By Eric Graves, food and beverage industry analyst for Form.com

“Disruption” is more than an occasional buzzword in the food supply chain. Recent, rapid changes in our global economy have challenged organizations in the food industry to respond quickly to preserve a safe food supply. However, the food supply chain is uniquely positioned to capitalize on these challenges. Disruptions such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent Salmonella contamination of onions present unique opportunities to improve our collective safety culture. Many organizations within the food supply chain are stepping up to the plate with big ideas and technologies that reinforce new paradigm shifts in safety.

In response to the pandemic, a new revolutionary movement within the food supply chain has surfaced: rethinking safety compliance not as an outlier or threshold to overcome but as a primary tenet in company culture. Defining and establishing a safety-first culture is an inevitable and necessary step in the evolution of our global food supply chain, and the pandemic is an unexpected catalyst.

Safety compliance can be defined in many different ways. For our purposes, it’s the way safety is managed in a workplace, including the safety of the product, the customer, assets, employees, and the environment. The hallmark of a safety-first culture is when employees throughout the entire organization think of safety as a critical component of their day-to-day routine, a new standard in which safety involves everyone.

Safety-first culture is not an overnight process nor is it achieved by placing informational posters on the break room wall. It starts at the top and permeates throughout the organization until it is a part of the company culture as a whole. Instead of fading into the background as the latest in a series of obtrusive initiatives, safety-first culture is a total and permanent transformation in mindset. Most importantly, safety-first culture is impossible to achieve without first collecting timely, accurate data.

The impact of the pandemic on food production and processing safety data

Traditionally, leaders have viewed plant, worker, and food safety as distinct and separate data sources. The resulting data points are typically siloed, disconnected, and unable to contribute to the bigger picture. In many cases, large enterprises have developed homegrown systems that require manual input on paper followed by entry into a spreadsheet application. Too often, the responsibility for these paper forms and spreadsheets is placed in the hands of a highly trained worker, such as a food scientist, who should undoubtedly spend their time adding value elsewhere. Unfortunately, leaders often overlook the opportunity cost of Excel and clipboards in a reflexive, “we’ve always done it that way” approach—if they even question the process at all.

The pandemic has quickly changed plant safety requirements for food manufacturing and processing facilities. Retrofitting work stations with plexiglass to ensure social distancing creates additional areas that must be sanitized and swabbed to test for the presence of airborne pathogens. The data collection required by this additional testing creates delays that have a severely negative impact on plant operations. This added process increases risk and time burdens on top of already burdensome environmental testing, OSHA requirements, and other operational monitoring.

Similarly, the pandemic response has created new data-gathering requirements for worker safety. In addition to standard PPE requirements, accident prevention, and general worker safety, OSHA requires evidence that a COVID-19 illness was, or was not, contracted at work should a person fall ill.

Vulnerabilities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic will surely make the cut for CCPs, and newly-minted corrective measures will have to coexist with and modify established procedures. While there is no set formula for establishing work-related COVID-19 infections or performing COVID-19-aware HACCP audits, there are several steps companies can take to ensure compliance with recordkeeping obligations. These include collecting prompt, accurate data on employee health and safety, maintaining guidelines handed down by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), and closely monitoring behavior for compliance with the new protocols.

With respect to gathering food safety data, there is no indication to date that viruses causing respiratory illness can be transmitted by food or food packaging. However, according to recent data from WHO, the virus that causes COVID-19 can remain viable for up to 72 hours on stainless steel or plastic surfaces. This has created the necessity for more rigorous plant sanitization procedures that go hand-in-hand with increased documentation of the steps taken—more data points that must be gathered and analyzed.

Advantages and opportunities in data management technology

With the dizzying combination of old and new requirements, leadership will be challenged by unprecedented amounts of safety data. So, how are leading enterprises managing all this safety data? They’re digitizing their safety data processes.

The procedures for all three sources of safety data (plant, worker, and food) have common protocols:

  1. Take the measurement, sample, or observation
  2. Record the results in a permanent repository

Because of these common protocols, all three areas benefit from digitization and automation technology. In doing so, they encourage a safety-first culture by providing significant reinforcement for compliant behavior, highlighting the level of care workers take when carrying out their duties, and underscoring the importance of proper procedure.

While gathering data has always been a challenge in the food industry, new technology unifying safety information into one cohesive system offers unparalleled accessibility. Using a mobile device, anyone can collect, report, and analyze data—not just highly trained workers familiar with spreadsheets. This sharply attenuates the opportunity cost of misplaced employee skillsets.

Since data accrues constantly through various channels, technology provides the ability to aggregate and analyze that data. Dashboards, especially those positioned for daily reporting, can be crucial in providing a clear picture of ongoing operations. In a similar fashion, analytical reports that drill down into the details of plant safety can quickly illuminate historical trends and patterns.

Eliminating paper forms and embracing these multiple layers of automation enable accurate, rich data collection, contributing directly to a stronger safety culture. Far beyond ticking boxes and noting numbers, it’s an advanced cog in a well-oiled safety culture machine.

Applying technology within your organization

There are several applications of data capture and analysis tools worth considering:

  1. Plant inspections
  2. Plant safety audits
  3. Environmental audits
  4. Worker health and well-being assessments
  5. HAACP plant audits
  6. HARPC plant audits
  7. Third-party software integrations

Every organization has a unique set of needs that require a unique configuration of technology. Because the goal of safety-first data collection is to achieve an aggregated, comprehensive output, you need tools that deliver complete data and valuable insights from previously siloed areas. Those tools should be flexible, dynamic, and perfectly suited to your organization’s specific needs. The key is embracing a digital solution that can be tailored to complex and evolving requirements, one that supports a seamless transition to your new, safety-first approach

Next steps in creating a safety-first culture

Safety-first culture begins with a top-down shift in attitude from one of merely scraping by to one of consistently exceeding regulatory minimums. It’s a paradigm shift in which everyone in the company places the reality of the job ahead of the ideal production outcomes. Seeking out new technology to bolster your safety program is a moral imperative and a well-attuned business response to today’s predominant and emerging disruptions.

Industry leaders will be early adopters, exchanging their old safety forms and spreadsheets for integrated, seamless, and digitized versions. They will quickly find that aggregating their data allows them to uncover relationships between their initiatives and positive outcomes.

Leadership must fully embrace the safety-first culture and the tools required to create a positive, safe workplace. Creating that culture relies upon a company’s executive body to recognize that a disruption needn’t be disruptive but can instead be a valuable advantage for the future of their company.

Eric GravesEric Graves is the food and beverage industry analyst for Form.com. Over the last 15 years, Graves has had deep experience in the food supply chain through businesses he has led and owned. He has worked across all operational disciplines with large agribusiness as a technical service provider. Food industry verticals served include consumer packaged goods, produce growers, protein producers, further processors, large restaurants chains, and grocery stores, among many others.