Strengthening Food Safety Through a Data-Driven Approach

Keri Dawson, VP-Industry Solutions and Advisory Services, Metric Stream
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Keri Dawson, VP-Industry Solutions and Advisory Services, Metric Stream

Advancements in food supply sourcing and distribution have helped food manufacturers lower their costs, and improve the availability and diversity of their products. To meet rising demand, organizations have developed food supply chains that are larger, more distributed, and more complex than ever–and with this, come more risks that need to be understood and managed.

Recent incidents of salmonella, listeria, and e-coli infections have impacted consumers’ trust in the food industry. FoodNet, reporting on food-borne illnesses in 2013 in the U.S., identified 19,056 cases of bacterial and parasitic infections, 4,200 hospitalizations, and 80 deaths among 48 million residents across 10 states.

Food companies are working hard to gain more control over their food supply and production chains, and strengthen their overall food safety measures. Yet, one of the biggest challenges they face is the explosion of data; there are so many suppliers, sub-suppliers, farmers, and distributors to manage and monitor; so many regulations and food safety standards to comply with; and so many social media conversations about the brand happening in real-time. There are product specifications, allergens, test data, audits and inspections, risk assessments, policies, regulations, issues and non-conformance, customer complaints, corrective actions, and more—all of which present an organization with an unprecedented amount of information and data.

So, how do organizations simplify and improve the management of this data? More importantly, how do they leverage this data to their advantage to strengthen their overall food quality and safety?

Multiple Variables, Multiple Challenges

The challenge of data management can be better understood in the context of what is happening in the food industry today. First of all, multiple ingredients and food products are being sourced from various parts of the world. According to the FDA, imported food comes into the U.S. from about 150 different countries, and accounts for about 15 percent of the U.S. food supply, including nearly 50 percent of fresh fruits and 20 percent of fresh vegetables. Each of these products passes through multiple intermediaries before it reaches the end consumer. Monitoring food safety at every step of this chain can be a Herculean data management challenge, especially when there are thousands of suppliers and sub-suppliers involved.

There are also regulations to consider. In the last few years, the FDA has intensified their efforts to minimize food safety incidents and recalls by implementing more stringent regulations and tougher penalties. New laws such as the FSMA come with multiple complex mandates around hazard analysis, preventive controls, audits, and corrective actions. 

“Companies that are able to thrive are the ones who are proactively taking steps to organize and structure their enterprise data that is coming from various internal and external sources”

And if companies are lax, it is no longer just the regulators who are paying attention. Consumers are becoming increasingly vigilant and vocal about their right to safe and healthy food. Social media has given them a powerful platform to speak about food safety incidents, and influence the purchasing choices of millions of people around the world. Food manufacturers and retailers need to keep their eyes and ears open to their consumers, and actively respond to their concerns.

In addition to this, as part of the normal functioning of the business, every organization is expected to conduct regular food safety risk assessments, adopt the right GFSI schemes and standards, develop and implement the necessary policies, train their employees and suppliers, and proactively deal with issues and non-conformance. At the end of the day, this proliferation of data pertaining to food safety is coming from various sources and in varying formats. For companies, the challenge lies not just in how the organization manages this data, but also in how they can draw meaningful and actionable insights that can be leveraged to strengthen their overall food quality and safety.

Using Data to Your Advantage

Based on our conversations with leading food businesses, here are a few best practices to help organizations better manage the massive volume of food safety data:

Centralize your information: Data scattered across multiple enterprise systems only creates chaos and redundancies. When possible, integrate all of your food safety policies, regulations, product specifications, supplier information, and other data in a centralized system. This makes it easier to manage, track, and find information. For instance, at the click of a button, you can view all your suppliers, and drill down to understand who their sub-suppliers are, what their performance scores are, and how effectively they are complying with food safety policies.

Map your data elements: Map all of your products and ingredients to their associated suppliers and sub-suppliers, as well as outline all of the associated risks, regulations, policies, and controls. This way, if a safety issue arises, you can quickly trace it back to the source. On the other hand, if a regulation is changed, you know which products and what policies might be affected. Mapping is never easy—sometimes it takes years, and may never be fully completed. But it’s important to start somewhere. Adopt a federated approach: When you run a large food company, give your local outlets and business units the flexibility to manage their own food safety risks, controls, and issues, while also establishing a standardized risk and control nomenclature. This way, when data is being gathered from across business units, you are able to arrive at a more cohesive and harmonized view of food safety activities.

Adopt a risk-based strategy:  There is no point in trying to audit or inspect every single product or supplier. There simply is not enough time in a day, or resources on hand to do this. Instead, facilitate the necessary risk assessments, and then based on that data, determine which suppliers or products need to be inspected or analyzed further.

Leverage big data analytics: Data analytics tools today are incredibly advanced, offering functionality that enables you to easily aggregate, manage, and process large volumes of food safety data from various enterprise sources (e.g. social media) in a matter of seconds. Organizations that are analyzing, comparing, and correlating this data are better able to understand—and predict—food safety trends and patterns that give them an edge.

Conclusion

As food safety management takes center stage, the volume of data around managing it will only continue to rise. New regulations, standards, and schemes, as well as new tiers of suppliers and sub-suppliers calls for more risk assessments, audits, inspections, and related processes. In today’s business environment, where companies are more global, mobile, social, and networked than ever before, those that are able to thrive are the ones who are proactively taking steps to organize and structure their enterprise data that is coming from various internal and external sources. Smart data management, backed by robust technology tools, will be an important factor in the success of any organizations food safety management program going forward.

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