Food Tech: Addressing growing food safety challenges amid pandemic

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 9, 2020 - November 15, 2020.
Food Tech: Addressing growing food safety challenges amid pandemic
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When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, most companies were caught off-guard and had to scramble to deal with the challenges of a skeleton staff crew, disruptions in the supply chain and the need to go digital almost instantly.

Ask Alexander Bromage, the senior global food safety and quality specialist at packaging company Tetra Pak. He tells Digital Edge in an interview that, from the benchmarks, it would appear that food and beverage (F&B) manufacturers are not yet “at the cutting edge of technology adoption” compared with other industrial sectors.

How come? First, it is a matter of cost. “A lot of producers invested heavily in previous technology surges and have been hampered by justifying those previous large investments in older technologies. Couple that with legacy manufacturing equipment and standards or regulations that sometimes make adoption harder, not easier, and there is a significant headwind for anyone in F&B trying to digitalise,” says Bromage.

It did not help that all were hit with so many challenges at the same time — first, they were faced with what Bromage calls an unprecedented level of demand in many geographies, coupled with the tightening of their supply chains. More people wanted their products, but the manufacturers themselves could not get enough supply to meet this demand.

“This tightening meant delays to increasing production while supply inventories were replenished. Producers were also exposed to having to closely protect their operations, with key roles needing to be secured to continue producing and releasing products to market in a safe, high-quality manner,” he adds.

All these challenges could be met with only the right kind of technology. “Digital collaboration and remote working tools helped key personnel remain productive while working from home. They allowed important critical communication between parties in the supply chain to continue and helped issues be resolved more quickly,” Bromage says.

On a more granular level, he adds, companies that have electronic record management for batch release (fulfilment of regulatory requirements prior to release of the products into the market) were able to weather absenteeism and work-from-home restrictions much more easily than those relying on paper-based systems.

But what about technology to ensure the safety of the food itself? “Quality and, therefore, food safety, are secured through production processes that are designed well and executed correctly and consistently. Where failures are experienced, they are commonly a failure of consistency.

“The issue that producers have today is that, on top of executing processes, they are required to collect and manage data to follow up on performance. Digital systems take over the burden of collecting process data from operators and the burden of analysis and interpretation from analysts and managers.”

Bromage adds that using appropriate data management systems to support manufacturing processes then allows the continual improvement of those processes by being faster and more accurate. “This then leads to a more consistent process, which leads to higher levels of food safety and quality for consumers.”

In the past few years, there have been multiple issues related to the F&B industry, including fake food, melamine poisoning and even fake organics. How can technology address these issues and raise the level of confidence, especially when dealing with food from suspect countries?

Bromage says there is a role technology can play in helping resolve such problems in the food supply chains. “The key word here is transparency. We need to use technology to create transparency for consumers as to where the food has come from and what it is.”

He says there are plenty of solutions coming out today that propose to solve these issues. “These solutions are able to secure the trustworthiness of the data they are given, but are unable to confirm the trustworthiness of the data source.”

He admits that until technology solutions are better able to address the compensatory mechanisms between producers, retailers and consumers for trustworthiness, it will be difficult to wholly eradicate these sorts of issues.

There has been a rise in allergies globally such as allergies to nuts, gluten or other common ingredients in food. More people are careful about reading labels to ensure that the ingredients of a particular product are compatible with them. Can technology be used for this?

Bromage says mislabelling is an issue that, unfortunately, happens more often than anyone would like. “The cause is more complicated than one would imagine on the surface. From a technology solutions perspective, we are seeing an interesting area of software emerging from other industries that I think the food industry is going to be very interested in: product lifecycle management (PLM) software.”

He says while other industries use PLM as a way to structure their data towards physical products and supply chains to ensure compliance or certificates are valid, this same process, although complex, can be easily adapted to food. “It requires a broad network approach but there are already companies out there working on these sorts of solutions, and they are very exciting.”