The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching effects on all aspects of the food manufacturing industry, including environmental monitoring programs (EMPs), an essential element to any food safety and quality regimen.
According to Sedgwick’s 2021 Recall Index, during the second quarter of 2021, the U.S. saw 106 food recalls, which affected 7.9 million units and were attributed to undeclared allergens, product quality, lack of inspection, bacterial contamination, and foreign material contamination. As a result of the pandemic, consumers are more aware of food safety than ever before. Even though the overall number of recalls is still lower than pre-pandemic levels, there are numerous lessons the food industry can take away from the heightened expectations consumers have today for safe, quality food products. Each player within the industry has a role in ensuring food quality and safety, and establishing and maintaining an efficient and effective EMP can help increase the likelihood of delivering a safe finished product.
During the pandemic, labor shortages and the need for social distancing caused food processors and labs to adjust the way they operate. Weak points in processes and opportunities to improve facilities became apparent as manufacturers struggled to keep up with demand and experienced a lack of resources.
Here are four critical trends processors should embrace as they continue working to strengthen their EMPs.
1. Food Safety Education and Cross Training
QA technicians have had to take on new responsibilities due to the increased labor turnover industry wide and the challenges posed by COVID-19. With new responsibilities and the need for speedy onboarding, continuous education is instrumental in keeping up with testing needs. Manufacturers can meet demand without sacrificing product quality or safety by creating a continuous learning program and establishing a streamlined onboarding and training process.
Similarly, in the wake of pandemic turnover, it has become clear that the best EMPs are those that involve a cross-functional group from their organization. Not only does this allow organizations to use wider expertise on the product and process, but it also ensures that the whole team knows the value of environmental monitoring and preserves an institutional focus on safety, even in the face of high turnover. Many of the food safety controls in place at a plant rely on people, so ensuring that the whole team understands the goals and importance of the program can provide the “why” behind day-to-day tasks. Cross-functional teams can also define areas of potential failure so that when things go wrong, they can be corrected swiftly and efficiently.
2. Virtual Training
The need for virtual versus in-person training to help stop the spread of COVID-19 resulted in more comprehensive and technology-based virtual training programs in the industry. Where training used to be mainly in person and slide-based, the majority of programs now incorporate virtual reality to increase the level of detail and understanding among trainees.
3. Regularly Review EMPs and Historical Trends
One of the best ways to proactively approach environmental monitoring is to have those employees most familiar with the data and facility regularly analyze trends of quantitative data. It can be difficult to keep up with production needs and still find time to analyze data trends throughout the course of the year. As manufacturers strive to keep up with the short-term goal of releasing product or releasing zones, many only look at whether a point passes or fails rather than how it’s trending over time and what the long-term implications of those trends could be. By regularly analyzing the trending data, manufacturers can identify a problem in a caution zone and anticipate a failure before it happens, identify vulnerable areas of the plant, and work toward continuous improvement.