Maintaining food safety in today’s rapidly changing market

9 April 2018

In food safety, there is no room for error when mistakes can be broadcast worldwide and hard-won reputations destroyed by a tweet or photo. Packaging & Converting Intelligence speaks to members of the Global Food Safety Initiative about how companies are coping with a rapidly evolving market.

Delivering a totally safe product has always been a top priority for food producers, but changes in the ways people shop are rapidly altering the nature of the challenge.

“Anyone working in food in recent years will have seen a fundamental change in the way people shop,” says Carletta Ooton, vice-president of health, safety, sustainability, security and compliance at Amazon. “People are increasingly as comfortable shopping online as they are at traditional brick-and-mortar stores. Shopping online is fast, affordable and convenient, so it’s not hard to see why it has quickly become an intrinsic part of modern life. Consumer behaviour is always changing; it’s important that retailers keep up and make offerings attractive, relevant and safe.

“Online companies face the same food safety challenges as offline retailers. Temperature and timing are crucial considerations, as are making sure products are stored and transported correctly. Amazon puts online food into three categories: Amazon Fresh sells and delivers fresh, frozen and prepared foods; Prime Now offers chilled and frozen foods within one or two hours; and Amazon Pantry offer ambients, shelf-stable packaged goods. The latter sells large volumes, but the items have a longer shelf life and a lower risk of food-safety issues.”

Customer insights

Amazon’s customer reviews enable it to collect instant feedback on its products and service. “Customers love to share their honest thoughts and opinions in product reviews,” says Ooton. “This makes them a rich source of insight that is invaluable for making informed business decisions. The really interesting thing is the ability to harness insight from these sources to make quick decisions and spot early trends.

“If you can better understand your customers, you’ll take faster action, and be able to spot problems and then prevent them from spreading. This is particularly important when it comes to upholding food safety standards and best practices. To make real progress with regard to the latter, companies and professionals need to think hard about technology and data.

“The future of food safety lies with learning about data, systems and computer science. We need to understand infrastructure and online systems, and need to know basic coding. If you couple that with subject-matter expertise, such as microbiology or food science, you will have a deeper understanding of how to go about achieving your goals.”

Mike Robach, vice-president of corporate food safety, quality and regulatory at Cargill, and the current chairman of the board of directors of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), believes that the future of food safety lies in public-private partnerships. “As our food network becomes more globalised and interconnected, we have seen a shift towards greater transparency and integrity as consumers are awakened to issues of food safety and traceability,” he says.

“With this has come the recognition that we cannot build a safer and more efficient food supply chain without the support of local and national public partners.

“Using our collective resources, industry stakeholders and governments can work more effectively together to ensure that there are safeguards in place along the entire value chain, from origination to the consumer. Governments have seen that closer partnerships provide them with access to private sector know-how and best practices.

Customers are more informed about the impact and influence of the food system, and this is changing how they shop. Producers must find ways to respond to these concerns.

– Sara Mortimore, Land O’Lakes

“Initiatives, like Cargill’s global markets programme, provide guidance for companies with underdeveloped food safety systems, helping them to address their food safety challenges while reducing hazards in global food supply chains and improving market access through certification via GFSI’s recognised certification programme owners (CPOs).”

In the dairy sector, food safety is a vital strategic topic, and Sara Mortimore, vice-president of product safety, quality and regulatory at Land O’Lakes, is proud to be on the cutting edge. “There’s never been a more exciting time to work in the food industry,” she says. “Changing demographics, technology, operating environments, regulations, commerce and routes to market have led to a perfect storm of innovation. Food professionals have to keep pace with these changes; safety must be at the forefront.

“Evolving trends are driving consumer spending as people continue their search for the next big thing. Consumers want more information about their food than ever; they want to know not only what’s in whatever they are eating but also what’s not. Consumers are increasingly making purchasing decisions based on companies’ reputations and ‘personalities’; they are more likely to spend when they feel that a company shares their values. Big food, however, is not that agile; many brands find it hard to keep up. Consumers are turning to independent producers amid a growing mistrust of bigger corporations; customers are more informed about the impact and influence of the food system, and this is changing how they shop. Producers must find ways to respond to these concerns or risk losing out.”

Smaller is safer

Small-scale production may not always be the safest in terms of safety, however. “Take salmonella in chickens,” says Mortimore. “It is probably more likely to occur in free-range animals that come into contact with pests and vermin. A dedicated facility run by experienced managers can put in tighter controls to prevent this.”

Another safety challenge comes from concerns about nutrition. For example, consumers want lower-salt products, but salt is a preservative, so using less of it may constitute a different sort of health risk. A combination of transparency and technology in concert with a set of established international guidelines is what is required, as Danny Wegman, CEO of Wegmans Food Market, elaborates. “Food supply is global, and consumers have a right to safe food no matter where they live,” he says.

“Businesses need to adhere to the same high standards, no matter where they operate. The Consumer Goods Forum, the global network behind GFSI, leads this work. Food safety isn’t competitive; everyone helps each other raise the bar.”

Clean living

One often-overlooked aspect of food safety is the use of clean equipment to prevent contamination. One of the most important recent developments in this area was the implementation of the Food Safety Modernisation Act.

Food supply is global, and consumers have a right to safe food no matter where they live. Businesses need to adhere to the same high standards, no matter where they operate.

– Danny Wegman, Wegmans Food Market

“The Food Safety Modernisation Act has forced a scenario in which countries and governments must address GFSI directly,” says Ecolab’s vice-president of food safety, Tom Ford. “Some administrations have already, but getting the US Government even to discuss harmonisation is a big step.

“Consumers are actively engaged with products, and the process of how they get from manufacturers to users. By scanning a barcode, or connecting, they can learn almost everything about a product, including the conditions that the current facility is experiencing. That transparency and informational component is really an integral part of the industry right now.

“Beyond this, connectivity has really opened up transparency. Sharing information provides companies with a greater understanding of where their products are, where they came from and where they are going, and shore up any vulnerable parts of the chain.”

To this end, Ecolab has adopted the 3D TRASAR technological platform, which enables it to monitor sensors, valves and pumps on clean-in-place (CIP) equipment. “Less guesswork leads to better results,” says Ford. “It enables companies to simplify their record-keeping and compliance. They can now tell that, at two o’clock in the morning on Wednesday, they did a CIP between this product that contained an allergen, and this product that did not contain any. It’s an extremely powerful tool in terms of being able to prove compliance, not just to the outside world but also internally.”

Ecolab has also recently launched a retail-sector-specific product, MarketGuard 365. “This connected integrated component taps into technology and information from sanitation, temperature monitoring and operational systems, and brings it all into a cloud that can be centrally accessed,” explains Ford.

“By consolidating all the vital metrics in one location it makes everything safer and more efficient.”

When considering the challenges the food industry might face in the future, Ford points out that safety itself is inherently straightforward. “The basics of food safety and science are simple and well known,” he says.

“However, it has become complex at the retail level, with things like juicing and global sourcing. As you add this complexity, the need for reliable and effective food safety systems increases. While the rules and regulations are very simple, they are being executed at an increasingly intricate level, and this will become even more of a challenge.”

Consumers are moving from processed foods to those containing fewer preservatives. As demand for organic and natural foods increases, traceability and transparency will become more important. Every time a new demand arises, like reduced-sugar, or pesticide-free, another level of complexity is added.

Another hurdle is the ways in which food is delivered and distributed. From drop-off points and drones delivering food, to people ordering food and having it delivered to their front door, products are now obtainable through dozens of complex channels, each with its own safety challenges. The overall aim is a safety system that is robust and agile enough to adjust to future delivery and distribution channels.

Increasing awareness of food safety issues has raised the stakes for packaging technology.
Food safety is a collaborative business involving every link in the supply chain.

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