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Food Safety and Sustainability

By Aaron G. Biros, Michael Biros
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What is sustainability and how does it relate to food safety? This article, the first in a series on the topic, introduces the concept of sustainability.

The global food industry is already feeling the destabilizing and disruptive effects of climate change. Drought and wildfire are ravaging California while flooding is inundating the Midwest. With the effects of climate change projected to amplify, companies are becoming increasingly aware of vulnerabilities to their business. In addition, current modes of food production are seen as a major driver of environmental problems such as deforestation, desertification, eutrophication and fisheries collapse. All of this is set to the backdrop of a booming world population, rapid urbanization, diminishing natural resources, and critically stressed ecosystems.

Food companies are increasingly becoming aware of these challenges and are looking for innovative ways to adapt their business models to account for them. One approach is to incorporate sustainability into business strategy and planning.

Sustainability is a conceptual framework that has the potential to mitigate business vulnerabilities while simultaneously reducing the stress that food production has on social and natural resources. In general terms, sustainability is the endurance of systems and processes. More specifically, it integrates ecology, economics, politics, and culture. Connecting environmental stewardship with a solid business plan while advancing social justice is an innovative as well as profitable approach to streamlining business operations.

There are different methods to assess sustainability, with the most common being the Triple Bottom Line and Circles of Sustainability. These methods are multi-dimensional and allow for the inclusion of complex qualitative issues. Sustainability has also been deceptively referenced in a number of marketing campaigns aimed at altering how a company is publicly perceived, not how it operates. This is a practice known as greenwashing.

In the upcoming series of articles, topics such as co-management, food waste, water conservation, agriculture, and others will be observed through an interdisciplinary lens, tying food safety with sustainability. Given the connection to the entire food production process from farm to fork, food safety professionals are poised to lead in sustainability. Many of the systems already developed to detect, prevent, and trace contamination can be retooled and applied toward sustainability. Elements of food safety programs and auditing schemes such as HACCP, GFSI, and SQF could be adapted to cover environmental and social benchmarks.

Food companies must develop more sustainable solutions in an effort to protect food safety and natural resources. Businesses, driven by C-suite oversight and stakeholder initiative, need to co-manage food quality, safety, and sustainability in a collaborative approach.  Decision making at every step in the supply chain should comprehensively approach food safety, quality, and sustainability where possible.

Andrea Moffat is the Vice President of the corporate program at Ceres, a non-profit organization that publishes findings on corporate sustainability and progress. She believes that, “Businesses need to look at sustainability and food safety as part of their core business framework in identifying risks and competitive advantages. We are beginning to see teams of executives involving sustainability issues in setting sales and revenue targets.”

By reaching across borders within a company and working toward these benchmarks, businesses can improve operations while maintaining customer loyalty and brand confidence. At the end of the day, food safety professionals are stewards of public health. Sustainability offers food safety professionals the opportunity to expand their influence on public health and safety.

Uncertainties around climate change are now threats for businesses in every sector. The food industry is witnessing the effects of climate change on vital natural resources, and thus business planning now.  Food companies are beginning to look at sustainability as an opportunity to improve business operations at the moment and in the future. The upcoming articles will focus on the interconnectedness of food safety and quality with sustainability.

Stay tuned for more articles on this topic.