Surviving the Next “Big One”

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Lessons learned from Florence, Michael, and other unnamed natural disasters.

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December 12, 2018
Lisa Lupo

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With natural disasters occurring more frequently and extensively, food processors need to take a hard look at their disaster planning, in both preparation and recovery. As with so many practices of this industry, no two facilities will have the exact same plan as it will be based not only on the products and processes of the facility, but also on the disaster risk most associated with the geographic area (such as hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, wildfires, etc.).

Additionally, there will be variation in the planning for different natural disasters. As North Carolina’s Assistant Commissioner for Consumer Protection Joe Reardon explained, “Hurricanes allow for more advance planning in most cases. Other natural disasters don’t always allow for advance planning.”

Because of this, less predictive events emphasize the need for companies and businesses to have a prepared business continuity plan, said Lance Reeve, Nationwide senior risk management consultant for Food Safety and Food Defense Systems Agribusiness. “You can’t plan for every type of disaster, but you can have a plan of how you will respond to a disaster.”

NATURAL DISASTER PREPARATION. Natural disasters can affect the food industry in many ways, on the farm, in processing, through transportation, and at retail. As such, advance preparation for pending natural disasters may include protecting assets, moving assets such as valuable equipment out of harm’s way, and, when possible, harvesting crops in advance, moving livestock to safe locations, and/or moving critical pieces of equipment or specialty or limited supply raw materials and ingredients to safe/secure locations. Consider the key items that are necessary to resume operations as quickly as possible.

“The food industry, from farm to fork, needs to have a plan in place preparing for and recovering from natural disasters,” Reeve said. “Planning for these events should be done by all key business units of a company with a goal of protecting key business activities so the organization can continue to function.” (For a listing of resources that can help businesses be prepared for disruptive events, see Resources, page 26.)

As a general rule, disaster planning should address the most likely hazards associated with food safety issues, Reardon said. He recommended that the food processing facility consider having a well-developed continuity of operations plan (COOP) and food safety plan that address the ability to handle, store, and preserve food products that require temperature controls. In addition, he said, “A remote notification system that alerts management when the temperatures are out of specification can provide critical information.”

Employee communication also should be an integral component of the business continuity plan, Reeve said. Determine how the business will communicate before, during, and after natural disasters. For example: How will the company communicate with employees who are displaced due to the disaster to inform them when it is safe and the company is ready to resume operations? Consider several forms of communication, as standard communication lines may be damaged as a result of the disaster.

Water contamination and animal mortality also can be key concerns of natural disasters, particularly in the event of major storms such as hurricanes Florence and Michael. When water contamination is a potential concern, the use of an alternative water source during the major storm event can be beneficial. Once the storm is over, the testing of a compromised water supply by a private testing lab can facilitate recovery, Reardon said. And to help minimize animal loss of life, he said, “Predetermined processes to move animals out of areas that are expected to flood are important considerations.”

Other recommendations include having back-up generators on site or identifying and having contracts with companies that can provide back-up generators to prevent food product spoilage due to power loss. “A well-developed business continuity plan will challenge the company to work with all stakeholders of the operation. This would include internal personnel, suppliers, third-party vendors, insurers, transporters, co-packers and co-manufacturers, etc.,” Reeve said.

IMPACTED SUPPLIERS. Even if your facility isn’t in the disaster area, your suppliers’ facilities could be. Thus, beyond your own operations, food companies should be aware of any of your suppliers, co-packers, and co-manufacturers that may be in harm’s way of a natural disaster. Ask questions such as: Do I have back-up suppliers, co-packers, and co-manufacturers that can be utilized while the effected companies are working to resume operations? Are these back-up suppliers located in different areas of the country that would not be impacted by the disasters? Do I have pre-identified back-up facilities and companies that could produce the suppliers’ products until they are able to operate?

To tackle such issues, “a robust food safety plan should address supplier verification processes to assure that materials supplied are not adulterated,” Reardon said. “Additional checks can be implemented post disaster to ensure all ingredients, supplies, and foods are safe and have been maintained at the appropriate temperatures.”

Additionally, food companies should closely monitor their supplier approval program, Reeve said. “I would suggest there should be language within the contracts with suppliers that the supplier must notify them if their operations, farms, products, etc., have been impacted by events that may impact the food safety of those products or the availability of such products.”

“You can’t plan for every type of disaster, but you can have a plan of how you will respond to a disaster.” Lance Reeve, Nationwide

This is an important point of the business continuity plan which ensures the company has identified and pre-approved multiple suppliers so there will be alternate sources if their primary suppliers are impacted by natural disasters or other situations that could cause an interruption in supply.

Post-Disaster Recovery. The development of a food safety plan also can assist in recovery from natural disaster-related issues. “Pre-identified triggers and decisions regarding temperature controls can assist management with quick decisions,” Reardon said. “Pre-identified processes for post-disaster mitigation for cleaning and sanitizing can reduce the recovery time and assure adequate sanitation.”

Post-disaster, the quality assurance team should be an integral part of the process in evaluating the food safety of all affected products which should be placed on hold until properly evaluated.

If products must be destroyed, a formal program should be in place to ensure that the products are, indeed, destroyed, labels removed, etc. so they cannot be recaptured by someone and re-introduced into commerce.

Flooding and power outages (resulting in loss of refrigeration) can be significant food safety hazards and any affected crops, foods, equipment, transportation systems, etc. need to be dealt with post-disaster to ensure adulterated products do not enter commerce and proper cleaning and sanitation is conducted for facilities and equipment. Companies may have to utilize third-party services to help clean and decontaminate the food facility. Again, these services should be identified prior to a disaster and be part of the business continuity plan. Additional resources, such as laboratories, may also be needed for environmental/microbiological testing to ensure the contamination has been effectively dealt with.

In addition to the testing of water sources for contamination, food companies should think about alternative sources should their supply become contaminated. For example, if the municipality’s water supply will be down for a period of time, could you receive tankers of water to enable you to resume operations before the main water supply is restored?

The first half of 2018 alone racked up more than six billion dollars damage in the U.S. – and that is not even accounting for hurricanes Florence and Michael that raged over the southern and mid-Atlantic states in the fall. Your chances of experiencing adverse impacts from a natural disaster are, to a great extent, dependent on your geography. But not only have many of these increased in number, they have increased in intensity, so the level and range of damage can be greater as well.

Thus, when considering natural disasters, it is best to invoke the notorious Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared. Not only can it mean the difference between saving and losing your business, but, as Reardon said, “In many cases, advance planning will allow for faster response and recovery.”  

The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at llupo@gie.net.