Article sponsored by: NSF International
By John Rowley, Vice President, Global Food Division, NSF International
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new obstacles while emphasizing existing challenges in the food sector. In the summer of 2021, NSF International, the world’s leading global public health and safety organization, commissioned an independent study, surveying a random sample of 680 quick service restaurant (QSR) workers and decision-makers around the globe. As a result, the study identified concerns around food safety, recruitment, retention, team member training, and the supply chain. Feedback from our clients across the food division underscores these issues, which have the potential to implicate food safety and quality standards, profitability, brand reputation, and growth.
Though the industry continues to face these challenges, innovative solutions are poised to support the recovery and success of the sector as it moves forward.
The rise in home delivery
Technology has made online ordering and home delivery an everyday activity around the world. Innovations such as dark (or ghost) kitchens, locker pick-up, and even drone delivery are making it easier than ever before for consumers to get what they want when they want it.
However, the growing emphasis on home delivery has added extra pressure across the board, including the pace of food preparation, keeping food at the right (and safer) temperature, and avoiding tampering and cross-contamination from delivery workers. In fact, 22% of our survey respondents say home delivery has increased food risks overall.
At NSF, our food equipment certification team has seen an uptick in food automation and robotics – a growing industry that has the potential to maintain better food quality and safety consistency while strengthening the customer experience. Devices like robotic burger flippers, self-service kiosks, smartglass training devices, and 3D cake printers are quickly entering back-of-house operations; however, this new reality highlights the need for continuous integration between food safety, foodservice, and technology industries to help ensure health and safety.
These industries are beginning to work more closely together to collaboratively design new devices, offering different yet critical perspectives that contribute to the successful, efficient, and safer development of these transformational tools.
A global work crisis
From country to country, the food sector continues to face growing employee turnover rates. The pandemic has resulted in workforce shortages across the board, with issues such as understaffing and inadequate training weakening morale and, in some cases, even resulting in worker strikes, as seen recently in the U.S. In our research, 90% of brands reported that the pandemic has made recruitment and retention more difficult.
Many industries have shifted to virtual work in recent years; however, the food industry has made particularly concentrated efforts in developing new ways of working to mitigate supply chain disruptions, maintain food safety and quality, and train employees. Cloud-based software, mobile apps, and wearable technology have made it possible for businesses to conduct everything from virtual audits to online training. Companies are also making greater investments in cybersecurity to avoid potential breaches throughout the supply chain.
Sustainability and the supply chain
Climate change affects us all, but the food sector is especially impacted when it comes to crop production, water quality and scarcity, along with the continued higher demands for food. The past year has shown just how much climate change can disrupt the supply chain, with the likelihood of even more disruptions in the future only growing. These impacts are felt not just in restaurants and grocery stores, but rather the entire food ecosystem.
New food supply practices can reduce waste, such as improving timing in food preparation, wielding more control over supplies, strengthening supplier relationships, and developing better storage and refrigeration solutions for fresh foods. In addition, more effective training programs can help to educate workers around food waste. 38% of our survey respondents say this could help to reduce waste.
While much of the food industry is participating in the movement towards net zero and zero carbon, reducing emissions alone does not suffice. We must aim to someday become net positive contributors, putting more back into the environment than we take out.
The need for transparency
When it comes to making decisions about food, consumers are increasingly demanding transparency. Governments continue to introduce new regulations and changes when it comes to food labels and claims, such as the upcoming 2022 regulations for bioengineered food in the U.S. and Natasha’s Law for allergens in the U.K. In addition, the pandemic has increased health-focused diets, with consumers seeking specialized products including plant-based and ethically sourced options.
Businesses must be knowledgeable, proactive, and flexible, and constantly change labels accordingly. Claims on packaging must also be specific, substantiated, and verifiable.
Supply chain assurance solutions such as cloud-based software and QR code tracking are among several innovative tools the sector is investing in, allowing businesses to better trace the life cycles of their products, with some tools even providing a window of transparency to the consumer.
Innovation is key to addressing stakeholder concerns and will play an integral role as the food industry moves forward. Learn more about NSF’s role in this work and see our full QSR Survey Report at nsf.org.
John Rowley leads all aspects of the global food division at NSF International, an independent, global organization that facilitates the development of standards and tests and certifies products for the food, water, health sciences and consumer goods industries. He has 25 years of experience in the TIC and food sectors, including leading complex global businesses over the last seven years. He has been based in London, Sydney, Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong.