The Food Safety Modernization Act, or FSMA, of 2011 was designed to address not only domestic food safety issues but also the quality concerns associated with the globalization of food made possible by technology. It was the biggest change in American food safety regulation since the FDA was created, and it effectively shifted key responsibilities for ensuring the integrity of food from the FDA to the private sector. In lieu of inspections and enforcement, the Act relied heavily on setting outcome standards and leaving it to the private sector to decide how the outcome would be achieved.
The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) regulates the safe use of refrigeration systems, such as those that use ammonia. Despite its Process Safety Management (PSM) program, which has been in place for over 20 years, safety incidents involving high-charge ammonia refrigeration systems still exist. While resources to address facility safety have expanded, a tension has developed between the culture of past practice, with growing economic pressure on one hand and the PSM priorities on the other. To comply with PSM appropriately, the industry needs to change the basic design of facilities and systems and retrain its workforce.
The Need for Efficiency
Logistics and processing are vital to achieve efficiency in food distribution. One of the most defining revolutions in American industry has been the shift to just-in-time delivery systems, and “just-in-time” is now reshaping the world of food. Grocery chains are re-crafting their warehouse strategy, reducing inventories, streamlining transport processes, and cutting costs.
Simultaneously, there has also been greater emphasis on near-the-field processing, chilling, and freezing, which have further mandated changes in food transport, refrigeration, and energy.
While vast improvements in efficiency have been achieved, and the evolution of logistics and processing is likely to be a major part of the future of food, forward-looking refrigeration product innovations could harbor the potential to yield even greater unexpected efficiencies—and business opportunities. But the evolution of efficiency is not without challenges.
The portion of America’s food supply that is processed before it reaches the grocery store has grown geometrically over the last decade. The shift was initially driven by consumer demand for greater convenience, but more recently the shift also is being driven by logistics and cost—which pay back to both price-conscious consumers and ROI-conscious investors. So, while food may now see fewer steps in segments of the distribution chain, there will for some foods be more steps in the early stages of the chain, as more food is moved through processing procedures instead of arriving at the grocery store in whole form. And since many of the new processing steps represent new points of vulnerability in food safety—i.e., storage, handling, and potential exposure—the quest for efficiency and the quest for safety are in tension with one another.
Compromised safety can mean wasted food and perhaps a crippling hit to a brand, both of which will minimize the benefits sought through efficiency. Compromised efficiency can weaken sales in the face of price competition and undercut returns to investors. The tension between safety and efficiency, then, is an inescapable systemic challenge facing food delivery for the foreseeable future—and, as if more were needed, the challenge has recently taken on even further complexity.
There is now an emerging demand for fresher foods, which has meant that whole foods are moving from field to store faster. The quest for freshness adds new time pressures to the food chain. Typically, the task is to provide a safety-ensuring chill early and consistently through the increasingly rapid transportation process. Yet, the matter is not always straightforward, since some pathogens, now more numerous and globalized than ever, have been discovered to flourish in cold temperatures.