Food Processor Challenges in a Changing Regulatory Environment
The term “food safety” is uttered so often, it has become almost ubiquitous. But, what, exactly is food safety; what does it encompass; and, most importantly, how are food processors faring in a challenging and changing regulatory environment?
Food safety is a scientific discipline describing handling, preparation, and storage of food in ways that prevent foodborne illness. This includes a number of routines that should be followed to avoid potential health hazards. The concept of food safety often overlaps with “food defense”—i.e., a way to prevent consumer illness or harm.
There are two tracks in food safety: between industry and the market, and between the market and the consumer. Industry-to-market’s food safety considerations include the origins of food—including food labeling, food hygiene, food additives, and pesticide residues—as well as policies on biotechnology and food, and guidelines for the management of governmental import/export inspection and certification systems for foods. In market-to-consumer practices, the axiom in the industry is that food needs to be safe in the market; the goal is safe delivery and preparation of the food for the consumer.
Food Processing & Regulation Roulette
How do food processors deal with the sometimes-confusing and often-changing regulatory environment?
Richard Stier, Consulting Food Scientist, has written articles surrounding the issue of food safety for most of his career. He has been a regular contributor to Food Engineering magazine, among others. He recently discussed the myriad regulatory hurdles food processors face and stressed that most regulations only establish minimum requirements.
“The Food Safety Modernization Act and all regulations only establish minimum standards. But, the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) has current gold-standard mandates, such as the SQF Audit and SFFC 22000, which are the audits that buyers (i.e., PepsiCo, Kraft, etc.) want food processors to adopt,” Stier averred. These are private audit schemes that are approved by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). Many buyers’ supplier-approval programs include the demand that suppliers, packagers, etc., comply with one of the GFSI audits.
Stier also pointed out that companies should strive to establish utilizing some of the above audits’ best practices—which are often more stringent than what is required by law. This is important to establish a good corporate safety culture. “Nothing in the preventative controls for human food regulations says anything about food safety culture,” Stier said. “But, we know that is a hot-button topic today.”
Transparency Builds Trust
On the market-to-consumer side of the equation, Steve Taormina, Business Manager, NSF International, did not mince words. In a recent talk at Global Food Forums’ 2019 Clean Label Conference, Taormina warned of major battles brewing in the food certification arena in his presentation titled “Behind the Label: Clean Label ‘Musts’ for the Ingredient Supply Chain.” NSF International is a not-for-profit organization focused on science-based health and safety services that operates independently and is committed to professional certification.
Taormina warned, “Science is losing its battle to influence public perceptions on food safety risks, putting added pressures on food and beverage companies to comply with ever-shifting and sometimes-vague consumer expectations.”
One of the caveats Taormina stressed was transparency: Commit to full supply-chain transparency. “Full transparency anticipates consumer expectations that all that is hidden will become exposed,” averred Taormina.
Consumers’ desire for “transparency” has often been said to be an important aspect of many modern food trends. However, there seems to be a disconnect in where consumers place their trust.
Research conducted by The Center for Food Integrity (CFI), shows that consumers don’t necessarily trust those they hold responsible for food health and safety, including food manufacturers, farmers, and regulatory agencies.
“If you’re held responsible and trusted for ensuring safe and healthy food, you are seen as a credible source,” said Charlie Arnot, CEO of CFI. “However, if you’re held responsible, but not trusted, that’s a dangerous disconnect that can’t be ignored.”
This disconnect was evident by the CFI research results –research now in its 10th year. Consumers were segmented by demographics, including categories such as foodies, mom’s, millennials, and early adopters, and interviewed on more than 50 topics related to major life and food-related issues—i.e., buyer behavior, trust, and information sourcing.
Out of those consumers held responsible for food safety, federal regulatory agencies ranked as number one, followed by food companies at two, farmers at three, and groceries and restaurants in sixth and eighth place, respectively. However, the rankings for the organizations consumers trusted for food safety resulted in farmers in third place, groceries in seventh, federal regulatory agencies in eighth, and restaurants in 10th , with food companies scoring way down in 11th place.
A Culture of Safety
As mentioned above, most companies are embracing the concept of transparency and safety culture with open arms. The bottom line of all this, according to Stier, is that this is a “top-down type of thing.” Of course, this means a management statement, to show that the boss supports all safety initiatives and is invested personally in a safety culture.
Indra Nooyi, in a recent PepsiCo Annual Report, said this about food safety and safety culture: “No matter where we are, the safety and integrity of our products is our single-highest priority. It’s our duty as a responsible company. People buy our brands, because they know they can count on consistent quality—every time.”
Regarding safety regulation consistency, Nooyi continued, “We follow very rigorous standards of safety and quality. Our standards are equally rigorous in New York, London, and Beijing as they are everywhere else we operate. We stand behind each and every product we sell.”
This applies to any industry, beyond food engineering/construction companies. Concluded Stier: “If you decide to build a plant, do it right the first time. Spend money up front, because it’s harder to change or ‘fix’ later.”