'May Contain Traces of Egg': How consumer concerns are driving change in food safety and hygiene

Amina West, Vice President, Northern Europe at Trace One explains how technology can help solve food safety and hygiene issues for retailers

Although the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) sets out the legal requirements on food safety and hygiene, the reality today is that the customer is king, and it is consumers that are driving greater transparency and change in the industry. After all, the consumer knows all too well the scale of damage that can result from harmful substances making their way into the food chain. Previous food scares like E. coli in beansprouts and BSE in British beef have seen them grow increasingly concerned over food safety and suspicious of where their food is coming from.


 
At the same time, consumers are becoming increasingly health conscious and are demanding to know exactly what ingredients are in their products, calling for more detailed product specifications. For example, they now want information on potential allergens, salt levels, fat, gluten and sugar in their food, not to mention whether they are GMO, Fair Trade, Palm Oil free or organically sourced.
 
This call for more transparency means retailers need to have the right tools to manage all the information on their products, while being able to easily use this information for faster and more efficient product recalls. The scale of this process and the corresponding risks if they get it wrong are huge, something that the quality manager is all too familiar with.
 
Increasing pressure on the quality department
Indeed the role of the quality department is increasing in complexity. Auditing potential suppliers, testing potential products, drafting specifications, approving packaging, putting in place control plans, handling complaints and drawing up the necessary assessments, are all tasks that need to be completed within the shrinking timeframe imposed by the product launch schedule. Furthermore, today's quality teams have to manage both existing product upgrades and new product launches simultaneously. Both are equally important to drive product sales and any delays in the product launch or upgrade can impact profits.

An average quality manager in charge of a private label portfolio can expect to manage an average of 400-450 products, whose specifications are reviewed annually. Traditionally, this information is stored on multiple spreadsheets or printed word documents, further adding to the administrative workload and increasing the time it takes for the quality department to conduct a product recall. 
 
There's no hiding from product recalls
While quality managers have a lot to juggle with at any one time, food safety and in particular product recalls, are most likely what keeps them awake at night. If managed incorrectly product recalls can have wide ranging consequences, from harm to the retailer's business, to potential harm to the consumer. With retailers making an average of 10 recalls a month, the quality department has to learn to expect the unexpected.
 
When an illegal or harmful substance enters the food chain, it can potentially affect hundreds of other products that use the tainted ingredient. For example when Sudan 1, already an illegal ingredient at the time, found its way into Worcester Sauce, the extent of the problem was multiplied when it became clear how many products actually contain Worcester Sauce as an ingredient. Alarmingly, the scare affected 400 products in 300 companies and cost the food sector 100 million.

Clearly, retailers will always need to be prepared to deal with product recalls. Many contaminations will be completely irrational and unexpected. It is how these problems are dealt with when they manifest that is most important in safeguarding public health; and what is critical to fast and accurate product recalls is having the right information to hand.
 
The importance of consumer communication
Real-time communication with consumers also adds to the problem. News on food safety issues will spread very quickly via global communication on the Internet and social networking sites. This concerns not only product recalls but also any information related to the actual product itself, such as its nutritional value. For this reason, retailers need to make sure that the databases that feed consumer websites and smartphones on product ingredients are kept rigorously up-to-date in order to ensure the reliability of the information provided to consumers.
 
In the event of a public food health scare or product recall, communication with consumers needs to be instantaneous, consistent and well-prepared. Retailers need to be able to demonstrate that they have done everything in their power to safeguard the consumer, as well as showing complete transparency through producing the right information at the right time, for instance, putting adverts in newspapers.
 
How technology improves communication 
A lack of consistency when working with manufacturers is often the root of the problem for retailers, when it comes to inefficient product recalls. Further, there is an unnecessary amount of duplication when it comes to listing ingredients in product specifications, as traditionally retailers and manufacturers have used Excel and Word files that are dated, prone to human error and waste time and resource. But, now the Internet is changing this. . Retailers can take advantage of software as a service (SaaS) solutions that allow them to work with multiple parties and share product information, in a collaborative way, from anywhere and on demand. Using this type of software can dramatically reduce both the cost and time associated with managing ingredients and recalling products when needed.
 
Some product recalls currently take weeks to be completed; from the discovery of the problem, through to the last product being taken off the shelf. This simply is not good enough. With improved collaboration between all parties involved, this process need only take a couple of hours. For example, having accurate information stored digitally and made available for retailers and manufacturers from any location at any time means that certain ingredients in potentially thousands of products can be located and tracked quickly, speeding up the recall process and ultimately saving lives. Retailers cannot prevent product recalls from happening, but they can be better prepared to deal with them by having the right information at their disposal. They need to be able to demonstrate that they have done everything in their power to protect the consumer, from greater transparency on product ingredients, to faster product recalls.
 
On a wider scale, collaborative software also enables manufacturers and retailers to improve their ongoing efficiency and working relationships by standardising and simplifying processes during product sourcing, launching, and lifecycle management stages. This will ensure not only that the industry can quickly identify and recall affected products, but also that it can re-use the detailed information to innovate and reduce time to market for new product lines. The industry needs to raise the bar for how they manage ingredients in products and make sure they match consumer expectations, or else the next food scare may leave a lingering bitter taste for the food industry, as well as the consumer.

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