If the word for 2020 in food safety was adaptation, the word for 2021 will be resilience. COVID-19 will continue to challenge food and beverage manufacturers, and resilience will be needed to address those challenges successfully.

The food industry in 2020 proved that quick and successful adaptation could happen with its response to the coronavirus pandemic, though not without challenges. 

COVID-19 quickly became the largest public health crisis in the past 100 years. Companies learned they did not have enough information, and what information they did have was rapidly evolving. Food firms had to be open to change.

Even simple questions, like whether to wear face masks, became difficult for food firms to answer. The availability of masks was questioned when the World Health Organization initially told the public not to wear masks in order to save personal protective equipment for health care workers. And then, once people were advised to wear masks, the issues became how to procure the needed masks, how to train and educate people on wearing masks, and whether masks needed to be disposed of or could be re-used or washed.

Food firms were able to navigate this, and regulatory sectors adapted as well, moving to virtual inspections and limiting contact.

As companies respond to changes in consumer demand, they become far more adaptable.

Now that these food firms have weathered COVID-19’s initial storm and vaccines are providing a light at the end of the tunnel, there needs to be a change of thinking, from adaption to resilience.

Through adapting, companies are finding new opportunities. Market leaders are emerging from those who are most willing to change. It is not an equipment innovation, an exceptional product, or a unique process that will make market leaders in 2021, it is resiliency.

Dr. David Acheson, CEO and president of The Acheson Group, has four suggestions as to how food firms can become resilient in the face of 2021’s new challenges. Acheson has 30-plus years of industry experience, including being a former commissioner for foods at FDA and  a former chief medical officer at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. This and subsequent articles  will explore each of his four ideas.

Food and beverage manufacturers in 2021 will need resilience in:

  • reducing supply chain risks,
  • addressing consumer-related challenges,
  • facilitating product tracking, and
  • anticipating government oversight.

Reducing supply chain risks
Food safety has seen a number of recent changes, including increasingly complex supply chains.

Acheson points out that regardless where you are in the supply chain, you have customers and suppliers. Even if you have a direct line of sight into the food safety programs of your suppliers, or you purchase products directly, it is possible that those entities may not be the ones responsible for managing major risks. These risks may start all the way back at the farm. To mitigate such risks, those in the food and beverage industry need to know first what the risks are, and second who is addressing them throughout the supply chain.

Risks are always a source of concern for the food industry. Here are a few drawing the most attention right now:

  • Drug and chemical residues, 
  • Heavy metals, including lead and cadmium, 
  • New microbes being found, such as E. coli strains, 
  • New foods being considered high-risk, such as peaches and onions, 
  • Antibiotic resistance challenges,
  • Allergens, and
  • Food contact surfaces for ready-to-eat (RTE) foods.

Companies have had to ensure their supply chain will be able to keep up with demand during a pandemic. They’ve needed to secure multiple backup suppliers. They have had to ask if they should increase orders and warehouse inventory on those items.

“Many companies have had to look elsewhere for key ingredients when their routine suppliers were no longer able to meet their demands,” Acheson said.

He also points to how improvements in epidemiology have uncovered new risks.

“For instance, (fresh) peaches and onions, which were previously considered low-risk foods, were both linked to salmonella outbreaks (in 2020.) Technology has also enabled whole genome sequencing, which can be effective for tracking the original sources of such outbreaks but puts added pressure on food companies to tighten their food safety measures even further.”

The strategies companies have used to deal with COVID-19 can be used as examples of how to deal with problems in the future.

Food firms have to make contingency plans. In 2020 we saw some companies goes as far as having emergency warehouses.

From a regulatory perspective, some food firms must navigate stores across multiple states and cities with different COVID-19 restrictions. They must stay well-informed amid constant changes. They must work to comply with varying requirements and the interpretations of those requirements.

Industry collaboration has helped companies put together best practices.

The pandemic forced food firms to change the ways in which food is produced, transported and marketed. Manufacturers’ ability to work together has made this type of change possible. Networks were built to give feedback to companies.

Supplier management and leveraging technology
Companies’ ability to manage food safety risks often comes down to how they track all the information they receive. The strategies companies implement must include risk-based programs with COAs (certificates of authenticity) and reviews of third-party audits to promote food safety from every link in the supply chain.

“Controlling these risks must be a team effort, especially because companies find themselves bombarded with paper,” Acheson said. “Missing just a single COA could introduce risk, which is why supplier management presents an excellent opportunity to leverage technology.”

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here)