Here we are at the beginning of a new year. Perhaps you have made New Year’s resolutions; perhaps they are already broken (mine are!). We are all looking forward to a new and better year—and certainly celebrating that it isn’t 2020 anymore!
Since we are in the mood to look forward, Food Safety Insights wanted to take a look at what changes to food safety we may see in 2021, and in the next few years after as well. How do we do that? It turns out that Food Safety Magazine has a tremendous pool of expertise in all areas of food safety in the form of its editorial advisory board.
We convened a virtual roundtable discussion and asked a range of questions about the current state of food safety, including impacts from COVID-19, regulations, supply chain management, and others. We also asked our experts to look into the future and tell us what they think 2021 may have in store for us and some thoughts—and maybe predictions—on what we may or may not see in the next 2–5 years.
Joining our roundtable discussion were Wendy White, M.Sc., industry manager for Food and Beverage at the Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute, Craig Henry, Ph.D., food safety consultant at Intro Inc., Lone Jespersen, Ph.D., principal at Cultivate Food Safety, Steven Mandernach, Esq., executive director at the Association of Food and Drug Officials, and Will Daniels, president of the Produce Division of IEH Laboratories. I will also mention that I am on the editorial advisory board, so you may see a comment or two of mine, too.
Food Safety Insights: There are always new challenges and priorities in food safety. What do you see as your top priorities for 2021 and the near future?
Wendy White: While continuing to keep a sharp focus on employee protection and business continuity, I believe 2021 will be a time for us to try to get everyone back on track. We will see companies return to normal operations and resume projects, improvements, and initiatives that were interrupted in 2020.
Steven Mandernach: Funding and infrastructure for food safety programs at federal, state, and local levels and in industry need to be a priority. With all the financial challenges associated with the pandemic, the public and private sectors are all looking for ways to cut budgets, but food safety must continue to justify its priority as a funding area.
Lone Jespersen: COVID-19 has caused us to examine many of our practices, and I think it is important for us not to lose the window of opportunity to take learnings from COVID and transfer them to food safety. COVID has caused leaders in food companies to take a better look at hazards and risks throughout their business, and we have an opportunity to translate this to food safety as well. This incorporation of food safety should translate to all aspects of the business, whether it is an expansion of operations, making an acquisition, financial management, etc. Companies should have a fully integrated program to deliver on financial performance, people safety, quality, and food safety, with all of these elements in balance and equally important. This balanced approach creates shared ownership across all functions, making a strong food safety culture much more possible.
Will Daniels: The pandemic has given us an opportunity to recalibrate some systems and take a look at functions like crisis management. These low-probability/high-impact events do not happen often, so it is easy to put off the work that needs to be done, but I think we can now all see how important it is to be prepared. The learnings that we can apply from what we experienced during this pandemic can help us be more prepared for the inevitable next event.
FSI: With the impact from the pandemic, most processors have told us that making sure that their employees could work safely was a top priority. Considering the safeguards that have been put into place, which do you see being permanent?
WW: I think that employee protection has become a heightened responsibility for food safety and quality departments. I do not think any of that is going to go away any time soon, even after the resolution of the pandemic.
SM: Keeping health inspectors and investigators safe has been a primary consideration of food safety regulatory programs all throughout the pandemic, both for their personal protection and also to avoid the potential of inspectors becoming COVID spreaders. In many agencies for the coming months, inspections will be reduced as food safety staff will be assisting with vaccinations. But we will keep doing things differently as a result of the pandemic, including the use of virtual inspection and review activities. These will remain a permanent part of our regulatory toolkit. More nonfield staff are likely to remain home-based as well, which does offer a small cost reduction impact, too.
LJ: I would like to see us maintain our recognition of the frontline food worker and their contributions, and keep our eye on how critical the retention and stability of that workforce is to food safety. I like to refer to the “Iceberg of Ignorance,” where top management understands maybe 4 percent of the details that occur on the plant floor, but the frontline workers understand 100 percent. It would be good to keep this appreciation of how much they can contribute to reducing risks in food safety.
WD: Yes, maintaining the current focus on employee health will be a change that will never be turned off, and I think that will be for the better for all of us. Better employee hygiene and distancing are changes that will have benefits.
FSI: What other permanent changes do you think we will see in response to lessons learned from COVID?
WW: I think you will see much less “just in time” inventory practices, especially for PPE [personal protective equipment] and vital raw materials. The ability to respond to shortages is just not there without some safety stock.
BF: In the previous Food Safety Insights,¹ we discussed these same ideas with Sean Leighton of Cargill, and he mentioned the concept of “just in case” replacing just-in-time. Just-in-time has been considered to be the most efficient way to operate. But after what many processors have learned from the impacts of the pandemic, just-in-time left too little slack in the system, with resultant shortages. Adding some additional supply in the system—just in case—is now being seen not as a waste but as an insurance policy for business continuity.
SM: I do think social distancing is likely to be around for an extended period, particularly in foodservice. I am not sure any of us will be willing to go into a crowded restaurant or bar that is filled to maximum capacity for a long time. This may change the model for many restaurants and foodservice establishments permanently, too. The popularity of drive-throughs seen during the pandemic is not likely to change. Quick carryout will also remain as a key service, replacing some amount of dining in. Convenience stores are also playing a larger role in carryout food.
I think we will also need to take a close look at the changes in delivery services. Traditionally, delivery services have involved a few products—especially pizza—that were delivered within a small radius. In the past year, however, food delivery has exploded and has encompassed more food types delivered from farther away with longer delivery times. These services are likely to continue to grow and will present food safety issues that have not been fully addressed.
Further, COVID-19 highlighted the consolidation of the supply chain and hyperefficiency achieved. It also allowed us to recognize some of the inherent challenges of this level of consolidation and efficiency. Additionally, food ingredients may often be bioproducts from other processes, such as CO₂ being produced as by-product to ethanol production; suddenly, when demand for fuel went down significantly, adequate amounts of CO₂ weren’t being produced via ethanol production. COVID likely will result in a broader understanding of the need to back up suppliers and how to qualify a backup supplier quickly during an emergency.
LJ: I would hope that the focus on fundamental personal hygiene—like handwashing—will remain. This has been something that has been worked on for some time, but perhaps we now have an opportunity for better recognition of its impact. I would also like to see us continue to consider vulnerable populations and how their needs may differ from the many. This is also something in food safety that has been a difficult issue, but perhaps COVID will help in our focus on food safety in these populations.
FSI: There are, of course, many other priorities for food safety. How do you view issues such as supply chain management and control, blockchain, Foreign Supplier Verification Programs, and globalization/deglobalization of supply chains and/or markets?
Craig Henry: Until vaccines are more widely available and food safety inspections resume with enforcement—especially for U.S. imports—food safety within the supply chain will remain risky. Blockchain is a very good scheme. But it requires adoption by all segments of the supply chain and especially smaller operators, many of whom do not use a computer. Also, a standardized global traceability coding platform is paramount along with a global agreement on how such information will be stored and by whom.
WW: I believe we will see a renewed focus on integrating technologies, both those based in IT—such as blockchain—and automation. These can serve to prevent to prevent future interruptions in production, due to unexpected or sudden events such as supply chain interruptions and shortages and workforce reductions.
FSI: How do you think new technologies will impact the market?
CH: I believe we will continue to see the industry move faster and closer to near aseptic processing. Irradiation provides excellent safe food processing, but consumers continue to resist the obvious and instead accept the high risk [that] pathogens pose in certain food types.
WW: Now that virtual, remote auditing has been forced on the industry, I don’t believe that it will go away. Organizations such as GFSI [Global Food Safety Initiative] and FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] are investigating ICT [information and communication technologies] to determine if remote auditing can become equivalent to on-site audits.
WD: Whole-genome sequencing [WGS] will continue to uncover sources of outbreaks and areas of risk that we previously did not recognize or understand. Smaller and geographically separated outbreaks that previously were considered isolated and separate incidents are, through WGS, now being shown to be from a single cause that can now be found and remediated.
FSI: A major link in the food safety chain is customer behavior. What needs to be done to improve how customers prepare and handle food to make it safer?
CH: Consumers continue to demand more RTE [ready-to-eat] food products and spend less time cooking. Blue Apron is a good example of the continuing growing acceptance of commissary food preparation for home consumption. Therefore, labeling remains critical, with repeat advertising by regulators warning consumers to read the label and handle and prepare food safely.
WW: One of the most important advancements to food safety is that FDA and USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] are considering allowing low-dose irradiation to be considered a processing aid and therefore circumventing labeling mandates. This will be huge for the industry and a boon to consumer protection and public health.
SM: This may be another opportunity for us to think about food safety problems differently. Many food safety problems are behavior based, yet how much research and outreach is based on changing these behaviors? Research to find better ways to change these behaviors may likely reduce more foodborne illnesses than other initiatives that do tend to attract research funding. This could become transformational in the effort to reduce illnesses.
FSI: How do you see your job changing in the coming year and near future? Do you foresee any changes in the way you work?
WW: Outside of the food industry, you are seeing a tremendous push to keep remote working status; it will be interesting to see how much of this translates to our industry. As we see an end to the pandemic, I believe we will see a relaxation of social distancing rules, especially ones that slow down line speeds. It really depends on the efficacy and rate of distribution of the vaccine.
WD: Yes, the pandemic has certainly served to illustrate the functions that can effectively be completed remotely using cameras and online tools before someone visits, thereby minimizing the time another person needs to be at the site. I hope that we can complete remote audits and yet keep the on-site learning that the auditor contributes. Even though it is not a primary focus of an inspection, there is a high level of value [in] this consultation. Remote inspections may risk becoming more of a “one way” broadcasting to the inspector, but hopefully we can retain the “two way” cooperation.
SM: The realities of the pandemic have caused us to rethink many of the ways that inspections occur. Once inspections resume at their normal rate, the in-person part of the inspections will likely be faster and more focused, so inspectors can spend less time in facilities. Inspectors will also be more conscious of personal space and distancing. In order to do this, we have been taking a close look at what part of the inspections are essential to do in-person versus some other method. Policies and procedures can certainly be reviewed via Zoom or similar method without an in-person meeting. And, as Will mentioned, in many cases this is indeed an added benefit to the process. We have found it also allows us to have better access to higher-level key people than we might in an in-person-only inspection. A senior manager cannot be at every location for every in-person inspection, but they can join in on a Zoom call. One senior manager commented that he had a better understanding about what was going on in his restaurants by being in on a Zoom call than he would have learned by seeing a report 3–4 days later. This may help raise the profile of food safety and inspections.
FSI: What other future “over the horizon” issues will you be watching or influencing?
WW: I see a whole host of changes associated with what we have already talked about. Managing supply chains differently, adoption of new technologies, better emphasis on employee protection measures, the government’s decision on irradiation classification, remote work, and remote auditing. The pandemic has shed a bright light on all of these issues and given us a lot to work with to make our food safety systems better.
LJ: Data. We have more data available at a lower cost than ever. As the data become more useful and more actionable, we will see far more mature systems with machine learning and artificial intelligence providing better feedback to take better actions quicker. And not just “big” actions but a more agile system of making regular changes, and a shorter “change cycle” that allows us to implement improvements regularly.
Our thanks to these members of the Food Safety Magazine editorial advisory board for their participation in this roundtable and for their insights. We appreciate their contributions to this issue of Food Safety Insights—and to Food Safety Magazine on a year-round basis.