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Laura Nelson, Alchemy

Changing Consumer Preferences and Employee Compliance Training Driving Industry Evolution

By Maria Fontanazza
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Laura Nelson, Alchemy

The food industry is undergoing considerable change, especially as consumers become increasingly more vocal about their preferences and concerns, and as technology improvement and adoption plays a larger role in the conversation. In a recent Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Laura Dunn Nelson, vice president of food safety at Alchemy, shares her thoughts about current industry trends and how they are impacting food companies, where more help is needed, as well as ways in which companies can help advance food safety culture internally.

Food Safety Tech: The food industry is rapidly evolving. What are some of the trends you’re seeing and are these posing different challenges to food manufacturers?

Laura Dunn Nelson: The food industry is rapidly evolving in three key areas: Who produces our food, the variety of our food, and how consumers access our food.

As consumers continue to shift their food preferences toward an increase in healthy ingredients, locally sourced products, and clean labels, companies in turn continue to innovate and reformulate. Mergers and acquisitions continue as larger companies look to partner with niche companies that are focused on products marketed to the health-conscious consumer. Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are expanding rapidly, reaching both vegans and meat eaters in the United States and expanding into international markets. Ever-changing consumer preferences create challenges for the industry to accelerate their research and development processes in order to remain competitive in the marketplace.

Changes in product formulas and increases in product lines create the need for new ingredient procurement, changes in production schedules, and new operating procedures. There has been a proliferation of start-up companies using CBD as an ingredient for food and beverages despite the lagging food safety regulations forcing some city and state regulators like New York City to create their own ban of CBD products. As the FDA explores future regulations, producers and consumers are left to determine the safety of these products.

Home delivery of food continues to be a hot trend as the market continues to grow for companies like UberEats, Grubhub, retailers and foodservice companies like Domino’s Pizza where you can Tweet your pizza order. The home delivery service area presents new considerations for food safety including monitoring appropriate product temperatures.

Finally, discussion around blockchain technology continues to gain prominence as companies work to develop transparency within their supply chain. For many companies, this will translate into a significant shift in technology adoption and a move away from disparate data sources and therefore an investment in not only the technology but in revising their procurement processes.

Laura Nelson, Alchemy
Laura Nelson is vice president of food safety at Alchemy and currently serves as the vice-chair of the Food Safety Culture Professional Development Group (PDG) for IAFP.

FST: What are the areas in which you feel companies need a bit more guidance?

Nelson: How we effectively train our employees to ensure learning and comprehension is paramount to our success in the future. IBM Institute for Business Value recently completed their study “The Enterprise Guide to Closing the Skills Gap,” and noted “120 million workers in the world’s biggest economies may need to be retrained as a result of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation in the workplace.” Reskilling will be the new norm as new technologies and automation of equipment disrupt the current state.

Deloitte noted that “reinventing the way people learn” was the number one trend in the 2019 Global Human Capital Trends Report. Many companies are focused almost exclusively on mandatory compliance training and conducting the training the same way they have for years. Typically, orientation food safety training is provided during the employee’s first week of work and annual refreshers are given every year. In the Global Food Safety Training Survey that Alchemy provides to the global industry with Campden BRI, we consistently find that 67% of responding QA managers report that employees do not follow their food safety programs, despite their food safety training. Unfortunately, the emphasis on food safety is often relegated to that one day a year of refresher training with little reinforcement the remaining 364 days of the year. The ‘noise’ of competing priorities of production and customer expectations often distracts employees from their food safety responsibilities.

Some companies still define training as classroom training when, in fact, employees are being trained each and every day by their supervisors and peers. Companies that put additional emphasis in not only their training but validation of training through observations of employees’ food safety behaviors achieve higher food safety compliance. The power of two-way conversations between the employee and the supervisor as a coach creates an environment of communication and trust.

Alchemy worked with independent researchers to determine the effect of active coaching with prescribed behavior feedback on the plant floor. The results were conclusive: every facility included in the study revealed a 38% improvement in aligned employee behaviors.

Ultimately, companies need to evaluate their current learning organization for effectiveness and focus on job competencies and their ongoing assessment of compliant employee behaviors.

FST: What maturity level are you seeing in the industry related to food safety culture and the related implementation of best practices?

Nelson: The food industry is still relatively new to the concept of a mature food safety culture, and even how to define that. The industry focus of this topic has largely been driven by efforts within the GFSI community, particularly with the publication of the position paper “A Culture of Food Safety.” Pioneers in food safety culture research, like Dr. Lone Jespersen, and emerging training assessment tools are working toward pushing these newer concepts to the mainstream of our industry.

As with many important constructs, the QA/QC team is typically tasked with introducing this concept to their organization, defining their company’s level of food safety culture maturity, and establishing a continuous improvement plan. This is a tough ask from individuals who typically have a technical education background with little experience in behavioral science. To address these challenges, there are a growing number of consultants, books, and resources to help define a company’s food safety culture maturity and establish improvement strategies.

To help frame the benefits of a mature culture, a recent publication by Lone Jespersen et al, “The Impact of Maturing Food Safety Culture and a Pathway to Economic Gain,” notes the value of a mature food safety culture in reducing the cost of poor quality and food safety risks. Research indicates that many companies are currently in mid-maturity of their food safety culture. Suggested best practices to help an organization mature their food safety culture include:

  1. Foster cross-company ownership of food safety.
  2. Move from compliance driven operations to risk reduction through continuous improvement.
  3. Improve engagement skills of technical staff.

The first step is an assessment to understand the company’s unique performance gaps, either through an internal review or an external assessment. Once the specific gaps are identified, companies can develop their food safety culture improvement plan and execute. It’s helpful to conduct a reassessment over time to ensure the established improvement strategies are successful.

The effort can be challenging but research confirms that a more mature food safety culture will deliver improved food safety performance of food safety behaviors, improved product quality, and a reduction in food safety risks.

Mahni Ghorashi, Clear Labs
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The Future of Food Safety: A Q&A with Mars, Inc.

By Mahni Ghorashi
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Mahni Ghorashi, Clear Labs

Food safety professionals often work behind-the-scenes, developing the systems and processes that keep our food supply free of harm. While a vital job, it’s often thankless work—recognition only comes when there’s a recall or an outbreak.

And yet, the food safety industry is evolving rapidly. New threats are emerging, new technologies are being deployed, and new regulations are causing changes in our fundamental infrastructure. “Good enough” pathogen detection is no longer good enough. As a result of new pressures, the food safety lab is emerging as one of the most promising centers of innovation in the entire supply chain. It’s time that the people who are driving this wave of innovation and change receive the positive recognition for their work that they deserve.

That’s why we’re starting this Q&A series—to hear the success stories, the best practices, the hurdles and the achievements from the best in the industry. We will dive deep with the experts into some of the biggest challenges and opportunities our industry faces, focused particularly on new technology that is advancing the industry by leaps and bounds—from blockchain to NGS to machine learning. As this series evolves, we hope that readers will be informed and inspired by what the future holds.

For our first interview, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bob Baker, corporate food safety science and capability director at Mars, Inc.. Bob leads the corporate food safety science strategy for Mars, Incorporated and provides leadership and consultation on food safety capability development and current and future challenges impacting global food security. Prior to his current role, Bob was responsible for the design, construction and leadership of the Mars Global Food Safety Center in Beijing, China.

Mahni Ghorashi: What are the biggest risks to our food safety infrastructure in 2018? What’s keeping you up at night?

Bob Baker: Food safety risks are increasing at an unprecedented rate, with new threats and hazards constantly emerging, changes in agricultural practices and food production, and the environment. The globalization of trade means that an issue in one part of the world often impacts the global supply chain.

To ensure safer food for all, the identification and isolation of potential and developing issues needs to happen at a much faster pace. At Mars, we believe industry has a crucial role to play in helping all stakeholders in the food supply chain identify risks and solutions, but no entity can do this alone. That’s why we have advocated for a new approach to food safety, one rooted in knowledge sharing and collaboration. That’s why we launched our Global Food Safety Center (GFSC) in 2015.

GFSC is conducting original research and collaborating in a number of areas that we see as critical—mycotoxin management, rapid detection and identification of pathogens, raw material and product authenticity, operational food safety optimization and transforming food safety through data integration.

Although we see improvements in some areas, some of them are becoming more complex. Mycotoxins are a prime example of that. Food fraud is another area of growing concern, and addressing that is going to take a focus on technology, regulation and enforcement and a number of other areas to deliver transparency, to verify sourcing, and ultimately ensure that customers and consumers are purchasing and consuming safe food.

Ghorashi: What are you most excited about? What’s changing in a good way in the food safety sector?

Baker: What’s encouraging is we’re seeing is a willingness to share information. At Mars we often bring together world experts from across the globe to focus on food safety challenges. We continue to see great levels of knowledge sharing and collaboration.

There are also new tools and new technologies being developed and applied. Something we’re excited about is a trial of portable ‘in-field’ DNA sequencing technology on one of our production lines in China. This is an approach that could, with automated sampling, reduce test times.

We’re also excited about the IBM-Mars Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain—early signs have been very encouraging. This is an approach that could change the nature of food safety management, taking us from testing for a specific pathogen, to a situation where we could map the entire makeup of an environment and predict food safety issues based on changes within that environment.

Ghorashi: If you take a look at the homepage of any of the food safety trade publications, all you see is recall after recall. Are transparency and technological advancement bringing more risks to light, and are things generally trending towards improvement?

Baker: At Mars, quality is our first principle and we take it seriously—if we believe that a recall needs to be made in order to ensure the safety of our consumers then we will do it. We also share lessons from recalls across our business to ensure that we learn from every experience.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a safe place for businesses to share such insights with each other. So although we are seeing more collaboration in the field of food safety generally, critical knowledge and experience from recalls is not being shared more broadly which may be having an impact.

Regarding the role of technological advancement, the hope is that as better tools and more advanced technology become available, it will be easier to pinpoint issues in the food supply chain much more effectively and much earlier than before which can only be a good thing.

Ghorashi: Do you see 2018 as the year when NGS technologies will find widespread adoption for food-safety testing applications? What can government and industry do to help accelerate adoption?

Baker: Next-generation sequencing has a lot of potential, but it may take time to be adopted fully.

We are very pleased to see the U.S. government continue to view food safety as a priority. The FDA and the CDC are already moving from single-cell cultures and single genes to mixed genomics and metagenomics. At Mars, we see metagenomics as the future of food safety because it may help identify sentinels of food safety and predict potential issues through microbiome shifts.

The key to the development and adoption of any successful technology is sharing knowledge so that all parties from the government, industry and NGOs can build on it. Early results from the IBM-Mars Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain have been encouraging and we are actively sharing these initial insights via publications and scientific forums.

Ghorashi: What are some new technology processes on the horizon for 2018, and where should industry and government be investing its time and resources?

Baker: Food safety challenges are increasing, and we need to collaborate and share insights if we are to ensure safe food.

One major area is informatics and how we can enable better application of data mining, more applied bioinformatics and statistics. How can key players –regulators, industry, NGOs—get together and share data? How do you better mine data to move to a predictive model? This is an area that could benefit from a more focused approach between government and industry.

Ghorashi: What is your #1 goal for the industry in 2018? Fewer recalls? New tech implementation? Better regulatory oversight?

Baker: We’d like to see progress in all of the above, and we will continue to work with a range of stakeholders to move the needle on food safety.

That said, the food safety challenges facing us all are complex and evolving. Water and environmental contaminants are areas that industry and regulators are also looking at, but all of these challenges will take time to address. It’s about capturing and ensuring visibility to the right insights and prioritizing key challenges that we can tackle together through collaboration and knowledge sharing.