Amazon is Delivering Food Safety

Features - Cover Story

Amazon’s innovative approach to food safety starts with the customer and works backward.

February 8, 2021

Allison Jennings, Amazon’s Director, Worldwide Food Safety, Compliance and Quality
All photos: © Jake Gravbrot

Leadership principles may be a fairly common initiative of business, but applying those principles every day in every way is not necessarily as common. In fact, Amazon sees its daily application of its 14 Leadership Principles as “just one of the things that makes Amazon peculiar.” Peculiar or not, two of those principles are key to driving Amazon’s food safety team, said Allison Jennings, Amazon’s director, worldwide food safety, compliance and quality.

• Customer Obsession. “Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.”

• Invent and Simplify. “Leaders expect and require innovation and invention from their teams and always find ways to simplify. They are externally aware, look for new ideas from everywhere and are not limited by ‘not invented here.’ As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time.”

Customer heartbeat.

The principle of customer obsession is evident in nearly every aspect of Amazon’s food safety initiatives. “Our biggest driver of innovation is our customers themselves,” Jennings said. In fact, taking the pulse of its customers is a key source of its proactive food safety initiatives. That pulse, its Heartbeat Customer Feedback Monitoring program, leverages customer reviews, return comments, questions and answers, and customer service input to develop a proactive approach to detect safety concerns before incidents occur, and then drive safety and compliance processes.

Heartbeat is a complex classification system through which Amazon continually monitors and analyzes more than 45 million pieces of customer feedback a week across 14 languages, translating an additional 54 languages to English.

That customer feedback is then leveraged to train predictive systems to proactively assure safety. Rather than responding to safety-related events after they occur, the vast majority of Amazon’s product investigation work takes action to prevent safety issues from ever occurring.

It achieves this by doing the following:

  1. Through machine learning tools, Amazon calculates the relative distance between products it sells and those that have received a safety-related concern.
  2. Where a positive correlation exists, it predicts the severity of a potential issue and likelihood of a similar occurrence.
  3. Amazon removes the item from the website, stops selling the product and requests vendor/manufacturer documentation to substantiate food safety and compliance.
  4. To close the investigation, either proof is received and the item reinstated, or the product is removed from sale and relisting prevented.

An example of this was the Dec. 1, 2017, detection of several food safety concerns with a dietary supplement. Amazon stopped selling the product the same day and initiated an investigation with the manufacturer, with the result that the product was not put back up for sale. Almost two months later, that product was recalled due to undisclosed allergens. The side effects matched Amazon’s detected feedback almost exactly.

When customer feedback mentions any food safety concern, the system immediately classifies it as a signal of a potentially serious safety issue. “Once we identify a product that may be unsafe, we immediately remove it from sale while we investigate and take appropriate action, which could include a recall,” Jennings said.

But true to the Invent and Simplify principle, Amazon does not limit itself to only internally built technology for safety processes and innovation. Rather, the company also will use what is readily available in industry, then potentially build on it internally.

Data-driven food safety.

One example is that of traceability. With the recent launch of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) proposed traceability rule, Amazon has been looking at opportunities to leverage technology to track and trace product through the supply chain.

While assessing its own systems’ capabilities to capture identifying information, Amazon is looking toward other technology solutions to assist with that, including machine learning and the Internet of Things. Specifically, Amazon is working on traceability of lot codes, as are many in the industry, and keeping its eye on the proposed rule.

“We are eager to see how the proposed rule shakes out long term, but we’re also getting started on traceability,” Jennings said. To leverage technology before foods can be sold, Amazon already implements proactive upstream controls to monitor consumables from vendors and sellers that are distributed through stores and online. “We don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach because of the diverse nature of the products, so we use a risk-based approach to determine supplier requirements and enforcement measurements,” she said.

For example, Amazon will consider a number of factors including the intended customer and the product type to develop the specific program for the product to be sold on its website.

But there also are general food safety practices with which all consumables must be in compliance. “We look across all compliance measurements and focus on trying to develop standardized approaches that we can later automate if at all possible,” Jennings said.

Associate training.

“From the training perspective, we’re always looking for ways to keep associates engaged; to help them understand compliance requirements and activities and ‘must haves’ in their process,” Jennings said.

Again, the Amazon food safety team follows the Invent and Simplify principle, “looking for ways that we can simplify our compliance approaches for our associates responsible for executing them,” Jennings said. Seeking to streamline the process and take some of the “super high judgment decisions from a compliance perspective off the shoulders of associates,” Amazon is implementing technology to drive food safety.

Thus, Amazon has implemented automated real-time, compliance-driven prompts that remind associates of critical steps to take during an operation’s workflow. For example, Amazon requires the separate bagging of produce, meats, cleaning products, etc., to prevent cross-contamination. So it has established tech-driven prompts within the app tools through which associates fulfill orders — such as “bag this item.” Although Amazon also provides upfront training in these areas as well, Jennings said, “We have seen a tremendous increase in compliance by providing prompts in the tools.”

The food safety team is also looking at leveraging virtual reality through technology that is readily available in the industry. One example is a pilot program for its retailers that walks the associate through the requirements of deli slicing and handling. Having received great feedback, Jennings said, “It’s proven to be a fun experience for associates but drives the compliance requirements as well.”

With the prompts having shown that real-time food safety, compliance and quality coaching tools are effective in both training and enforcing safety and quality requirements, Amazon is continuing to add more prompts to the tool.

Amazon also works on strategies to engage with both customers and associates on food safety education — proactively to maintain the safety of the food products they purchase online and reactively if a product is recalled. For example, customer alerts are sent to remind them to refrigerate chilled and frozen items when their order is placed, out for delivery and received.

Working with Amazon.

If a food producer is considering Amazon as a retailer, it should keep a few key considerations in mind — all of which revolve around the customer. Beyond food safety, innovation and technology, another key aspect is that of a “frictionless commerce experience.” “We’re obsessed with providing customers a frictionless commerce experience through our online and retail channels,” Jennings said.

Amazon implements its safety-based approach to determine supplier requirements and enforcement measures. The potential seller then undergoes a verification process, with specific protocols and requirements that are evaluated and vetted before approval is given.

“Look for opportunities to be able to engage with Amazon and the opportunity to expand the selections,” Jennings said of anyone looking to sell on Amazon. “Then reach out to respective teams that are responsible for onboarding suppliers.”

Virtual Audits.

Just as COVID-19 has impacted the entire industry, it affected Amazon’s ability to conduct onsite audits of its retail sites and suppliers. So the company established a joint pilot program with Whole Foods Market, which the company owns, and industry auditing experts to evaluate the potential deployment of virtual audits.

“At the onset of COVID, we quickly realized that travel bans would prevent us from physically visiting sites or facilities to conduct our traditional compliance work,” Jennings said. So leveraging a variety of technology solutions became critical to maintaining the integrity of its food safety programs.

It is an initiative that Jennings expects to continue. “I think there’s an opportunity to leverage that type of tool and experience for ongoing auditing activities,” she said.

It just makes sense, she said. “Being able to set up an audit even faster, not having to coordinate people coming into a facility — for different parts of supply chain verification, I think it makes a lot of sense.”

Working backward.

To Amazon’s food safety team, the Customer Obsession and Invent and Simplify principles mean “keeping a laser focus on our customers and what they’re telling us, ensuring that we’re implementing new controls and taking their insights to implement into our processes.”

The principles mean continuing to look for ways to invent and automate compliance processes to enable associates in their day-to-day execution. And they mean participating in industry organizations with regulators, academia and other food safety leaders.

“I think there’s a huge opportunity for collaboration when you’re working together in those forums [on] how to solve complex problems that we all face and look to identify root causes and determine solutions as well,” Jennings said.

The author is owner of LJ Writing Services and a member of QA’s Advisory Board.