Tag Archives: frontline workers

Jennifer van de Ligt, Food Protection and Defense Institute, University of Minnesota

Q&A: Pandemic Puts Worker Health & Safety, Leadership Skills and Business Adaptability at Forefront

By Maria Fontanazza
No Comments
Jennifer van de Ligt, Food Protection and Defense Institute, University of Minnesota

Issues with the health of frontline workers, supply chain disruptions, and changes in consumer behavior are just a few vulnerabilities that the food industry is experiencing as a result of COVID-19. Food Safety Tech recently had a conversation with Jennifer van de Ligt, Ph.D., director of the University of Minnesota Integrated Food Systems Leadership Program and Food Protection and Defense Institute about the hurdles that the industry is experiencing and where we go from here.

Food Safety Tech: What challenges is the food system facing in light of the COVID-19 pandemic? Where are the vulnerabilities?

Jennifer van de Ligt, Ph.D.: The food system is facing primary, secondary and tertiary challenges right now. I see two main drivers as disruptors as a result of COVID-19. The health and safety of employees is the first primary driver. As COVID-19 has more broadly spread through the U.S., ensuring the health and safety of employees in the food system has become essential; however, the pandemic has shown us the food system has struggled with that.

The other big primary challenge facing the food system has been the swift change in consumer behavior. Pre-COVID-19, nearly half of food was consumed away from home. When restaurants closed, and stay-at-home orders were in place, it put extreme amounts of pressure on our food retail segment, causing supply and demand issues.

Regarding the health and safety of employees: We’ve seen meat processing struggle with production demands because the health of their employees has been impacted by the virus. In mid-April, the beef and pork capacity in this country went down by over 40%. They are making great improvements and are approaching normal harvest capacity range for both [beef and pork production]. Meat cuts being produced are slightly different than normal, as this part of the meat plants are very labor intensive. This has really highlighted the need to make sure that we keep the health and safety of our food system employees front and center.

During the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series, Jennifer Van de Ligt will participate in a panel discussion on November 5 about Professional Development and Women in Food Safety | Register Now Now that the meat supply chain is beginning to recover, we’re also beginning to see increasing effects on non-meat supply manufacturing. This isn’t isolated to food manufacturing; as we experience broader community spread, COVID-19 will impact all aspects of our food system.

On consumer behavior: As consumers shifted to food retail, immense pressure was quickly put on our food supply chain logistics, manufacturing timing and processes, the speed to warehouses and delivery, etc.

One example that demonstrates a challenge in manufacturing and consumer demand is the difference in volumes for food services versus retail. I like to use the example of shredded cheese. At a grocery store, you’ll find a one-pound pack, but shredded cheese in food service might be in a 10-pound bag. There are not a lot of consumers who want to buy a 10-pound bag of shredded cheese. Well, why can’t cheese manufacturers just package bulk product into one-pound packs? There are several reasons that don’t allow producers to pivot quickly: They may not have the machinery or packaging to do that. Also, changing packaging from food service to retail requires different labels and regulatory approvals. Examples like this led to many of the spot outages consumers found in grocery stores. In the produce sector, it led to produce being plowed under in fields because they didn’t have the distribution channels to go into retail instead of into food service.

In the Integrated Food System Leadership (IFSL) program, we’ve recently discussed food equity and food injustice as a result of COVID-19. As food retail became stressed and unemployment increased, we saw a huge demand for our food assistance networks. Because food retail is one of the primary contributors to the food assistance networks, there wasn’t enough volume being donated. In addition, food service foods are not appropriately packaged to go into the food assistance networks and food banks, similar to the issue in moving to food retail. This led to tremendous pressure and innovative solutions to source and distribute food to a newly vulnerable population.

As we look ahead into the coming months, many of the vulnerabilities in the food system will be the same. We have to continuously monitor the health and safety of our employees to keep our food system as a whole functional. There’s a growing recognition that our primary agriculture workers are also at risk—the people in fields harvesting and planting. There are many groups providing recommendations on how to protect agriculture employees and communities where they work and reside.

We’ll see continued adaptation in the food system to the new reality of how restaurants and food service engage with their consumers with the shift in behavior to limited restaurant dining and increases in online ordering.

FST: In what areas do food manufacturers, processors or growers need to adapt moving forward in order to thrive?

Van de Ligt: There are several. First, I think this crisis has really brought worker health and welfare to the forefront, and there will be more emphasis on the essentiality of food system workers. They were previously a behind-the-scenes workforce. The issue of worker health and welfare is going to accelerate in many industries, but I also see a push to more automation. The human workforce is necessary, and people do a really wonderful job, but are there areas that might benefit from automation? I think those go hand in hand.

I also think the global food system needs to rethink how it remains resilient. In the past, there’s been a focus on resilience and efficiency through economy of scale. That still exists and may look different moving forward. Using the meat industry as an example, that economy of scale was also its biggest weakness that had gone unrecognized. Going forward, I think there are many companies that are going to consider alternative supply chains. Should multiple, smaller plants be utilized instead of one large plant to provide a more resilient framework for production? Other companies are going to think about installing equipment or processing lines that could more quickly pivot between food service and food retail. There’s also a huge opportunity now for local and smaller markets to really make an impact as people look for alternative supply chains and sources. We found that many of the local food markets and co-ops, especially those that provided into food service, pivoted pretty quickly to pop-up online marketplaces to provide food direct to consumer. I think we’ll see that trend increase as well.

In order to feed billions of people worldwide, it’s essential that the food industry take a broader systems approach versus the siloed approach path we’ve been using. The pandemic has highlighted how the food system is an intricately functioning balance and requires collaboration. Our food system will only be able to move forward faster with less disruption when we have food system leaders who understand the intricacies and the ripple effects of the challenges we face. Leaders who understand the impacts of decisions outside of their sphere will be essential to plan for impacts from natural disasters, another pandemic, etc.—and to create a more responsive and resilient food system in the future.

FST: Where does this leave folks who are either beginning or rising in their careers in food safety? Do you think the pandemic has changed food safety careers as they’ve historically functioned?

Van de Ligt: I like to say that ‘what got us here is not going to get us there.’ In general, if you think about where food safety careers have been in the past, the roles have been all about consistency, understanding regulations, making sure we do everything precisely right all of the time so we don’t have a food safety outbreak.

The focus on doing things precisely right all of the time will absolutely continue. What I think will shift is the need for food safety professionals to think more broadly than just the regulations that are required for compliance. Food safety professionals need to understand more about the system that is happening outside their facility; the impact of their work going backwards and forwards in the supply chain.

How things have worked historically in a food safety role has been having a consistent supplier network that provides the same type of product every time; you know what to expect, how to produce and distribute safe food for the customers you serve. In a situation like COVID-19, because of the disruptions from farm to fork, the suppliers you need to work with may be different and you need to quickly make decisions spontaneously as supply shifts. Having the knowledge and skills to navigate changes is essential to ensure the quality and safety of your product.

A highly technical focus that many professionals have when they start their career is often too narrow and won’t be enough for emerging food system leaders. Leadership skills are vital as well. In the IFSL program we teach food system professionals how to explore proactive viewpoints, not just managing people or responsibilities. Managers make sure things are done things correctly; leaders make sure we do the right thing. In order to learn how to do the right thing, we teach skills and tools on how to navigate uncertainty; practicing active listening, constructive feedback; and understanding the concerns of a supplier or customer are examples.

We emphasize and teach in the IFSL program that food system professionals and leaders need to be much more proactive. This means equipping them with the food system knowledge and leadership skills so they can predict and prepare for how decisions affect upstream and downstream. Having a broader viewpoint is critical to adaptivity, which will build resilience and help limit disruption.

Coronavirus, COVID-19

Meatpacking Workers Sue OSHA Over Hazardous Working Conditions During COVID-19 Pandemic

By Food Safety Tech Staff
No Comments
Coronavirus, COVID-19

View the complimentary webinar, “Instant Replay & Update: Is Your Plant COVID-19 Safe?”A lawsuit filed yesterday against OSHA alleges that the agency did not protect meat packing plant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Three workers from Pennsylvania-based Maid-Rite Specialty Foods are suing OSHA for putting workers in “imminent danger” as a result of hazardous working conditions, according to The Washington Post. The lawsuit stated that Maid-Rite did not:

  • Implement social distancing measures on the processing lines
  • Provide acceptable personal protective equipment
  • Address sick workers safely by not separating them
  • Tell all workers who may have been in close contact with sick workers

Maid Rite is also accused of incentivizing sick employees to report to work with bonuses.

Both OSHA and Maid Rite have not yet commented on the lawsuit as of yet.

For months, COVID-19 outbreaks at meat and poultry processing plants have been a problem, with more than 11,000 infections being reported.

During the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series, experts will address The Intersection of OSHA and Food Safety Personnel during the episode, COVID-19’s Impact on Food Safety Management. This session will occur on Thursday, November 12. Learn more.

Chris Keith, FlexXray
FST Soapbox

COVID-19: We’re In This Together

By Chris Keith
No Comments
Chris Keith, FlexXray

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on industries and individuals around the world. According to the World Health Organization, as of June 21, 2020, there have been 8,708,008 reported cases of COVID-19 globally, including 461,715 deaths. In a recent article by Forbes, healthcare contributor William Haseltine stated that we are gathering personal stories and statistics right now around COVID-19 survivors who have suffered permanent injuries from the virus. Many experts believe that COVID-19 is also an economic downturn trigger. Author and financial planner Liz Frazier says that even as recessions are a normal part of the U.S. economic cycle, lasting about five and a half years on average, the possibility of a recession starting due to the outbreak would be unprecedented.1 The COVID-19 pandemic is a natural disaster that rocked the world and is a reminder of how connected people are in a global economy.

As quarantine regulations and temporary closures happened across the United States, businesses had to mobilize quickly, pivoting their strategies, distribution efforts, products and beyond to accommodate the new safety measures and external pressures. The food and beverage industry was no different. Although food manufacturers were deemed essential in the United States by Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), manufacturers had to adapt to a new normal during the shutdown.2 Some of the biggest changes that occurred in the food manufacturing industry include fluctuating customers, prices, product and ingredient availability, packaging, distribution, and food quality and safety.

Shifting Demand, Customers and Food Pricing

Sharp changes in food prices and product availability shocked supply and demand and impacted the entire food supply chain across the United States. According to the USDA, there were record levels of demand for food at grocery stores, and, on the supply side, there has been a reduced supply of meat products over the period of quarantine as meatpacking plants faced temporary closures, decreased slaughter pace, and slower production due to COVID-19 regulations.3 Poultry prices took a sharp dip and have been rebounding, hot dog prices are at an all-time high due to increased demand, and beef prices have been climbing due to scarce supply and limited fresh production. Food pricing fluctuation is one of the largest food industry impacts felt directly by the general public and the on-premise sector. Restaurants and bars were crushed by the skyrocketing ingredient prices and mandatory temporary closures due to COVID-19.

As restaurants, school cafeterias and hotels were temporarily shut down due to quarantine restrictions, the food manufacturing industry’s most prominent customers practically disappeared. Before COVID-19, the USDA reported that in 2018, restaurants provided approximately 50% of meals consumed on a daily basis, up from 41% in 1984.4 When COVID-19 hit, consumer trends showed a monumental shift to eating at home. During the height of the pandemic, more people ordered take out from fast-casual dining places and ate from home. A recently published study reveals survey findings that suggest American’s food habits are shifting, as 54% of respondents confirmed they are cooking more, and 46% of respondents, baking more.5 As customers and demand changed, products and packaging had to follow suit.

Scores of manufacturing facilities had to rapidly respond with different products to meet changing consumer demand, despite already being in mid-production for products for restaurant kitchens, cafeterias, and the like. Most of these large-scale and wholesale products would never make it to their original, intended destinations. Manufacturers swiftly adapted their production, creating retail-ready goods from product made or intended for restaurant or fast food supply. These food production facilities had to creatively find ways to change product packaging sizes, salvaging good product with take-home cartons and containers. Some processors pre-sliced deli meat for grocery stores around the country, as markets were unable to slice the meat in-store, dealing with restrictions on the number of people who could work at any given time. The food manufacturing industry showed great ingenuity, repurposing food and getting creative in order to keep the country fed and bridge the gap in convenience shopping that consumers have grown used to.

New Distribution Pressures

There were also disruptions in the food industry’s distribution channel, and the logistics of distribution were adversely affected. Facilities faced increased pressure to have tighter production turnarounds from new consumer behavior and out-of-stock situations as many markets dealt with temporary panic shopping at the beginning of the crisis. Food manufacturing facilities have always faced tight deadlines when dealing with fresh and refrigerated product. However, COVID-19 introduced new critical, immediate needs to the food supply, and, more than ever before, facilities were pressed for time to deliver. Some facilities didn’t have enough dock loading time, and certain cold storage facilities could not meet the raised demands for dock times, making it harder to get product through the distribution channel to consumers. Shipping and logistics came at a premium. Drivers and logistics companies were at capacity with their service offerings, and unable to mobilize to meet the needs of every manufacturing company.

On top of the pressures from consumer demand, manufacturing facilities had to procure PPE (personal protective equipment) in mass for all employees and adjust employee schedules to meet new national and state-wide quarantine restrictions that strained the system. The PPE requirements are part of the distribution logistics, as plants are unable to distribute safe product without adhering to the system’s regulations. Senior Vice President of Regulatory and Environmental Affairs for the National Milk Producers Federation, Clay Detlefsen, said in an article for Food Shot Global that the whole food industry’s system has been turned on its head, as manufacturers are concerned that if they start running out of PPE and sanitation supplies, they would ultimately be forced into shutting down their food processing plants.6

Regulating Food Quality and Safety

Perhaps one of the biggest concerns surrounding the food supply chain during the height of COVID-19 for both producers and consumers was food safety. While safety and quality are always a high priority in the food industry, rising concern around the transmission of COVID-19 became a new and unprecedented challenge for food quality experts. In February the FDA declared that COVID-19 is unlikely to pass through food or food packaging, but that didn’t stop public concern.7 It was critical for food manufacturers and producers to ease public fear, keep the food supply stable and eliminate foreign material contamination that would adversely affect consumers and brand reputation. A mass recall due to foreign material contamination would have dire consequences for the strained food supply chain during this historic crisis. At the same time, the pandemic limited quality and food safety teams, as key teams had to work remotely, shift schedules had to drastically change to meet new safety regulations, production lines cut in half, and quality and safety teams had to make rushed decisions when it came to reworking product.

Some plants that faced potential foreign material contamination risked sending their product into distribution without a thorough rework, up against tight deadlines. And some plants adopted a multifaceted strategy and did something they’ve never done before: Reworked product on hold for potential foreign material contamination themselves. Many of these companies reworked product with their extra available lines, to keep as many of their workers as possible, despite the fact that food production employees are untrained in finding and extracting foreign contaminants. Inline detection machines are also typically limited to metal detection, often incapable of consistently catching many other types of contaminants such as glass, stones, plastic, bone, rubber, gasket material, container defects, product clumps, wood and other possible missing components. Food safety is of the utmost importance when a crisis hits as the food supply chain is crucial to our success as a nation and as an interconnected world. Facing new pressures on all sides, the food industry did not neglect food safety and quality, even while adopting new strategies. There was never a doubt that the industry would overcome the new challenges.

Looking Forward

The food industry has rapidly switched business strategies, swiftly turned around new products, found new ways to align product traceability and work remotely while still meeting industry standards and production expectations. Manufacturing facilities repackaged and repurposed food to keep the country fed, maintained job security for many employees and procured PPE in mass. The food industry is also full of manufacturers and plants that accomplished things they’ve never done before. There are shining examples of heroism in the food and beverage space as a growing list of food businesses, restaurants and delivery services have donated to healthcare workers on the front lines. Many large companies donated millions of dollars and pounds of food to feed their teams, their communities and the less fortunate.8 In the midst of a large obstacle, we have reached new heights and discovered new capabilities.

The challenges aren’t over. The food industry is still facing the effects of COVID-19 shutdowns on businesses even during this period of re-opening in different parts of the country. A lot of places and companies have been hit hard, some even closing their doors for good. Forbes reported at the onset of the pandemic that Smithfield Foods shut down one of its pork processing plants after hundreds of the plant’s 3,700 employees tested positive for coronavirus.8 Tyson Foods also shut down several meat processing plants under threat of the virus.8 Smithfield and Tyson were not the only ones. Food Dive has a compiled tracking system for coronavirus closures in food and beverage manufacturing facilities, recording reduced production, temporary closures, and permanent shutdowns across the industry. We expect some of the COVID-19 challenges to alleviate over time and hope that business will slowly return to normal and previously closed facilities will be able to re-open. However, we strongly hope some changes to the industry will remain: Creativity, ingenuity, resilience, adaptability, and a strong commitment to customers and partners. The bottom line is we’re in this together––together, we’re resilient.

References

  1. Frazier, L. (April 21, 2020). “How COVID-19 Is Leading The US Into A New Type Of Recession, And What It Means For Our Future.” Forbes.
  2. Krebs, C. (May 19, 2020). “Advisory Memorandum on Identification of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers During COVID-19 Response.” Homeland Security Digital Library.
  3.  Johansson, R. (May 28, 2020) “Another Look at Availability and Prices of Food Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic.” USDA.
  4. Stewart, H. (September 2011). “Food Away From Home.” The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Food Consumption and Policy. 646–666. Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199569441.013.0027
  5. The Shelby Report. (April 17, 2020). “New Study Reveals Covid-19 Impact On Americans’ Food Habits.”
  6. Caldwell, J. (April 16, 2020). “How Covid-19 is impacting various points in the US food & ag supply chain”. AgFunderNews.
  7. Hahn, M.D., S. (March 27, 2020). Coronavirus (COVID-19) Supply Chain Update. FDA.
  8. Biscotti, L. (April 17, 2020). “Food And Beverage Companies Evolve, Innovate And Contribute Amid COVID-19 Crisis.” Forbes.
FDA

FDA, USDA Reach MOU to Prevent Disruptions in FDA-Regulated Food Facilities

By Food Safety Tech Staff
No Comments
FDA

This week the USDA and FDA signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in an effort to prevent disruptions at FDA-regulated food facilities, including fruit and vegetable processing locations. The agencies are also trying to prepare for the peak harvesting seasons that involve freezing and canning fruits and vegetables. The MOU provides a process by which the agencies can determine the instances when USDA would exercise authorize under the Defense Production Act (DPA) related to food resource facilities that manufacture, process, pack or hold foods.

“While the FDA will continue to work with state and local regulators in a collaborative manner, further action under the DPA may be taken, should it be needed, to ensure the continuity of our food supply. As needed, the FDA will work in consultation with state, local, tribal and territorial regulatory and public health partners; industry or commodity sector; and other relevant stakeholders (e.g. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to chart a path toward resuming and/or maintaining operations while keeping employees safe,” stated FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas in an agency press release. “We are working with our federal partners who have the authority and expertise over worker safety to develop information on protecting worker health. We are also working with other federal partners to assist the food and agriculture industry in addressing shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), cloth face coverings, disinfectants and sanitation supplies.”

Top 10 Tips for Creating a Sustained Food Safety Culture

By Holly Mockus
5 Comments

After much anticipation, FDA has finally published the FSMA final rules. If you’ve had time to dig into the details, you most likely noted the new initiative that requires companies to measure food safety culture. The industry is also seeing SQF, BRC and other GFSI audit schemes ramping up discussions around measuring food safety culture. However, FDA and GFSI audits aside, how do you create a culture for sustained compliance with this initiative? Follow these 10 tips to ensure your food safety culture is constant and in line with the new requirements

Photo credit: Dennis Burnett for Alchemy Systems
Set clear expectations for employees across the board. Photo credit: Dennis Burnett for Alchemy Systems

1: Create a solid foundation of programs, procedures and policies

Have a preset annual schedule for review and update of all programs, procedures and policies. Don’t let the schedule slide because there are competing priorities. A small pebble is all it takes to start ripple effect in the company, making it difficult to recover.

2: Set clear expectations, driven from the top down

Everyone should follow the rules and guidelines—from visitors to the CEO to the plant manager to the hourly employee. A “no exceptions” policy will drive a culture that is sustainable and drive a “this-is-just-how-we-do-things” mindset.

3: Use record keeping to ensure that food safety culture is well documented and data-driven

Collect the data that is measureable and non-subjective to help drive continuous improvement. If you collect it, you must do something with it. Good documentation is imperative to proving you did what you said you were going to do, especially in the event of an audit. Be stringent in training, and review all documentation before it hits the file cabinet to ensure it is accurate and appropriate.

4: Implement a robust continuous improvement process

Forward momentum through a continuous improvement process cannot be achieved unless management nurtures the program. If you are not continuously improving, you are falling behind.

5: Have a 360-degree approach to employee engagement with 24/7 awareness and communication

Top-down communication is critical to highlighting the priorities and needs of an organization and will not be effective unless an organized program is in place. Organizations that are not making the necessary pivots to communicate with the multiple generations within their workplace today will struggle to sustain change.

6: Foster an atmosphere of mutual respect

Treat people as you would like to be treated, turn the other cheek, etc. There may be lots of adages you quote, but which one best describes your facility and the relationships with management and peers on a daily basis?

7: Be sure employees have consumer awareness for the products they produce

Do your employees know who the end consumer is of the product that they are producing every day?  Does your culture include a review of consumer complaints and customer complaints with your frontline workers?  Listening in to a call center is a very powerful way to help employees understand what affects consumers and how their job is critical to avoiding a food safety or quality issue.

8: Create accountability across the board

Hold folks who do not support the culture in which you are striving to develop or maintain accountable, regardless of their position or stature.

9: Provide positive reinforcement. It’s the best motivator

Work to catch people doing things right and make a big fuss when you do. Positive reinforcement for a job well done is the most powerful motivator. It helps keep every team member on board with food safety commitments.

10: Celebrate often

We spend too much time at work not to celebrate all the good things that are accomplished. Whether it’s a cake and recognition for those that served in the armed forces on Veterans Day or a successful launch of a new product—celebrations are a great way to recognize and reinforce your employees’ hard work. Identifying and correcting mistakes should also be celebrated; they are fertile ground for making changes and provide great nutrients for continuous improvement.