Tag Archives: retail

Mike Owen
Retail Food Safety Forum

The Changing Psychology of Grocery Shoppers

By Mike Owen
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Mike Owen

The grocery sector has always been the bedrock of traditional brick-and-mortar retail, and it is no surprise why. How many people have wanted to check first-hand the ripeness of a tomato or how fresh the lettuce looks? The up-front examination is everything.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a change in the psychology of grocery shoppers. Health guidelines that have encouraged lockdown and working from home have focused the mind of many people on health consciousness with a need to keep financial stability in the throes of unemployment or furlough. Purse strings are tightened, more home cooking and fewer luxuries mean there is no longer a need to buy specialty products when basic provisions can be met at home.

Home Is the HQ

Staying at home has meant larger purchase sizes, which has led to fewer trips to the supermarket, bigger basket/cart size when you get there and an increase in private label purchases. People have also become more conscious of what they are putting in their bodies.

Social distancing has made many consumers resort to online grocery shopping. As long as there is availability, at a right price and an efficient delivery time, consumers are prepared to forego their normal habits for the sake of convenience and time saving. There is also no denying the surge in online purchasing for groceries during the pandemic. Interestingly, the market has seen an exponential increase in conversion in the over-50 age group—a group that may have ordinarily resisted this activity.

Health Concerns Sway More People to Shop Online, Regardless of the Product

According to Accenture, there is expected to be a 160% increase in e-commerce purchases from new and low frequency users. The vast majority of consumers who have increased their use of digital and omnichannel services, such as home delivery, curb-side pickup or shopping via social media platforms, expect to sustain these activities into the future.

The Wunderman Thompson Future Shopper Report 2020 highlights that online shopping—and shopping on Amazon in particular—is a popular choice across most industry sectors (including health and pharmaceutical, entertainment and toys); 30% of those purchasing luxury products and 40% of those buying groceries would never buy these products online. But with lockdown measures still firmly in place for most countries, consumer resolve is likely to be tested, and loyalty to physical stores continues to wane.

Consumers are taking stock of their own concerns in terms of home cooking and shopping for local produce and the process for reducing food waste. They are also taking more time to decide what they will need for food or grocery items, and it is likely that many choices will be made before consumers enter the supermarket, as much of the research is done online for product information.

Research undertaken by Bazaarvoice revealed a 21% increase in online orders in March 2020 versus March 2019, with 41% of respondents stating that they were currently shopping online for things they would ordinarily shop for in-store. By April, they were spending more time and making more purchases online, which pushed groceries out of the number one essential category. This may have been due to people getting used to spending longer periods of time at home, moving past the essential necessity phase, and as a result, product shortages have eased, and different product categories are being prioritized.

Changing Expectations for Greater Online Grocery Shopping Experiences

Every generations’ lives and shopping behaviors are now intertwined with digital commerce. They are driven even more strongly by factors such as range, ease, speed and convenience. Online grocery shopping—both delivery and pickup—is cheaper, reducing the number of trips that keeps shoppers out of stores, where personnel are also at serious risk of infection.

And for retailers, inserting a row of fresh vegetables on websites such as Walmart Grocery or Amazon Fresh to the same grid style as they use to sell laptops or smartphone cases can look clinical and confusing to consumers. Food shoppers want to touch the tomatoes. Slicing the grocery store up into individual, pixelated goods doesn’t feel like grocery shopping anymore.

Relevant Accurate Product Information Is the Key

In an article in The Atlantic, Bryan Leach, CEO of shopping promotions company IBotta, predicts: “Shoppers won’t lose the ability to manipulate the avocados, pick something up on short notice, or just browse aimlessly for meal inspiration”. Retailers will have to up their game to provide improved customer experience in product presentation and selection.

Some online grocery retailers are already providing online menus and the ingredients to cook for specific meals. Internet-grocery fetchers might come to be seen more as the small shopkeepers of the turn of the century, or the community-supported agriculture services that deliver fresh, local goods or provide specialized groceries or services.

By serving optimal E-commerce sites that provide specialized product information either through chatbots, specialized product range and knowledgeable staff will further enhance the experience and value.

Some companies such as Fortuitas and Javelin Group are supporting retail brands to provide more accurate product information to their E-commerce websites with the help of product information management systems. The provision of consistent data in an omnichannel environment means that up-to-date product knowledge and availability can be accessible on an on-going basis leading to better trust and online sales.

While access to marketplaces such as Google, Amazon Fresh and Ocado continues to grow for grocery products during the pandemic, some marketplaces have defined the following tactics to keep customers engaged through the use of product information.

1. Prevent Panic Buying With Product Badging

Brands can bring more responsibility to the shopping process on marketplaces like Amazon, Google and online retailer web catalogues by using product information to discourage panic buying through the addition of social cues. These can have a big impact on how customers view brands and products. Through this product badging, where, for example, you limit the purchase of essential products per user, consumers can shop more responsibly and feel more in touch with the brand as a ‘caring’ provider.

2. Promote Stay at Home

Offer a unique opportunity to improve customer experiences by promoting product categories that are most popular at a given time. Stay at home and work from home lifestyles are presenting new and unique requirements for users. There is a need to create relevant product categories designed for work from home and promote them on your website.

3. Back-in-Stock Notifications/Recommendations for Similar Products

Creating a landing page with relevant recommendations for similar products that other users have purchased can serve as a way to improve customer experience on your website.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 has changed the grocery purchasing mentality for purchasers, and it is likely to develop further during the pandemic. It is whether many of these habits are likely to remain post-COVID? What is certain is that increasing accuracy of product information will be key to a continued growth for sales both online and in-store.

Sudip Saha, Future Market Insights
FST Soapbox

Five Trends Defining the Food Industry Post-COVID

By Sudip Saha
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Sudip Saha, Future Market Insights

Food retailers and the entire food and beverage (F&B) industry are now operating very differently than they did some six months ago. The pandemic has brought immense shifts in supply chains, imposed new hazard controls, and—perhaps most importantly—turned consumer preferences upside down.

To accommodate these changes, food manufacturers, retailers, restaurants and others stepped up to innovate and secure the continuity of their services. But now, as many industries begin to drop the notion of ever going back to what once was, it’s time we started thinking about how many of the newly introduced processes will stick around for the long-term.

What will be the main trends defining the food industry as a whole post-COVID?

Learn more about COVID-19 in the food industry, technology and food safety culture during the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series  | Episodes run every Thursday through December 17Adopted Habits Aren’t Going Anywhere

The pandemic brought radical changes to our everyday lives, and it’s clear that many of the newly adopted behaviors won’t disappear overnight. Consumers will continue to rely on grocery retailers to keep them both fed and healthy while expecting minimum disruptions and a high respect for safety regulations—both in terms of handling and the state of delivered products.

Take-home grocery sales grew by 17% between April and July, breaking the record for the fastest period of growth since 1994. Online grocery shopping also gained popularity while managing to engage entirely new demographics. Some 10% of baby boomers now say they would buy more groceries online once the pandemic is over—compared to 34% of Gen Xs and 40% of millennials.

Due to consumer hyper-awareness of safety and sanitation, the whole food industry will continue to be defined by safety practices. Sanitizing common surfaces like keyboards, door handles, tables and chairs regularly will remain the norm. Beyond “manual” rules such as the mandatory use of facemasks, requirements such as regular health checks could boost the adoption of technology across the industry—transforming not only customer-facing interactions but also the processes behind the curtain.

Technology as an Enabler

Every crisis sparks innovation, and the food industry has certainly proved this thesis. Technology has become the ultimate aide, enabling interactions that would otherwise be impossible. These include contactless ordering, payments and pickup—processes that are likely to stick around even beyond COVID-19.

At the same time, the pandemic accelerated the usage of innovations that previously struggled to become mainstream. This includes virtual tipping jars or mobile order-and-pay, such as the options introduced by fast-food giants including McDonald’s, Subway, KFC, and Burger King.

There’s an obvious appetite for F&B companies to further incorporate technology. For example, the Coca-Cola Company is rolling out a touchless fountain experience that can be used with a smartphone for contactless pouring. Heineken, on the other hand, turned to virtual tech to launch a new product—a cardboard topper for multipack beer that will eliminate plastic from millions of cans. With travel restrictions hindering the mobility of engineers, the company leveraged virtual technology to install the new machinery needed at its Manchester-based factory.

But it’s not just solitary innovations; the market has already seen new AI-based technologies that help food businesses better manage risk in their workforce. Food manufacturing, distribution and provision require many different touchpoints; by predicting, monitoring and testing the health and safety of the workers involved in these processes, companies can ensure they keep their operations running, even if another wave of COVID-19 hits. Solutions like these will be crucial when looking to add another layer of safety that goes beyond mandatory governmental regulations.

Food Safety Revamped

Even though COVID-19 is transmitted through airborne respiratory droplets, and the risk of contracting the virus through food is low, people around the world are concerned about the possibility. After all, 40% of people are more careful about washing unpackaged fruit and vegetables than before the pandemic.

The pandemic has already made societies rethink various established concepts, such as wet markets or the consumption of wild animals. The pandemic could, therefore, lead to changed behaviors, and newly imposed rules such as formalizing small and micro food enterprises, provisions for direct sales by farmers, leveraging technology to ensure safety, and investments in a more robust food infrastructure altogether.

Such changes could also irreversibly affect street food—a sector that is bound to feel the hit of COVID-19. Particularly in countries with diverse street food culture, one of the emerging trends will be the rise of gourmet street food brands that can provide both great taste and high hygiene standards.

Food Sustainability to the Forefront

2020 will be a year of reckoning for the world’s food systems. The pandemic exposed the flaws of the global food supply chain that continues to be highly centralized and operating on a just-in-time basis. This is why we have seen panic food runs, urgent supply shortages and high amounts of food waste as many businesses were shut down overnight. In developing countries, several agencies expect that a “hunger pandemic” and a doubling of people starving could happen unless serious action is taken.

As we rethink the underlying principles of the food industry such as safety and supply, other concepts such as transparency and visibility into product sourcing and manufacturing also come into the spotlight. Consumers across the globe are more likely to prioritize offerings that are healthy and locally sourced than they were before COVID-19.

Food produced with the overuse of chemicals in monoculture cropping systems and large-scale animal farming significantly impact the availability of natural resources and cause substantial greenhouse gas emissions. Added to that, practices like industrial animal farming that operate with large numbers of livestock in confined spaces are a breeding ground for viruses, and have been linked to prior outbreaks such as the outbreak of swine flu in 2009. They also enable the spread of antibiotic-resistant organisms due to the common overuse of antibiotics administered to prevent infections caused by cramped living conditions.

Consumers are increasingly aware of this: Nearly 25% of Americans are now eating more plant-based food. As we move forward, diverse food companies are likely to tap into this trend, resulting in great opportunities for plant-based, nutritious, local, and even healthy DIY meals and products. For example, an Australian food producer has recently announced the launch of a new proprietary product range that will offer the first vegan ready-to-drink protein shakes on the Australian market.

A New Way of Dining

The restaurant market has been one of the direct victims of the pandemic but has shown impressive elasticity in adapting to the new realities. Many businesses have introduced service extensions such as deliveries and take-outs, as well as pop-up grocery stores. Enjoying great popularity, some of these options will stick around far beyond the pandemic.

However, there’s a counterforce hindering significant expansion: The simple fact that many consumers discovered a new joy in cooking. A recent study notes that 54% of Americans are now cooking more than they were before the pandemic, with 35% saying that they “enjoy cooking more now than ever.” But at the same time, 33% of consumers say they’re getting more takeout than before the pandemic. This implies that the post-pandemic normal will likely see a shift toward eating at home more often, whether that means cooking or takeout and delivery.

Therefore, restaurants are likely to continue diversifying their services, experiment with food bundles and DIY meal kits, or even luxurious in-home chef visit experiences as an alternative to high-end restaurant dining.

The past crises have shown that economic uncertainty is directly linked to changes in demand for private-label and value brands. After the 2008 financial crisis, 60% of U.S. consumers were more interested in reasonably priced products with core features than in higher-priced, cutting-edge products. So while luxury dining is not completely disappearing, it could take on other aspects.

In Denmark, for example, a two-Michelin star restaurant is moving to serve burgers. In China, a country that many look to as the model for the post-COVID world, there has also been a clear push toward more affordable dining as well. Hot pot and barbecue venues have been thriving, particularly among customers in their 20s and 30s. Many fine dining restaurants, on the other hand, have started offering affordable lunch menus or have cut prices to correspond to the current value-conscious behaviors.

It’s clear that the future of food retail and the F&B industry will be significantly marked by the pandemic. Its prolonged nature will also cause the newly adopted habits to become further solidified—and many processes will adapt to match them. For example, while contactless deliveries were accelerated in the past months, businesses are working hard to make them as efficient as convenient as possible, making it unlikely that such investments would be erased overnight, once COVID-19 is no longer a threat.

Checklist

2020 FSC Episode 1 Wrap: Food Defense & Food Safety Culture Go Hand-in-Hand

By Maria Fontanazza
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Checklist

Yesterday marked the beginning of the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series. Episode 1 featured Food Defense Foundational Planning Elements: Strategies, Insights and Best Practices. Led by Jason Bashura, senior manager, global defense at PepsiCo, food defense experts from manufacturing, retail and the government shared different perspectives on the FSMA Intentional Adulteration rule; how to develop a food defense plan; the key role that food safety culture plays in food defense; education and training; and establishing awareness of and combating various threats to the food supply, including the insider threat.

Especially eye-opening was the information presented by Robert Norton, Ph.D. of Auburn University about the threats against the food supply (a “target-rich environment”) and the range of adversaries and their motivation for disrupting the food supply.

Speakers laid the foundational groundwork for the “deep dive” FSC Episode on Food Defense taking place on Thursday, November 12. If you haven’t registered yet for the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Conference Virtual Series, view the agenda and take action now.

Summer of 2020: Hot Topics Include FDA Inspections, Records Retention, and New Technology Era

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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10

Is Food-Grade always Food-Safe?

9

Important Restaurant Food Storage Safety Tips You Need to Know

8

How a History of Slow Technology Adoption Across Food Supply Chains Nearly Broke Us

7

FDA Unveils Blueprint for New Era of Smarter Food Safety

6

FDA, CDC Investigating Multistate Cyclospora Outbreak Involving Bagged Salads

5

COVID-19 Leads Food Companies and Meat Processors to Explore AI and Robotics, Emphasize Sanitation, and Work from Home

4

FDA Announces Inspections Will Resume…Sort Of

3

Sustainability Strategies for the Food Industry

2

Top Three Visibility Challenges in Today’s Food Supply Chain

1

The COVID-19 Record Retention Conundrum

Food Safety Consortium

2020 Food Safety Consortium Preview: Food Defense Foundational Planning

By Maria Fontanazza
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Food Safety Consortium

Tomorrow kicks of the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series. The episode features Food Defense foundational planning elements: Strategies, insights and best practices. The following are some highlights:

  • Food Defense Strategies and Best Practices with Jason Bashura (PepsiCo), Raquel Maymir (General Mills) and Clint Fairow (Archer Daniels Midland Co)
  • Food Defense in a Global Context with Robert Norton (Auburn University)
  • Spotlight on Retail: Food Defense Resources & Opportunities with Larry Lynch (National Restaurant Association) and Jennifer Pierquet (Association of Food & Drug Officials)
  • Food Defense Plans: Perspectives from a 3rd Party Auditor

You don’t want to miss this session! The event begins at 12 pm ET. Haven’t registered? Follow this link to the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series, which provides access to 14 episodes of critical industry insights from leading subject matter experts! We look forward to your joining us virtually.

Pratik Soni, Omnichain
Retail Food Safety Forum

Top Three Visibility Challenges in Today’s Food Supply Chain

By Pratik Soni
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Pratik Soni, Omnichain

To say that COVID-19 has been disruptive would be putting it mildly. The pandemic’s sudden and seismic impact has brought major upheaval across industries—the food industry and its supply chain included.

There was the initial panic buying that drove upticks in consumer demand for which few manufacturers and grocers were prepared, resulting in widespread product shortages. With restaurants closed, distributors and suppliers were left with considerable excess inventory—most of which ended up as waste and losses. Inside production sites and plants, many had to try and maintain their output with a reduced workforce, even as demand continued to climb. Meanwhile, some plants unfortunately have had to shut down operations on account of employees testing positive for COVID-19.

In the time since the outbreak, the food supply chain has stabilized to an extent. Store shelves are continuously being replenished with products. Restaurants have started reopening with new health and safety measures. Yet even as the industry takes gradual steps toward recovery, the underlying problem that led to the magnitude of COVID-19’s impact persists: Lack of visibility. There was lack of visibility into supply and demand and what was happening upstream and downstream across the supply chain, which prevented timely, proactive action to optimize operations in face of disruption.

Looking ahead, participants across the food supply chain will need enhanced end-to-end visibility so that they can work together to get ahead of the curve. As part of gaining this visibility, they will need the transparent exchange of information and cohesive collaboration to adapt especially as the food industry continues to see shifts in consumer behavior and the marketplace in the wake of COVID-19—particularly in the following three key areas.

Food Distribution

While food producers have been working tirelessly to keep grocery store shelves and restaurant kitchens well stocked, there continues to be fluctuating availability on certain products, such as eggs, dairy, poultry and meat. This has led distributors and suppliers to increase their prices when selling these goods to stores and restaurants, who have had to then pass the additional costs on to consumers through their own price increases and surcharges, respectively. One report from CoBank, a cooperative bank part of the Farm Credit System, notes there could be as much as a 20% increase in the price of pork and beef this year due to supply issues.1 Many grocers have also implemented purchase limitations on consumers to combat shortages.

These downstream implications stem largely to uncertainty in the supply chain, with stores and restaurants unsure about available supply upstream and when they can expect to receive shipments. But if there was clearer visibility and transparency between production, distribution, transportation, food service and retail, then all parties could better anticipate and plan for supply shortages or delays. For instance, if a meat processing plant has to temporarily close due to cases of COVID-19, they can immediately communicate to the rest of the supply chain so that parties downstream can readily find alternative sources and minimize any necessary price inflations or other implications to consumers.

Consumer Demand

Even with the reopening of restaurants, people will likely choose to cook more of their meals at home. It was a trend that began with restaurant closures and will continue for the foreseeable future as consumers remain cautious of dining out. While this may bring tough times ahead for the food service industry, the grocery sector is seeing a huge lift in business. Research from restaurant management platform Crunchtime shows that, towards the end of June, restaurants were only seeing 64.5% of their pre-COVID-19 sales levels.2 At the same time, a study by Brick Meets Click and Mercatus reveals U.S. online grocery sales reached a record $7.2 billion in June, up nearly 10% over May.3

For food companies and brands, growth in the grocery sector has presented a challenge in the way of demand planning and forecasting. I’ve personally spoken with several company executives who have seen significant upticks in orders from their grocery channel partners—an increase for which they didn’t forecast—and are now struggling to adjust production levels accordingly to avoid the risk of excess production that would lead to unnecessary costs, wastes and losses. In such instances, real-time visibility into transactional activity and stock levels at the retail level would help production planners improve the accuracy of their forecasts and enable them to think steps ahead before orders come in and thereby optimally balance supply with demand. Stores would remain well stocked and the supply chain could flow in a more efficient and profitable way for all participants.

Food Handling

Without question, public health is the number one priority right now. Participants at each point in the food supply chain today need to communicate with each other, as well as to consumers, that they’re following best practices for social distancing, disinfecting and other precautions. It’s not to prevent the possible transfer of the virus via actual products, as the FDA notes there is currently no evidence of transmission through food or packaging. But rather, it’s to build greater confidence in the food supply chain—that everyone is doing their part to support individual and collective health and safety, which in turn prevents possible facility closures or other case-related bottlenecks that would inhibit consistent supply to the market.

There also has to be confidence that, amid these countermeasures for COVID-19, companies are still upholding their commitments to food safety, integrity and proper handling. What can support that confidence is data—shared data from every point in a product’s journey from source to shelf. The data should be transparent and available to all supply chain participants as well as immutable so that it is tamperproof and fully traceable should there be any problem, such as mislabeling or a foodborne illness. The data ultimately holds everyone accountable for their role in ensuring a safe food supply chain.

To achieve the level of visibility outlined above, the food industry will have to break away from legacy processes involving the siloed management of operational systems and databases. Instead, the disruption seen during COVID-19 and ongoing shifts in the marketplace should encourage companies to consider digital transformation and technologies that can enable a more cohesive and nimble food supply chain. These are technologies like blockchain, which provides a decentralized, distributed ledger to publish and share data in real time. Moreover, artificial intelligence that can leverage incoming real-time data to guide next-best actions, even when the unexpected occurs. Personally, I always return to the notion that the supply chain is a team sport. You need visibility to know what each team member is doing on the field and how to align everyone on a gameplay. The digital solutions available today offer that visibility and insight, as well as the agility to pivot as needed to obstacles along the journey from source to shelf.

References

  1. Taylor, K. (May 6, 2020). “The American meat shortage is pushing prices to unprecedented heights — here’s how it could affect your grocery bill.” Business Insider.
  2. Maze, J. (July 7, 2020). “As the coronavirus resurges, restaurant sales start slowing again.” Restaurant Business.
  3. Perez, S. (July 6, 2020). “US online grocery sales hit record $7.2 billion in June.” TechCrunch.
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
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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.

FDA

FDA Unveils Blueprint for New Era of Smarter Food Safety

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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FDA

Today FDA released the New Era for Smarter Food Safety Blueprint. The much-anticipated document was originally scheduled for release in March but was delayed due to the agency’s response to COVID-19. Although the agency’s plan places a lot of focus on the use of new technology, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, M.D., stressed that it is also about enabling more effective methods and processes.

FDA’s Blueprint for the Future breaks down the four core elements of the plan:

  • Tech-Enabled Traceability. A lesson learned during the coronavirus pandemic was that there is a need for greater traceability and visibility in the supply chain. “One of the challenges we’ve faced over the years is recurring outbreaks of illnesses associated with the consumption of certain foods,” said Hahn. “What this daunting problem underscores is the critical importance of the FDA working with industry so that we can rapidly trace a contaminated food to its source. And when I say rapidly, I mean minutes, not days, weeks, or even longer.
  • Smarter Tools and Approaches for Prevention and Outbreak Response. Here, the FDA is emphasizing the “power of data”. “The plans embraced by the blueprint include strengthening our procedures and protocols for conducting the root cause analyses that can identify how a food became contaminated and inform our understanding of how to help prevent that from happening again,” said Hahn.
  • New Business Models and Retail Modernization. This element address food production and delivery, as well as food safety in restaurants and the retail setting.
  • Food Safety Culture. “The pandemic has given us a new perspective on what we mean by food safety culture,” said Hahn. He stated that beyond influencing human behavior, food safety culture must also address worker safety and consumer education.

View the New Era of Smarter Food Safety: FDA’s Blueprint for the Future.

Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

COVID-19 Led Many Dairy Farmers to Dump Milk

By Megan Ray Nichols
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Megan Nichols

Much of the news coverage surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic mentions infection numbers and fatalities. Those are undoubtedly important for showing parts of the overall impact. However, it’s easy to overlook the ramifications felt by some professionals. One recent example concerns the instances of dairy farmers dumping milk.

Numerous Factors Contributing to the Problem

The pandemic drastically and dramatically disrupted life. Many of the associated changes affected milk producers, but perhaps not in the ways people expect. As schools closed and restaurants operated on delivery or a takeaway-only basis, the demand for milk typically consumed in the food and educational sector went down.

Consider, too, that the pandemic forced the closure of enterprises that did not necessarily serve large quantities of milk every day but still likely placed ongoing orders with suppliers. For example, a daycare center might give toddlers boxes of dairy beverages each day during snack time. Coffee shops often add milk to their lattes or set out bottles for people who want to put some in their coffee.

When coronavirus cases emerged in the United States, many people panicked and flocked to grocery stores for essentials. Milk is often one of the staples people buy before winter storms hit, and they wanted it to prepare for the pandemic, too. One Target store in New Jersey sold out of its entire stock of milk in only five minutes. Stores responded by imposing per-person limits on the product.

If the demand exists, what caused the milk surplus? Part of it boils down to a lack of space at milk processing plants. A related issue is that processors typically serve particular markets. One might cater to retail buyers while another primarily addresses needs in the food service sector. They lack the infrastructure to pivot and begin accepting milk orders from a new type of customer, particularly if the milk-based product is substantially different, like sour cream versus ice cream.

A First-Time Phenomenon

Farmers discarding milk is not unheard of, but it’s not something many producers do regularly. Andrew Griffith, a professor at the University of Tennessee, said that some farmers had to do it recently for the first time in careers spanning decades. He explained, “It’s not that [dumping] hasn’t occurred from farm to farm.” Adverse weather conditions can delay pickups, and unexpected supply spoilages might lead to too much milk.

“But we’re talking about a level of dumping that is not common at all. There [are] a lot of farmers that are experiencing dumping milk for the first time in their 30- or 40-year careers,” Griffith said in an article published on The Counter.

The highly perishable nature of milk poses another problem contributing to the milk surplus. That aspect hit dairy harder than some other types of agricultural goods. People could put grain into silos, but storage is more complicated for dairy products.

Any exposure to higher-than-recommended temperatures causes spoilage. The subsequent risk to consumers means farmers must throw it away. Cold storage facilities are essential for the dairy industry. Statistics from 2018 indicated an average of 10.67 cents per kilowatt-hour for energy consumption at commercial facilities. However, cold storage facilities operate 24/7, so their energy needs are often higher than those of other commercial buildings.

Cows, dairy, farms
The coronavirus is only one of the challenges likely to impact the dairy industry in the coming months and years. Dairy consumption has been trending down for years. (Pexels image)

The delicate nature of the product is another unfortunate aspect that may lead to dumping milk. If a processor has no room to accept the raw goods, there’s nowhere for them to go. In April The Wall Street Journal reported that in one week, producers threw out as much as 7% of the milk in the United States from that period. The same story highlighted how a specialty cheese factory saw sales of its chèvre and ricotta drop by 95% in one day.

Coping With Dairy Industry Fluctuations

The coronavirus is only one of the challenges likely to impact the dairy industry in the coming months and years. A Statista chart profiles the progressive decline of milk consumption in the United States. The average amount of milk per person in 1975 totaled 247 pounds. It plunged to 149 pounds by 2017.

There’s also the issue of people showing a growing preference for plant-based milk alternatives. One industry analysis tracked sales of traditional and oat milk during mid-March. Purchases for the first category rose by 32%, while oat milk sales soared by 476%. A potential reason for that huge increase in the latter category is that supermarkets sell shelf-stable milk alternatives. Those often stay in date for months when unopened.

People can get them in the refrigerated section, too, but they may have preferred not to as they cut down their shopping trips due to COVID-19. Consumers also noticed the increasing number of milk-like beverages made from hemp, hazelnuts and other options. If a person tries one and doesn’t like it, they may try a different option.

Despite those challenges, some dairy farmers anticipated favorable trends—at least before the coronavirus hit. Producers get paid per 100 pounds of milk. Katie Dotterer-Pyle, owner of Cow Comfort Inn Dairy, said 2013 was a particularly good year for the rates. Back then, farmers received about $30 for every 100 pounds, although the price has stayed at approximately $17 per 100 over the past two years.

When Might the Milk Surplus Ease?

This coverage emphasizes the lack of a quick fix for the dairy industry strain. As restaurants reopen, that change should help address the problem, but it won’t solve it entirely. Some enterprises refocused their efforts to better meet current demands. One Dallas-based plant that handles dairy products more than halved its output of cardboard milk cartons and increased production of whole and 2% milk for the retail sector. It is now back to normal manufacturing runs.

As mentioned earlier, though, many processors can’t make such changes. Dumping milk becomes a heart-wrenching practice for hard-working producers. Many tried to compensate by selling their least-profitable cows for slaughter or making feeding changes to reduce the animals’ production. Some private entities committed to purchasing milk from farms and getting it to food banks. Other analysts say the government should step in to help.

People in the farming community support each other with tips and reassurance, but most know they could be in for a long struggle. As supply chains recovered from the initial shock of COVID-19, most people stopped panic buying, and stores no longer set product limits. Things are moving in the right direction, but the impacts remain present.

A Complicated Issue

Many state leaders have let businesses reopen, and others are following. Any step toward a new kind of normal is a positive one that should gradually help the dairy sector. However, much of what the future holds remains unknown, mainly since this is a new type of coronavirus, and scientists still have plenty to learn about mitigating it.

Mice, pests

Pests Don’t Rest During a Pandemic

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Mice, pests

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the closure of hundreds of restaurants, food processors and other businesses nationwide. As weeks went on, increased rodent activity plagued many businesses, some of which has been attributed to a change in food sources and availability—so much so that the CDC released a warning about rodent control in restaurants and other commercial businesses that have either been closed or have had limited service during the pandemic. “Environmental health and rodent control programs may see an increase in service requests related to rodents and reports of unusual or aggressive rodent behavior,” the CDC stated last month.

As the American economy reopens, many food establishments and facilities must consider three key points that will affect pest management during this time:

  • Pest pressure continues. Rodents are on a never-ending search for food, water and harborage.
  • Change in business patterns. Different inbound and outbound shipments; changes in employee shifts and production schedules; new supply chain partners.
  • Service provider access. Access to facilities and secure areas; changes in facility structure, equipment and storage

Factoring the many changes that COVID-19 has prompted, the role of pest management is more important than ever. We invite you to join us for Food Safety Tech’s upcoming complimentary virtual conference, “Integrated Pest Management: Protect Food Safety and Prevent the Spread of Pathogens”, on June 30. Our Technical Service Lead, Joe Barile, will discuss pest management and risk mitigation in the COVID-19 world; he will be followed by Orkin’s VP of Quality Assurance and Technical Services, Judy Black, on the key components to successful IPM and pest management programs, and Angela Anandappa, Ph.D. of the Alliance for Advanced Sanitation on how an effective sanitation program can protect against pest and food contamination. Register now.