For a long time, companies could effectively run food safety programs using only manual methods of quality management, such as pen, paper, spreadsheets and emails. Those practices have served the food industry well, but it was only a matter of time before food safety and quality management systems became mostly an exercise of technology.
Even before COVID-19, industry trends and government requirements (e.g., FSMA, the FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety) were setting roadmaps for modernizing food safety and quality management with technology. Additionally, the food industry is thirsty for better performance, more insights and data-based decisions—all things that need more sophistication than manual systems.
As we continue through the throes of the pandemic, it’s abundantly clear that the tech-based future we were planning for five to ten years in the future is happening now. It’s both unavoidable and imperative for the food industry to quickly adapt to the new landscape in front of us. It’s as the CEO of Airbnb, Brain Chesky, recently said: Because of the pandemic, he had to make “10 years’ worth of decisions in 10 weeks.”
From my viewpoint, I see at least seven additional trends that are also expediting modernization in our industry.
1. A shift toward proactive mindset versus reactive habits. Always reacting to what’s happening around you is precarious and makes it difficult to mitigate risks, for you as well as your location employees. The benefits of being more strategic and prepared for different scenarios can shore up your foundation, making you more ready for crises at the corporate and location level. Gathering, combining and analyzing data with technology gives you more insights, so you can make data-based decisions quickly and with more confidence.
2. Empowerment of employees to act as chief quality officers. This comes down to the difference between training employees versus coaching them. Giving employees rules (training) is one thing but showing them the reason why a rule exists (coaching) is another. In other words, when you add more coaching, you’re empowering employees to identify and act on the right thing to do for themselves—which is chief quality officer behavior.
It is important to reassure employees during coaching that honest assessments will result in managers’ support rather than punishment when things go wrong. When all employees proactively watch for quality and compliance issues and get the right support when bringing up these issues, you’re more likely to catch (and fix) small issues before they become huge liabilities.
3. An increase in virtual audits and self-assessments. I don’t believe the corporate audit will ever go away, but our customer data is showing a marked increase in location self-assessments and virtual audits before the pandemic, and even more since March.
Right now, these audit types are a necessary stopgap while the health and safety of auditors is in question. However, I’m also confident that virtual audits and self-assessments will continue to rise. The reason? These audits can start giving you a continuous view of food safety initiatives instead of a single point-in-time view.
Even though corporate audits are still part of best practices, shorter self-assessments and other evaluations can help you glean more data and gain more visibility on a continual basis, especially if you use technology to store and analyze your data in one place.
4. Continuous quality monitoring is overtaking point-in-time audits. Let’s expand on this trend. Manual processes may provide some valuable data, but it’s impossible to build real-time, integrated views into your business with only a yearly audit. It merely shows you a single (but important) point in time rather than what’s going on at each location right now. Additionally, since everyone is watching every employee at all store locations due to COVID-19, it is critical to have a checks and balances system to continually correct small issues and to find coaching opportunities.
Again, it’s virtually impossible to do this with paper checklists and email blasts because the daily-gathered data can easily be misfiled, deleted or otherwise lost. Many quality management software systems are built to integrate, store and analyze your data in a continuous manner.
5. Consolidation of multiple programs into single software solutions. As you think about updating your programs and systems from manual processes, it is important to remember that you don’t need a different solution for every activity. For example, you don’t necessarily have to invest in an auditing app, an analytics platform, and a document storage solution (and still probably manage many spreadsheets). There are many quality management software companies that have solutions built to combine and streamline all the activities you need to manage food safety or other quality management programs.
6. Innovations to share costs with suppliers. Budgets have not likely increased due to COVID-19, so investing in modernization may seem like a pipe dream. But many companies are offsetting their costs in a new way. They are requiring suppliers to use a specific software system to submit their qualifying documents, and then these companies are charging reasonable fees for suppliers’ use of the software.
Additionally, there more benefits to managing suppliers within your quality management system. First, it can streamline document collection and storage, and second, it gives you an opportunity to communicate and collaborate with your suppliers on a deeper level.
7. Standards bodies are accelerating plans to update requirements. As seen with GLOBAL.G.A.P. this year, some standards bodies are updating their digital submission requirements to streamline certification submissions as well as start building up sharable industry data so certification bodies can do their jobs better. Additionally, GLOBALG.A.P has already partnered with existing quality management software companies to make the integration and submission process even easier, and other standards bodies are sure to follow.
It’s clear to me that these trends are of a long-term nature, and each one requires updating manual food safety and quality programs to quality management system software solutions. Acting on these trends in any number will require modernization and digital transformation to have a lasting impact on your programs and your business. The mode of “just keeping the doors open” is not sustainable and will not last forever, so now is the time to start building a better food safety future.
Global food supply chains are complex and therefore quite vulnerable to errors or fraudulent activity. A company in Chile repackaged and falsely labeled cheap raspberries from China, reselling them as top-level organic Chilean raspberries in Canada. These raspberries were linked to a norovirus outbreak in Canada, sickening hundreds of people. A whistleblower complaint helped to uncover this fraudulent scheme that posed a significant risk to human health.
With the increasing globalization of the food industry, ensuring that products reaching consumers are safe has never been more important. Local, state and federal regulatory agencies are increasing their emphasis on the need for food and beverage laboratories to be accredited to ISO/IEC 17025 compliance. This complicated process can be simplified and streamlined through the adoption of LIMS, making accreditation an achievable goal for all food and beverage laboratories.
With a global marketplace and complex supply chain, the food industry continues to face increasing risks for both unintentional and intentional food contamination or adulteration.1 To mitigate the risk of contaminated products reaching consumers, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), using a consensus-based approval process, developed the first global laboratory standard in 1999 (ISO/IEC 17025:1999). Since publication, the standard has been updated twice, once in 2005 and most recently in 2017, and provides general requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories.2
In the recent revision, four key updates were identified:
A revision to the scope to include testing, calibration and sampling associated with subsequent calibration and testing performed by a laboratory.3
An emphasis on the results of a process instead of focusing on prescriptive procedures and policies.4
The introduction of the concept of a risk-based approach used in production quality management systems.2
A stronger focus on information technologies/management systems, specifically Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS).4
As modern-day laboratories reduce their reliance on hard copy documents and transition to electronic records, additional emphasis and guidance for ISO 17025 accreditation in food testing labs using LIMS was greatly needed. Food testing laboratories have increased reliance on LIMS to successfully meet the requirements of accreditation. Food and beverage LIMS has evolved to increase a laboratory’s ability to meet all aspects of ISO 17025.
Chain of Custody
A key element for ISO 17025 accredited laboratories is the traceability of samples from accession to disposal.5 Sometimes referred to as chain of custody, properly documented traceability allows a laboratory to tell the story of each sample from the time it arrives until the time it is disposed of.
LIMS software allows for seamless tracking of samples by employing unique sample accession numbers through barcoding processes. At each step of sample analysis, a laboratory technician updates data in a LIMS by scanning the sample barcode, establishing time and date signatures for the analysis. During an ISO 17025 audit, this information can be quickly obtained for review by the auditor.
Procurement and Laboratory Supplies
ISO 17025 requires the traceability of all supplies or inventory items from purchase to usage.6 This includes using approved vendors, documentation of receipt, traceability of supply usage to an associated sample, and for certain products, preparation of supply to working conditions within the laboratory. Supply traceability impacts multiple departments and coordinating this process can be overwhelming. A LIMS for food testing labs helps manage laboratory inventory, track usage of inventory items, and automatically alerts laboratory managers to restock inventory once the quantity falls below a threshold level.
A food LIMS can ensure that materials are ordered from approved vendors only, flagging items purchased outside this group. As supplies are inventoried into LIMS, the barcoding process can ensure accurate storage. A LIMS can track the supply through its usage and associate it with specific analytical tests for which inventory items are utilized. As products begin to expire, a LIMS can notify technicians to discard the obsolete products.
One unique advantage of a fully integrated LIMS software is the preparation and traceability of working laboratory standards. A software solution for food labs can assist a technician in preparing standards by determining the concentration of solvents needed based on the input weight from a balance. Once prepared, LIMS prints out a label with barcodes and begins the supply traceability process as previously discussed.
Quality Assurance of Test and Calibration Data
This section of ISO 17025 pertains to the validity of a laboratory’s quality system including demonstrating that appropriate tests were performed, testing was conducted on properly maintained and calibrated equipment by qualified personnel, and with appropriate quality control checks.
Laboratory Personnel Competency
Laboratory personnel are assigned to a specific scope of work based upon qualifications (education, training and experience) and with clearly defined duties.7 This process adds another layer to the validity of data generated during analysis by ensuring only appropriate personnel are performing the testing. However, training within a laboratory can be one of the most difficult components of the accreditation process to capture due to the rapid nature in which laboratories operate.
With a food LIMS, management can ensure employees meet requirements (qualifications, competency) as specified in job descriptions, have up-to-date training records (both onboarding and ongoing), and verify that only qualified, trained individuals are performing certain tests.
Calibration and Maintenance of Equipment
Within the scope of ISO 17025, food testing laboratories must ensure that data obtained from analytical instruments is reliable and valid.5 Facilities must maintain that instruments are in correct operating condition and that calibration data (whether performed daily, weekly, or monthly) is valid. As with laboratory personnel requirements, this element to the standard adds an additional layer of credibility that sample data is precise, accurate, and valid.
A fully integrated software solution for food labs sends a notification when instrument calibration is out of specification or expired and can keep track of both routine internal and external maintenance on instruments, ensuring that instruments are calibrated and maintained regularly. Auditors often ask for instrument maintenance and calibration records upon the initiation of an audit, and LIMS can swiftly provide this information with minimal effort.
Measurement of Uncertainty (UM)
Accredited food testing laboratories must measure and report the uncertainty associated with each test result.8 This is accomplished by using certified reference materials (CRM), or known spiked blanks. UM data is trended using control charts, which can be prepared using labor-intensive manual input or performed automatically using LIMS software. A fully integrated food LIMS can populate control data from the instrument into the control chart and determine if sample data analyzed in that batch can be approved for release.
Valid Test Methods and Results
Accurate test and calibration results can only be obtained with methods that are validated for the intended use.5 Accredited food laboratories should use test methods that are current and contain embedded quality control standards.
A LIMS for food testing labs can ensure correct method selection by technicians by comparing data from the sample accession input with the test method selected for analysis. Specific product identifiers can indicate if methods have been validated. As testing is performed, a LIMS can track time signatures to ensure protocols are properly performed. At the end of the analysis, results of the quality control samples are linked to the test samples to ensure only valid results are available for clients. Instilling checks at each step of the process allows a LIMS to auto-generate Certificates of Analysis (CoA) knowing that the testing was performed accurately.
The foundation of a laboratory’s reputation is based on its ability to provide reliable and accurate data. ISO 17025:2017 includes specific references to data protection and integrity.10 Laboratories often claim within their quality manuals that they ensure the integrity of their data but provide limited details on how it is accomplished making this a high priority review for auditors. Data integrity is easily captured in laboratories that have fully integrated their instrumentation into LIMS software. Through the integration process, data is automatically populated from analytical instruments into a LIMS. This eliminates unintentional transcription errors or potential intentional data manipulation. A LIMS for food testing labs restricts access to changing or modifying data, allowing only those with high-level access this ability. To control data manipulation even further, changes to data auto-populated in LIMS by integrated instrumentation are tracked with date, time, and user signatures. This allows an auditor to review any changes made to data within LIMS and determine if appropriate documentation was included on why the change was made.
ISO 17025:2017 requires all food testing laboratories to have a documented sampling plan for the preparation of test portions prior to analysis. Within the plan, the laboratory must determine if factors are addressed that will ensure the validity of the testing, ensure that the sampling plan is available to the laboratory (or the site where sampling is performed), and identify any preparation or pre-treatment of samples prior to analysis. This can include storage, homogenization (grinding/blending) or chemical treatments.9
As sample information is entered into LIMS, the software can specify the correct sampling method to be performed, indicate appropriate sample storage conditions, restrict the testing to approved personnel and provide electronic signatures for each step.
Monitoring and Maintenance of the Quality System
Organization within a laboratory’s quality system is a key indicator to assessors during the audit process that the facility is prepared to handle the rigors that come with accreditation.10 Assessors are keenly aware of the benefits that a food LIMS provides to operators as a single, well-organized source for quality and technical documents.
An ISO 17025 accredited laboratory must demonstrate document control throughout its facility.6 Only approved documents are available for use in the testing facility, and the access to these documents is restricted through quality control. This reduces the risk of document access or modification by unauthorized personnel.
LIMS software efficiently facilitates this process in several ways. A food LIMS can restrict access to controlled documents (both electronic and paper) and require electronic signatures each time approved personnel access, modify or print them. This digital signature provides a chain of custody to the document, ensuring that only approved controlled documents are used during analyses and that these documents are not modified.
Corrective Actions/Non-Conforming Work
A fundamental requirement for quality systems is the documentation of non-conforming work, and subsequent corrective action plans established to reduce their future occurrence.5
A software solution for food labs can automatically maintain electronic records of deviations in testing, flagging them for review by quality departments or management. After a corrective action plan has been established, LIMS software can monitor the effectiveness of the corrective action by identifying similar non-conforming work items.
Food and beverage testing laboratories are increasingly becoming accredited to ISO 17025. With recent changes to ISO 17025, the importance of LIMS for the food and beverage industry has only amplified. A software solution for food labs can integrate all parts of the accreditation process from personnel qualification, equipment calibration and maintenance, to testing and methodologies.11 Fully automated LIMS increases laboratory efficiency, productivity, and is an indispensable tool for achieving and maintaining ISO 17025 accreditation.
Food Fraud Vulnerability Assessment and Mitigation Plan, with Steve Sklare, Food Safety Academy; Karen Everstine, Ph.D., Decernis; and Peter Begg, Glanbia Nutritionals
Food Fraud Case History: Glanbia Nutritionals, with Peter Begg, Glanbia Nutritionals
Public Standards—Protecting the Integrity of the Food Supply Chain, with Steven Gendel, Ph.D., Food Chemicals Codex
Monitoring and Predicting Food Safety and Fraud Risks in Challenging Times, with Giannis Stoitsis, Agroknow
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.
The marketplace has experienced dramatic changes that were barely on the horizon 20 years ago—by that, I mean mobile phones, Instagram, Facebook, climate change, consumer transparency, globalization, novel new products delivered to your doorstep and now COVID-19, too.
I write from a perspective of both pride and concern. I had the privilege of representing GFSI in North America and helping the organization expand beyond Europe as new food safety laws were implemented in both the United States and Canada.
Questionable Utility of Multiple, Redundant and Costly Certifications
However, I also sympathized with small and medium food companies that struggled with minimal resources and food safety expertise to understand GFSI and then to become certified not once, but multiple times for multiple customers. GFSI’s mantra, “Once Certified, Accepted Everywhere,” was far from their GFSI reality…or, frankly, the reality of many food companies. My concern was not insignificant. The food industry is populated by a majority of small businesses, each seeking that one big break that could possibly, maybe open up access to retail shelves. Their confusion about being audited and certified to one standard was significant. Certification to multiple and redundant standards presented a daunting and costly endeavor for these start-ups. I heard their anxiety in their voices as I served as GFSI’s 1.800 “customer service rep” in North America for years.
In the 20 years since GFSI was established, the world has become much more transparent. Today, entire industries operate on open, international, consensus-based ISO management standards in far bigger and more complex sectors than the food sector (e.g., the automotive, airline and medical device sectors). And, in the 20 years since GFSI was established, an ISO food safety management system standard has been developed that is now used widely throughout the world with more than 36,000 certifications (i.e., ISO 22000).
Auditing and certifying a facility to a single, international, public standard would enhance GFSI transparency. It also would help to hurdle government concerns related to the lack of public input into the development of private standards, enabling private certifications like GFSI to be used efficiently as a compliance tool—a benefit to both government and food interests and to consumer health, safety and trade.
Many new technologies, such blockchain, artificial intelligence, sensors and the Internet of Things are being heralded widely now as well, particularly for businesses with complex supply-chains like those in like the fast-moving food and retail sectors. The benefits of these technologies are predicated on the use of a common digital language…or standard. Multiple and diverse standards, like GFSI, complicate the use of these new technologies, which is why FDA is examining the harmonizing role of standards and data management in its proposed New Era of Smarter Food Safety.
Today, food safety often is managed in tandem with other corporate environment, health and safety programs. The Consumer Goods Forum, which oversees GFSI, should take a similar approach and merge GFSI with its sustainability, and health and wellness programs to help CGF members meet their existing commitments to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to encourage others to do the same. Here, once again, adoption of a single, transparent ISO standard can help. Adoption of ISO 22000 as the single and foundational standard for GFSI makes it easy to layer on and comply with other ISO standards—for example, for the environment (ISO 14000), worker protection (ISO 45001), energy efficiency (ISO 50001) and information/data security (ISO 27001)— and to simultaneously meet multiple SDGs.
As I write, the COVID pandemic rages. It may re-align global supply chains and set back global trade temporarily, but the unprecedented rise in consumer incomes and corresponding decrease in poverty around the world attests to the importance of the global trade rules established by the World Trade Organization (WTO). Among these rules is a directive to governments (and businesses) to use common standards to facilitate trade, which uniquely recognizes ISO standards as well as those of Codex and OIE. When trade disputes arise, food interests that use ISO 22000 are hands-down winners, no questions asked. So, why use many and conflicting private standards?
Supply Chain Efficiency
Finally, ISO 22005, part of the ISO 22000 family of food management standards, also is aligned with GS1 Standards for supply-chain management, used throughout the food and retail sectors in North America and globally to share information between customers and suppliers. GS1 is most well known for being the administrators of the familiar U.P.C. barcode. The barcode and other “data carriers” provide visibility into the movement of products as well as information about select attributes about those products—including whether they have been certified under GFSI. Both GS1 and ISO GS1 standards are foundational to the new technologies that are being adopted in the fast-moving food, consumer products, healthcare and retail sectors both in the United States and globally. That alignment puts a spotlight on safety, sustainability, mobility, efficiency and so much more.
Focus Less on the Change, More on the Outcome
My proposal will surely set tongues in motion. Proposals to switch things up generally do. Disruption has become the norm, however, and food businesses are prized for their agility and responsiveness to the endless changes in today’s fast-moving marketplace. Still, ISO and Codex standards already are embedded in the GFSI benchmark so what I’m proposing should not be so disruptive and no one scheme or CPO should benefit disproportionately. And, less differentiation in the standard of industry performance will compel scheme or certification owners to shift their focus away from compliance with their standards and audit checklists to working with customers to truly enhance and establish “food safety-oriented cultures.” If they do, all of us emerge as winners.
The New Normal?
Around us new food businesses are emerging just as old businesses reinvent theirs. Trucks now operate as restaurants and athletes deliver dinner on bicycles. For a long time, we’ve operated businesses based on 20th century models that don’t resonate in the 21st century world. Are we at an inflection point, with both small and large businesses paying for costly and inefficient practices that no longer apply, and is it time for GFSI to change?
I welcome your thoughts. I truly do. Better, let’s discuss on a webinar or video call of your choosing. I look forward to connecting.
Submit questions you want Karil to answer during her session at the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series in the Comments section below.
The theme of better traceability and more transparency is a theme that will only grow stronger in the food industry. Just last week we heard FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas talk about the agency’s recently proposed FSMA rule on food traceability during the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series. In a recent Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Mikael Bengtsson, industry & solution strategy director for food & beverage at Infor, explains yet another role that technology can play in helping companies maintain agility during changes that affect the supply chain such as the coronavirus pandemic.
Food Safety Tech: How can food suppliers mitigate the risks of foodborne illness outbreaks under the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and with limited resources?
Mikael Bengtsson: Food safety must always be a top priority for any food and beverage company. The risks associated with contamination can have a severe impact for public health, brand and company reputation. Safety routines are therefore always of the highest priority. In today’s situation with COVID-19, the stress on safety is further increased. Now, it’s not only about keeping products safe but also keeping employees healthy. One progression and resource that all food suppliers must follow is the FDA [FSMA rules], which require suppliers to be diligent and document their compliance. Especially now, while suppliers are faced with limited resources and additional stress during the pandemic, they must rely on the basics—ensuring masks are worn in and out of the workplace, washing hands for at least 20 seconds prior to touching any food, and remaining six feet apart from co-workers. When it comes to a crisis like COVID, take solace in knowing suppliers can rely on the basics—even when conditions are strained.
This year we have seen many companies having to adapt and change quickly. Demand has shifted between products, ingredients have been in shortage and many employees have had to work from home. Some were better prepared than others in adapting to the new situation. Technology plays a big role when it comes to agility. Regarding food safety, there are many proactive measures to be taken. The industry leaders establish transparency in their supply chain both upstream and downstream, use big data analysis to identify inefficiencies, as well as couple IoT with asset management systems to foresee issues before they happen.
FST: How can technology help suppliers meet the growing consumer demand for transparency in an end-to-end supply chain and improve consumer trust?
Bengtsson: Communication with consumers is changing. It is not only about marketing products, but also to educate and interact with consumers. This requires a different approach. Of course, consumers are loyal to brands, but are also tempted to try something new when grocery shopping. After a new study is published or a new story is written, consumers are likely to shift their shopping preferences.
It is therefore important to build a closer connection with consumers. Companies who have full supply chain visibility, transparency and traceability have detailed stories to tell their consumers. One way they can build these stories is by including QR codes on their packages. The consumer can then easily scan the code and be brought to a website that shows more product details—e.g. who was the farmer, how were the animals cared for and what sustainability efforts were involved. These are all important aspects to build consumer trust. According to researchers at MIT Sloan School of Management, investing in supply chain visibility is the optimal way to gain consumer trust, and can lead to increased sales.
FST: What technologies should suppliers leverage to better collaborate with trading partners and ensure consistent food safety procedures?
Bengtsson: When a food safety problem arises, batches, lots, and shipments need to be identified within minutes. Manufacturers must be able to trace all aspects of products throughout the entire supply chain—with complete visibility at the ingredient level—from farm to table, and everything in-between. An efficient and transparent food supply chain requires extensive collaboration and coordination between stakeholders. New technologies can extend both amount of collaboration possibilities and the impact of those collaborations. In order to maintain a transparent, efficient food supply chain, companies need to invest in modern cloud-based ERP and supply chain systems that incorporate the increased visibility of the Internet of Things (IoT) with data sharing, supplier and customer portals, and direct links between systems—all aimed at facilitating joint awareness and coordinated decision-making. Modern technologies that enable transparency will also have the added benefits of meeting consumer demand for product information, identifying and responding to food safety issues, reducing food waste, and supporting sustainability claims.
One year ago the FDA held an at-capacity public meeting to discuss its latest initiative, the New Era of Smarter Food Safety. At the time, the agency was planning to release the blueprint for the New Era in the spring of 2020. In fact, the FDA was just days away from unveiling it when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March. The blueprint was put aside and it was all hands on deck, as the agency worked with the food industry to ensure companies continued operating, as they were deemed a part of America’s critical infrastructure. From there, the agency navigated through uncharted waters with the food industry and its stakeholders. It signed an MOU with USDA in an effort to prevent disruptions at FDA-regulated food facilities and address shortages of PPE, disinfection and sanitation supplies. It announced that it would conduct remote inspections and extended the comment period for the Laboratory Accreditation Program Proposed Rule. It released a COVID-19 food safety checklist with OSHA to help guide companies through employee health, social distancing, and the operational issues that have entered into play as a result of the pandemic. Food companies and the supply chain were facing an enormous challenge.
“I always thought we had one of the best food systems in the world… by and large we have an amazing food system,” said Frank Yiannas deputy commissioner for food policy and response during last week’s keynote address at the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series. “We just experienced the biggest test on the food system in 100 years. Have we passed the test? I don’t think anyone would say we scored 100%… but by and large we passed the test.” Yiannas added that COVID-19 has exposed some strengths and weaknesses in the food system as well. He also emphasized a point that he has been driving home throughout the pandemic: “The virus that causes COVID-19 is not a virus that is transmitted by food. It is a respiratory virus and generally transmitted in very different ways.”
The FDA released the blueprint for the New Era of Smarter Food Safety, which incorporated some lessons learned from COVID-19, in July. Traceability is a big part of agency’s new era initiative, and the pandemic further put a spotlight on the need for better tracking and tracing in the food industry. And under FSMA, FDA is required to “establish a system that will enhance its ability to track and trace both domestic and imported foods”. In working to meet this requirement, FDA proposed the FSMA rule on food traceability last month.
Yiannas said the proposed rule has the potential to lay the foundation for meaningful harmonization and called aspects of the proposed rule game changing. It establishes two critical components that are the leading edge of food traceability: It defines critical tracking events (i.e., what are the types of events in the food system that required those events to be kept) and key data elements (i.e., the data elements that must be captured at those critical tracking events). “These two things are big ideas for traceability,” said Yiannas. “They will allow us to harmonize how traceability is to be done, allow us to scale and allow for greater interoperability.” The proposed rule also creates a traceability list that identifies foods based on a risk-ranking model for food tracing.
FDA is encouraging comments on the proposed rule and is holding three meetings (November 6, November 18 and December 2) to discuss the proposed traceability rule. “We are going to create the final rule together,” said Yiannas.
The Institute of Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast successfully identifies food fraud in the ever more complex food supply chain by developing and applying reliable analytical tests. Chris Elliott, professor of food safety and founder of the Institute, points out a two-tier approach of untargeted analysis and targeted analysis. Tier One is low cost and easy-to-use with 80–90% reliability. The second tier of highly sophisticated analytical methods, like mass spectrometry, gas chromatography and others, can identify a food item with a 99.999% certainty. These analytical methods combined with correct data are able to identify even details like type of fish, country of origin of a food item, added ingredients, and much more.
If global supply chains were considered complex before COVID-19, it’s hard to imagine what we’d call them now. Is there a single business operating exactly as it did before the pandemic?
All the more surprising, when survival would seem to be the top priority, pre-pandemic risk factors are not only alive and well, but they also actually outweigh coronavirus as strategic business concerns. In fact, COVID-19 didn’t even make the top five risk factors in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Risk Report.
“While the risk of a pandemic was noted as important in the report, and something for which we are unprepared globally, it was not identified as one of the top five risks in terms of likelihood or impact in the 2020 survey. High-impact and highly probable risks, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and water crises, are just as present now as they were before the pandemic started . . .”
In our experience, some pre-pandemic business trends have actually gone from “warm and fuzzy” to red hot in spite of, or perhaps even due to, the COVID chaos. One prime example is in the case of social audits.
Social audits have been increasingly used over the past decade to evaluate corporate social responsibility and, indeed, the ethical conduct of entire supply chains. We’ve worked extensively with some of the biggest names in consumer electronics to conduct hundreds of social audits among component suppliers of all sizes. These assessments are mandatory, not by law, but by business policy. The vast scope reflects the importance—and business value—of operational factors that go beyond pure economics, whether it’s related to labor practices, health and safety, or environment.
A growing number of organizations strongly believe that social responsibility and profits are not mutually exclusive; they are in fact enablers of one another—but only if you commit to mining the full value of these programs. Think of it like data mining. Within any large body of information, you can almost always find hidden value. If you know how to look and have the proper tools. In the case of social auditing, the tools are the insights and methods employed by the auditing teams.
This is such a vital concept that we have designed its social auditing process to exceed even what the Responsible Business Alliance requires in its code of conduct. As a baseline, like every other auditor, we first look for nonconformities, which are the most serious issues requiring immediate attention. We also report “observations”, a second level of findings that speaks to things that are suboptimal but are not out of compliance, per se. That’s where it usually stops. This is the mentality of fault finding. And it has defined social auditing for a long time.
We can, and do, break that mold. Taking another critical step to ask, “what’s going right?”, provides an extra level of inquiry that probes for opportunities embedded in the fabric of the way things work. It could be an unrecognized best practice, something that people have been doing but nobody took the time, or had the awareness, to document and share. Often times, it’s something frontline workers have done as a response to an unexpected development, like a pandemic that makes you work from home.
In one service-based organization, we found that the sudden shift to working from home led to an unwelcomed rise in cases of domestic violence. We discovered this during audits of pay rates and working hours. The company was able to develop an innovative response, establishing a framework of verbal signals that workers now use to communicate stress or threat. In another instance, while auditing a large industrial company for workplace safety, we found that employees were using a shortcut to avoid a required safety measure. By probing and asking questions in a non-accusatory way, those same workers recommended a very simple workaround to the workaround—thereby restoring the safety measure without adding complexity to the task.
The key to all of this is mindset. Not just ours (the auditors), but the client organization’s as well. You must be willing to broaden the very idea of “compliance.” Sometimes, things that are out of spec are that way for a reason. Rather than lump every outlier as a flaw, you should look beneath the surface and see if there’s a good reason for it. That doesn’t automatically mean nonconformities are suddenly something else. But if you are only looking for problems, that’s all you’re going to find.
Some impressive technologies are not only impacting the food industry right now but will also have a huge impact in the future. As their use grows to be more prevalent, the industry will change to be smarter and more efficient, with continued improvements across the board.
1. AI and Advanced Robotics
While artificial intelligence and advanced robotics are two distinct technologies, they are frequently paired together. AI, and the data it digests, is used to command robots, allowing them to be more precise, more intelligent and more aware.
Most robots on their own are capable of completing only repetitive and clearly defined tasks. Throw something unique into the mix and they’ll either fumble or fail. However, when governed by data-based intelligence solutions like AI or machine learning, those robots become something incredibly advanced.
In the food industry, machinery and robots are leveraged to improve operations, further maintaining quality and efficiency, at affordable costs. They often work alongside human laborers to augment or enhance processes. They come with several unexpected benefits as well, such as much-improved safety for workers, faster and higher product output and consistent, reliable quality.
For example, JBS, one of the world’s largest meatpacking firms, deployed robotic butchers within its plants. The robots were used to slice more challenging meats, which reduced workplace injuries.
Automation stands alongside AI and advanced robotics, even incorporating those technologies to create a streamlined system. As of 2017, 73% of surveyed companies in the food and beverage manufacturing industry either had or were in the process of establishing automation within their facilities.
Many systems are designed to replace or enhance repetitive tasks, boosting their speed and accuracy, to significantly improve output, without incurring a loss in quality. It’s not just about hardware, like swapping a human laborer for a robot. It’s also achieved through software. Think supply chain management solutions that help plan for various events and experiences without human input.
When many of these technologies are used side-by-side, it strengthens their application and usability. As is true of advanced robotics, for example, AI can also be used to create more intelligent automation platforms. Instead of carrying out rote or simple tasks, they can be programmed to react and engage through any number of parameters. The system might slow production, for instance, based on a decrease in product demand. Or, it might swap to an alternate component or ingredient because of a shortage somewhere.
With the right controls and support, automation technologies are game-changing. With the global population growing and demands increasing more with each year, food manufacturers will look to streamline their operations and boost output in any way possible, and automation will be a go-to.
3. Digital Twins
Digital twins in food manufacturing are essentially simulated copies or a virtual representation of a physical system. That definition might seem confusing, but think of it as a clone that can be manipulated for testing and analytics.In other words, it is a twin of the actual system and information, in every sense of the word, albeit one that is more versatile and less vulnerable. It allows manufacturers and distributors to run simulations by feeding specific information into the system to identify patterns, recognize outcomes and much more.
As the systems and controls supporting the field become smarter and more digitized, digital twins in food manufacturing will find their way into product development, testing, post-production, distribution and nearly every other facet of the industry. It will become an integral component to not only understand what’s happening in the market but also for keeping up with the ebb and flow of supply and demand.
Even well before the pandemic, people had become much more conscious about the foods they consume. They want to know the origin of their goods and whether they’ve been sourced using safe, healthy and environmentally friendly methods. The problem with such demands is that, until recently, there haven’t been many solutions for increased visibility within the food supply chain.
Growing concerns for health are now a priority, and visibility is an absolute must. Blockchain technology is the answer, providing precisely the kind of visibility, efficiency, controls and collaboration that consumers want.
With this food manufacturing technology in place, someone could trace a head of lettuce back to its initial seeding. They can see who grew the plants and where, and which methods they used to mature the crop. Then, they can follow its journey to the store shelf.
How is such a thing possible? It all has to do with the technology. In its simplest form, Blockchain is a digital ledger or complete and digitized record of a particular data set. The data that goes in is added to something called a block, and as more is added, it is tacked on to the end of that block to create a long, linked record. Every bit of information is visible across the entire chain, hence the name blockchain.
Walmart is using the technology to track potential food contamination outbreaks. It empowers them to not just find the source but also find the many branches involved — like where goods might have been shipped and who may have purchased them.
Food Manufacturing Technology for the Future
While each food manufacturing technology discussed here is incredibly influential and will have a direct impact on the future of the industry, they are not the only solutions making waves. Some additional examples include:
Drones and automated delivery vehicles
3-D printing for edible goods
Smart or precision agriculture
Smarter waste disposal and recycling
The takeaway is that technology is vastly improving the operational efficiency of the food supply chain, from farmers and manufacturers to the retail stores featuring goods on their shelves. There’s no right or wrong buy-in, as any one of these technologies can be used to streamline separate processes. The biggest challenge will be deciding what to upgrade first, especially when it comes to delivering high-quality, fresh goods in a prompt manner.
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