(Editor’s Note: This is an online-only article attributed to the December/January 2019 issue.)
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Today’s consumers have more shopping options than ever, from brick and mortar grocery stores to online storefronts to meal kit delivery services to traditional restaurants, consumers have a lot of options. In addition to increased competition, food service operators and food retailers face unique challenges, like continuously evolving consumer habits and a dynamic global food supply chain. To ensure food safety amidst a changing landscape, it’s important for food service operators and retailers to first understand the complex customer and the food supply chain in more detail, and then how the appropriate tools and right outlook on food safety can make a difference.
The Complex Consumer
Consumer expectations are evolving rapidly and continuously. Not only do they want year-round access to food from around the world, according to Bob Gravani, professor emeritus of Food Science at Cornell University, “Consumers are scrutinizing food and food service establishments more closely.” They are placing a greater emphasis on the food origins, how it’s harvested, processed, transported, potential additives used, whether allergens are present, as well as concerns about food freshness, safety, sustainability, and even the ambience of retail and restaurant environments.
Consumer shopping habits are also evolving. “Today’s consumers are spoiled with regards to food because there are so many options available to them,” says Jean-Jacques Vandenheede, retail insights director, Europe, The Nielsen Company. Rather than completing all of their shopping at one retailer or frequenting only a few restaurants, consumers are exploring more. They may get pre-sorted ingredients from meal delivery kits, unique ingredients from specialty grocery stores, bulk items from quick-ship online retailers, and the remainder of their food from traditional grocery stores and restaurants.
The Food Supply Chain
Today’s food supply chain is growing in complexity, with food coming from many different sources and traveling in different directions to meet consumer demands. This can have a serious impact on food safety in the supply chain. The following are just several examples of issues at the forefront of food safety today.
Food traceability. This is the ability to identify the source of a problem when a lapse in food safety occurs. Today’s technologies are facilitating greater speed and accuracy, however, there are still some connection problems with full accessibility.
Food fraud. A lack of upstream supply chain visibility may lead to more food fraud, or the intentional corruption of food with cheaper ingredients to increase profits. From horse meat being passed off as beef and Italian olive oil that is adulterated with other types of oil, there are widespread cases of food fraud.
Food additives. A complex food chain can make it difficult to know if food additives have been introduced at an earlier stage. When it’s harder to know what’s in the food that we’re consuming, food safety risks may increase. Increasing complexity can also make it difficult to know if specific allergens are present in food.
Unfortunately, food safety risks extend beyond the production, processing, and distribution phases of the supply chain. Once food arrives at food service and retail locations to be served and sold, it can still be contaminated by insufficient storage and handling. Third-party food safety audits conducted by professionals will continue to be key for identifying lapses in onsite food safety processes at restaurants and retail sites. However, Dr. Gravani cautions, “The expertise and experience of auditors and the quality and thoroughness of their audits must be maintained by holding them to stricter standards.” This is because their expertise is needed to grade and rate the state of food safety, although there are many exciting emerging food safety technologies, both third-party and self-audits will continue to be conducted by people. Today’s technologies, from Internet of Things (IoT)-connected solutions to virtual reality training platforms, cannot match the expertise and awareness of a person who is conducting an onsite audit.
Technology Is Vital
Improvements in back-of-house technology are transforming the way organizations approach food safety, such as temperature monitoring sensors. These can be placed in vehicles that transport foods and in freezers and refrigerators in restaurants and stores. Automatic measurements of food temperatures provide more accuracy and labor savings, while also ensuring that fluctuations impacting food safety will not go unnoticed. Data collection can help to identify trends, such as which sites are at an increased risk for lapses in food safety. This awareness helps decision-makers plan accordingly and conduct more frequent food safety audits at higher-risk sites.
Food safety self-auditing has historically been completed by restaurant and store employees with nothing more than a pen and paper. However, electronic data collection is increasingly common today and allows organizations to analyze and identify issues more easily and efficiently, whether they operate at one location or many.
Moving forward, the increasing use of the IoT and big data will further improve food safety efforts. “Sensors on pallets or even individual food products may measure temperature, humidity, infection risks, etc.,” adds Vandenheede. Systems analyzing big data will become more sophisticated, allowing stakeholders to better understand and make decisions about the supply chain.
Employees Are Essential
To maintain and improve food safety, organizations must also invest in the people who will rely on and use the technologies that are being adopted.
Organizations must create a culture of food safety with top-down commitment so that everyone is engaged. Leadership must provide support and follow-up as more time and energy are focused on the education and the training of employees who directly impact food safety. Employees must understand why a food safety task is important, when to do it, how to do it, etc. To do this, training programs should be innovative and capitalize on the principles of adult learning. Today, e-learning is frequently being used in place of classroom training for food business workers because it can provide on-the-spot training via a tablet or a smartphone when an employee encounters a question or concern. It also allows for customizable lessons and tests, making training more relevant and meaningful.
“We now have better equipment, facilities and technologies available, but we must remember that people are still involved in the food safety equation, and that human errors can be made,” says Dr. Gravani. “However, great strides can also be made if organizations provide practical, useful food safety information to workers.” In addition to offering engaging learning opportunities, organizations must remember to recognize successful food safety activities and to use food safety incidents as “a teachable moment,” and as an opportunity to further educate workers so that mistakes aren’t repeated.
Safe Food for Everyone
Changing consumer demands and an increasingly complex food supply chain are forcing retailers and food service operators to look for ways to maintain the integrity and safety of the food they are selling or serving. Organizations now have access to a wealth of data that didn’t exist a decade ago. In years to come, there will be exponential growth in the amount of data available and more advancements in technology. These changes will allow organizations to more easily and quickly identify trends and potential areas of concern and maintain strong food safety cultures.