSHA, EPA) and voluntary certification (e.g., GFSI-benchmarked standards, gluten-free, organic, ISO) calls for companies to fulfill compliance requirements—many of which overlap. Supply chain and internal requirements can create further complications and confusion.
In today’s “New Era of Smarter Food Safety,” having a common system to organize, manage and track compliance offers an ideal solution. Dynamic tools are becoming available—systems that can manage employee training, pest control, laboratory testing, supply chain management tools, regulatory compliance and certification requirements, etc.
Unfortunately, these systems are often not set up to “talk” to each other, leaving company representatives to navigate many systems, databases, folders, and documents housed in many different locations.
The Solution: Compliance Management Systems
An integrated compliance management system (CMS) is intended to bring all these tools together to create one system that effectively manages compliance requirements, enables staff to carry out daily tasks and manage operations, and supports operational decision making by tracking and trending data that is collected daily by the team charged with implementation.
A CMS is used to coordinate, organize, control, analyze and visualize information to help organizations remain in compliance and operate efficiently. A successful CMS thinks beyond just access to documents; it manages the processes, knowledge and work that is critical to helping identify and control business risks. That may include the following:
Ensuring only authorized employees can access the right information.
Consolidating documents and records in a centralized location to provide easy access
Setting up formal business practices, processes and procedures
Implementing compliance and certification programs
Monitoring and measuring performance
Supporting continuous improvements
Documenting decisions and how they are made
Capturing institutional knowledge and transferring that into a sustainable system
Using task management and tracking tools to understand how people are doing their work
Enabling data trending and predictive analytics
CMS Case Study: Boston Sword and Tuna
In early 2019, Boston Sword and Tuna (BST) began the process of achieving SQF food safety certification. We initially started working with BST on the development, training and implementation of the program requirements to the SQF code for certification—including developing guidance documents for a new site under construction.
The process of attaining SQF certification included the development of a register of SQF requirements in Microsoft SharePoint, which has since evolved into a more comprehensive approach to overall data and compliance management. “We didn’t plan to build a paperless food safety management system,” explains BST President Larry Dore, “until we implemented our SQF food safety management program and realized that we needed a better way to manage data.”
We worked with BST to structure the company’s SharePoint CMS according to existing BST food safety management processes to support its certification requirements and overall food safety management program. This has included developing a number of modules/tools to support ongoing compliance efforts and providing online/remote training in the management of the site and a paperless data collection module.
The BST CMS has been designed to support daily task activities with reminders and specific workflows that ensure proper records verifications are carried out as required. The system houses tools and forms, standards/regulatory registers, and calendars for tracking action items, including the following:
Corrective and Preventive Action (CAPA)
Chemical Inventory/Safety Data Sheets (SDS)
Employee Health Check
Food Safety Meetings Management Program
Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) Audit
Maintenance (requests/work orders/assets/repairs)
Nightly Cleaning Inspections
Sanitation Pre-Op Inspections
Thawing Temperature Log
Key Considerations for Designing a Successful CMS
An effective CMS requires an understanding of technology, operational needs, regulatory compliance obligations and certification requirements, as well as the bigger picture of the company’s overall strategy. There are several key considerations that can help ensure companies end up with the right CMS and efficiency tools to provide an integrated system that supports the organization for the long term.
Before design can even begin, it is important to first determine where you are starting by conducting an inventory of existing systems. This includes not only identifying how you are currently managing your compliance and certification requirements, but also assessing how well those current systems (or parts of them) are working for the organization.
As with many projects, design should begin with the end in mind. What are the business drivers that are guiding your system? What are the outcomes you want to achieve through your system (e.g., create efficiencies, provide remote access, reduce duplication of effort, produce real-time reports, respond to regulatory requirements, foster teamwork and communication)? Assuming that managing compliance and certification requirements is a fundamental objective of the CMS, having a solid understanding of those requirements is key to building the system. These requirements should be documented so they can be built into the CMS for efficient tracking and management.
While you may not build everything from the start, defining the ultimate desired end state will allow for development to proceed so every module is aligned under the CMS. Understand that building a CMS is a process, and different organizations will be comfortable with different paces and budgets. Establish priorities (i.e., the most important items on your list), schedule and budget. Doing so will allow you to determine whether to tackle the full system at once or develop one module at a time. For many, it makes sense to start with existing processes that work well and transition those first. Priorities should be set based on ease of implementation, compliance risk, business improvement and value to the company.
Finally, the CMS will not work well without getting the right people involved—and that can include many different people at various points in the process (e.g., end user entering data in the plant, management reviewing reports and metrics, system administrator, office staff). The system should be designed to reflect the daily routines of those employees who will be using it. Modules should build off existing routines, tasks, and activities to create familiarity and encourage adoption. A truly user-friendly system will be something that meets the needs of all parties.
Driving Value and Compliance Efficiency
When thoughtfully designed, a CMS can provide significant value by creating compliance efficiencies that improve the company’s ability to create consistent and reliable compliance performance. “Our system is allowing us to actually use data analytics for decision making and continuous opportunity,” said Dore. “Plus, it is making remote activities much more practical and efficient”.
For BST, the CMS also:
Provides central management of inspection schedules, forms, and other requirements.
Increases productivity through reductions in prep time and redundant/manual data entry.
Improves data access/availability for reporting and planning purposes.
Effectively monitors operational activities to ensure compliance and certifications standards are met.
Allows data to be submitted directly and immediately into SharePoint so it can be reviewed, analyzed, etc. in real time.
Creates workflow and process automation, including automated notifications to allow for real-time improvements.
Allows follow-up actions to be assigned and sent to those who need them.
All these things work together to help the company reduce compliance risk, create efficiencies, provide operational flexibility, and generate business improvement and value.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought challenges to all industries, and many restaurants have been forced to close their doors permanently. Restaurant owners have struggled due to COVID-19 restrictions that have drastically cut the number of customers they can serve—whether as a result of an indoor dining ban or capacity limits. Those that have been allowed to re-open are being stretched to meet new guidelines to keep guests safe and comfortable while dining. Not only do restaurant owners need to make sure their restaurants are COVID-safe, but they also need to ensure they are providing the quality service and meals their customers have come to know and love. The Internet of Things (IoT) can not only ease the burden of implementing new protocols while also ensuring a clean and safe environment for both employees and patrons, but also help restaurants enhance efficiency.
The following are some points on how the IoT can help restaurants not only survive, but thrive amid the pandemic.
Easy-to-deploy IoT-enabled devices provide several benefits to QSRs, including the monitoring of employee hand washing stations, dishwashing water temperatures, sanitizer solution concentrations and customer bathroom usage frequency to ensure constant compliance with cleanliness standards.
By placing sensors on tables and work lines, restaurant owners can collect valuable data and insights in real time. For example, the sensors can share information about how often tables are being cleaned. This information will help owners trust that tables are being cleaned thoroughly in between each use.
Sensors can also be placed on washbasins to monitor employee hand washing. Sensors on the sinks will not only confirm that employees’ hands have been washed, but they will also share exactly how long employees washed their hands. That way, owners can have peace of mind knowing employees’ hands and restaurant surfaces are properly sanitized before customers sit down to eat. With door sensors monitoring customer bathrooms, store owners can ensure adequate cleaning is allocated based on frequency of usage.
Owners can also have peace of mind knowing their restaurant is rodent free by using IoT monitored sensors. Rodents are especially dangerous to be found lurking in restaurants because they carry diseases and can cause electrical fires. Devices can be placed throughout the restaurant to detect any motion that occurs. When the devices detect a motion, restaurant owners will receive notifications and will be immediately aware of any rodents that may have snuck into the restaurant.
These sensors give restaurant owners a chance to proactively address a rodent issue before it causes damage to their business.
In addition to monitoring sanitation and detecting motion, restaurant owners can leverage the IoT many other ways. For example, IoT devices can be placed on trash bins to alert when they are full and ready to be taken out. They can also be placed near pipes to detect a leak. Sensors can also be placed on all refrigerators to detect temperature. With accurate updates on refrigerators’ temperatures, restaurant owners can easily monitor and ensure that food is stored at the appropriate temperature around the clock—and be immediately alerted if a power issue causes temperatures to change.
IoT devices can offer restaurant owners insights to help them change their operations and behavior for the better. While everyone is eager to go back to “normal” and want our favorite restaurants to re-open as soon as possible, it is important that restaurant owners have the tools needed to reopen safely—and create efficiencies that can help recoup lost income due to COVID-19 restrictions. Restaurant owners looking to receive real-time, accurate data and insights to help run their restaurants more efficiently and ensure a safe and comfortable experience for customers can turn to the IoT to achieve their goals.
Phase one of the pilot looked at using machine learning to find violative seafood shipments. “The pilot program will help the agency not only gain valuable experience with new powerful AI-enabled technology but also add to the tools used to determine compliance with regulatory requirements and speed up detection of public health threats,” FDA stated in a news release. “Following completion of the pilot, FDA will communicate on our findings to promote transparency and facilitate dialogue on how new and emerging technologies can be harnessed to solve complex public health challenges.”
COVID-19 has been a sharp wake-up call for many food manufacturers in the need for resilient production environments that can readily respond to large and sudden changes, including fluctuations in demand and disruptive external events. This means being able to optimize operations for the following:
Efficiency: Where you can achieve constant output even when given fewer inputs—such as in workforce availability or resources. This was especially important when the pandemic caused widespread supply shortages, as well as staffing shortages due to social distancing measures.
Productivity: When you can ensure that, given the amount of available input (i.e., raw ingredients, manpower, equipment availability), you can maintain a consistent output to meet demand in the marketplace.
Flexibility: Where you can rapidly and intelligently adapt your processes in the face of change, in ways that are in the best interest of your business, the supply chain, and the consumers who purchase and trust in your products.
That trust is paramount, as manufacturers must continue to uphold quality and safety standards—especially during a time when public health is of the upmost importance. But between operational challenges and managing product quality, that’s a lot for manufacturers to wade through during a crisis.
To navigate the current COVID reality and improve response to future events, more organizations are looking to harness the power of data to enable agile decision-making and, in turn, build more resilient production environments.
Harnessing the Power of Data
The key to harnessing data for agile decisions is to aggregate end-to-end process information and make it available in real time. When you can achieve that, it’s possible to run analytics and derive timely insights into every facet of production. Those insights can be used to increase efficiency, productivity and flexibility—as well as ensure product quality and safety—even amidst upheaval.
When looking at solutions to aggregate data from a single site—or better yet, multiple sites—all roads lead to the cloud. Namely, cloud-based quality intelligence solutions can decouple the data from physical locations—such as paper checklists, forms, or supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and human-machine interfaces (HMI) systems—and centralize what’s collected digitally in a unified repository. The data can then be accessed, analyzed, and consumed by those who need actionable insights from anywhere, at any time, and on any device, making cloud an ideal solution for connecting on-site operators and remote employees.
An Opportunity for Broader Transformation
In migrating to the cloud, manufacturers open the opportunity to break away from the legacy, manual processes of yesterday and transition to more nimble, digitally enabled environments of tomorrow. For example, manual processes are often highly dependent on individual operator knowledge, experience and judgement. As the pandemic has shown, such institutional knowledge can be lost when employees become ill, or are unavailable due to self-isolation or travel restrictions, presenting a risk to operational efficiency and productivity. But if that valuable institutional knowledge were captured and codified in a quality intelligence solution as predefined workflows and prescriptive instructions, then a manufacturer could more easily move their resources and personnel around as necessary and find comfort knowing that processes will be executed according to best practices.
For many organizations, this would be a remarkable transformation in the ways of working, where data and digital technologies can augment human capacity and flexibility. Take for instance, in traditional production environments, a lot of human effort is spent on monitoring lines to catch process deviations or events like machine anomalies or quality issues. Using real-time data, next-generation solutions can take on that burden and continuously monitor what’s happening on the plant floor—only alerting relevant teams when an issue arises and they need to intervene. Manufacturers can thereby redeploy people to other tasks, while minimizing the amount of resources necessary to manage product quality and safety during daily production and in the event of disruption.
Ensuring Quality Upstream and Downstream
One company that has succeeded in digital transformation is King & Prince, a manufacturer of breaded, battered and seasoned seafood. When the company digitized its manufacturing processes, it centralized the quality data from all points of origin in a single database. The resulting real-time visibility enables King & Prince to monitor quality on more than 100 processes across three U.S. plants, as well as throughout a widespread network of global suppliers.
With this type of real-time visibility, a company can work with suppliers to correct any quality issues before raw materials are shipped to the United States, which directly translates to a better final product. This insight also helps plant-based procurement managers determine which suppliers to use. Within its own plants, operators receive alerts during production if there are any variations in the data that may indicate inconsistencies. They can thereby stop the process, make necessary adjustments, and use the data again to confirm when everything is back on track.
During finished product inspections, the company can also review the captured data to determine if they need to finetune any processes upstream and respond sooner to prevent issues from making it downstream to the consumer level. Overall, the company is able to better uphold its quality and safety standards, with the number of customer complaints regarding its seafood products dropping to less than one per million pounds sold year over year—and that’s all thanks to the harnessing of data in a digitally enabled production environment.
There’s No Time Like the Present
In truth, technologies like the cloud and quality intelligence solutions, and even the concept of digital transformation, aren’t new. They’ve been on many company agendas for some time, but just haven’t been a high priority. But when the pandemic hit, organizations were suddenly faced with the vulnerabilities of their long-held operational processes and legacy technologies. Now, with the urgency surrounding the need for resilient production environments, these same companies are thinking about how to tactically achieve digital transformation in the span of a few weeks or months rather than years.
Yet while digital transformation may sound like a tremendous initiative with high risks and expenses, it’s more tangible than some may think. For example, cloud-based Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions offer flexible subscription-based models that keep costs low on top of rapid scalability. Digital transformation doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing endeavor either. In fact, it can be better to progress incrementally, starting first with the manufacturing areas that are most in need or have the most issues. This minimizes unnecessary risk, makes digital transformation more achievable and realistic over short timeframes, and avoids overwhelming already maxed out operational and IT teams.
All things must pass. The pandemic will eventually be over. But in its wake will be a permanent legacy on not just society, but also on the manufacturing sector. In my opinion, digital transformation is a fundamental basis for building resilience into the modern food production environment. Now, more than ever, is the time to address that opportunity head on.
It is fair to say that 2020 was a challenging year with wide-ranging effects, including significant effects on our ongoing efforts to ensure food integrity and prevent fraud in the food system. COVID-19 caused major supply chain disruptions for foods and many other consumer products. It also highlighted challenges in effective tracking and standardization of food fraud-related data.
Let’s take a look at some of the notable food fraud occurrences in 2020:
Organic Products. The Spanish Guardia Civil investigated an organized crime group that sold pistachios with pesticide residues that were fraudulently labeled as organic, reportedly yielding €6 million in profit. USDA reported fraudulent organic certificates for products including winter squash, leafy greens, collagen peptides powder, blackberries, and avocados. Counterfeit wines with fraudulent DOG, PGI, and organic labels were discovered in Italy.
Herbs and Spices. Quite a few reports came out of India and Pakistan about adulteration and fraud in the local spice market. One of the most egregious involved the use of animal dung along with various other substances in the production of fraudulent chili powder, coriander powder, turmeric powder, and garam masala spice mix. Greece issued a notification for a turmeric recall following the detection of lead, chromium, and mercury in a sample of the product. Belgium recalled chili pepper for containing an “unauthorized coloring agent.” Reports of research conducted at Queen’s University Belfast also indicated that 25% of sage samples purchased from e-commerce or independent channels in the U.K. were adulterated with other leafy material.
Dairy Products. India and Pakistan have also reported quite a few incidents of fraud in local markets involving dairy products. These have included reports of counterfeit ghee and fraudulent ghee manufactured with animal fats as well as milk adulterated with a variety of fraudulent substances. The Czech Republic issued a report about Edam cheese that contained vegetable fat instead of milk fat.
Meat and Fish. This European report concluded that the vulnerability to fraud in animal production networks was particularly high during to the COVID-19 pandemic due to the “most widely spread effects in terms of production, logistics, and demand.” Thousands of pounds of seafood were destroyed in Cambodia because they contained a gelatin-like substance. Fraudulent USDA marks of inspection were discovered on chicken imported to the United States from China. Soy protein far exceeding levels that could be expected from cross contamination were identified in sausage in the Czech Republic. In Colombia, a supplier of food for school children was accused of selling donkey and horse meat as beef. Decades of fraud involving halal beef was recently reported in in Malaysia.
Alcoholic Beverages. To date, our system has captured more than 30 separate incidents of fraud involving wine or other alcoholic beverages in 2020. Many of these involved illegally produced products, some of which contained toxic substances such as methanol. There were also multiple reports of counterfeit wines and whisky. Wines were also adulterated with sugar, flavors, colors and water.
We have currently captured about 70% of the number of incidents for 2020 as compared to 2019, although there are always lags in reporting and data capture, so we expect that number to rise over the coming weeks. These numbers do not appear to bear out predictions about the higher risk of food fraud cited by many groups resulting from the effects of COVID-19. This is likely due in part to reduced surveillance and reporting due to the effects of COVID lockdowns on regulatory and auditing programs. However, as noted in a recent article, we should take seriously food fraud reports that occur against this “backdrop of reduced regulatory oversight during the COVID-19 pandemic.” If public reports are just the tip of the iceburg, 2020 numbers that are close to those reported in 2019 may indeed indicate that the iceburg is actually larger.
Unfortunately, tracking food fraud reports and inferring trends is a difficult task. There is currently no globally standardized system for collection and reporting information on food fraud occurrences, or even standardized definitions for food fraud and the ways in which it happens. Media reports of fraud are challenging to verify and there can be many media reports related to one individual incident, which complicates tracking (especially by automated systems). Reports from official sources are not without their own challenges. Government agencies have varying priorities for their surveillance and testing programs, and these priorities have a direct effect on the data that is reported. Therefore, increases in reports for a particular commodity do not necessarily indicate a trend, they may just reflect an ongoing regulatory priority a particular country. Official sources are also not standardized with respect to how they report food safety or fraud incidents. Two RASFF notifications in 2008 following the discovery of melamine adulteration in milk illustrate this point (see Figure 1). In the first notification for a “milk drink” product, the hazard category was listed as “adulteration/fraud.” However, in the second notification for “chocolate and strawberry flavor body pen sets,” the hazard category was listed as “industrial contaminants,” even though the analytical result was higher.1
What does all of this mean for ensuring food authenticity into 2021? We need to continue efforts to align terminology, track food fraud risk data, and ensure transparency and evaluation of the data that is reported. Alignment and standardization of food fraud reporting would go a long way to improving our understanding of how much food fraud occurs and where. Renewed efforts by global authorities to strengthen food authenticity protections are important. Finally, consumers and industry must continue to demand and ensure authenticity in our food supply. While most food fraud may not have immediate health consequences for consumers, reduced controls can lead to systemic problems and have devastating effects.
Everstine, K., Popping, B., and Gendel, S.M. (2021). Food fraud mitigation: strategic approaches and tools. In R.S. Hellberg, K. Everstine, & S. Sklare (Eds.) Food Fraud – A Global Threat With Public Health and Economic Consequences (pp. 23-44). Elsevier. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-817242-1.00015-4
Everybody has to eat. That is the mantra of many companies involved in the food and beverage industry. It sounds so simple. Yet, in recent years, especially this one, it is becoming more challenging than we ever thought it could be. Disruptions from the beginning to the end of the food supply chain are making the task of feeding the masses more difficult. The COVID-19 pandemic has made people in all walks of life question the food supply chain. It is being evaluated in new ways with the goal of ensuring that there is food available in not just crisis times but in normal circumstances, too, as the population continues to grow and more disruptions interrupt the supply chain. Climate change is one disruption that is impacting the food and beverage industry and is possibly the biggest threat to overall food sustainability. When people think about climate change they only think about weather events and global warming, but if you look at the definition of “climate,” other issues need to be considered in addition to looking out the window and checking the thermometer.
Global warming, greenhouse gases, carbon emissions, the earth’s normal evolution and consumer behaviors can all contribute to climate change. Everyone talks about limiting greenhouse gases and carbon emissions but is it really happening? Almost every day, some government agency or industrial company announces policy changes touting the drive to 100% sustainable packaging by this year and that year. “Company X announced today that it will use fully-sustainable packaging by 2035.” Fully sustainable packaging; what does that even mean? And 2035, what’s the hurry?! There are other programs in the works, but the question is, are they quick fixes that are really just Band-Aids on a gunshot wound? Are they actually long-term solutions and are they happening fast enough? The adoption of electric vehicles could have a huge impact on our climate but it is just a small piece of the solution for total carbon emission elimination. Water to be used in non-farming consumption is getting harder to come by due to climate change. Land space is eroding and available farm space is decreasing. The process of raising and harvesting livestock is getting more complex and costly, making plant-based substitution options more attractive. But is that really a long-term solution if we are already running out of traditional farming space? Consumers hope that recycling will help combat the problem but it is barely making a dent and their changing food habits impact the climate as well. The earth itself is constantly going through a geological evolution in spite of what we humans do to the planet.
Global warming is accelerating climate change and causing a number of serious issues. The earth’s poles are warming, which is promoting permafrost, causing glaciers to melt and oceans to rise, which is impacting sea levels, irrigation methods and land temperatures that promote erosion. Higher than average temperatures can potentially impact the growing of certain crops in terms of yields and even where they are grown. Climate change is impacting all areas of agriculture, the environment and the total ecosystem. Insect behaviors are evolving and these changes affect crops. The food manufacturing and farming industries have realized that a “new way” needs to be implemented to grow food in environments that can combat these changes.
Sustainability initiatives call for practices that maintain or improve soil conservation and improve the overall health of soil. Two processes, regenerative agriculture and precision agriculture, working in conjunction, may actually provide a long-term solution by combining environmental and farm science with technology. Regenerative agriculture goes beyond soil conservation. It is a process that looks to reverse the effects of climate change. The regenerative process focuses on restoring soil health, solving water issues, reversing carbon cycles, and creating new topsoils and growing environments.
Precision agriculture focuses on increasing the land used for farming as well as increasing the productivity of that land. It utilizes newly available IoT devices like GPS services, guidance systems, mapping tools and variable rate technologies (VRT) to optimize crop yields. These new management systems collect data that transmit valuable metrics to farmers. Every aspect of farming, from planting to harvesting, can benefit from these emerging technologies. The information about the moisture of soil, for example, is sent to a computer, which then identifies signs of health or stress. Based on these signals, farmers can provide water, pesticide or fertilizer in adequate dosages. As a result, precision farming can help conserve resources and produce healthier crops.
Climate-smart agriculture, which is an approach to dealing with the new realities of climate change, is another smart agricultural method. Climate-smart agriculture improves agricultural systems by enhancing sustainability, which leads to improved food security. Food production has struggled to keep up with erratic weather patterns and natural resources have been stretched alarmingly thin, signaling a call for action. With this new approach, crop yields can adapt accordingly and productivity will increase.
The regenerative food system market has drawn a great deal of interest from investment groups. Initial investments have focused on water and soil reconstitution and development. Restoring soil strength reduces water usage and at the same time produces stronger and more available food sources. Underground and hydroponic versions of regenerative agriculture are also emerging.
Advanced technologies like these are making their way into the food, beverage and agriculture industries. Traditional agricultural methods are being replaced with climate-smart methods. Peripheral areas like streamlining the supply chain and optimizing manufacturing operations can receive “sustainable” benefits from these new agri-methods. The good news is that smart agricultural methods are making progress in counteracting climate change and revolutionizing farming worldwide.
Regenerative and precision agriculture are without question the leading processes and philosophies being used today to help all food industries combat climate change and other disruptors to the total food supply chain. These new technologies will continue to efficiently solve farming practices. In addition, there will be rollover benefits to food processors and manufacturers who will now have improved access to data. This will enable better communication, and improved traceability at all levels of the supply chain and throughout operations, distribution and procurement. This data will allow all involved in growing and producing food to communicate better and enable society to adapt to these changes.
For a long time, companies could effectively run food safety programs using only manual methods of quality management, such as pen, paper, spreadsheets and emails. Those practices have served the food industry well, but it was only a matter of time before food safety and quality management systems became mostly an exercise of technology.
Even before COVID-19, industry trends and government requirements (e.g., FSMA, the FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety) were setting roadmaps for modernizing food safety and quality management with technology. Additionally, the food industry is thirsty for better performance, more insights and data-based decisions—all things that need more sophistication than manual systems.
As we continue through the throes of the pandemic, it’s abundantly clear that the tech-based future we were planning for five to ten years in the future is happening now. It’s both unavoidable and imperative for the food industry to quickly adapt to the new landscape in front of us. It’s as the CEO of Airbnb, Brain Chesky, recently said: Because of the pandemic, he had to make “10 years’ worth of decisions in 10 weeks.”
From my viewpoint, I see at least seven additional trends that are also expediting modernization in our industry.
1. A shift toward proactive mindset versus reactive habits. Always reacting to what’s happening around you is precarious and makes it difficult to mitigate risks, for you as well as your location employees. The benefits of being more strategic and prepared for different scenarios can shore up your foundation, making you more ready for crises at the corporate and location level. Gathering, combining and analyzing data with technology gives you more insights, so you can make data-based decisions quickly and with more confidence.
2. Empowerment of employees to act as chief quality officers. This comes down to the difference between training employees versus coaching them. Giving employees rules (training) is one thing but showing them the reason why a rule exists (coaching) is another. In other words, when you add more coaching, you’re empowering employees to identify and act on the right thing to do for themselves—which is chief quality officer behavior.
It is important to reassure employees during coaching that honest assessments will result in managers’ support rather than punishment when things go wrong. When all employees proactively watch for quality and compliance issues and get the right support when bringing up these issues, you’re more likely to catch (and fix) small issues before they become huge liabilities.
3. An increase in virtual audits and self-assessments. I don’t believe the corporate audit will ever go away, but our customer data is showing a marked increase in location self-assessments and virtual audits before the pandemic, and even more since March.
Right now, these audit types are a necessary stopgap while the health and safety of auditors is in question. However, I’m also confident that virtual audits and self-assessments will continue to rise. The reason? These audits can start giving you a continuous view of food safety initiatives instead of a single point-in-time view.
Even though corporate audits are still part of best practices, shorter self-assessments and other evaluations can help you glean more data and gain more visibility on a continual basis, especially if you use technology to store and analyze your data in one place.
4. Continuous quality monitoring is overtaking point-in-time audits. Let’s expand on this trend. Manual processes may provide some valuable data, but it’s impossible to build real-time, integrated views into your business with only a yearly audit. It merely shows you a single (but important) point in time rather than what’s going on at each location right now. Additionally, since everyone is watching every employee at all store locations due to COVID-19, it is critical to have a checks and balances system to continually correct small issues and to find coaching opportunities.
Again, it’s virtually impossible to do this with paper checklists and email blasts because the daily-gathered data can easily be misfiled, deleted or otherwise lost. Many quality management software systems are built to integrate, store and analyze your data in a continuous manner.
5. Consolidation of multiple programs into single software solutions. As you think about updating your programs and systems from manual processes, it is important to remember that you don’t need a different solution for every activity. For example, you don’t necessarily have to invest in an auditing app, an analytics platform, and a document storage solution (and still probably manage many spreadsheets). There are many quality management software companies that have solutions built to combine and streamline all the activities you need to manage food safety or other quality management programs.
6. Innovations to share costs with suppliers. Budgets have not likely increased due to COVID-19, so investing in modernization may seem like a pipe dream. But many companies are offsetting their costs in a new way. They are requiring suppliers to use a specific software system to submit their qualifying documents, and then these companies are charging reasonable fees for suppliers’ use of the software.
Additionally, there more benefits to managing suppliers within your quality management system. First, it can streamline document collection and storage, and second, it gives you an opportunity to communicate and collaborate with your suppliers on a deeper level.
7. Standards bodies are accelerating plans to update requirements. As seen with GLOBAL.G.A.P. this year, some standards bodies are updating their digital submission requirements to streamline certification submissions as well as start building up sharable industry data so certification bodies can do their jobs better. Additionally, GLOBALG.A.P has already partnered with existing quality management software companies to make the integration and submission process even easier, and other standards bodies are sure to follow.
It’s clear to me that these trends are of a long-term nature, and each one requires updating manual food safety and quality programs to quality management system software solutions. Acting on these trends in any number will require modernization and digital transformation to have a lasting impact on your programs and your business. The mode of “just keeping the doors open” is not sustainable and will not last forever, so now is the time to start building a better food safety future.
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