Is Food Safety Getting Worse – or Is Visibility Getting Better?

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Food & Beverage, FSMA, SCM

 

It’s a question worth asking: is our food really safer today than it was in years past? It seems as if we’re hearing more about recalls now than ever before, and neither our store aisles nor our favorite restaurants are immune to the uptick.

Still, the answer is yes – the food we consume has become safer, but our increasingly global economy, more extensive regulations, and advances in technology have shifted the way we think about food, the way it’s processed, and the way it’s regulated.

Let’s take a deeper dive into how outside influences on food manufacturing have shifted production in the last decade – and what they mean for food safety.

The supply chain is going global

Farm-to-table is picking up steam in the restaurant scene, but it’s really a case of what’s old is new again: our food supply chain used to be much less extensive, with ingredients passing through fewer facilities before reaching the restaurant table or the store shelves.

As demand grows and our recipes become more complex, base ingredients may pass through two or three factories before they’re sold. A more complex supply chain means more opportunities for local delicacies to reach a greater audience, but the more links in the supply chain from the farm to consumer, the greater the chance for food contamination.

Once a product sold nationwide, or even worldwide, is recalled for contamination, its manufacturer must work its way back through distribution channels, production processes, and supplier deliveries and procedures. They’ll investigate each stop along the supply chain to determine where the contamination occurred and which products were impacted. As the product becomes available to new markets and more consumers, such investigations will have to reach even farther. And suddenly, what was once a local story now has wide impact.

We’re vigilant when it comes to ingredients

Two major pieces of legislation have changed the way food manufacturers operate: (1) the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), passed in 2004, and (2) the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), passed in 2011. Both have the potential to result in a higher number of recalls.

FALCPA requires food manufacturers to list any potential allergens their products contain, such as nuts, eggs, or milk, on the food label. The foods we consume haven’t changed, but our awareness of what’s in them has – and when manufacturers determine their product has been improperly labeled, the entire batch is recalled because of this error. The effects of FALCPA remain visible in recall reports; the Food Industry Council found that of the more than 650 FDA and USDA recalls in 2018, at least 273 were caused by mislabeling and undeclared allergens.

We don’t yet have a significant amount of data to pin recent recalls on FSMA, since the FDA exercised its mandatory recall power for the first time in April 2018. However, we can expect the law’s stricter rules around safety standards for suppliers to likely lead to greater voluntary recalls right from the beginning, far before products would cause an outbreak, as manufacturers adjust to the regulation. Long-term, improved food safety should lead to fewer recalls.

Technology is changing the way we see food

As frightening as recalls may sound, statistics, such as the Food Industry Council’s findings on label recalls, suggest a positive outlook for the types of recalls we’ll soon see, even if recalls themselves begin to climb. Technology is giving us greater visibility into the supply chain, helping us to prevent contaminants from spreading and sickening consumers.

Some companies are turning to blockchain to seek solutions for food contamination. Walmart recently announced a blockchain solution in partnership with IBM that it will roll out next fall. Walmart hopes to build a secure ledger detailing every location each of its ingredients reached during production. Blockchain has the potential to extend to ERP functionality and connect all systems faster.

In addition to these exciting new developments, industry-standard solutions, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) software designed for food manufacturers, are contributing to a better understanding of the food supply chain. By maintaining procurement, production, and distribution data in real-time in one integrated system, it’s easier and quicker for food manufacturers to trace contaminants back to their origins. ERPs also help manufacturers keep recipes and label information consistent, reducing the number of recalls caused by FALCPA regulations.

Recalls are evidence we’re gaining visibility

These factors aren’t expected to disappear anytime soon, so as the supply chain expands and technology advances and regulatory compliance grow, we’re likely to see an uptick in recalls. That doesn’t mean our food is any less safe. On the contrary, it means we’re finding problems before they harm consumers. With new solutions already delivering deeper visibility into products and more solutions on the way, the future of food safety truly is bright.