(Editor’s Note: This is an online-only article attributed to the August/September 2019 issue.)
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The recent rise in food recalls can be attributed, at least in part, to the improved detection methods and more advanced epidemiology tactics employed by FDA, USDA, and CDC. But these aren’t the only factors contributing to escalating recall frequency. This increase is also being accelerated by the food industry’s increased focus on changing consumer tastes for products that require a drastic modernization of common food safety practices.
In fact, the two most recent recalls on romaine lettuce were enormously impacted by CDC’s, FDA’s, and other agencies’ inability to quickly and efficiently pinpoint the source of contamination or the affected growing regions and product formats. What is the root cause of this inability? Simply, it’s the lack of insight that most food manufacturers, retailers, and shippers have into how food is handled at each juncture of the supply chain and whether food safety best practices are being adequately followed all along the way.
Robust insight into the food safety performance of the entire supply chain is fundamental to reducing the risk inherent to manufacturing food and protecting consumers from foodborne illness. Achieving this level of insight means implementing a near-real-time monitoring solution for visibility to preventive controls, and whether they are working as intended. This enables the quick identification of potential pathogens, contaminants, or issues that could prompt a recall before the product is distributed throughout the supply chain.
To avoid being shut down or (perhaps even more detrimental) becoming the target of consumer outrage, poor brand perception, and customer defections, you must understand why it’s essential for the food industry to focus on the implementation of food safety software in the following three major areas of the supply chain: 1) production environments, and 2) automation and 3) data oversight.
Safer Production Environments
Food manufacturers must certify–before a product is even “born”–that the resources involved in the development process, as well as the process itself, are effectively controlled and secure.
This is where farmers and manufacturers can go wrong before they’ve even begun. Unless they are rigorously and carefully managing their processing facilities, the risk of contaminants impacting food products early on is severely heightened. Be it compromised irrigation canals, old processing equipment that doesn’t meet modern sanitary design requirements, the difficult-to-manage risk of human contamination, or some other source, there’s major potential for undetected issues to cause a devastating recall somewhere down the line–one that negatively impacts both the business and the consumer base.
The only way to combat such an outcome is for food manufacturers to gain comprehensive insight into the performance of food safety programs in their processing environments. Frankly, annual and biannual checks, certifications, or audits are inadequate.
Replacing Manual Processes with Automation
The nature of managing multiple facilities, as well as the movement of ingredients and finished products through each one, intensifies the difficulty involved in acquiring real-time visibility into food safety program performance. Unfortunately, the majority of food manufacturers choose to delay investment into the necessary tools that would increase their food safety practices. In fact, most still rely on cumbersome and inefficient spreadsheet, email, and even paper files to track the scheduling and completion of food safety testing and related tasks.
The problem is that manual processes primarily increase the human error rate. Manual efforts also limit the speed with which food manufacturers can identify and react to problems before they result in recall ramifications.
The answer to overcoming these obstacles is adopting a data-driven approach. Because so many food manufacturers fail to leverage their data, they are unable to derive clarity and efficiency when it comes to food safety processes. By utilizing food safety technology that tracks facility conditions in real time, there’s much greater opportunity for manufacturers to control their environments effectively, respond to issues promptly, and prevent damaging recalls with long-lasting consequences.
Leveraging Data to Detect Noncompliance
Food safety is broader than e.g. pathogen or allergen testing. Rather, it should be comprehensive and continuous, providing necessary automation to push actions to the users by triggering alerts if the performance data reveal noncompliance.
After all, food safety responsibility flows uphill. A mistake made by far too many food manufacturers and processors is to charge mid-level managers with deciphering Food Safety Modernization Act regulations and try to implement these for the manufacturer’s food safety program. The best-in-class firms, on the other hand, have senior leadership members checking up on reports as they better understand that food safety is mission critical to business success.
Ultimately, the continuous improvement of food safety programs translates to more than just “peace of mind” for food manufacturing executives; elevated safety performance actually impacts the business’ bottom line by driving a more efficient manufacturing process, reducing the downtime necessary to clean machinery, minimizing shutdowns mandated by inspectors, and promoting more efficient use of expensive microbiologist resources.
Food safety technology empowers this continuous improvement process–and its positive ripple effects–by automating the management of data and communication. It harnesses the power of data to approach food safety more proactively, identify contamination trends more quickly, and respond to emerging non-conformances more immediately. It is the key to modernizing food safety in such a way that recall prevention becomes a tangible reality.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: No food safety process is perfect. Positive testing results and non-conformances are bound to happen in every supply chain and production environment, especially as scientific advancements forge more intelligent detection methods. Nonetheless, dynamic, proactive food safety remains critical to the mission of all suppliers and manufacturers along the product journey. Food safety technology is the gateway to making the success of that mission possible.
Dr. Koeris is founder and chairman of the board of directors at Corvium, a food safety and risk management software firm. Reach him at email@example.com.