How Tech Can Bolster Pandemic Lessons Learned

Columns - From the Advisory Board

It all starts with fostering, supporting and strengthening food safety culture — because everything can only be shaped around people, writes columnist Yves Rey.

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April 13, 2021

The food industry has realized it needs to reinvent itself to face up to the healthy, ethical, sustainable food revolution that has broken out over the last several years and in the face of a global pandemic.

For some years already, the agri-food business has been facing its biggest challenges, from turmoil in domestic and international markets, to shifts in consumer preferences and technology-enabled improvements.

Furthermore, the coronavirus outbreak has also challenged a multitude of traditional ways of working and doing business.

It’s obvious that the COVID-19 pandemic has made even more critical the needs for upgrading and complementing food safety measures or even adding ad-hoc measures in response to the pandemic.

Fortunately, and this couldn’t be more timely, a recent number of digital innovations have been allowing the agri-food business to rethink the following ways it works:

  • The ways the agri-food business conducts trade and complies with new regulations and “wandering” market rules
  • The way products are developed, produced and controlled
  • The ways food safety, quality and sustainability are managed
  • The ways we listen to and communicate to consumers, and how we anticipate and address shifts in their preferences

One of the most important areas in which COVID-19 has turned digitization from “nice to have” to a “must” for many organizations is the way food safety is managed in order to reassure consumers.

It is becoming clear that new smart digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), sensor technologies, collaborative platforms for big data sharing and blockchain offer the potential to help the agri-food business predict, assess, prevent and manage food safety issues.

While concern spiked during the early days of the pandemic last spring, food products and food packaging are believed to pose a very low risk of COVID-19 transmission. According to experts, it is spread mainly through the respiratory tract, unlike viruses and bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses, which spread mainly through the digestive tract.

However, in response to COVID-19, manufacturers and suppliers have changed their operations to help maintain the health of their employees and the safety of their workplaces and their products. These changes have introduced new food safety hazards, requiring companies to re-evaluate and possibly redesign their food safety and HACCP plans.

The best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect your business is through good hygiene practices. The good hygienic practices adopted are the foundation for ensuring food safety, and also form a strong basis for minimizing person-to-person spread and cross-contamination of COVID-19 in food operations.

Today, a new generation of HACCP systems that leverage digital technologies is transforming the way the food business monitors the hygiene management programs. Cloud-based HACCP platforms are providing food facilities with greater flexibility in implementing and monitoring effective hygiene practices that can reduce the risk of food contamination.

When it comes to the ability to better trace and manage supply chains, the pandemic is not a call to close borders and cut ties with global supply chains. Instead, it is an opportunity to integrate processes and share data.

Smart digital technologies and innovations can provide appropriate and adequate solutions.

Blockchain technology can play a vital role in creating a platform for adequately managing potential risks that could occur linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. It has to be adopted more in order to facilitate tighter controls and quicker reaction times.

While technology is an important part of food safety improvements in the time of COVID-19, it’s more than that. It’s also about leadership and creativity. It’s about food safety culture — how everyone thinks and acts in their daily job to make sure the food they make is safe.

Finally, digitalization and big data sharing can help improve food safety culture. At a few companies, an initiative platform has been set up where these companies can share information, intelligence and assessment results in a safe and secure environment with the aim of benchmarking their company, sharing best practices and progress.