It’s been more than 100 years since Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle hit shelves. Since then, most consumers feel relatively comfortable and safe with current food standards; however, as consumer habits continue to evolve, with more food being purchased online and distributed through a network of unknown entities, the bad news is that we are not out of the jungle yet. About 48 million people in the U.S. (one in six) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year from foodborne diseases, according to recent data from CDC.
The last mile of food delivery could prove to be one of the most dangerous unless some real changes are made. Currently, around 60% of Americans order takeout or delivery at least once a week. There is no sign of a slowdown in online ordering; it’s growing 300% faster than in-house dining. And they want it fast, faster, fastest: 33% of consumers say they would pay a higher fee for faster delivery.
When you combine this online growth with a high demand for speed, a thick jungle of food consumption dangers lies ahead.
Innovation without Regulation
The COVID-19 pandemic demanded innovation and rapid acceleration from last mile food delivery options. Consumers prioritized safety over all else and looked for options that allowed them to avoid crowded grocery stores and restaurants. Distanced drop-offs and fast home delivery options became the norm for many consumers.
This rapid innovation existed in a vacuum, however, without government regulations. A gap was created between social distancing safety and food consumption safety. While cooked food models are relatively safe, groceries and meal kits face large risks around refrigeration and contamination. Food shipped directly to consumer homes needs to stay at a safe temperature to prevent the growth of germs that could cause serious illness. This includes mail-order food and subscription meal kits, according to the CDC.
Currently, there are many factors that could lead to food safety failures. The most basic of these are human error, limited professional equipment, and a gap in training programs. While intentions may be good, a lack of knowledge around contamination and cold-chain management could put individuals who rely on last mile delivery at risk.
The reliance of many local last mile programs on gig workers increases risk. Average, untrained people looking to supplement their income could unintentionally cross-contaminate groceries. For example, accidental placement of raw fish or meat alongside vulnerable raw produce items, or even simple mix-ups for those with food allergies, could be deadly.
Now, as COVID-19 cases wane and we are in a safer environment, businesses must take a moment to evaluate their last mile delivery structures and prioritize beyond distance drop-offs and fast home delivery.
Keep Ahead of the Curve
Innovation is typically driven by one of two things: consumer demand or litigation. Life during the COVID-19 pandemic saw innovation by way of consumer demand; however, the risks listed above could force demand by way of litigation if businesses are not proactive. Rather than wait for these events to happen, some companies are choosing to innovate ahead of the curve and solve problems before they arise.
A strong example of this type of problem solving comes from Japanese logistics company Yamato Holdings. The company wanted to reduce last mile delivery risks to build trust in the industry, grow the market, and expand its business globally. Yamato Holdings partnered with BSI to develop a food delivery standard, known commonly as a Publicly Available Specification (PAS), for their company to follow. The fast-track standard establishes best practice in refrigerated delivery services, bringing benefits for both businesses and consumers.
The creation of PAS 1018, which has since been adopted by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), defines good practice in a fast-growing and important industry, helping to protect and reassure consumers, expand the global market, and position Yamato as a trustworthy leader in the field.
Standards provide a solid foundation for organizations to operate in great periods of change. The United States adopted The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2011 to transform its food safety landscape and ensure that higher standards were met across the country. While FSMA prompted rapid change that includes cold chain controls for portions of the delivery phase, innovation across the industry has left room for error in the food industry. The rise of mobile applications, consumer ordering behaviors, and pressure on businesses for speed and delivery options have all added to the risk factors across the past 11 years.
The solution to many of these modernizations is simple: updated standards. When companies like Yamato update standards to fit the modern environment, they significantly reduce the risk of litigation and consumer complaints. Some updates from the comprehensive PAS included:
- Monitoring and improving the refrigerated delivery service, including parcel handling;
- Transportation of chilled or frozen parcels in temperature-controlled vehicles via geographical routing systems;
- Requirements for resources, equipment, operations, and communications; and
- Conditions for operation sites, work instructions, operational manuals, and staff training.
The results of adopting these standards can bring companies dividends for years to come. Having stringent standards helps build trust with consumers, partners, and investors alike, and ultimately expands businesses. Standards also push industries to increase quality and consistency to remain competitive. Finally, they are better for our consumers; consumers who enjoy safe, quality food will ultimately have a better quality of life.
While we are not out of the jungle yet, we have been given strong tools to help us forge a path forward. By adopting rigorous standards and holding last service deliverers accountable, it is possible for us to better regulate the innovations that came about during the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be up to businesses to proactively monitor for food safety issues and try to become leaders in safety before pressures from governments and consumers make it a mandate. Those organizations that choose to use globally recognized standards, like ISO 23412, an international standard that aims to set guidelines for refrigerated delivery service providers, to prove their promise of safe food distribution will have a competitive advantage in a highly competitive industry.