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Advancing Food Safety in 2024: Managing Technology, Talent, and Sustainability Impacts

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As 2024 begins, the world remains in flux in ways that will continue to impact food safety this year and beyond. Many things today are different than in the pre-COVID world, and it’s not clear that some of these things will ever go back to the way they were.

Notably, disruptions in the supply chain, which started during the pandemic and are continuing due to political and economic tensions across the globe, have an outsized impact on the Food & Beverage (F&B) industry. Many enterprise companies adjust supply chains almost continuously, making Supplier Quality Management a more complex issue than ever. 

Supply chain disruptions coincided with a marked increase in inflation, which had remained modest for more than ten years. Most F&B companies have experienced substantial increases in ingredient costs. While these costs have so far been largely passed on to the consumer, many companies now believe that cost-cutting will be both necessary and prudent.

At the same time, workforces are shrinking, and companies need to find ways to retain the workers they have, recruit new talent with the latest skills, and prepare to grow the business with fewer people–all without compromising food safety.

And climate change is starting to have impacts on food safety that can’t be ignored. Severe weather makes it harder to produce fresh fruit and vegetables reliably. Stronger storms and more flooding increase the likelihood of crops being contaminated, if not destroyed outright. Late last year, the potato crop in Europe was put at risk by heavy rains and freezing temperatures attributed to climate change, causing futures prices to soar to the highest level in over a decade. 

In my role as head of F&B Strategy at Veeva, my team and I have the opportunity to meet with food safety experts from some of the world’s leading companies and hear first hand their top-of-mind issues. Last year, I moderated food safety leader panels at the GFSI Conference in Atlanta and the Veeva Industries Executive Summit. In addition, I blog regularly on food safety modernization. 

In this article, I want to examine how three macro trends will affect food safety in the year ahead: 1) digital transformation, 2) workforce pressures, and 3) climate change and sustainability. I’ll also explore what food safety leaders are doing and thinking for 2024 and beyond.

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Digital transformation: Putting data to work

Most industry leaders believe digital transformation is essential to move food safety forward in the face of mounting challenges. There’s a strong desire to leverage the available data to enable food safety by better predicting problems before they happen

While F&B companies have a lot of data, it’s typically spread across many different systems. The first step to gaining greater insight lies in unifying that data. As Deann Akins-Lewenthal, Senior Director of Global Food Safety at Mondelēz International, put it, “We really want to be able to think differently, to be able to bring all this data together, whether it’s internal manufacturing data, external manufacturers, or suppliers, and start looking at what are those leading indicators that might say something’s changed.”

The right technology can enable organizations to create early warning systems to identify risks and trends in real time, offer greater transparency to stakeholders, and facilitate proactive steps to resolve issues. For example, a 2022 research paper discussed creating a system for the European dairy supply chain that looks well beyond the immediate hazards that food safety typically monitors to consider indicators such as price, average mean temperature, and precipitation.

Since suppliers play such an important role in food safety, supplier management has never been more critical. A lot of supplier relationships still rely on email communications and disjointed processes. This can lead to missed or delayed nonconformance responses and traceability challenges. The right digital tools allow you and your suppliers to work together through certifications, audits, corrective actions, and performance monitoring, improving quality and ensuring ongoing compliance.

The value of digitizing Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) processes really resonates with food safety leaders. “HACCP was one of the major revolutions, providing a very systematic way of identifying hazards,” explained Olivier Mignot, Vice President of Global Quality Management at Nestlé. “Nowadays, you look at how you can digitalize that–and take advantage of all the different advances in technology–to make it even more effective and efficient.”

Workforce pressures: A changing worker population 

COVID coincided with a significant demographic shift as the baby boomer generation started to retire. The pandemic itself accelerated retirement for many. The result has been significant labor shortages in many regions. The good news is that increased efficiencies that come with digital transformation can help companies do more with fewer employees.

In 2023, F&B companies paid significant attention to attracting and retaining employees. 

Food safety leaders now recognize that digital transformation is about more than just rolling out new technology. “It’s the execution,” observed Arnie Sair, Head of Global Quality & Food Safety at Bunge. “It’s the hazard plans. It’s the food safety plans and mitigation. And then it’s also just the hearts and minds of the employees at our facilities.”

“If an operator, who perhaps even only five or ten years ago was performing a manual task, is confronted with an iPad, a cobot, or an automated line, how do we bring them on that journey? What are the competencies they need?” asked Greg Pritchard, Vice President of Food Safety & Quality Management at Nestlé.

There are also a number of things F&B companies are doing to attract and retain talent. In the post-pandemic world, many workers are accustomed to remote or hybrid work. Job flexibility is now an important element of job satisfaction for everyone. “Our frontline wants flexibility as much as our professional workforce,” explained Rosa Santos, Vice President, Human Resources Talent Management & Organizational Development at PepsiCo. “We've been implementing a lot of creative ways of affording flexibility and predictability of scheduling for our frontline workforce.”

Today’s workers also want a broader range of experiences on the job. Campbell Soup Company has adapted ideas from the gig economy to meet this need. “We built a whole program where folks can stay in their current job, but they can do a different gig job for three to six months,” explained Craig Slavtcheff, Chief R&D and Innovation Officer at Campbell’s. “It’s a great way to build bench strength in the organization.”

Climate change and sustainability: A growing concern

F&B companies have recognized the impacts of climate change for a number of years and are stepping up sustainability efforts in response. Akins-Lewenthal noted that, “At Mondelez, we recognized early the urgent challenges that we as a planet face–what's coming at us from climate change–and we've elevated sustainability as the fourth pillar of our long-term strategic growth strategy.”

Many companies have instituted multi-year sustainability plans. Companies started with responsible sourcing plans about five years ago, along with programs to reduce plastic waste. More recently, they’ve begun exploring regenerative agriculture to improve fertility and resilience. 

It’s critically important, however, that sustainability doesn’t compromise food safety. 

“We're doing other work around the packaging field to make sure that any type of recycled material we're going to use is safe,” explained Akins-Lewenthal. “The other big thing that we're working on is, ‘What emerging risks are coming our way?’ If we change agricultural practices, are we going to see an emerging pathogen?”

As your company advances its sustainability goals, it’s critical to ensure that food safety gets a seat at the table. “Each of our companies has environmental goals, but food safety may not be top of mind as sustainability goals and metrics are getting set,” Sair noted. “For example, water, whether it's water savings or water reuse, requires food safety expertise to ensure that you're not going to introduce chemical contaminants or pathogens back into the stream.”

Will cost-saving efforts in 2024 compromise sustainability agendas? The global economy remains a big unknown. Some sustainability goals, such as energy efficiency and decreased packaging, come with clear cost-saving benefits. But practices like sustainable sourcing and regenerative agricultural practices–while they may be the right thing to do for the planet–could increase costs or deliver cost benefits that are harder to quantify.

Insights for action

Here are four takeaways for food safety leaders as you think about 2024:

  • Food safety needs and requirements should be factored into your company’s digital transformation plans.
  • Understand and unify the data you collect to the greatest extent possible. What other information do you need as you contemplate an early warning system? What skills does your team need to make that plan a reality?
  • To attract and retain workers, create a work environment that gives both professional and frontline employees the flexibility they need and the experiences they want.
  • Make sure food safety has a seat at the table when sustainability goals are discussed. If prioritization is necessary, focus first on sustainability goals that deliver clear cost benefits in the near term.

Learn more about how Veeva is helping F&B companies achieve their digital transformation and food safety goals. 

Watch the full panel discussion “Building Trust Through Food Safety & Quality in the Digital Era” from the 2023 Veeva Industries Executive Summit here.

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