Tag Archives: Supply Chain

Robert Galarza, TruTrace Technologies
FST Soapbox

Tracking an Outbreak: Creating a More Transparent Food Supply Chain with Blockchain

By Robert Galarza
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Robert Galarza, TruTrace Technologies

Despite what our parents told us, it’s not always healthy to eat our vegetables. In late 2020, 40 people contracted E. coli from leafy greens in the United States. By the time the outbreak was declared over, 20 victims had been hospitalized and four developed kidney failure. On top of the human cost, the food distribution businesses involved spent millions of dollars on public information as well as tracing the tainted vegetables and removing them from the market.

The USDA estimates that dealing with foodborne diseases cost $15.6 billion annually. Inefficient and painstaking guesswork is required with every incident, trying to find where the outbreak originated, and locate every shipment that may or may not have come into contact with that diseased strain which must then be recalled, as there’s no way to know for sure what has been affected. And by the time the original culprit is found, the malady may have spread so far that there is no choice but to recall and destroy tons of potentially wholesome products.

What if all this waste—not to mention dozens of infections—could be avoided? What if a foolproof, secure and constantly updating system could track the original tainted produce back to the farm it came from and confirm every employee, transport, and container it has been in contact with on the way? This technology exists today, ready to make food distribution not just safer but also more transparent, efficient and cost effective. It’s called blockchain.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with blockchain knows the technology was originally developed to track and safeguard cryptocurrency transactions. And while Bitcoin and its competitors definitely put the crypto in currency by being inscrutable to outsiders, it’s hard to call food supply chains a lot less complex. It is the vital importance of making that complexity accessible and understandable that makes blockchain the perfect way to futureproof distribution.

What Is Blockchain, Really?

Blockchain is a secure and decentralized ledger that tracks and records transactions. The keywords that indicate why this is an ideal solution for food supply businesses are “secure” and “decentralized.”

More than any other ledger system, blockchain is secure against tampering. Blockchain transactions can’t be altered or hidden, because every change is tracked and recorded and must be approved across the entire system. This system is also decentralized. Instead of one single ledger where a tiny mistake hidden on one obscure ledger could throw off an entire operation, blockchain distributes the whole ledger to all sources across a network, so anyone with the required permissions can see changes across the entire system in real time. When one person makes changes on their version of the ledger, all stakeholders across the network must confirm those changes, and the system remembers where and when they were made.

By distributing the records across different systems and always tracking changes, blockchain eliminates the guesswork and busywork of finding any individual item, when and how it was altered, and by whom. A simple search pinpoints any given item’s previous, current and future position in a supply chain. That search also reveals any other items with which it is shared space. Where once disease outbreaks meant painstaking searches and expensive purges of product, blockchain makes isolating infected produce easy and precise, saving capital and even lives, especially when time is a factor.

Transparency Is Time

When tracking products, blockchain’s unique advantages simply slice time off the process. By distributing its records, blockchain removes harmful lag between parties knowing when changes are made to a single master ledger. There is no need to wait for someone earlier on in the supply chain to update their documents, then for a central office to confirm and collate that update before the information can move further down the line. All stakeholders with the proper permissions can get a full view of inventory, finances, and concerns — all updated in real time the moment a change takes place.

Banks, suppliers, retailers and more can share immediate access to live changes in a system using blockchain. Keeping everyone updated becomes streamlined, tamper-proof and completely trustworthy. Suppliers and retailers can study trends in the ledger and see their partners taking out loans or expanding inventory space, allowing everyone to anticipate each others’ needs and react to crises like tainted produce much faster.

Everyone Knows Everything

In an emergency, the most important questions are often who knows what, where is the information that will lead to tracking down the problem, and more importantly, who has it? With blockchain, there’s no need to follow a trail of evidence in hopes of finding the original ledger where the problem appears, because the distributed network automatically upgrades universally across all systems.

Any mistake appears everywhere at once and can be caught by any number of parties, who are alerted in real time to every change. This creates redundant failsafes to prevent errors and catch problems. Not only are causes easier to track, but operational mistakes and execution errors are caught immediately. Partners can update schedules and adjust shipments, confident that everyone involved is automatically informed.

Way Beyond Bitcoin

Blockchain’s origins in cryptocurrency make it an ideal system for tracking and safeguarding transactional pipelines of all sorts, and this makes it uniquely suited to food supply chains. No other system seamlessly records countless transactions across multiple sources while keeping a clean record for all involved. This not only saves crucial time and money during a challenge like an E. coli outbreak, it smooths out longstanding problems in the food distribution industry by adding unprecedented access and redundancy.

Upon adopting this new technology, the food distribution industry will enter a new era of reliability and cooperation as tracking every product from farm to plate becomes the standard. Even without an outbreak to lock down, blockchain will improve every aspect of supply chain management, paving the way for a more efficient and collaborative industry. Our modern world relies on communication and authenticity, and blockchain can only make the truth clearer.

Bretty Gray, DNV

Ask the Expert: What Is Blockchain for the Food Supply Chain—Explained Simply

Bretty Gray, DNV

Why do we need traceability solutions for the supply chain?

Brett Gray: Supply chains changed from a linear model to more like ecosystems. Raw materials and ingredients are traveling from multiple sources multiple times, and you are no longer relying on a single supplier, but, rather, on a large number of suppliers and an entire new network of people, who enable you to accomplish the objectives for your business. These new ecosystems have made things more complex, and forced companies to change their business models, forming multiple relationships, thus storing data in multiple locations. As a result, consumer trust has shifted from known brands to products. With multiple sourcing of raw materials or ingredients by [previously] trusted producers, consumers want to know, how these ingredients were grown, transported and stored. Consumers are looking now at the labels, rather than logos. While consumers are asking for proofs of origin, quality, social responsibility and sustainability, brands are struggling to share about all efforts and investments made into specific products, as well as create engaging for this or that group of consumers touch points.

So, how is this technology – blockchain – appeared to be best suitable to fulfill the current market requirements for the proof of products origins for the end consumer?

Gray: Blockchain is a decentralized (no single ownership), distributed ledger-like digital structure that allows a community to record, share and maintain information. The documents are like IDs we know: A passport or a driving license, except these are for products. These documents are protected by encryption from being modified and irreversibly time stamped. Each document in the blockchain is connected to the previously produced one and the one produced after, so it forms a chain of blocked documents. Blockchain technology acts as a perfect trust generator for different types of businesses. The authenticity of data in it renders trust among stakeholders previously unknown to each other.

DNV GL started developing its My Story blockchain based solution about a decade ago, when this technology was not well known. Now it enables companies to prove that their “marketing buzzwords” are, in fact, true, verified statements. For companies seriously investing in sustainable processes and value chains, it enables sharing about these efforts directly with the end consumer, setting such companies apart from less serious, greenwashing players.

About Brett Gray

As the Digital Transformation Manager, I oversee all digital projects, strategy, and solution for the entire region of North America, with the intention of bringing technology stacks and other emerging technologies like blockchain, AR/VR, artificial intelligence and big data analytics to change the way we interact with and provide services to our customers.

Niels Andersen, ThinkIQ
FST Soapbox

Supply Chain Visibility and Transparency a Key Element of Change in 2021

By Niels Andersen
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Niels Andersen, ThinkIQ

It is safe to say that 2020 was a year unlike any other. The COVID-19 pandemic brought on significant changes to everyday life across the world. It also brought some significant challenges to businesses from retail, to restaurants and manufacturing. The supply chain industry faced a challenge like no other when shutdowns began and manufacturers were left scrambling to come up with a backup plan. Although these challenges were tough to handle, it gave the industry a much-needed eye opening to make the changes needed in order to avoid this from happening again.

The food manufacturing industry was hit particularly hard and required some intervention from the U.S. government. In order to protect food plant workers, the FDA and OSHA jointly issued a 16-page checklist for use by owners and operators of food production companies in mid-August. While it did not list any new regulations, it pulled existing guidance from the FDA, CDC, and OSHA. The main focus was on employee health and food safety. The main concern was offering guidance on how to deal with resuming operations, protecting healthy workers, as well as for dealing with sick employees and those exposed to them. One of the struggles we have is that the guidelines relate to how workers behave inside a plant.

These guidelines were just the tip of the iceberg as it forced the industry to take a deeper look into two main areas: Supply chain robustness, visibility and transparency, and traceability. Highly optimized modern supply chains depend on a high degree of predictability from all actors in the chain; they are lean in order to minimize costs and working capital.

Unfortunately, this optimization has made supply chains brittle—the models did not anticipate COVID-19 and the unexpected complexity that followed. Moving forward, manufacturers need to take a closer look at how this happened.

The traditional way to increase robustness in a supply chain is to increase inventory buffers so that any breakdowns can be smoothed out over time. Inventory buffers are expensive, tie up working capital, and increase risks, because a manufacturer may not be able to sell what they have in inventory. A more modern approach is to make supply chains more agile, so changes can be implemented quickly in case the unexpected happens. Agility requires visibility and transparency in order to understand what’s happening. The struggle in manufacturing is that agility must be combined with repeatability so that quality products can be created in a cost-effective way on a large scale. Repeatability also requires visibility and transparency. A famous quote from Lord Kelvin says, “you cannot improve what you cannot measure”. This rings as true today as it did more than 100 years ago. Another key element is repeatability to ensure that the manufacturing resources produce the requested production orders. This is why it is so important to provide transparency in what is going on in your supply chain to ensure processes are stable and repeatable.

The pandemic has brought a renewed focus for manufacturers in making sure they are becoming more transparent and agile within their supply chain processes. They are realizing thanks to this disruption that suppliers can’t always deliver and a backup plan is crucial to keep things moving. One option is to implement technology that helps track visibility and transparency to better assess what is needed and to offer alternative suppliers. Having supply chain transparency requires companies to know what is happening upstream in the supply chain and communicate this knowledge both internally and externally.

Automation Can Help with Supply Chain Visibility

Automation has wrongly been perceived as just a way to kill jobs. At the same time, the idea of “bringing manufacturing back to the United States” is less about bringing jobs back and more about adding value creation. For manufacturers to be effective today, they must automate. It’s not just about being efficient, it’s about enabling manufacturers to scale up with precision. Most importantly, it’s about survival. In order for manufacturers to survive, they need to automate. This is driving a much higher demand in sensors which play an essential role in automation.

Automation systems are unbiased, and don’t have bad day. This means manufacturers can operate with high levels of repeatability and precision. Without this level of automated precision, we would not be able to enjoy many of modern life’s necessities like the car you drive or the cell phone in your pocket.

Additionally, automation reduces errors, increases the efficiency of the labor, and results in higher output with lower labor costs. This helps manufacturers reduce waste, increase sustainability, lower their carbon footprint, and reduce their energy dependency.

2020 prompted many necessary changes to the food manufacturing industry and their interaction with suppliers. It is true that a crisis spurs innovation. The pandemic has forced manufacturers to think differently about how they are conducting business. One thing will be critical to move forward: The ability to have better visibility of your supply chain. Adding visibility, transparency and collaboration tools are going to bring on lasting changes that are to manage a disruption such as a future pandemic.

Stephen Dombroski, QAD
FST Soapbox

Food Insecurity Vs. Food Waste: Producers and Manufacturers Can Affect the Balance

By Stephen Dombroski
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Stephen Dombroski, QAD

As the population continues to grow and the effects of climate change, global warming, pollution and other factors impact humanity’s ability to grow and provide enough food for itself, the concern that the world could run out of food is increasing.. The COVID-19 pandemic has put more focus on how fragile the food supply chain is and how easy it is to disrupt the process of feeding the world. For years, it has been mostly a topic of discussion. But with so many disruptions, it is now an issue that needs to be acted on. Social groups, civic associations, government bodies and food manufacturers have taken notice of the problem and are attempting to get their hands around the issues. One of the key points in this discussion revolves around the amount of food and food sources that will be needed in the future. It always starts with the same question: “Will there be enough food?” Most people immediately say no. But is that 100% true? This is where the debate between food insecurity and food waste begins.

What is Food Insecurity?

According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, food insecurity is defined as “the disruption of food intake or eating patterns due to lack of money or other resources…Food insecurity does not necessarily cause hunger, but hunger is a possible outcome.” The debate about whether there is or isn’t enough food can get pretty contentious. There are many people in many countries that are “food insecure.” The problem in many cases, however, is due to affordability rather than availability. There are distinct issues and differences between availability and affordability. Go to any grocery store or purchasing venue in most developed countries and for the most part, the shelves are well stocked. The obvious conclusion is that there is enough food. However, can the entire population afford that food? Now, go to countries that are not as developed and you would be hard-pressed to find a grocery store that is as well stocked. Even if the population can afford to buy it, there simply is not enough food to buy. The difference between these two scenarios is where the debate begins. People talk about climate change making it challenging to produce enough food to meet the world’s needs, but store shelves in developed countries are full. All the while edible food is getting thrown away and destroyed in ridiculous amounts each day.

The world agrees that manufacturers, governments and consumers have a social responsibility to do their part to combat world hunger. Consumers are becoming more aware of food security and the threat that climate change poses. There are trends supporting sustainability in daily diets, with meals lower in environment impact and awareness of plate portions and food waste. Government agencies are working with manufacturers to resize portions and package sizes to align with scientific research on the necessary amount of food and nutrients needed in diets. Manufacturers and their customers (retail channels) are working more closely to create accurate and realistic “best by dates” to reduce the amount of food that is thrown out as “expired.”

World health organizations are increasing their focus as well. The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) is addressing hunger and emphasizing “food security.” WFP provides 15 billion meals to nearly 100 million people suffering from the effects of life-threatening hunger in over 80 countries. Manufacturers are expanding their participation in this area by increasing and improving donation programs, developing nutritional foods from new sources and incorporating limited perishability to make foods last longer and minimize food waste.

Wasted Food: An Understated and Complex Problem

If you think about it, the two largest consumers of food are garbage disposals and landfills. Both are well fed. Landfills receive both expired food that is not used and consumer food waste. Obviously, garbage disposals are used by consumers for cooked food that is not eaten or saved. I bring this up because it sparks the discussion of defining food waste. People use this term often and many times it is about food that consumers discard. But food waste has multiple categories and mirrors the supply chain. Food waste occurs at the following levels:

  • Growers/agricultural
  • Supplier
  • Primary producer/manufacturer
  • Distribution/transportation
  • Retail
  • Foodservice providers
  • The consumer

Approximately one-third of the total food produced globally—about 1.4 billion tons—is wasted. In addition to the loss of a great deal of edible food, there are other consequences to this waste. Food waste and food loss impact climate change, accounting for roughly 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Human behavior is a significant contributor to climate change. Luckily, habits can be changed through education, like encouraging composting or recycling. Portion control at restaurants and in the home can make us healthier and also help to reduce food waste. Another trend in recent years is the migration for many consumers to healthier eating. This typically consists of using and consuming fresh ingredients with less processing and chemical additives. These ingredients, however, typically have shorter shelf lives and end up contributing to the growing amount of food waste. Over the last 10 years, food manufacturers, suppliers and the greater agricultural community have focused on efforts to reduce food and other wastes that fall into the sustainability category such as energy, water, materials used in packaging, etc. Food producers have figured out ways to repurpose unused ingredients, by-products and waste. Many sell to farms to be converted to feed and fertilizer. Some is sold to pet and animal feed producers to convert into sellable products. It is actually quite a profitable business for many manufacturers.

Balancing Between Food Insecurity and Food Waste

Analyzing both concepts requires a balancing act. On one hand, you can argue that if you recoup 1.4 billion tons of wasted food, or let’s say, even half of it, we might eliminate the hunger problem. But then consider the issue of food costs. When people go shopping for food, an often-heard comment is, “I can’t believe how much this food costs.” You have said it, and I have too. However, I have spent a significant amount of time in food manufacturing facilities of almost every vertical segment and I have a hard time not saying, “I can’t believe this only costs this much.” The entire process from field to fork for most food items is extraordinarily complex and comes with a wide array of costs. Most food manufacturing businesses are meager margin. They turn a profit but most feel the social responsibility to provide quality food at reasonable prices.

The industry is making significant progress, however, and more can be done. With new technology including IoT, Industry 4.0 and Smart Agriculture, resources such as land, water and space are being utilized much more efficiently to increase supply. This reduces costs. Through the use of technology, farmers are growing healthier more sustainable crops that minimize waste. Food and beverage manufacturers are now using business systems and processes to better communicate with suppliers. Adaptive ERP and integrated business planning are simplifying the supply chain, helping to maximize shelf lives and minimize food waste. As we move into 2021 and beyond, technology and integrated business systems and processes throughout the entire food supply and value chain will help minimize food waste and hopefully reduce costs. This should bridge the gap between food insecurity and food waste.

Earl Arnold, AIB International
FST Soapbox

HACCP is the Past, Present and a Building Block for the Future

By Earl Arnold
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Earl Arnold, AIB International

“Food safety plan” is a term often used in the food industry to define an operation’s plan to prevent or reduce potential food safety issues that can lead to a serious adverse health consequence or death to humans and animals to an acceptable level. However, depending on the facility, their customers, and or regulatory requirements, the definition and specific requirements for food safety plans can be very different. To ensure food safety, it’s important that the industry finds consensus in a plan that is vetted and has worked for decades.

One of the first true food safety plans was HACCP. Developed in 1959 for NASA with the assistance of the food industry, its goal was to ensure food produced for astronauts was safe and would not create illness or injury while they were in space. This type of food safety plan requires twelve steps, the first five of which are considered the preliminary tasks.

  1. Assemble a HACCP team
  2. Describe the finished product
  3. Define intended use and consumer
  4. Create process and flow diagram
  5. Verify process and flow diagrams

This is followed by the seven principles of HACCP.

  1. Conduct the hazard analysis
  2. Identify critical control points
  3. Establish critical limits
  4. Establish monitoring requirements
  5. Establish corrective actions for deviations
  6. Procedures for verification of the HACCP plan
  7. Record keeping documenting the HACCP system

HACCP is accompanied by several prerequisites that support the food safety plan, which can include a chemical control program, glass and brittle plastics program, Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), allergen control program, and many others. With these requirements and support, HACCP is the most utilized form of a food safety plan in the world.

When conducting the hazard analysis (the first principle of HACCP), facilities are required to assess all products and processing steps to identify known or potential biological, chemical and physical hazards. Once identified, if it is determined that the hazard has a likelihood of occurring and the severity of the hazard would be great, then facilities are required to implement Critical Control Points (CCP) to eliminate or significantly reduce that identified hazard. Once a CCP is implemented, it must be monitored, corrective actions developed if a deviation in the CCP is identified and each of these are required to be verified. Records then also need to be maintained to demonstrate the plan is being followed and that food safety issues are minimized and controlled.

HACCP is, for the most part, the standard food safety plan used to meet the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) standards. This is utilized in various third-party audit and customer requirements such as FSSC 22000, SQF, BRC, IFS and others. These audit standards that many facilities use and comply with also require the development of a food safety management system, which includes a food safety plan.

Further, HACCP is often used to demonstrate that potential food safety issues are identified and addressed. FDA has adopted and requires a regulated HACCP plan for both 100% juice and seafood processing facilities. USDA also requires the regulated development of HACCP for meat processing and other types of facilities to minimize potential food safety issues.

For facilities required to register with the FDA—unless that facility is exempt or required to comply with regulated HACCP—there is a new type of food safety plan that is required. This type of plan builds upon HACCP principles and its steps but goes beyond what HACCP requires. Under 21 CFR 117, specific additions assist in identifying and controlling additional food safety hazards that are on the rise. This includes undeclared allergen recalls, which constituted 47% of recalls in the last reportable food registry report published by FDA.

Prior to developing this plan, FDA provided recommendations for preliminary steps that can be completed and are essential in development of a robust food safety plan but are not a regulatory requirement. The steps are very similar to the preliminary tasks required by HACCP, including the following:

  1. Assemble a food safety team
  2. Describe the product and its distribution
  3. Describe the intended use and consumers of the food
  4. Develop a flow diagram and describe the process
  5. Verify the flow diagram on-site

Their recommended plan also requires a number of additional steps, including:

  1. A written hazard analysis. Conducted by or overseen by a Preventive Controls Qualified Individual (PCQI). However, this hazard analysis requires assessing for any known or reasonably foreseeable biological, chemical, physical, radiological, or economically motivated adulteration (food fraud that historically leads to a food safety issue only). You may note that two additional hazards—radiological and EMA—have been added to what HACCP calls for in the assessment.
  2. Written preventive controls if significant hazards are identified. However, similar preventive controls are different than a CCP. There are potentially four types of preventive controls that may be utilized for potential hazards, including Process Preventive Controls (the same as CCP), Allergen Preventive Controls, Sanitation Preventive Controls, Supply Chain Preventive Controls and Others if identified.
  3. A written supply chain program if a Supply Chain Preventive Control is identified. This includes having an approved supplier program and verification process for that program.
  4. A written recall plan if a facility identified a Preventive Control.
  5. Written monitoring procedures for any identified Preventive Control that includes the frequency of the monitoring what is required to do and documenting that monitoring event.
  6. Written corrective actions for identified Preventive Controls in case of deviations during monitoring. Corrective actions must be documented if they occur.
  7. Written verification procedures as required. This could include how monitoring and corrective actions are verified, procedures themselves are verified, and calibration of equipment as required. Also required is training, including a Preventive Control Qualified Individual. Additional training is required for those individuals responsible for performing monitoring, implementing corrective actions, and verification of Preventive Controls. Further, all personnel need to have basic food safety training and all training needs to be documented.

While the term “food safety plan” is used widely, it’s important that operations don’t just use the term, but enact a plan that is vetted, proven to work, and encompasses the principles of HACCP. Doing so will help ensure that their facility is producing foods that customers and consumers will know is safe.

Karen Everstine, Decernis
Food Fraud Quick Bites

Food Authenticity: 2020 in Review

By Karen Everstine, Ph.D.
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Karen Everstine, Decernis

It is fair to say that 2020 was a challenging year with wide-ranging effects, including significant effects on our ongoing efforts to ensure food integrity and prevent fraud in the food system. COVID-19 caused major supply chain disruptions for foods and many other consumer products. It also highlighted challenges in effective tracking and standardization of food fraud-related data.

Let’s take a look at some of the notable food fraud occurrences in 2020:

  • Organic Products. The Spanish Guardia Civil investigated an organized crime group that sold pistachios with pesticide residues that were fraudulently labeled as organic, reportedly yielding €6 million in profit. USDA reported fraudulent organic certificates for products including winter squash, leafy greens, collagen peptides powder, blackberries, and avocados. Counterfeit wines with fraudulent DOG, PGI, and organic labels were discovered in Italy.
  • Herbs and Spices. Quite a few reports came out of India and Pakistan about adulteration and fraud in the local spice market. One of the most egregious involved the use of animal dung along with various other substances in the production of fraudulent chili powder, coriander powder, turmeric powder, and garam masala spice mix. Greece issued a notification for a turmeric recall following the detection of lead, chromium, and mercury in a sample of the product. Belgium recalled chili pepper for containing an “unauthorized coloring agent.” Reports of research conducted at Queen’s University Belfast also indicated that 25% of sage samples purchased from e-commerce or independent channels in the U.K. were adulterated with other leafy material.
  • Dairy Products. India and Pakistan have also reported quite a few incidents of fraud in local markets involving dairy products. These have included reports of counterfeit ghee and fraudulent ghee manufactured with animal fats as well as milk adulterated with a variety of fraudulent substances. The Czech Republic issued a report about Edam cheese that contained vegetable fat instead of milk fat.
  • Honey. Greece issued multiple alerts for honey containing sugar syrups and, in one case, caramel colors. Turkey reported a surveillance test that identified foreign sugars in honeycomb.
  • Meat and Fish. This European report concluded that the vulnerability to fraud in animal production networks was particularly high during to the COVID-19 pandemic due to the “most widely spread effects in terms of production, logistics, and demand.” Thousands of pounds of seafood were destroyed in Cambodia because they contained a gelatin-like substance. Fraudulent USDA marks of inspection were discovered on chicken imported to the United States from China. Soy protein far exceeding levels that could be expected from cross contamination were identified in sausage in the Czech Republic. In Colombia, a supplier of food for school children was accused of selling donkey and horse meat as beef. Decades of fraud involving halal beef was recently reported in in Malaysia.
  • Alcoholic Beverages. To date, our system has captured more than 30 separate incidents of fraud involving wine or other alcoholic beverages in 2020. Many of these involved illegally produced products, some of which contained toxic substances such as methanol. There were also multiple reports of counterfeit wines and whisky. Wines were also adulterated with sugar, flavors, colors and water.

We have currently captured about 70% of the number of incidents for 2020 as compared to 2019, although there are always lags in reporting and data capture, so we expect that number to rise over the coming weeks. These numbers do not appear to bear out predictions about the higher risk of food fraud cited by many groups resulting from the effects of COVID-19. This is likely due in part to reduced surveillance and reporting due to the effects of COVID lockdowns on regulatory and auditing programs. However, as noted in a recent article, we should take seriously food fraud reports that occur against this “backdrop of reduced regulatory oversight during the COVID-19 pandemic.” If public reports are just the tip of the iceburg, 2020 numbers that are close to those reported in 2019 may indeed indicate that the iceburg is actually larger.

Unfortunately, tracking food fraud reports and inferring trends is a difficult task. There is currently no globally standardized system for collection and reporting information on food fraud occurrences, or even standardized definitions for food fraud and the ways in which it happens. Media reports of fraud are challenging to verify and there can be many media reports related to one individual incident, which complicates tracking (especially by automated systems). Reports from official sources are not without their own challenges. Government agencies have varying priorities for their surveillance and testing programs, and these priorities have a direct effect on the data that is reported. Therefore, increases in reports for a particular commodity do not necessarily indicate a trend, they may just reflect an ongoing regulatory priority a particular country. Official sources are also not standardized with respect to how they report food safety or fraud incidents. Two RASFF notifications in 2008 following the discovery of melamine adulteration in milk illustrate this point (see Figure 1). In the first notification for a “milk drink” product, the hazard category was listed as “adulteration/fraud.” However, in the second notification for “chocolate and strawberry flavor body pen sets,” the hazard category was listed as “industrial contaminants,” even though the analytical result was higher.1

RASFF

RASFF, melamine detection
Figure 1. RASFF notifications for the detection of melamine in two products.1

What does all of this mean for ensuring food authenticity into 2021? We need to continue efforts to align terminology, track food fraud risk data, and ensure transparency and evaluation of the data that is reported. Alignment and standardization of food fraud reporting would go a long way to improving our understanding of how much food fraud occurs and where. Renewed efforts by global authorities to strengthen food authenticity protections are important. Finally, consumers and industry must continue to demand and ensure authenticity in our food supply. While most food fraud may not have immediate health consequences for consumers, reduced controls can lead to systemic problems and have devastating effects.

Reference

  1. Everstine, K., Popping, B., and Gendel, S.M. (2021). Food fraud mitigation: strategic approaches and tools. In R.S. Hellberg, K. Everstine, & S. Sklare (Eds.) Food Fraud – A Global Threat With Public Health and Economic Consequences (pp. 23-44). Elsevier. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-817242-1.00015-4
Steven Blonder, Much Law
FST Soapbox

Food Litigation Trends Lay the Foundation for an Industry-Defining 2021

By Steven Blonder
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Steven Blonder, Much Law

The year 2020 brought with it continued court filings within the food safety litigation space, and it should come as no surprise the pandemic presented its own set of unique challenges. We’ve seen disruptions to the food and beverage supply chain, noteworthy changes with recalls, and continued developments in litigation specific to product labeling. These challenges have impacted everyone involved in the industry and laid the groundwork for what’s to come in 2021.

The most notable impact the food industry has faced as a result of the pandemic has been the massive disruption of the food supply chain. Grocers and other retail food providers have seen an immense spike in demand, whereas foodservice locations, such as restaurants, universities, and hotels, have seen the exact opposite. This disruption to the supply chain has required regulatory agencies to take notice and implement temporary policies to support these businesses and consumers alike. Employees across the food industry supply chain, including agriculture and food processing, have further been classified as essential, leading federal agencies to issue guidance to these employers to help them assess COVID-19 control plans and protect their employee’s health. Further, safety concerns and bumps in unemployment compensation have imposed additional strains on worker retention and attendance.

Another interesting facet of the pandemic’s impact on the industry has been its influence in the product recall space. Believe it or not, companies have strayed from pulling their products off the shelf even if it subjects them to potential liability. Why is this? Because as mentioned earlier, the demand for food in the retail space has increased so much, it has become a necessary choice to avoid food shortages across the United States. Don’t worry, if a product possesses a health or safety threat, companies are still recalling those to protect consumers and address safety concerns, but voluntary non-health or safety related recalls may have become a thing of the past. For example, rather than recall a box of cereal or other dry good for not meeting a fill-line requirement, providers may elect to risk a false-advertising lawsuit to meet the recent shift in retail food demand.

Since 2012, there have been more than 200 class action lawsuits filed related to the labeling on food products. This past year, we observed a continuation of this trend. Class action lawsuits were filed addressing the authenticity of “all-natural” products or claims based on the “origin” of a product, while we witnessed a sharp decline in slack-fill lawsuits. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the ingredients in food products and are continuing to demand transparency from companies to disclose how their products are made. There has been a particular increase in claims related to the definition of vanilla—is it pure? Is it natural? The same goes for citric acid, a product that can be made naturally or synthetically. There has been continued debate within the industry about citric acid in its use within other products where some citric acid is naturally occurring either from citrus fruit, tomatoes or other fruits with citric acid. If all-natural citric acid is added into tomato paste to help with the taste, can the tomato paste still be classified as being all-natural, even if the use of citric acid is displayed on the label?

To help combat the discrepancies around all-natural products, the USDA is currently working on developing an official definition of “all-natural,” which upon its completion is anticipated to have a major impact on the labeling industry and the number of false-advertising class actions. This definitional development comes at a crucial time especially as plant-based protein continues to rise in popularity.

The next wave of claims are being filed related to plant-based protein products. These claims include trademark and First Amendment issues. For example, when is a burger, a burger? Everyone assumes a burger means a hamburger, traditionally deriving from beef, and there has been an increase in debate around when the sale of plant-based products infringe on the rights of ranchers selling traditional beef products. Can food created in a petri-dish claim the same title as products created through traditional harvesting methods? What about other genetically modified products? These issues will likely spawn additional litigation in the coming year.

Looking ahead towards 2021, we can fully anticipate cases addressing food labeling issues to continue. Historically many of these claims were filed in Northern California with one federal court there earning the moniker of the “Food Court”. Recent years have seen increased filings in New York and Illinois, but the coming year may see a decrease in cases filed in New York as a result of recent court decisions relating to pre-emption and a recent opinion of a federal appellate court disallowing the settlement of class claims on an injunction-only basis. California may also see changes in their total cases as food producers curtail product sales in California to avoid the ambit of Prop 65.1

2021 will continue to bear witness to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The supply chain will continue to adjust to the varying demands of the public as they navigate safety regulations, and companies will maintain an “only-recall-if-absolutely-necessary” mindset. Many of the adjustments that businesses, consumers and regulators have had to make in light of the pandemic may also lead to long-term or permanent shifts. In fact, the Consumer Brands Association has identified a few select areas ready for change, such as the maintenance of flexibility in food labeling to ease the transfer process of products between foodservice and food retail providers. We just might find 2021 to be one of the most industry-defining years in the food safety litigation space.

Reference

  1. California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. (n.d.). Proposition 65. Accessed December 17, 2020. Retrieved from https://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65
Maria Fontanazza, Food Safety Tech
From the Editor’s Desk

Top 10 from the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series

By Maria Fontanazza
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Maria Fontanazza, Food Safety Tech

2020 has taken a lot away from us, but it has also taught us the importance of being able to quickly adapt (can you say…“pivot”?) to rapidly changing, dire circumstances. For Food Safety Tech, that meant shifting our in-person annual Food Safety Consortium to a virtual event. I really look forward to the Consortium each year, because we are a virtual company, and this is the one time of year that most of the Food Safety Tech and Innovative Publishing Company team are together. When we made the decision to move the event online, we really wanted to be considerate of our attendees, who more than likely were quickly developing webinar and Zoom fatigue. So we created a series of 14 Episodes that spanned from September until last week. I am not going to single out one episode or speaker/session in particular, because I think that all of our speakers and sponsors brought a tremendous amount of education to the food safety community. Thank you.

With that, the following are my top 10 takeaways from the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series—and this simply scratches the surface. Feel free to leave a comment on what you learned from our speakers and the discussions this fall.

  1. COVID-19 has served as the springboard for digital transformation, more of which we have seen in the past nine months than in the last several years or even decade. Tech advances are increasing efficiencies, adding the ability to be more predictive, giving more visibility and traceability in the supply chain and offering increased accessibility. These include: IoT; Advanced analytics; Artificial intelligence (FDA has been piloting AI technology); Graph technology used in supply chain visibility; blockchain; mixed reality; and remote monitoring.
  2. There are new responsibilities that come with being a part of America’s critical infrastructure and protecting essential frontline workers.
    • Companies must have a strong relationship (or work to build one) with local health departments and authorities
    • Name a COVID Czar at your company: This is a designated person, located both within a production facility as well as at the corporate location, who manages the bulk of the requirements and precautions that companies should be undertaking to address the pandemic.
  3. Every company should have an emergency risk management plan that centers around good communication.
  4. The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder to us that the threat for viruses is always lurking beneath the surface. There is still work to be done on the food labs side regarding more rapid assays, leveling the playing field regarding conducting viral testing, and technology that enables labs to get safe, effective and consistent results.
  5. Lessons in sanitation: Investment in sanitation is critical, there are no shortcuts, and empower your sanitation employees, give them the tools they need to effectively do their jobs.
  6. The FDA’s FSMA Proposed Traceability rule is expected to be a “game changer”. It will lay the foundation for meaningful harmonization. FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas said the pandemic really put a spotlight on the fact that the U.S. food industry needs better tracking and tracing.
  7. Know your suppliers, know your suppliers, know your suppliers!
  8. Biofilms are ubiquitous, and the process of detecting and eliminating Listeria in your facility is a marathon with no finish line.
  9. Food Safety Culture is a profit center, not an overhead department.
  10. “If I’m not well, I can’t do well.” Making sure your needs are met personally and professionally plays an important role in being a better contributor to your company’s success.

As part of a special offering, we are making four episodes of the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series available on demand for free. Head to our Events & Webinars page to register to view the sessions on or after January 2021.

Are Traasdahl, Crisp
Retail Food Safety Forum

Is Programmatic Commerce the Next Wave in Supply Chain Tech?

By Are Traasdahl
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Are Traasdahl, Crisp

While COVID-19 exposed disconnects in the food supply chain, it also served as an overdue catalyst for rapid technology adoption. Food manufacturers, distributors and retailers were forced to grapple with consumer behaviors that—previously expected to occur over five years— changed within about five weeks. Faced with unprecedented demand, channel shifts and rapidly changing consumer purchasing behaviors, forward-looking brands and retailers have started to transform their business models to become highly responsive and agile.

A new approach called “programmatic commerce” may be the key to faster market insights and pivots. Taking cues from past attempts to digitize the supply chain from end-to-end, programmatic commerce uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to connect and unify critical business data across food manufacturers, distributors and retailers using common retail portals, BI and CRM tools as well as other data resources and platforms.

With a real-time unified view of channels and activity, programmatic commerce has the potential to create fully automated trade processes to optimize production, inventory management, logistics, promotions and more for both upstream and downstream supply chain activities.

To achieve the potential of programmatic commerce, real-time or near real-time data sources must be easily integrated, unified and displayed. This is in stark contrast to previous attempts to create end-to-end supply chain visibility, which often required custom or manual integrations, had costly and lengthy implementation requirements and necessitated custom reporting.

The programmatic approach is already gaining traction, enabling retailers to leverage AI and ML technology to optimize supply chains. But the real value is in taking it one step further—to tap into rich customer data, understand rapidly changing consumer behaviors and ultimately—to predict and personalize shopping experiences at scale.

Tracking and Adapting to Evolving Consumer Journeys

Consumers increasingly demand greater choice, control, personalization and transparency and companies must continuously create, track and manage a 360º view of customers’ shopping journeys to stay ahead of these trends. Fortunately, real-time data and analytical capabilities are available to supply the critical information they need to implement a programmatic commerce approach.

Among the shifts companies must track as a result of COVID-19 is the explosion in online grocery shopping. In November 2020, U.S. grocery delivery and pickup sales totaled $5.9 billion and a record high 83% of consumers intend to purchase groceries online again, signaling this trend continues as the pandemic lingers on.1 By 2025, online grocery sales are predicted to account for 21.5% of total grocery sales, representing more than a 60% increase over pre-pandemic estimates.2 A permanent shift toward online grocery shopping can be expected as consumers’ shopping and fulfillment experience continues to improve.

For consumers still shopping in stores, the pandemic also drove switches in primary physical store locations. In the United States, an estimated 17% of consumers shifted away from their primary store since the start of the pandemic.3 This was driven by increased work-from-home, which eliminated commuting routes and made different store locations more convenient, including ones closer to home.

Given the multitude of changes impacting consumer journeys during the pandemic, it is imperative that companies track relevant purchase drivers and considerations of each purchase occasion, while also taking into account their recent shopping experience. This creates the need for consistent, seamless and relevant experiences across both digital and physical channels that aligns all touchpoints with the consumer as part of their “total commerce experience.”

Multiple retailers are already pursuing this approach in the hope of retaining their “primary store” status across the totality of their consumers’ shopping experiences. Walmart recently launched a new store format to help achieve “seamless omni-shopping experiences” for its customers through a digitally enabled shopping environment. Customers can use the Walmart app to efficiently find what they’re looking for, discover new products, check pricing, and complete contactless checkout.4 Data tracked on these customers can eventually be used to create personalized recommendations and in-store activations and assistance based on their purchase history and in-store experience.

Conversely, the “digital store” is also being reimagined to align with consumers’ in-store experience to create a seamless shopping experience. For example, personalized meal planning service The Dinner Daily now offers the ability for its members to order recipe ingredients directly from Kroger and other Kroger-owned stores through The Dinner Daily app.5 Integrated data from multiple shopping platforms and consumer touchpoints can provide food manufacturers and retailers with shopper profiles, consumer experiences, and purchase history along with inventory status and other inputs to ultimately build personalized customer experiences and enhance shopper loyalty.

Applying Programmatic Commerce to Deliver Personalization to Consumers

Once armed with real-time data in a uniform format from sources ranging from consumer search analytics to retailer promotional pricing, a programmatic commerce approach can provide companies with predictive understanding of demand and supply to optimize decision making from raw materials through production through retail or direct-to-consumer.

Using online grocery shopping as an example, consumer personalization can be delivered through the accurate prediction and display of items relevant to each shopper based on shopping history, preferences, current cart selections, and other inputs such as real-time availability, marketing promotions and more.

Innovations are already in the market, including Halla, a data science company that developed a grocery-specific personalization algorithm that works with grocery retailer e-commerce platforms to create smart recommendations based on understanding of individual shoppers’ product usage and preferences.6 Another example is the Locai Solutions digital grocery platform, which applies AI to personalize recipe recommendations based on consumer preferences and purchase history and determines ingredients and quantities needed for easy incorporation into their shopping cart.7

The Path Ahead: Accelerating Technology Adoption in the Food Industry

AI and ML are already reducing waste across supply chains and enabling consumer personalization. However, currently only about 12% of retail decision-makers feel they are very effective at providing these experiences to customers and only 10% have access to the real-time data needed to achieve this goal.8

Modern programmatic commerce platforms (see Figure 1) can effectively bridge information gaps, improve inventory and distribution to prevent shortages or overages and help companies be data-ready to meet actual demand. Beyond this, a programmatic approach unlocks the next stage of customer satisfaction and loyalty, personalizing the experience during and after the pandemic.

Programmatic Commerce Platform visualization
Figure 1. Programmatic Commerce Platform visualization. (Courtesy of Crisp)

References

  1. Bishop, D. (2020). Tracking Online Grocery’s Growth. Brick Meets Click.
  2. Mercatus. (2020). The Evolution of the Grocery Customer.
  3.  Briedis, H., et al. (2020). Adapting to the next normal in retail: The customer experience imperative. McKinsey & Company.
  4. Whiteside, J. (2020). Reimagining Store Design to Help Customers Better Navigate the Omni-Shopping Experience. Walmart.
  5.  Corke, R. (2020). Our Online Ordering Connection for Kroger is Here. The Dinner Daily.
  6.  Halla. (2016). Halla Grocery Solutions.
  7. Locai. (2018). Locai Meal Planning.
  8. Bluecore. (2019). Align Technology, Data, And Your Organization to Deliver Customer Value.

 

Rick Williams, JPG Resources
FST Soapbox

COVID-19: The Impact on 2020 and Beyond

By Rick Williams
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Rick Williams, JPG Resources

COVID-19 has had a major impact on the food and beverage industry this year, contributing to everything from bare shelves and supply chain issues to changes in consumer behavior to plant shutdowns, and to historic grocery cost spikes. We continue to experience changes every day, along with challenges that must be overcome. Lessons from the last year can prepare us for the years ahead, but only if we learn to adapt and anticipate.

Nearly all parts of the supply chain have been impacted, from raw material sourcing and packaging shortages to manufacturing plant shutdowns to logistics capacity to bricks and mortar store operations to consumers. At the onset of the pandemic, major industry trade shows were cancelled and postponed, along with demos and in-person sales meetings, leaving the future of shelf resets with a dark cloud hanging above them. Staying in touch virtually with buyers and providing updates proved to be a best practice and will continue into 2021.

To keep things running smoothly on the manufacturing side, assets from some logistics providers were redeployed to where they were needed most, and with consumers dining more from home, the industry saw a huge move from food service to retail, which we will touch on a bit later. Moving into 2021, brands should ensure their raw materials and supply inventories, especially those that are imported, can cover any potential and unforeseen disruptions. It is critical to prepare well in advance of shortages or surges, specifically in at-risk chains.

Despite the attempts to mitigate against shortages, even the most well-known brands faced major out-of-stock issues and consumers turned to alternative, smaller brands. The shortages came from an increase in pressure from consumers stocking up on items, not from a lack of supply as many believed. Manufacturers increased hours and scheduled capacity on production lines to maximize efficiencies to keep up until things returned to normal. When possible, production lines were reconfigured to distance operators and shifts staggered to limit contact between teams. Senators even introduced the Food Supply Protection Act to help strengthen the chain, protect workers and reduce waste, as per the United States Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. Despite these efforts to keep shelves stocked, the unprecedented time presented smaller brands the opportunity to gain new loyal customers. The transition to e-commerce became an avenue for increased exposure for brands and continues to prove to be a vital option to explore if they have not already.

The retail sector made major headlines this year. In an effort to avoid crowds and follow stay-at-home orders, many consumers began shifting their purchasing behaviors. With today’s technology, it has been easier than ever to shop via e-commerce platforms, whether grocery pickup, delivery or takeout. We experienced temporary out-of-stocks at brick-and-mortar stores and increased wait times on deliveries due to fulfillment shortages. Consumer reaction to these changes—including stocking up on staple products such as paper towels and toilet paper—caused spikes in grocery costs. April saw the largest monthly increase in food at home indexes since February 1974, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Food service has not been exempt from the impact of 2020. With less dining out and more eating at home, restaurants, bars, college cafeterias and stadiums have had to adapt with major shifts in business operations, traffic and income, and practically hit a standstill. In September, the National Restaurant Association reported that nearly one in six restaurants, or about 100,000 nationwide had closed permanently due to the pandemic. Restaurant management had to amend all aspects of operations, including their takeout procedures and other established programs.

In order to survive, restaurants have been creative, building welcoming and distanced environments, and delivering new services to diners. The use of technology will play an even bigger role, now more than ever, to limit touch points. QR codes for menus and contactless ordering and payment options will become the new norm for establishments, if they have not already. Going into 2021, some restaurants are even revamping menus and finding ways to turn them into CPG products, a new trend that is sure to take off in the new year. In April Shake Shack announced a ShackBurger Kit, complete with all the ingredients necessary to cook the chain’s signature burgers using the same ingredients as the dine-in experience, but from the comfort of home. More recently, in November, Chipotle introduced its first digital-only restaurant, which will handle only pickup and delivery orders. Many local restaurants have adopted new best practices to serve their patrons and stay in business. When in-person dining was suspended in the spring, one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants began offering takeout for the first time. Initially, they required patrons to come in the restaurant to sign their ticket and pick up their order. They evolved into a totally online ordering and payment process, including tip, and masked touchless curbside pickup. They have continued this even as in-person dining resumed. We can expect to see more tactics like these, loyalty programs and digitized experiences in the coming year.

It is impossible to be certain what 2021 will bring, but what we do know is that it will require proactive planning and preparation. Learning from 2020 will play a pivotal role in survival for some brands, companies and establishments, and mitigating against breaks in the supply chain until we return to a sense of normalcy. The good news is the food supply chain has proven to be very robust and resilient. How we react to changes in the next few months is critical to maintaining a strong and secure supply chain to ensure we continue smooth operations.