The plant-based meat market is anticipated to be worth more than $320 millionin the next five years, according to a report released last summer by Global Market Insights. As the popularity of meat-alternative products continues to rise, new challenges are being introduced to supply chain management. Joe Scioscia, vice president of sales at VAI explains some of these hurdles and proposes how technology can help.
Food Safety Tech: Is the growing popularity of plant-based foods introducing hazards or challenges to the supply chain?
Joe Scioscia: The growing popularity of plant-based foods has presented a new set of challenges for the supply chain, especially considering many of these organic items are being introduced by traditionally non-organic retailers. Impossible Foods received FDA approval for its plant-based burger in 2019, showing just how new the plant-based movement is to the industry.
Obviously, the organic supply chain and produce suppliers have long followed regulations for handling produce, such as temperature controls, cargo tracking, and supply and demand planning software, so the produce could be tracked from farm to table and in the case of a recall, be traced back to the source. But for meat alternatives that are combining multiple plant-based ingredients, organizations in the supply chain who are handling these products
have new food safety concerns. Considerations on how to store and process meat alternatives, how to treat each ingredient in the product and, most importantly, how to determine temperature controls or the source of contamination are all discussions the food industry is currently having.
FST: How are plant-based foods changing the dynamic of the supply chain from a food safety perspective?
Scioscia: The food supply chain has changed dramatically in recent years to become more complex, with food items traveling farther than ever before, containing more ingredients and required to follow stricter regulations. Many of the changes to the supply chain are for the better—organic and plant-based alternatives offer health benefits for consumers and are a move towards a more sustainable future. But the reality is that the supply chain isn’t quite there yet. Suppliers, retailers and producers at every part of the supply chain need to work together to ensure transparency and food safety compliance—including for plant-based products. Foodborne illnesses are still a real threat to the safety of consumers, and these same consumers are demanding transparency into the source of their food and sustainable practices from brands. All of these considerations are what’s making this next era of the food industry more complicated than ever before.
Because food safety compliance is always top of mind in the food industry to keep consumers safe, this new and complex supply chain has required companies to rely heavily on technology solutions to ensure plant-based products are equally as safe to consume as non-organic alternatives. These same solutions are also helping supply chains become more transparent for customers and streamline food processes to build a more sustainable future.
FST: What technologies can food companies and retailers use to better manage the supply chain risk while supporting the increased consumer demand for meat alternatives?
Scioscia: Utilizing a centralized software system is one tool many food suppliers and distributors can use to better visualize, trace and process products in the supply chain—including for plant-based alternatives. Having access to a central platform for business data to track assets and ensure food safety regulations are being met allows for companies to optimize processes and cut unnecessary costs along the way.
Heading into 2020, many organizations in the food supply chain are also looking at new applications like IoT, automation, and blockchain as ways to curb food safety issues. The FDA has taken steps to pilot blockchain and AI programs to better track drugs and food products, in conjunction with major food brands and technology companies. Other organizations are following suit with their own programs and many are looking at these solutions to improve their food tracking efforts. It’s clear technology has the most potential to make it easier on the industry to comply with food safety regulations while meeting customer demands for plant-based alternatives and organic options—all the while building a sustainable supply chain for the future.
The legal cannabis-infused products industry is growing with impressive and predictable rapidity. But because the rollout of new regulations occurs in an awkward and piecemeal fashion, with stark differences from one state to another, and sometimes even one county to another, uncertainty reigns.1 Many entrepreneurs are diving headlong into the nascent industry, hoping to take advantage of an uncertain regulatory environment where government audits and inspections are rare. These business owners will see quality assurance and product safety as burdens—costs to be avoided to the greatest extent possible.
I have seen this time and time again, even in the comparatively well-regulated food industry, and it is always a mistake.
If you find yourself thinking about quality assurance or food safety as a prohibitive cost, annoyance or distraction, I encourage you to change your thinking on this issue. The most successful businesses realize that product safety and quality assurance are inextricably linked with profitability. They are best thought of not as distractions, but as critical elements of an efficient and optimized process. Proper QA and safety are not costs, they are value.
Food safety and quality assurance should be seen as important elements of the process that you undertake to enforce the high standards and consistency that will win you repeat customers. The fact that they guard against costly recalls or satisfy meddlesome auditors is only a bonus. Realizing this will make your business smarter, faster and more profitable.
Learn more about the science, technology, regulatory compliance and quality management issues surrounding cannabis at the Food Labs / Cannabis Labs Conference | June 2–4, 2020If today you cannot clearly communicate your product standards to your employees and to your customers, then you have some work to do. That’s because quality assurance always begins with precise product specifications. (A good definition of “quality” is “conformance to specifications.”) How can you assess quality if you don’t have a definitive standard with which to evaluate it? My consulting firm works with food businesses both small and large, and this is where we begin every relationship. You might be surprised how often even a well-established business has a difficult time naming and describing every one of its products, let alone articulating objective standards for them.
This may be doubly difficult for fledgling businesses in the cannabis world. Because the market is so new, there are fewer agreed-upon standards to fall back on.
When we help businesses create specifications, we always look at the relevant regulations while keeping in mind customer expectations. In cannabis, the regulations just aren’t as comprehensive as they are for conventional food and agriculture. Laws and guidelines are still in flux, and different third-party standards are still competing for market dominance. Different states have entirely different standards, and don’t even agree, for example, whether cannabis edibles should be considered pharmaceuticals or food. To some extent, it’s the wild west of regulation, and as long as the federal government remains reluctant to impose national guidelines, it’s likely to remain so.
The wild west may be a good place for the unscrupulous, but it’s not good for business owners that care about the health of their customers and the long-term health of their brand. Don’t take advantage of confusing quality and safety standards by doing the least possible to get by. At some point there will be a scandal in this country when a novel cannabis product makes dozens of customers sick, or worse. You don’t want it to be yours.
With cannabis-infused products, there is a unique additional factor at play: The strength of THC and other psychoactive compounds. Again, there are few agreed-upon standards for potency testing, and relatively little oversight of the laboratories themselves. This allows labs to get sloppy, and even creates an incentive for them to return inflated THC counts; at the very least, results may hugely differ from one lab to another even for identical products.2 Some labs are ISO 17025 accredited, and some are not. Using an unaccredited laboratory may prevent your efforts to create consistent and homogeneous products.
Even in comparatively well-regulated states, such as Colorado, it is ultimately your responsibility to create products that are safe and consistent. And in the states where the politicians haven’t even figured out which department is regulating cannabis products, your standards should be tougher than whatever is officially required.
And so we look to the more established world of conventional food and agriculture as a guide for the best practices in the cannabis industry.
The most constructive way to look at food safety, and the way your (eventual) auditors and regulators will view it, is to look at your product and process from the perspective of the potential hazards.
Some day, when regulation finally gets sorted out, you are likely to be asked to implement a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) safety system. HACCP framework recognizes three broad categories of hazards:
Physical hazards: Foreign material that is large enough to cause harm, such as glass or metal fragments.
Chemical hazards: Pesticides and herbicides, heavy metals, solvents and cleaning solutions.
Biological hazards: The pathogens that cause foodborne illness in your customers, such as E. coli, and other biological hazards, such as mycotoxins from molds.
All of these hazards are highly relevant to cannabis-infused product businesses.
The HACCP framework asks us to consider what steps in our process offer us the chance to definitively and objectively eliminate the risk of relevant hazards. In a cannabis cookie, for example, this might be a cooking step, a baking process that kills the Salmonella that could be lurking in your flour, eggs, chocolate or (just as likely!) the cannabis extracts themselves.
A good HACCP system is merely the capstone resting atop a larger foundational system of safety programs, including standard operating procedures, good manufacturing practices, and good agricultural practices. It’s important to use these agreed-upon practices and procedures in your own facility and to ensure that your suppliers and shippers are doing the same. Does your cultivator have a culture of safety and professionalism? Do they understand their own risks of hazards?
HACCP offers a rigorous perspective with which to look at a process, and to examine all of the places where it can go wrong. The safety system ultimately holds everything together because of its emphasis on scrupulous documentation. Every important step is written down, every time, and is always double-checked by a supervisor. It sounds like a lot of paperwork, but it is better viewed as an opportunity to enforce consistency and precision.
When you thoroughly document your process you’ll create a safer product, run a more efficient business, and make more money.
The food and beverage sector is a huge presence in the U.S. economy. As of 2017, the industry employed 1.46 million people across 27,000 different establishments. Total food and beverage sales stand at around $1.4 trillion and add $164 billion in value to the economy as a whole.1 This presents significant opportunities and risks alike. Companies that trade in food products are held to some of the highest regulatory standards. With globalization ongoing and a higher demand than ever for variety and niche products, companies find they need to expand the mobility of their services. They must also broaden their product choices without missing a beat when it comes to quality.
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have emerged as unlikely allies in that quest. These technologies are already having a positive impact on food and worker safety in the industry.
Improves New Employee Training
Onboarding and training new employees is a costly and time-consuming endeavor in any industry. Moreover, failure by companies to impart the necessary skills, and failure by employees to retain them, can have ghastly consequences. Errors on assembly lines may result in faulty products, recalls, worker and customer injuries, and worse.
The stakes in the food and beverage sector are just as high as they are in other labor- and detail-oriented industries. VR provides an entirely new kind of training experience for employees, whether they’re working on mastering their pizza cutting technique or brewing the perfect cappuccino. Other times, “getting it right” is about much more than aesthetic appeal and immediate customer satisfaction.
Animal slaughtering and processing facilities represent some of the more extreme examples of potentially dangerous workplaces in the larger food and beverage industry. Between 2011 and 2015, this U.S. sector experienced 73 fatal workplace injuries. Excepting poultry processing, 2015 saw 9,800 recordable incidents in animal processing, or 7.2 cases for every 100 full-time employees.
Some adopters of VR-based employee training claim that virtual reality yields up to an 80% retention rate one year after an employee has been trained. This compares extremely favorably to the estimated 20% retention rate of traditional training techniques.
Training via VR headset can help companies get new hires up to speed faster in a safe, detailed and immersive environment. Food processing and service are high-turnover employment sectors. The right training technology can help workers feel better prepared and more engaged with their work, potentially reducing employee churn.
Helps Eliminate Errors in Food Processing
Augmented reality is already demonstrating great promise in manufacturing, maintenance and other sectors. For instance, an AR headset can give an assembly line worker in an automotive plant detailed, step-by-step breakdowns of their task in their peripheral vision through a digital overlay.
The same goes for food and beverage manufacturing. AR headsets can superimpose a list of inspection or processing tasks for workers to follow as they prepare food items in a manufacturing or distribution facility.
In 2018, there was an estimated 382 recalls involving food products. Augmented reality alone won’t bring that number down to zero. However, it does help reduce instances of line workers and inspectors missing critical steps in processing or packaging that might result in contamination or spoilage.
Eases the Learning Curve in Food Preparation
There are lots of food products in the culinary world that are downright dangerous if they’re not prepared properly and by following specific steps. Elderberries, various species of fish, multiple root vegetables, and even cashews and kidney beans can all induce illness and even death if the right steps aren’t taken to make them fit for consumption.
In early 2019, inspectors descended on a Michelin-starred and highly respected restaurant in Valencia, Spain. The problem? A total of 30 patrons reported falling ill after eating at El País, one of whom lost her life. Everyone reported symptoms similar to food poisoning.
The common element in each case appeared to be morel mushrooms. These are considered a luxury food item, but failure to cook them properly can result in gastric problems and worse. Augmented reality could greatly reduce the likelihood of incidents like this in the future by providing ongoing guidance and reminders to new and veteran chefs alike, without taking the bulk of their attention away from work.
Brings New Efficiencies to Warehousing and Pick-and-Pack
Consumers around the globe are getting used to ordering even highly perishable foodstuffs over the internet—and there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle. Amazon’s takeover of Whole Foods is an indicator of what’s to come: Hundreds of freezer-equipped and climate-controlled warehouses located within a stone’s throw from a majority of the American population.
Ensuring smooth operations in perishable food and beverage supply chains is a major and ongoing struggle. It’s not just a practical headache for companies—it’s something of a moral imperative, too. The World Health Organization finds that around 600 million individuals worldwide fall ill each year due to foodborne illnesses.
Augmented reality won’t completely solve this problem, but it may greatly reduce a major source of potential spoilage and contamination: Inefficiencies in picking and packing operations. Order pickers equipped with AR headsets can:
Receive visual prompts to quickly find their way to designated stow locations in refrigerated warehouses after receiving refrigerated freight.
Locate pick locations more efficiently while retrieving single items or when they already have a partial order of perishable goods picked.
In both cases, the visual cues provided by AR help employees navigate warehousing locations much more quickly and efficiently. This substantially lowers the likelihood that food products are stuck in limbo in unrefrigerated areas, potentially coming into contact with noncompliant temperatures or pathogens. The FDA recognizes mispackaged and mislabeled food products as a major public health risk.
For food and beverage companies, AR should be a welcome development and a worthy investment. FSMA recognized that 48 million Americans get sick each year from compromised foods. The act required these entities to be much more proactive in drawing up prevention plans for known sources of contamination and to be more deliberate in standardizing their processes for safety’s sake.
AR and VR Boost Food, Worker and Customer Safety
Augmented and virtual reality may seem like an unusual ally in an industry where most consumers are primarily focused on the aesthetic and sensory aspects of the experience. However, there’s a whole world that lives and dies according to the speed and attention to detail of employees and decision-makers alike. Augmented realities, and entirely new ones, point the way forward.
Birds of different species can become a pest problem depending upon where they are landing, roosting or nesting. In terms of food facilities, birds can cause various concerns: Product safety risks, possible contamination (bird droppings/feathers), poor audit grades, inspection failure, secondary insect pest problems, vectoring of foodborne illness pathogens, plant closures or fines. It is for these reasons that it is essential that food, beverage and product manufacturers (FBP) establish an integrated bird management (IBM) program.
An IBM program will ensure that every essential team member is on the same page in terms of the protocols for managing pest birds within and around the facility. Even if a facility has taken a proactive approach to bird control, the potential exists for birds to enter a facility. Especially considering bird pressures around adjacent properties, buildings, bodies of water and food sources near the facility.
Read Part I of this series: Bird Problems and Control Methods for Food Production FacilitiesIBM for food industry facilities is a systematic approach to preventing birds from gaining access within a facility and reducing the length of time birds remain within a facility. Nuisance birds, depending upon how severe the bird pressure—i.e., how many birds are landing, roosting and/or nesting within a given area—can cause severe damage to equipment, property, food products, displays, vegetation, façade signage, ledges, roofs, HVAC equipment, drains, fire suppression, electrical equipment and more. The longer that birds are permitted to remain within and around a facility, the more damage they can cause, and the harder it is to remedy the problem. Thus, it is critical to remove any birds that have gained entry as soon as possible to prevent possible FBP contamination and the birds getting comfortable within the facility.
There are several components to developing an IBM program. First, you need to conduct a complete inspection of the interior/exterior of the facility, followed by a review of the current data as well as any historical bird data. Now that you have all the raw data, you can begin developing the site-specific IBM plan for the FBP facility. Now that you have the program designed, the program can be implemented. Finally, after a defined timeframe that the IBM program has been active, the program needs to be evaluated to determine if any adjustments need to be made to the program.
The first step in developing an IBM program is to conduct an initial site inspection audit of the interior and exterior of the facility.
The following various elements need to be inspected and with said findings documented.
On the interior of the facility, look at the following items:
Active Birds with the Facility
List the areas and locations of birds
Example: Location(s): Food prep area(s), warehouse, etc.
Any history of birds and related areas
Type(s) and necessity
Food Processing Areas
Any active control measures in place
Assess the level of risk
Location(s): Doors left open
Additional Access Point(s)
Check all equipment areas that enter/exit building
Location(s): Standing water
Location(s): Food Sources
Bird Droppings or Nesting Materials
Staff feeding birds
All access to food and water
On the exterior of the facility, look at the following items:
Active birds with the facility
List the areas and locations of birds
Example: Locations(s): Rear loading dock
Any history of birds around the exterior of the facility
Accessory buildings and structures
Sanitation Practices (Exterior)
Exposed food sources and spillage
Trash Removal Frequency
Food Waste on Ground
Cleaning Practices Schedule
Cleaning Food Waste Bins
Bay Doors (Exterior)
General Doors (Exterior)
Location(s) Doors Being Left Open
Additional Access Point(s)
Bodies of Water
Location(s): Pipe-Line Penetrations
Location(s): Roof Hatches
Location(s): Canopy (Front/Rear)
Location(s): Awnings (Front/Rear)
Location(s): Façade Signage (Front/Rear/Side)
Bird Droppings or Nesting Materials
Existing Bird Control Devices
Next, after all the above items have been inspected and findings recorded, all the data needs to be reviewed. In addtion, all the current bird management practices within the facility, documentation practices, and current audit/inspection findings should be all evaluated together. All this information is your road map for developing your IBM Program. Make sure that while you are collecting all the said raw data, you also speak with all necessary staff to get the most accurate information possible.
Now that you have conducted your inspections and collected all the data, it’s time to create a site-specific IBM Policy & Plan for the facility. The development and implementation of the IBM plan will provide the appropriate procedures that are to be implemented to prevent, control and exclude birds from entering a facility and from keeping birds an acceptable distance away from the facility. With proper training and implementation of IBM procedures, there will be a reduced likelihood that birds will be able to enter the facility, and the length of time birds remain inside the facility will be reduced—thus, reducing the level of pest bird damage caused, reducing hazards to food sources, equipment, the public, and the facility environment.
Each facility is unique in its operation, location and potential for bird activity. The facility’s IBM plan will be designed to factor its control options when remedying and preventing bird pressure.
Now that you have an IBM Plan, it’s time to implement the plan. First, make any necessary changes based upon findings of the audit and review of all data. Next, correct any conducive conditions that were discovered during the inspection. All the items that may require adjustment may need to be planned out depending upon budgetary constraints. Define staff roles regarding bird control efforts on a front-line facility level. Each member of the action team must fully understand their role and responsibility about the implementation and day-to-day operation of the plan.
The IBM Plan is the roadmap that should be followed for managing pest birds throughout the interior and exterior of the facility and related structures. It will set forth the facility’s bird threshold levels and site-specific facility needs. Furthermore, the IBM Plan will provide in detail how each phase of the plan will be implemented at each facility. The facility coordinator, in collaboration with the IBM coordinator, shall be responsible for the administration and implementation of the IBM plan. Each of their roles and responsibly should be thoroughly reviewed and understood.
Next, conduct staff training on proper bird control removal methods if handing live removal internally. Otherwise, what are the approved processes for third-party vendors who are providing removal services? Finally, conduct a review of the new documentation process to record all necessary data for the IBM program. Data collection is a critical component in evaluating the success of the plan and determining if any adjustments need to be made.
To ensure goal compliance, the IBM program should be evaluated at each site annually. The review must consist of all records, the number of birds that gained access into the store, corrective actions taken (at the facility level and outside efforts), and any plan adjustments. By reviewing all the data collected, the plan’s effectiveness can be determined, and whether alterations need to be made. Note that the IBM plan is not a static document that sits in a binder. The plan will have to evolve as operations change, or the set goals of the program are not met.
A proactive approach to reducing bird populations is critical for food industry facilities. As such, the IBM program will ensure that your entire staff is adequately trained on all the site-specific bird control methods, reduce the frequency of birds entering the facility and create a documented bird control program that is designed for your specific facility.
Modern food supply chains are inherently complex, with products typically passing through multiple suppliers and distributors, as well as countries and continents, before they end up on the supermarket shelf. While global supply chains offer consumers greater choice and convenience, they also make protecting the security of food products more challenging. With additional stakeholders between farm and fork, products are exposed to an elevated risk of biological or chemical contamination, as well as food counterfeiting and adulteration challenges—potentially putting consumer health and brand reputation in jeopardy.
Given the importance of maintaining the safety, quality and provenance of food products, global regulatory bodies are placing the integrity of supply chains under increased scrutiny. In the United States, for example, the adoption of FSMA moved the focus from responding to foodborne illnesses to preventing them by prioritizing comprehensive food testing measures, enforcing inspections and checks, and enabling authorities to react appropriately to safety issues through fines, recalls or permit suspensions.1 Similarly, China’s revised Food Safety Law (known as FSL 2015) is widely considered to be the strictest in the country’s history, and seeks to drive up quality standards by empowering regulators, and enhancing traceability and accountability through robust record-keeping. 2 The European Union continues to closely regulate and monitor food safety through its General Food Law, which is independently overseen by the European Food Safety Authority from a scientific perspective.
Achieving the Highest Standards of Food Security, Integrity and Traceability
For producers, manufacturers and distributors, the heightened regulatory focus on the security and integrity of the food supply chain has placed additional emphasis on accurate record-keeping, transparent accountability and end-to-end traceability. To meet the needs of the modern regulatory landscape, food chain stakeholders require robust systems and tools to manage their quality control (QC), environmental monitoring and chain of custody data. Despite this, many businesses still handle this information using paper-based approaches or localized spreadsheets, which can compromise operational efficiency and regulatory compliance.
The fundamental flaw of these traditional data management approaches is their reliance on manual data entry and transcription steps, leaving information vulnerable to human error. To ensure the accuracy of data, some companies implement resource-intensive verification or review checks. However, these steps inevitably extend workflows and delay decision-making, ultimately holding up the release of products at a high cost to businesses. Moreover, as paper and spreadsheet-based data management systems must be updated by hand, they often serve merely as a record of past events and are unable to provide insight into ongoing activities. The time lag associated with recording and accessing supply chain information means that vital insight is typically unavailable until the end of a process, and data cannot be used to optimize operations in real-time.
Furthermore, using traditional data management approaches, gathering information in the event of an audit or food safety incident can be extremely challenging. Trawling through paperwork or requesting information contained in spreadsheets saved on local computers is time-consuming and resource-intensive. When it comes to establishing accountability for actions, these systems are often unable to provide a complete audit trail of events.
Digital Solutions Transform Food Security and Compliance
Given the limitations of traditional workflows, food supply chain stakeholders are increasingly seeking more robust data management solutions that will allow them to drive efficiency, while meeting the latest regulatory expectations. For many businesses, laboratory information management systems (LIMS) are proving to be a highly effective solution for collecting, storing and sharing their QC, environmental monitoring and chain of custody data.
One of the most significant advantages of managing data using LIMS is the way in which they bring together people, instruments, workflows and data in a single integrated system. When it comes to managing the receipt of raw materials, for example, LIMS can improve overall workflow visibility, and help to make processes faster and more efficient. By using barcodes, radiofrequency identification (RFID) tags or near-field communication, samples can be tracked by the system throughout various laboratory and storage locations. With LIMS tracking samples at every stage, ingredients and other materials can be automatically released into production as soon as the QC results have been authorized, streamlining processes and eliminating costly delays.
By storing the standard operating procedures (SOPs) used for raw material testing or QC centrally in a LIMS, worklists, protocols and instrument methods can be automatically downloaded directly to equipment. In this way, LIMS are able to eliminate time-consuming data entry steps, reducing the potential for human error and improving data integrity. When integrated with laboratory execution systems (LES), these solutions can even guide operators step-by-step through procedures, ensuring SOPs are executed consistently, and in a regulatory compliant manner. Not only can these integrated solutions improve the reliability and consistency of data by making sure tests are performed in a standardized way across multiple sites and testing teams, they can also boost operational efficiency by simplifying set-up procedures and accelerating the delivery of results. What’s more, because LIMS can provide a detailed audit trail of all user interactions within the system, this centralized approach to data management is a robust way of ensuring full traceability and accountability.
This high level of operational efficiency and usability also extends to the way in which data is processed, analyzed and reported. LIMS platforms can support multi-level parameter review and can rapidly perform calculations and check results against specifications for relevant customers. In this way, LIMS can ensure pathogens, pesticides and veterinary drug residues are within specifications for specific markets. With all data stored centrally, certificates of analysis can be automatically delivered to enterprise resource planning (ERP) software or process information management systems (PIMS) to facilitate rapid decision-making and batch release. Furthermore, the sophisticated data analysis tools built into the most advanced LIMS software enable users to monitor the way in which instruments are used and how they are performing, helping businesses to manage their assets more efficiently. Using predictive algorithms to warn users when principal QC instruments are showing early signs of deterioration, the latest LIMS can help companies take preventative action before small issues turn into much bigger problems. As a result, these powerful tools can help to reduce unplanned maintenance, keep supply chains moving, and better maintain the quality and integrity of goods.
While LIMS are very effective at building more resilient supply chains and preventing food security issues, they also make responding to potential threats much faster, easier and more efficient. With real-time access to QC, environmental monitoring and chain of custody data, food contamination or adulteration issues can be detected early, triggering the prompt isolation of affected batches before they are released. And in the event of a recall or audit, batch traceability in modern LIMS enables the rapid retrieval of relevant results and metadata associated with suspect products through all stages of production. This allows the determination of affected batches and swift action to be taken, which can be instrumental in protecting consumer safety as well as brand value.
Using LIMS to Protect Security and Integrity of the Food Supply Chain
Increasingly, LIMS are helping businesses transform food security by bringing people, instruments and workflows into a single integrated system. By simplifying and automating processes, providing end-to-end visibility across the food supply chain, and protecting the integrity of data at every stage, these robust digital solutions are not only helping food supply chain stakeholders to ensure full compliance with the latest regulations; they are enabling businesses to operate more efficiently, too.
During the past year, the headlines have been filled with stories of foodborne illness, product recalls, and consumers becoming sick from tainted food. In a Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Sean O’Leary, CEO at FoodLogiQ, talks food safety, traceability, and how small percentages can translate into big victories for the food industry and for the people they serve.
Food Safety Tech: From your perspective, what is the current sentiment of consumers with regard to food safety?
Sean O’Leary: Over the last few years, the consumer mindset has changed about food in general. We’ve watched fad diets come and go; however, the interest in healthy ingredients and the concern about where food comes from has graduated from a passing trend to a full shift into the public consciousness. Consumers are much more discerning about what they eat; they also demand to know where their food comes from, how it was produced, and how it got to their table. We are living in the age of transparency, and consumer expectations are high.
And who can blame them? CDC statistics tell us that approximately 48 million people get sick every year from foodborne illnesses—and that’s just in the United States; 128,000 of them end up in the hospital. When a person is admitted to the hospital, it affects more than just that one individual. If the patient is the sole breadwinner of their family, their illness affects the entire family. If the person who gets sick is a child, there can be long-term consequences that trickle down to his or her whole community. And when you consider that 3,000 people die every year from foodborne illness—that’s one 9/11 every year. That’s unacceptable, because this is a preventable issue, and unfortunately, these illnesses are an underreported public health problem.
My challenge to the food industry is simple: What if we made just a 1% improvement in the number of cases of foodborne illness? That seems like such a small percentage, but when you do that math, that’s 480,000 people who don’t get sick this year; 1,280 people who aren’t admitted to the hospital; and 30 people who don’t die. Those are significant numbers.
FST: To help shed additional light on this subject, FoodLogiQ conducted a national survey to tap into how U.S. consumers feel about issues related to food transparency. What did you learn from those consumer responses?
O’Leary: We polled more than 2,000 people to gauge their sentiment around food traceability and their expectations for food companies regarding foodborne illness and product recalls. The survey also posed questions around consumer preferences regarding their food sources and how they are identified on food labels and menus. The results were enlightening, to say the least.
We learned that a brand or restaurant will pay a high price in terms of customer loyalty if they experience a food recall due to consumer illness. And those customers have some strong opinions regarding how quickly the brand or restaurant should address a food safety issue.
35% of survey respondents told us they would avoid an affected brand or restaurant for a few months, and maybe they would return after the issue had been resolved. Meanwhile, nearly 25% admitted they would never use the brand or visit the restaurant again.
Of the respondents who say they care about the quality of the food they eat, 55% say they expect a recall to be executed within 24 to 48 hours.
In reality, it sometimes takes weeks for a product to be pulled from the store or restaurant. This is frequently due to communication issues, since everyone along the supply chain—the grower, supplier, packing and distribution centers, corporate office, and the retailer or restaurant—all must be notified, and a recall plan must be set in motion. Unfortunately, that communication process takes time. When that communication takes place via email or by phone call, the people responsible for pulling product may not have the information they need or may have received misinformation. This can result in lag time, and potentially unsafe product can still get into the hands of consumers.
The faster a food company can address a recall situation and return to business as usual, the faster customers will come back. But comprehensive supply chain transparency is needed to be able to make swift, accurate decisions during this time of crisis. By having a robust end-to-end traceability program and technology that provides real-time data and visibility, companies facing a recall can isolate and surgically withdraw the tainted product out of the supply chain without recalling more items than necessary. That limits the disruption and the waste of good food, which saves the company money.
O’Leary: FoodLogiQ was honored to have the opportunity to share our intricate knowledge of the food supply chain, as well as best practices regarding whole chain traceability during this monumental meeting with the FDA with more than 250 food industry leaders.
In retrospect, one thing is clear—we’re in the midst of a pivotal time of change for the world’s food supply chain. In the United States, the food industry remained status quo for decades, but the introduction of FSMA has brought increased scrutiny and accountability; I think it’s made every food company pause and evaluate where they are with regard to food safety, and that’s a good thing. And now, with the launch of the “New Era” campaign, we’re coming together in a collaborative fashion to map out how technology tools, prevention measures, new business models, and an evolving culture of food safety can be merged as a framework for a long term food safety solution. I agree with the FDA; ‘Smarter Food Safety’ is people-led, FSMA-based, and technology-enabled. It will take all of us working together to reach that goal.
Last week’s seventh annual Food Safety Consortium brought together a variety of industry experts to discuss key topics around regulation, compliance, leadership, testing, foodborne illness, food defense and more. The following are just a few sound bytes from what we heard at the event. (Click on any photo to enlarge)
“The food system today, while it’s still impressive, it still has one Achilles heel—lack of traceability and transparency.” – Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy & response, FDA. Read the full article on Yiannas’ keynote session
“A typical food company only has about 5% visibility into known supply chain threats.” – Ron Stakland, senior business development, FoodChain ID, Inc.
“For most of us, our supply chain is a big black hole. Why are we so fearful of technology? Is it the implementation itself? What if technology could help us solve some of those perennial problems? There are resources available to help us get there.” – ¬ Jeremy Schneider, business development director, food safety and quality assurance, Controlant
“The records tell the story of how well the facility is being managed. It’s the first thing the regulators are going to look at.” – Glenn Black, Ph.D., associate director for research, CFSAN, FDA, on validation considerations and regulations for processing technologies in the food industry
“We’ll see more robotics enter the food space.” – Gina Nicholson Kramer, executive director, Savour Food Safety International
“Changes are happening; you can choose to face it or ignore it. We’re at least 10 years behind on technology. Automation/technology is not a new term in aerospace, etc., but to us [the food industry], it is. We will get there.” – Melody Ge, head of compliance, Corvium, Inc., on how industry should prepare for the data-driven transformation occurring in the smarter era of food safety
It’s okay to risk and fail, but how are going to remediate that with your employee? The more learners practice in different scenarios, the less they rely on specific examples. [They] become more adept with dealing with decision making.” – Kathryn Birmingham, Ph.D., VP for research and development, ImEpik, on employee training
“As a contract lab with the vision of testing for foodborne viruses for about 10 years—it wasn’t until about three or four years ago that we had the test kits to turn that into a reality. We also didn’t have a reference method.” – Erin Crowley, chief scientific officer, Q Laboratories, on the viral landscape of testing in the food industry
“You have to be strong and you have to believe in yourself before you get into any situation—especially as a food safety professional.” – Al Baroudi, Ph.D., vice president of quality assurance and food safety at The Cheesecake Factory, on what it takes to earn respect as a food safety professional
“’See something, say something’ is likely not enough. We recommend that companies develop a formal detection program that includes management buy-in, HR and governance, and policy documents, formal training and an awareness program…While FDA focuses on the insider threat, we feel that using a broader mitigation approach works best.” – R. Spencer Lane, senior security advisor, Business Protection Specialists, Inc. on lessons learned from food defense intentional adulteration vulnerability assessments
“Food safety is a profession, a vocation, [and] a way of life.” – Bob Pudlock, president of Gulf Stream Search
Over the course of almost a full year, laboratory documents were falsified by the owner and the quality control officer of a Connecticut meat processing company. None of the reported beef samples were actually taken and tested for E. coli. The letterhead of a formerly utilized inspection laboratory was fraudulently used to falsify the test documents, an act that carries a maximum term of five years in prison. Fortunately, no illness was reported from consumers who purchased the meat products.
Various types of pest birds can impact food plant structures and facility surroundings. Even a single bird that finds its way into a food plant can trigger a host of concerns such as, failed audits, product contamination, plant closure, production stoppage, lost revenues, fines, structural damage, health hazards to occupants and fire hazards.
In most cases, a food plant operation has a bulletproof pest control plan; however, in most cases, birds are always an afterthought in most pest management plans. After inspecting and consulting numerous food plants, I hear the same story over and over: “I have a person in the warehouse that can chase them out” or, “are birds really a big deal?” or, “why do I have to be concerned about birds?” and on and on. Despite what you may think, birds are a big deal, and you should take them seriously!
Since food processing plants contain areas that have very sensitive environments, birds can introduce various adulterants and harmful contaminants. Birds can cause potential harm to humans due to foodborne illness.
Pest Bird Species
There are four main pest birds: Pigeon, Starling, Sparrow and Seagull. Each one of these birds can cause a host of concerns and issues for food processing facilities. Just one bird can cause catastrophic damage. In most cases, small pest birds such as Sparrows and Starlings can gain access into a facility through a variety of ways:
Damaged bumpers around truck bay loading dock doors.
Open doors (seems obvious, but I always find doors wide open during audits).
General building deficiencies.
Larger birds, such as Pigeons and Seagulls, typically cause more problems around the exterior of a facility on ledges, rooftops, HVAC units, loading docks and related areas.
In either case, these various types of pest birds can cause significant problems on the interior and exterior of food plants.
In most cases, facilities want to reduce as many conducive conditions as they can around and within the facility in a timely fashion. A conducive condition is one whereby due to a building condition, structural design, equipment operation, food or water source, or surrounding conditions (i.e., near a public landfill, raw materials mill or body of water) can attract pest birds to a facility. With each of these conditions, great care must be taken to reduce as many conducive conditions as possible.
Examples of Conducive Conditions
Loading docks/canopies with open beams and rafters
Pooling water (roof and landscaping)
Structural overhangs and ledges
Open access points
Landscaping (types of plantings)
Damaged truck bay bumpers
Gaps and opening around the structure
Doors with improper sealing
Employees feeding birds
Doors left open
All these conducive conditions, if left unresolved, can lead to significant bird problems. Reducing as many conducive conditions as possible will be the first step of any bird management program.
Bird Control Methods
From the start, your facility should have a bird management plan of action. For the most part, bird problems should not be left to be handled internally, unless your staff has been properly trained and has a bird management plan in place.
Most birds are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. However, Pigeons, Sparrows, and Starlings are considered non-migratory birds and are not protected under this Act. Even though these three bird species are not protected, control methods still need to be humane. More specifically, your bird control program must also comply with is the American Veterinary Medical Association (“AVMA”) Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals if this is the control method selected. The AVMA considers the House Sparrows, Feral Pigeon, and the Common Starling “Free-Ranging Wildlife.” And Free-Ranging Wildlife may only be humanely euthanized by specifically proscribed methodology.
In addition to the above-mentioned regulations, various regulations regarding the relocation of birds/nests may also apply. I also always recommend checking with local and state agencies to ensure that there are no local regulations that may apply. Bottom line: Don’t rely on untrained internal practices; one misstep could result in heavy financial fines and penalties.
Bird Management Strategies
First Line Defense
Stop any bird feeding around the facility immediately
Any bird management plan should have a clear policy prohibiting employees from feeding birds. Once birds have been accustomed to routine feeding, the birds will continue to return.
Eliminate Standing Water Sources
All standing or pooled water needs to be eliminated. Thus, routine roof inspections need to be conducted to ensure drains are working properly.
Landscape irrigation needs to be calibrated to ensure no puddling of water in areas of low sun exposure.
Proper Sanitation Practices
Ensure that dumpster lids are closed when not in use.
Trash removal frequency adequate.
Routine cleaning of trash receptacles.
Immediate removal of spilled food.
Eliminate Entry Points
Survey the facility to ensure that all holes are properly sealed.
• Around truck bay bumpers and doors
Exhaust vents are properly screened.
Windows are closed and have screens when in use.
The most appropriate bird control strategy will be determined based on the severity of the bird pressure. For example, if the bird pressure is high (birds have nested), then in most cases, you will only be able to use bird exclusion methods. Whereas, if the bird pressure is light to moderate (birds have not nested), bird deterrent methods can be used. This is an important distinction. Bird exclusion is physically changing the area to permanently exclude said pest birds. Whereas, bird deterrent devices inhibit birds from landing on treated areas.
Bird Deterrent Methods
After the previously mentioned first-line strategies have been implemented, the next step would be to install bird deterrent products (birds have not nested).
Electrified Shock Track
Sonic & Ultra Sonic Devices
Lasers and Optical Deterrents
Hazing & Misting Devices
Bird Exclusion Methods
If the birds have nested in or around the facility, the next step would be to install bird exclusion products (birds have nested).
Ledge Exclusion (AviAngle)
Architectural modifying structural
Aggressive Harvesting (Targeting)
The best prevention strategy is planning and knowledge. Conduct a bird audit and develop a bird management plan before birds get near or inside the facility. The key is to act quickly, as soon as an incident occurs. I find countless times when I am called in to consult or service a food plant, that the birds got into the facility and no one knew what to do, and as a result, the birds remained within the facility for an extended period, thus increasing the risk of exposure. It is always much easier to remove a bird when they are unfamiliar with their surroundings. Whereas, it is much more difficult to remove birds from a facility that has had a long-standing bird problem.
Once you have a plan, who oversees the bird management plan? Are thresholds determined and set for various areas of the facility? For example, a zero threshold in production areas? Threshold levels will be set based upon by location and sensitivity of the said location. What steps are going to be taken to remove the bird? For how long is each step conducted? These questions need to be answered and developed to stay ahead of bird problems.
Reduce as many conducive conditions as possible. The longer a conducive condition stays active, the more likely birds, as well as other wildlife or rodents, will be attracted to the site and find a way into the facility.
Pathogen Contamination & Hazards
Birds present a host of problems, whether they are inside or outside of a facility. Birds can roost by air vents, and the accumulation of bird feces can enter the facility air system. Bird droppings on walkways and related areas allow for the possibility of vectoring of said dropping when employees step on droppings. Thus, spreading fecal matter/spores and other contaminants to areas throughout the facility.
If birds are within the facility, droppings can spread on product lines, raw materials, stored products, equipment and more, thus, causing contamination. Because of a bird’s ability to fly, they are perfect creatures to spread various diseases, pathogens, ectoparasites and fungal materials. Diseases such as Histoplasmosis, Salmonella, Encephalitis, E-coli, Listeria, and more. Birds have been known to transmit more than 60 infectious diseases!
Besides the spread of potentially harmful contaminants throughout the facility, bird droppings and nesting materials can also create a host of additional problems:
The acidity in bird droppings can damage building finishes, façade signs, lighting and more.
Wet bird droppings can create a slip and fall hazard.
Bird nesting materials can create a fire hazard around façade signs, exit signs and light fixtures.
Bird nesting and debris can clog roof drains and cause roof leaks from standing water.
Introduction of ectoparasites into the facility such as bird mites, lice, fleas, ticks and more.
In summary, taking a proactive approach to bird control is the best practice. Reduce food, water and shelter sources (aka conducive conditions) promptly. Pest management programs need to implement a more in-depth section of the program for bird control. Like integrated pest management, bird control should be based upon an integrated method. Each facility will have its unique challenges. As such, each bird management plan needs to be tailored to the specific site. A well designed and balanced, integrated bird management program will provide long-term and cost-efficient bird control.
Recalls have become an unfortunate reality for the food and beverage industry. It seems every month, another grocer pulls inventory from its shelves due to contaminated products that are potentially harmful for consumers.
Last month, it was Kroger that was forced to remove beef products from stores in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana as part of Aurora Packing Company’s recall of more than 62,000 pounds of meat that may have been infected with E. coli. Not only do these situations hurt the reputation and bottom line of companies across the food supply chain—from the manufacturer to the retail store—there is the potential for these issues to become deadly.
The 2019 Food Safety Consortium Conference & Expo features an entire track on sanitation | October 1–3 | Schaumburg, ILComplexities of the Food Supply Chain
The food industry faces unique supply chain challenges. First, consider that the industry is dealing with products that come from the ocean or earth. Once obtained, these products are boxed, sent, in many cases long distances, to a facility via truck or cargo ship, where our foods undergo a number of processing mechanisms before being put back in a shipping container and sent off to a store. When they finally make it in-store, they’re moved from the backroom to the store floor. After all this, these products go into our mouths and through our digestive systems.
There are often many complex steps food has to go through before it makes it into our homes—and with each level of the food supply chain comes a new opportunity for things to go wrong and contamination to happen. What makes the food supply chain even more frightening is that pinpointing the root cause of harmful pathogens—such as E. coli or Listeria—by retracing all the potential contacts points is very challenging given their microscopic nature. All in all, the germs are beating us.
Old Disinfection Techniques Aren’t Cutting It
To mitigate the issue of contamination and avoid those dreaded recalls, food companies have prioritized disinfection. Most often, techniques include manually washing processing equipment with chemicals to keep them sanitized, and even spraying food products with antibiotics to directly kill harmful germs. However, these solutions have many limitations and are either intermittent in their use or insufficient to tackle the complexity of challenges associated with the food processing environment.
First, the tide is beginning to turn on the use of chemicals on food products, with consumers having growing concerns with introducing antibiotics in their food. There’s heightened and justified skepticism over the use of antibiotics and fears over the potential impact on resistance through overuse. In other words, consumers are afraid of the potential side effects from ingesting these chemicals on a daily basis and the alternative resistance bacteria they promote.
The truth is that the excessive use of antibiotics makes them less effective. This is due to frequently exposed bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics over time. The result is that antibiotics are no longer as effective at killing these germs, which is at the heart of great concern for the public’s health.
Resistant bacteria can be passed from food-producing animals to humans in a number of ways. If an animal is carrying resistant bacteria, it can be passed on through meat that is not handled or cooked properly. Plus, food crops are regularly sprayed with fertilizers, which can contain animal manure with resistant bacteria. Once spread to humans, resistant bacteria can stay in the human gut and spread between individuals. The consequences of the introduction of these germs and the subsequent consumption of them include infections that would not have happened otherwise.
Second, cleaning equipment with chemicals and disinfectants is important, but only intermittently effective. While someone working in a food processing plant uses chemicals to clean off a surface or container before food touches it, there’s still an opportunity for harmful bacteria to land on the space in between washes from many sources including the air, packaging, other food, etc. Not to mention there is a wide variety of different surfaces and nodes that food touches as it moves throughout a plant and across the supply chain. Every single surface is a distinct and new opportunity for germs to live, and simply scrubbing these areas a few times a day (or once a day in some cases) simply isn’t enough to keep these germs away. By solely relying on the intermittent use of chemicals to sanitize, it seems virtually impossible to ensure contamination is not ever introduced along the way to your table.
The Introduction of Continuous Disinfection Using Light
Intermittent sanitization hasn’t been disproven to be a wholly effective way to kill germs—it’s simply not a strong enough line of defense in and of itself. Perhaps, one of the best ways to protect our food from harmful bacteria and prevent expensive recalls altogether is to introduce and layer in a new breed of “continuous disinfection” technology using bacteria-killing visible LED lighting directly into the process.
Going back to more than a century ago, scientists have known that certain wavelengths of light are highly effective at destroying bacteria. Ultraviolet (UV) light is extremely powerful, but it is also especially dangerous to humans and causes things like plastics to become brittle and crack. UV light directly impacts the DNA in people, animals and plants, along with bacterial cells.
There is, however, a very human-friendly frequency of light (405 nanometers), which is in the visible spectrum of light, that is completely harmless to humans, but just as devastating to bacteria. It activates the porphyrin molecules that exist only within unicellular organisms such as bacteria and fungi. Humans, animals and plants do not have these particular molecules. Exposure to 405 nm light directly activates these molecules and essentially rusts bacteria from the inside out destroying any bacteria that is exposed to this human-friendly light. The ability of this new LED tool to be safely used around the clock allows for it to be acting continuously. This continuous nature goes above and beyond the existing limitations of intermittent cleaning.
With the advent of LED lighting, it is now possible to “tune” the frequency of light with extreme precision. The significant breakthrough of isolating light to this specific frequency of violet-blue light has now begun to enter the food processing industry. It is taking its place as a critical component to the layered defenses against harmful bacteria entering the food chain. When left on, this light continuously kills bacteria, preventing any germ colonies from forming and replicating. This has now become the perfect complement to the proper cleaning and sanitizing of all surfaces used in food processing and preparation—intermittent chemical cleaning working together with continuous disinfection from light.
In short, avoiding outbreaks and infection crises is all about smart prevention. Recalls are a reactionary solution to the problem. The key to preventing these potentially deadly (and costly) situations is to make sure that all facilities that process and handle food are continuously disinfected. The good news is that tech startups are at the helm of developing these new tools for killing germs before they even have a chance to have a seat at our tables.
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