How we put food on the table looked different in 2020. Prepandemic, the biggest challenge stressing our global food system was how to keep it thriving to feed the world’s estimated 10 billion people by 2050.¹ As I explained in an earlier article in this magazine, our food system is under volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) challenges. While the VUCA acronym was first coined by the U.S. Army War College to describe the rate of the turbulent and unpredictable forces dynamically changing an environment or organization, VUCA also accurately describes the global food system disruptions incited by the pandemic. These disruptions left many grocery shelves empty and the residual effects can still be seen in the system today.

More than a year after coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) forever changed our way of life and further strained our food system, we face greater VUCA challenges as a result of new vulnerabilities caused by the pandemic. In March 2020, the food system quickly shifted from its everyday challenges and long-term planning for sustainability to operating within a disaster scenario. In a matter of days, the VUCA environment morphed into:

Volatility: The rapid and unpredictable rate of change. The pandemic revealed our strengths to pivot quickly—shifting from swift restaurant closures to increased food deliveries. We saw our weaknesses exposed, such as not having systems in place to move quickly from foodservice to food retail distribution, creating ripple effects and spot outages throughout the system and leading to empty retail shelves and extraordinary lines at food assistance locations. We observed food manufacturers develop creative solutions and surge capacity to alleviate the supply disruptions.

Uncertainty: The need for secondary suppliers when primary options weren’t available. Companies whose end markets were 70 percent foodservice and 30 percent retail had to rapidly flip their model in a matter of weeks. This necessitated repackaging, relabeling, new size and weight configurations, and the need to secure and vet new suppliers. In addition to having to navigate new, or different, labeling requirements and import and export constraints on ingredients and packaging, companies had to rapidly communicate with suppliers to implement product mix, packaging, and distribution changes. Uncertainty in the transportation sector amplified many of the issues. As different states and localities shifted and modified stay-at-home orders, availability of trucks for distribution became a bottleneck as drivers had difficulties navigating the changing orders across the country, including for things as seemingly simple as accessing food and places to rest while on the road. Overall, these uncertainties slowed food distribution when consumers were already panic buying, which fed into a vicious cycle of fear of food shortage and more panic buying.

Complexity: Our interconnected food system. If the pandemic has shown nothing else, it has truly illuminated how complex the food system is. Every consumer in the U.S. probably knows more now about the interconnections within the food system than they did previously. For example, many learned why dairy farmers in Wisconsin dumped milk when grocery stores throughout the country were struggling to keep milk stocked, or how illness in food workers can lead to meat outages and high prices at retail, while at the same time, farmers are forced to euthanize animals. Almost every food producer throughout the food system—farm to fork—experienced issues with labor availability, supply chain disruptions, and temporary inability to source products, internationally and domestically, while at the same time implementing changes to protect the health of their workforce. In many cases, this complexity on top of complexity required a reenvisioning of how a facility can operate. The pandemic truly highlighted how the food system is an intricately balanced, just-in-time system of systems.

Ambiguities: In policy and regulations. As the spot outages and ripples throughout the system began to emerge and grow, the food system adapted. Food deliveries rapidly increased, solutions to redirect larger foodservice-packaged foods were developed, and shifts in consumer behavior emerged. These all create different vulnerabilities, and many include the need for clarity and ownership of food safety policy and regulations. For example, federal action shifted labeling regulations to state and local levels, creating ambiguities for food producers about which level of regulations to follow. Changing consumer behavior created additional ambiguities and placed further stress on resources available to address them. For example, as food delivery grew exponentially, the lack of regulation within the sector meant that consumers were receiving food regulated by ambiguous food safety standards. In 2019, it was reported² that one in four delivery drivers admitted to sampling food they delivered, and there is no reason to suspect it was different in 2020. In the lack of a regulatory environment to secure deliveries, the private sector created its own solutions, which remain a patchwork today, perpetuating the ambiguity.

As we continue to adapt and work through the impacts of the global pandemic, the rate of change and the VUCA nature of the food system are not going to calm. However, while our industry went into crisis mode, we can take comfort that the food system didn’t stop. Instead, it adjusted, flexed, morphed, retooled, and rose to the emerging challenges. Not once during the pandemic did we experience a system-wide food shortage. Spot outages, yes; stocking issues with our favorite brands and flavors, still happening; distribution issues in food assistance networks, requiring our collective help; but still, there haven’t been food shortages. However, after a full year of producing food during a pandemic, the questions become:

  • In a postpandemic era, as we begin to write a new chapter for food safety, manufacturing, delivery, dining, and more, how do we respond to the new and pressing VUCA challenges?
  • How will we use the vulnerabilities that have emerged to make radical shifts in the way we work together, treat each other, evolve our systems and processes, and more?
  • How can we be an innovative and bold industry that makes employee health and safety a priority?
  • How can we embrace flexibility to adapt to the speed of change?

Simply put, what got us here is not going to get us where we need to go. To have sustainable solutions to feed billions of people worldwide, the food industry needs to embrace systems thinking. The pandemic exposed the challenges we need to address. We cannot continue to work in silos where decisions are made from narrow viewpoints. This shift in thinking requires leaders to broaden their knowledge and open their understanding so that solutions can emerge outside their given area within the food system. This holistic approach to problem solving requires strong partnerships, collaboration, and the curiosity for continuous learning.

As the director of the University of Minnesota’s Integrated Food Systems Leadership (IFSL) program and the Food Protection and Defense Institute, I consult with food producers and manufacturers to analyze and understand the vulnerabilities of our complex food system. Additionally, I created the IFSL program’s network of industry advisors, from organizations such as Ecolab, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Land O’Lakes, and General Mills, to tap into their expertise and share it with the IFSL program’s emerging leaders. As a result of these various initiatives, I have the benefit of learning from professionals with varying perspectives in all corners of our global food system.

Based on collaboration with my broad network throughout the pandemic, several key areas have emerged as opportunities for our food system to reimagine itself to forge ahead postpandemic. If not addressed through industry collaboration and resolution, our current siloed, reactive approaches will further stress our global food system and put future generations in jeopardy.

The Importance of Our Essential Workers

What is more essential than getting food produced safely? During the pandemic, it became starkly apparent that the health and safety of the food industry workforce must be prioritized. Until March 2020, food system workers weren’t referenced in our society as “essential”; they were behind-the-scenes workers. The pandemic, however, shifted society’s perception of the food industry workforce. It is now recognized that without this workforce, the food system would completely break down.

Prepandemic, labor shortages were an area of concern in the food system. Retaining, recruiting, and training professionals across the food system, particularly in rural areas, challenged many producers and manufacturers. Many of these roles require significant training and skill, yet may be viewed as unskilled or have wages that are not competitive. An added strain and key disruptor that quickly emerged in the pandemic was the health and safety of employees. As we witnessed, without a healthy workforce, our food system fails—not only by putting our essential workers at risk but also through ripples along the supply chains that disrupt distribution of food to consumers.

Continuous monitoring of the health and safety of our employees and adapting processes to prioritize the value of a skilled and stable workforce are imperative to keeping the food system functional. Moreover, there is a growing recognition that our primary agriculture workers—those in fields and barns that are growing, harvesting, and planting—are also at risk. Fortunately, there are many groups providing recommendations on how to protect agriculture employees and communities where they work and reside.

Seven Midwestern agriculture leaders³ emphasized in a video message their appreciation for essential agricultural and food workers and reiterated the importance of precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to keep the food supply strong. As Tamara Nelsen has witnessed as executive director for the Minnesota AgriGrowth Council, the type of collaboration and leadership demonstrated by the state Department of Agriculture leaders is necessary for the food industry. Their combined voices focus attention on the need to stand up for the health and safety of the industry’s essential workers.

In addition, COVID-19 has allowed those who lead food safety efforts to improve how employees are educated and impact organizational and personal behavior shifts. These shifts help keep employees and consumers safe while providing a safe and steady supply of food. The simple act of handwashing—which has always been stressed as the number one way to prevent the spread of illness—soon resurfaced as an important preventive training topic.

As an example, during the pandemic, Jeanine Flaherty, senior vice president of food safety, quality assurance, and R&D at Schlotterbeck & Foss, witnessed the positive effects of how a workforce responds to food safety and compliance in the workplace. With restaurants reopening after temporary closures, there was a need to balance speed with safety, but the pandemic created the opportunity to improve food safety measures, and heightened employee awareness. Contact tracing and less hands-on activity at restaurants (e.g., menu-less) were now being built into processes. The preemptive and proactive steps, along with clear and continual communication about food safety, mitigate risk and educate employees and consumers about their important roles in food safety.


Investing and Allocating Resources

Food delivery services were not new before the pandemic, but even then, regulations were not consistent and often lacking. It took the surge in home delivery and takeout service to shine a spotlight on the need for greater oversight. Joseph Scimeca, Ph.D., senior vice president of regulatory and scientific affairs at the International Dairy Foods Association, explains there has been minimal federal oversight of food delivery because, for the most part, these operations don’t cross state lines, and hence, the current expectation is for regulations to be established at the state and local levels. He points out that adequate funding and resources are not being allocated at the state and local levels to ensure that the appropriate procedures and processes are being developed for proper food safety. When faced with already limited resources, many states shifted their inspection staffing from restaurants to agriculture production and food manufacturing. Without government funding to support the needed guidelines, regulations, and staffing, the service industry continued to chart its own course, which led to the current increase in food safety risks.

How do we ensure successful public-private partnerships to identify consistent safety procedures for food delivery? Within the food system, meaningful change occurs when stakeholders develop a deeper knowledge of issues, take the time to listen and learn about varying perspectives, and take collaborative action. This includes taking ownership of what has happened and providing assurances that corrective actions are in place, so the same mistakes won’t happen again. Goals and common ground need to be established between government and industry. The food industry has to collaborate more with regulators and see them as partners, not adversaries. This requires intentional collaboration and looking out for the best interest of the collective. Consumers expect and deserve this.

Other areas where leaders and organizations need to invest time and resources is in preventive maintenance and crisis planning. Because the rate of change won’t slow down—and we’ve learned to expect uncertainty—developing alternative and adaptable plans with a continued focus on safety for emergency planning is a must. Bold leaders need to invest resources to ensure infrastructure is in place for unlikely events, including natural disasters and future pandemics.

Investment in Technology

Our digital and virtual way of life has dramatically changed how we live; just think about the rate of change in the last 5 to 10 years. However, the food industry has not kept pace with the technology and data-driven advances nearly as well as other industries. To thrive and continue to deliver food products that consumers demand and trust, the food system must transition to a digitized and analytical way of operating. Additionally, the right technology will equip our food safety professionals with the tools to make spontaneous decisions about supply shifts, so they’re not caught off guard in a replay of 2020.

For the industry to thrive, Lisa Robinson, vice president, global food safety and public health at Ecolab, suggests the use of technology for predictive analytics and traceability from farm to fork. With improved data visibility and transparency, supply chains will be streamlined, from growers to producers. Better food safety and freshness are benefits of traceability, but a decentralized record can help the food system—and consumers—reduce food fraud and costly recalls.

The investment needed in technology is by no means small and will require a massive overhaul of operations at all levels, from agricultural production and processing through distribution, communication, and delivery of goods to consumers. In addition to creating a more efficient, interconnected food system, technology advances will provide new job opportunities and attract talent from other sectors. Historically, the food and agriculture industry has been viewed as stodgy and predictable. A leading-edge, technology- and data-driven industry will bring in new talent that can provide innovations necessary to sustainably feed billions for years to come.


Building Consumer Trust and Engagement

With increased technology, the food system can be more efficient to better serve consumers. In an era where information is just a click away, as food leaders, we have a responsibility to disseminate timely and relevant food safety and quality information to the public. Historically, consumers have put full trust in food manufacturers and producers to deliver safe products, but today’s consumers demand more. As consumers insist on greater transparency in production, sourcing, labeling, and food marketing, we have an opportunity—as an industry—to better educate consumers and build enhanced trust. How can we embrace this positive shift of consumers wanting more information to improve the food system from our individual food facilities to the global level? How will we educate and empower consumers about the essential role they play across the food system?


Compassionate, Bold Leadership

“Managers will tell people what to do. Leaders will inspire people how to do it.” – Jeff Weiner, executive chairman at LinkedIn.

To address the VUCA challenges that will continuously be part of our interconnected food systems, we need leaders who have solid technical skills and knowledge in their areas of expertise. But even that will not be enough. We need leaders who strive to understand the implications of their decisions outside their sphere. True leadership goes beyond making decisions to appease stakeholders. It extends to an understanding and willingness to evaluate the potential future impacts as well.

In a crisis, decisions must be made quickly while also soliciting input within an organization and from outside stakeholders. Successful leaders who embrace a systems approach can achieve this much faster as they utilize their skills to collaborate cross-functionally. These leaders can creatively think and formulate plans and solutions—not by sitting behind a desk but by actively engaging across their teams who execute the day-to-day work.

Additionally, successful organizations have leaders who have built a strong foundation of trust and have established alignment with employees on how their work drives a company’s mission forward. In an increasing world of telecommuting, this will require leaders with the capacity to connect and build relationships virtually. Similarly, within plants and other food operations, increasing automation and technology may reduce and isolate employees. Given that many key food industry actions start on the plant floor, operations managers will also need to possess this same high level of interpersonal leadership skills to build mutual trust and shared values among their teams, which is critical for ensuring the safety, quality, and timeliness of food being produced.

Resiliency Has Moved Us Forward

As food system leaders, we will continue to face VUCA challenges on the way to sustainably feeding generations to come, but this year has shown us that we must pivot, not panic, as we make changes. While COVID-19 identified our areas of opportunity to improve the food system, it also showed our ability to adapt and problem-solve through flexibility and agility. This past year has shown us that we can do more than we imagine. At the end of 2019, would you have even considered it possible that you and your role could make the changes you’ve made since then? We have all achieved more than we thought possible. Joseph Scimeca cited an example of where the food system balanced speed and flexibility during COVID-19: the lifting of noncritical regulations on food labeling. Products originally destined for foodservice aren’t required to provide nutritional information. During the pandemic, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted enforcement discretion for the sale of food products labeled for foodservice to be sold through retail. Some of these foodservice products were sold in bulk through outlets like Costco and Sam’s Club, where consumers were used to purchasing larger quantities like those in foodservice products, and consumers were easily able to find missing nutrition information online. This shows how being flexible and agile mitigated disruption and diverted food waste—a systems-thinking approach to an issue.

Moving forward, resilience will need to be reexamined so that efficiencies aren’t solely evaluated through economies of scale. Smart leaders will see the benefits of alternative supply chains to have a more adaptable framework for production. As an example, how will we use our recent learnings to determine when to install equipment or processing lines that could more quickly pivot between foodservice and retail?

Big, systemic change will not happen overnight. As leaders, we must foster a culture of enhanced collaboration that drives discovery and innovation across the continuum of the food system. As I emphasize and teach in the IFSL program, professionals and leaders in the food industry need to be far more proactive. As an industry, we need to ensure we equip leaders with knowledge and skills to anticipate obstacles and how decisions will have impacts both upstream and downstream. We can limit disruption by being adaptive, which can be achieved only by embracing a holistic, systems-thinking approach.

While new technologies, enhanced skills, and updated systems are needed, let’s remember that if we’re to move the food system forward with less disruption, we need bold leaders who understand the intricacies and ripple effects of the VUCA challenges. The vitality of our food system requires emerging leaders who are prepared to break down boundaries and barriers. Leaders who understand that decisions outside their sphere will be essential to plan for impacts from natural disasters, or another pandemic, and to create a more responsive and resilient food system in the future. This is the mission of the University of Minnesota’s IFSL program—to grow leaders to feed the future—leaders who are forward thinking and realize that they can impact issues outside their area of expertise. As food system leaders, we must stay curious and invest in our growth, and in the growth of those we lead, to ensure we have skills to problem-solve, negotiate, think critically, and implement bold solutions.

Years from now, generations will look back to see if food industry leaders of 2021 made bold systemic changes both to address the effects of COVID-19 and to prepare for the climate crisis that is facing us.

How will we pave a new path forward? The answers are in our hands.


Jennifer van de Ligt, Ph.D., is the director of the Integrated Food Systems Leadership program, director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute, and associate professor at the University of Minnesota.

This article was originally published in the April/May 2021 issue of Food Safety Magazine.