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Maintaining food safety in times of crisis

While the coronavirus crisis has introduced new challenges to food safety, the time has come for businesses to build more resilient supply chains going forward.

Under the unprecedented global pandemic of COVID-19, the food and beverage industry has had to think quickly on its feet—responding and reacting to an unfolding situation that seemed to impact everything from ingredients supply to consumer trust and the safety of workers.

Now, as much of Europe begins to emerge from various movement restrictions and return to work, obstacles remain for businesses looking to reopen while maintaining the best standards of food safety.

In a recent webinar organised by Fi Global Insights, experts in food strategy and supply chain management discussed the challenges to managing supply chain and food safety risks, as well as the opportunities for change in the time ahead.

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Evaluating the risks and moving forward

Opening the webinar was Rob Kooijmans, co-founder and CEO of the Food Strategy Institute—who remarked that microbiology has always been the biggest concern in food safety, making COVID-19 the “new kid on the block” for the industry.

While COVID-19 is not a foodborne virus, its rapid spread has widely impacted the global supply chain at multiple levels including disrupting the availability of supplies, closing factories, and limiting cross-border travel.

Martin D’Agostino, who heads Virology research at Campden BRI, believes that the main priority for food businesses returning to work will be making risk assessments that cover enhanced cleaning procedures and protective measures for employees.

With regards to how COVID-19 can spread quickly and without detection, D’Agostino explained that:

“The risk assessment should focus on the social distancing aspect within the food business—ensuring people have the correct Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) because, of course, there is always the unseen risk—where you have potentially asymptomatic people, those who don’t show any symptoms but could have the infection.”

He also emphasised that hand hygiene and stringent cleaning standards were already the norm in the industry, but that there may be situations where businesses will have to go beyond these standards to maintain the safety of products, workers, and consumers.

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Building resilience into the system

For companies to truly understand the risks to their operations, it takes a thorough understanding of every link in a supply chain—a skill that John G. Keogh stressed was lacking in the food industry today.

As a seasoned advisor on Supply Chain Management, Keogh introduced the notion of “systems thinking” and how it could change the way businesses work:

“We must understand the systems that we operate within and how they interoperate with other systems. This is very important to understand because there is, what we call, the cascading consequences of system failures.… It’s not good enough just to know and understand what regulation is, because regulation impacts various levels of our supply chain in different ways—whether its farming, processing, retail or even out to the consumers.”

A key suggestion from the webinar was that digitisation would be critical for the food industry, as they seek new ways to map out the supply chain and develop resilience across the board.

While specialised technology would enable real-time visibility of manufacturing processes, Keogh warned that a tech-first approach would have to be done with care to protect the integrity of the systems.

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Signalling the right message

The increased worry over food safety has not been limited to within the industry, and food business operators are having to deal with the concerns of consumers who are unfamiliar with the food chain and its safety standards. As D’Agostino said:

“Consumers, customers, and purchasers of various products began asking the companies themselves about the safety of the foods that they supply, and what risk was posed by handling and eating them.”

All the speakers agreed that clear and open lines of communication between managers, staff, and consumers was necessary to prevent confusion and provide clarity on new risks and procedures in food safety.

It is in difficult times that good leaders stand out from the crowd, said Kooijmans, explaining that:

“Leaders and leadership during a crisis is equally important as organising yourself, so leaders should listen emphatically, give comfort and reassurance, and provide help when necessary… but also be visible and communicate.”

Dealing with the aftermath

In the end, the experts believed that the current COVID-19 outbreak would change the way the food industry looks at crisis management going forward.

Risk assessments and crisis preparedness should be viewed as highly necessary functions for establishing food safety, and the time is ripe to make these a priority within business operations.

The work doesn’t stop after pandemic passes, and Kooijmans urged businesses to reflect on their response to the COVID-19 outbreak so that when an emergency strikes in future, they will be better prepared to face the storm:

“Not unimportantly, companies and also governments in this sense, should really take the opportunity once the crisis dies down to actually sit back and look at it from a distance and evaluate: what has happened? What things did we do well, what things didn’t we do well, and how could we have done things in a better way?”

Watch on demand: Impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on Food Safety

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